Are Women More Stressed Out At Work Than Men?

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August 11, 2020

Women Stress in Workplace

Feeling stressed right now? You are not alone.

Even before COVID-19, about three out of every four American adults were experiencing at least one stress symptom every day. Since COVID-19 hit a few months back, rates of workplace burnout have basically doubled.

Signs of more serious mental distress, like clinical anxiety, are also on the rise. Since the early months of the pandemic, the use of anti-anxiety drugs went up by over 30%.

I recently participated in the annual summit for Women in Technology International (WITI). Meeting with those amazing women leaders reminded me that there is a well-recognized and scientifically validated gender gap in stress levels and stress-related illness like anxiety. General population studies show that women consistently report higher stress levels and also experience clinical anxiety about twice as often as men.

But why?

Why does stress hit women harder than men and result in more emotional distress? And what can be done about it?

To answer these questions, let’s consider the following:

  • the reasons why women get stressed out in general;
  • the reasons why women get stressed out in the workplace; and finally,
  • how these point to the best stress management techniques for women.
Women and Workplace Stress

Photograph by Monkey Business Images on Canva

Research shows that women generally feel more stressed than men.

Dr. Constance Hammen, a clinical psychologist at UCLA, has studied stress-related mood disorders like depression over her long and distinguished career.

Her research shows that women get more stressed and are twice as likely to become clinically depressed as men. The gender gap in stress and mood disorders starts early, during adolescence, and continues for the rest of adult life.

Why is there a gender gap? Dr. Hammen points to several possibilities:

  • Some women are more sensitive to the hormonal highs and lows that occur around puberty, menstrual periods, pregnancy and childbirth, and menopause. The hormones released at these times are known to interact with the body’s stress machinery and can impact how the brain handles stress.
  • Women and girls are at greater risk for sexual abuse and domestic violence than men and boys. Research shows that traumatic stress acts like a thumb pressed down on the scales of the mind, creating a long-lasting imbalance that makes the victim more susceptible to clinical anxiety and depression down the road.   
  • In many cultures, women act as the “nurturers” of their families. They are more likely to split their time and energy between multiple roles including spouse, parent, caregiver, and worker. The United Nations reported that worldwide, women do nearly three times as much unpaid domestic work as men. Although these duties can be just as demanding as paid work, they often recede into the nebulous backdrop of life. And so, all this work may go unsung and even unnoticed...unless someone fails to do it.  
  • Research studies show that women tend to internalize stress more than men and take it more personally. The slow simmer of these stressors can eventually lead to mental and emotional anguish.

Of course, there will always be exceptions to these research findings. I'm not saying that all women act the same way or carry the same risk. My point here is simply that as a demographic group, women have several unique risk factors that raise their risk of stress-related problems higher than their male counterparts. Having just one risk factor will raise a woman's risk for stress-induced anxiety and depression. Having more than one will raise her risk even more. 

Headache and Stress In working women

Photograph by Getty Images

Women also feel more stressed in the workplace.

Researchers Astrid Richardsen, Laura Traavik, and Ronald Burke recently outlined the unique stressors that women face at work:

  • Worldwide, women are still employed in less stable positions and are paid less than men.
  • Positions occupied by women in the workforce are often lower status and have less latitude in decision-making.
  • The fact that women are still in the minority for high power roles means that they are more vulnerable to discrimination and sexual harassment. “Token” females in male-dominated industries often report higher levels of anxiety and take more sick leave than industries where men and women have more equal representation. Sexual harassment affects not only a woman’s career, but also her emotional well-being, resulting in symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. 
  • Roles that require long work hours for advancement may put some women at a disadvantage if the long hours interfere with personal and family commitments.
  • Research studies show that men and women are stressed out by different things at the office. Women report interpersonal stress, conflict, and lack of control as their top workplace stressors, while men report workload and mistakes.

So far, we’ve talked about “stress in general” and “stress at work” as if they run in parallel but separate currents through our lives. But we all know this isn’t true. The two merge to create a truly formidable stress burden.

You may have heard the term “emotional labor,” a concept made famous by writer Jess Zimmerman. It refers to the emotional cost women sometimes pay as they serve others' emotional needs in “offering advice, listening to woes, dispensing care and attention.”

A New York Times article recently pointed out that women managers often feel coerced into emotional labor even in the workplace. But rather than getting paid for them, the women themselves must absorb the cost in terms of emotional exhaustion, insomnia and relationship conflict.

Photograph by Canva Pro

Research-based stress management techniques

A good place to start would be the steps laid out in the stress management pyramid covered in a previous article. Here are some more specific guidelines:

1. Embrace self-care.

This includes eating right, getting enough sleep, and making time for exercise and fun. These are not luxuries. They are necessities for good physical and mental health.

2. Get support. 

A study done by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America reported that talking with family and friends ranked in the top 3 stress-reducing activities for women (the other two were food and sleep). Social support can make women feel validated in their concern over stressors found either at home or work. Ideally, it also provides unconditional love and encouragement but also constructive feedback on how to deal with our stress.

3. Practice self-compassion. 

Women tend to notice others’ emotional needs more than men both at home and at work. But constantly serving these needs is a prime example of emotional labor and can result in fatigue and burnout.  

Self-compassion basically means to be mindful of and serve one’s own needs during times of stress. Women managers who are more self-compassionate have lower levels of stress and depression. You might think that this inward focus would hamper a woman's ability to focus outwardly on her work responsibilities. But research shows just the opposite. Self-compassion strengthens work capacity -- more self-compassionate women managers pay more attention, not less, to their work.

In the Mayo Clinic Handbook for Happiness, Dr. Amit Sood wrote that most of us are distracted up to half of each day. During that time, we often fixate on negative thoughts about our mistakes and shortcomings. Negative thoughts may in turn amplify our feelings of stress, anxiety, depression, and fatigue.

Self-compassion, on the other hand, accepts flaws and mistakes without beating oneself up over them. We simply take note of them and accept them as a starting point for change.

4. Get professional help.

If you are feeling depressed or anxious, don’t hesitate to seek professional help.

  • Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990 or text “TalkWithUs” to 66746
  • Find a therapist specializing in women’s issues through Psychology Today
  • National Helpline from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)

Conclusion

Over the past few decades, research has taught us a lot about why women experience more stress in the workplace than men. This article covered some basic strategies women can use to combat this stress.

But what about the workplace itself? Can anything be done to change the workplace culture and alleviate some of the stress women have long felt?

Yes. We will cover some of those strategies in the next part of this series.

About the author 

Pamela Coburn-Litvak

Pam is a neuroscientist, author, speaker, and certified executive coach. Her research articles have been published in scientific journals including Neuroscience and Neurobiology of Learning and Behavior.

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