Researcher Finds Men, Women React Much the Same to Job Stress

By Noble, Barbara Presley | THE JOURNAL RECORD, October 15, 1994 | Go to article overview

Researcher Finds Men, Women React Much the Same to Job Stress


Noble, Barbara Presley, THE JOURNAL RECORD


Everyone is driven nuts by work once in a while, but do men and women react differently to job stress? If conventional wisdom, backed by conventional social science, is correct, work is more central to the lives of men, family to the lives of women.

Job stress then is likely to have a more adverse overall mental health impact on men than on women.

Any stressed-out working woman who regards that conclusion skeptically is probably reacting well within the bounds of good sense.

A researcher who has been studying sex, psychological stress and work finds little difference between men and women in the impact work has on their well-being. To the extent that women are being driven crazy, they are being driven crazy on an equal footing with men.

"An unhealthy job is unhealthy regardless of whether a man or a woman is occupying it," said Rosalind Barnett, a clinical psychologist based at the Murray Research Center at Radcliffe College.

That finding is important, Barnett said, because it is widely assumed women are more likely than men to have family concerns that will cause conflicts, distract them from work and lower their productivity.

Men, on the other hand, supposedly have a more natural affinity for the "achievement-oriented world of work" and a better ability to maintain boundaries between work and home. Corporate work family initiatives tend to be seen as programs designed to ease the burden on women.

In fact, Barnett found that the women in her random samples _ predominantly white, middle class, dual-career couples in the Boston area _ did not report any more family-related stress than men. And, surprisingly, men were more likely than women to report distress over problematical relationships with co-workers.

Perhaps surprisingly, Barnett found that inadequate pay and job security were not major causes of anxiety. Distress is most likely to be caused by a job that places many demands on an employee but allows him or her little control over how the work gets done.

How did Barnett elicit responses seemingly so much at odds with the march of social science and conventional wisdom? In part because she rejected some outmoded assumptions researchers have long accepted as gospel and asked questions appropriate to contemporary demographics.

The very notion that work is more important to men, family to women, is a relic of the Ozzie and Harriet era, a brief and anomalous period during the 1950s when Americans picked up the threads of their prewar lives and tried to recapture a sense of security.

Women who had worked during World War II left their jobs, displaced by returning male soldiers. For a brief period, Barnett wrote in a recent paper, white middle-class American families temporarily reversed two long-term trends: "The trend for women to leave home and join the labor force and the trend toward smaller family size. …

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