Anxiety at Work - Working Moms: Happy or Haggard?

Psychologists from around the world look at whether working mothers' multiple roles place inordinate stress on them. Are working moms holding up?Psychologists from around the world look at whether working mothers' multiple roles place inordinate stress on them. Are working moms holding up?

Does having a job as well as a home and a family enhance a woman's health or threaten it? Research on the question is sparse and contradictory.

Research in the area has pointed to two competing hypotheses, according to participant Nancy L. Marshall, EdD, of Wellesley College's Center for Research on Women.

One, the "scarcity hypothesis," presumes that people have a limited amount of time and energy and that women with competing demands suffer from overload and inter-role conflict.

The other, the "enhancement hypothesis," theorizes that the greater self-esteem and social support people gain from multiple roles outweigh the costs. Marshall's own research supports both notions.

Citing results from two studies she recently conducted, she explained that having children gives working women a mental and emotional boost that childless women lack. But having children also increases work and family strain, indirectly increasing depressive symptoms, she found.

The reason multiple roles can be both positive and negative has to do with traditional gender roles, agreed the experts who spoke at the session. Despite women's movement into the paid labor force, they still have primary responsibility for the "second shift" - household work and child care.

Workload scale

To study the area further, Ulf Lundberg, PhD, professor of biological psychology at the University of Stockholm, developed a "total workload scale." Using the scale, he has found that women typically spend much more time working at paid and unpaid tasks than men.

Lundberg also found that age and occupational level don't make much difference in terms of women's total workload. What does matter is whether they have children. In families without children, men and women both work about 60 hours a week.

But, said Lundberg, "as soon as there is a child in the family, total workload increases rapidly for women." In a family with three or more children, women typically spend 90 hours a week in paid and unpaid work, while men typically spend only 60.

Women can't look forward to relaxing during evenings or weekends, either. That's because women have a harder time than men unwinding physiologically once they're home.

"Women's stress is determined by the interaction of conditions at home and at work, whereas men respond more selectively to situations at work," explained Lundberg, adding that men seem to be able to relax more easily once they get home.

His research found that mothers who put in overtime at their paid jobs had more stress - as measured by epinephrine levels - over the weekend than fathers, even though the fathers had worked more overtime at their jobs.

These findings come as no surprise to Gary W. Evans, PhD, of Cornell University's Department of Design and Environmental Analysis. He believes that stresses on women are cumulative rather than additive_that home and work stressors combine to put women at risk. While some models conceptualize stress as additive, research he's done on stress suggests that woman can't put out one fire and move on to the next without suffering from stressful overload.

Evans also emphasized that simply coping with stress takes a toll on women's well-being.

"There's a tendency to put coping in a positive light," he noted. "There are costs of coping, however. When we cope with a stressor, especially one that is incessant or difficult to control, our ability to cope with subsequent environmental demands can be impaired."

The social support solution

The debate about women's multiple roles could be rendered obsolete by changes in societal expectations, many experts in the field believe.

"Individual decisions about work and family take place in a social and cultural context," said Gunn Johansson, PhD, professor of work psychology at the University of Stockholm. "Society sends encouraging or discouraging signals about an individual's choices and about the feasibility of combining work and family."

According to Johansson, these signals come not only in the form of equal employment opportunity laws, but also in the support society makes available to families. A researcher in her department, for instance, compared the plight of women managers in Sweden and the former West Germany. Although the two societies are quite similar, they differ in one important respect: Sweden offers high-quality child care to almost every family that requests it.

Preliminary results from the study are striking. In Sweden, most of the women managers had at least two children and sometimes more; in Germany, most were single women with no children.

"These women were reading the signals from their society," Johansson said. While the German women recognized that they had to forsake family for work, the Swedish women took it as their right to combine the two roles.

"In my optimistic moments," Johansson added, "I hope that this research might provide information that would prompt politicians to provide opportunities for both women and men. Women need to feel that they have a real choice when it comes to balancing work and family life."

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APA Reference
Gluck, S. (2007, February 19). Anxiety at Work - Working Moms: Happy or Haggard?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 16 from

Last Updated: July 2, 2016

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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