Office Stress: His vs. Hers
Chronic Tension Hurts Mental Clarity; For Women, a ‘Tend and Befriend’ Response
By LAUREN WEBER AND SUE SHELLENBARGER
Too much work, too little money and not enough opportunity for growth are stressing us out on the job, according to a new survey from the American Psychological Association.
One-third of employees experience chronic stress related to work, the survey found. Women report higher levels of work stress than men, as well as a gnawing sense that they are underappreciated and underpaid.
Fifty-four percent of the 1,501 employed adults surveyed say they feel they are paid too little for their contributions, and 61% said their jobs don’t offer adequate opportunities to advance. Only half of the adults polled said they feel valued at work.
Women feel especially stuck and tense, the association survey indicates. Thirty-two percent of women said their employers don’t provide sufficient opportunities for internal advancement, compared with 30% of men. Women are more likely to feel tense during a typical workday, reporting more often that their employer doesn’t appreciate what they do.
The annual survey, conducted in January and released Tuesday, found the proportion of chronically stressed individuals has shrunk to 35% this year, compared with 41% in 2012, suggesting an improving economy and job market are making some people’s work lives easier. But smaller percentages reported satisfaction with their jobs and work-life balance compared with 2012—two areas that had been on the upswing.
Women’s stress is rising as families rely more on women’s earnings. An employed wife’s contribution to family earnings has hovered, on average, at 47% since 2009. But in that year, it jumped from 45%—the biggest single-year rise in more than two decades, said Kristin Smith, sociology professor at the University of New Hampshire. The comparable figure in 1988 was 38%.
Emotional responses to stress often divide along gender lines, with men more likely to have a “fight or flight” reaction while women are more likely to have a “tend and befriend” response, seeking comfort in relationships and care of loved ones, according to research by Shelley E. Taylor, health psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and others.
Physically, the body responds to stress by secreting hormones into the bloodstream that spur accelerated heart rate and breathing and tensing of muscles. People who experience stress as a positive often have increased blood flow to the brain, muscles and limbs, similar to the effects of aerobic exercise. Those who feel frightened or threatened, however, often have an erratic heart rate and constricting blood vessels. Their blood pressure rises and hands and feet may grow cold. They may become agitated, speak more loudly or experience lapses in judgment.
Either way, too much stress is harmful to individuals and companies, says David Posen, a physician and author of the book “Is Work Killing You? A Doctor’s Prescription for Treating Workplace Stress.”
“Chronic stress reduces all of the things that help productivity—mental clarity, short-term memory, decision-making and moods,” Dr. Posen says.
Karen Herbison, 46, experienced symptoms of chronic stress after management changes in her department three years ago, and her management style was criticized as not tough enough, she says. She says she was told that while her bosses liked her, “there’s just something missing.”
She stretched her 45-hour workweek to 55 hours. Even so, Ms. Herbison recalls. “I felt like I was doing everything wrong.”
She began to experience insomnia and irritability, and she had heart palpitations at work. “I was short-tempered and yelling at my kids,” she recalls. “I felt like I was losing my mind.” She saw a psychiatrist briefly and decided, “I have to remove myself from the situation. This is not who I am.”
Ms. Herbison’s stress vanished as soon as she left her former employer earlier this year to open a senior home-care company, Visiting Angels, with her husband in Eau Claire, Wis.
Such a reaction isn’t uncommon in healthy individuals who leave a highly stressful situation. But if harmful levels of stress continue for too long, a person may lose the ability to relax, a condition linked in research to numerous health problems.
Women tend to “internalize,” which contributes to their stress, says Lois Barth, a New York-based business and relationship coach. Many women hesitate to speak up for themselves or challenge behavior they see as unfair. “Women have to give themselves a voice,” she says.
Sarah Broadbent Manago, 41, was used to meeting deadlines as an information technology consultant. But she says she began to doubt herself when she felt undermined by a manager. She now works as a senior information-technology project manager for another company and says the experience left her believing women in particular “feel stressed when they are challenged or devalued by their managers.”
Women managers in male-dominated fields sometimes find the stress of juggling family responsibilities intolerable. Interior designer Kay Keaney, 40, rose fast at a California medical group, taking on responsibility for interior and facility planning and construction management for health-care facilities. With her 60-hour workweeks, plus early-morning and late-night meetings and a 1.5-hour commute each way, she seldom had time with her two small children. Yet she hesitated to complain.
“There was too much work to be done, and playing the Mommy card was bad form,” Ms. Keaney says.
Whether stuck in traffic on her way to a 6 p.m. pickup at day care, or torn between her children and urgent work emails, “I just wanted to crawl out of my skin,” she says. “I was overwhelmed.”
Ms. Keaney had feelings of panic, headaches and a racing heart. It was a wake-up call, she says, when her 2-year-old son Stanley grabbed her BlackBerry from her while she was cooking dinner and hurled it angrily across the kitchen.
The Keaneys moved from San Jose to Media, Pa., where Ms. Keaney now works as a consumer-experience specialist for a homeopathic products company. She is home with her children after school, she has shed 20 pounds, and her kids are much happier, Ms. Keaney says. Her stress is near zero, she says. High-paying jobs seem to require “selling your soul,” she says. “We decided the rat race wasn’t really worth it.”
Work has invaded every hour of the day, including time once reserved for personal care. Experts say we can’t even count on vacations to help us decompress.
A survey released last week by the consulting firm Accenture found 75% of respondents work frequently or occasionally during paid time off. The most common activity was checking email—71% reported doing this—but 30% said they participated in conference calls, and 44% said they use these nominal days off to catch up on work. “The running joke is that you can take time off, but when you come back, you pay the price for it,” said Nellie Borrero, Accenture’s managing director of global inclusion and diversity.
Source Wall Street Journal.