Brenda is my coaching client, and for two years she almost always began sobbing as soon as we started our coaching sessions. “My stress level is so high,” she would tell me between sobs. “I just can’t go on like this.” Brenda is passionate about her work, is the manager of a team that provides direct services, and is the mother of two young children. “I can’t sleep at night, I am short-tempered with my children and husband, I have no time to see my friends, and I’ve stopped exercising,” she explained to illustrate her stress level.
Unfortunately, Brenda’s experience is not unusual. Kristin Wong of the New York Times writes that a 2016 study published in The Journal of Brain & Behavior shows that women who work are twice as likely to suffer from severe stress and anxiety as men. Why? Wong notes that scholars Dr. Erin Joyce and Silvia Federici offer three reasons:
- Women do more unpaid domestic work than men. It’s not that men don’t feel stress in terms of fulfilling responsibilities at home and work, but, Dr. Joyce explains, “the difference . . . is in the nature and scope of these responsibilities in the home environment.” For example, Wong notes, “The United Nations reported that women do nearly three times as much unpaid domestic work as men.”
- Women do more emotional labor at home and at work. Wong cites research from Nova Southeastern University showing that women managers are expected to do more “emotional labor,” such as showing calmness and empathy and attending to relationships with employees, even when they don’t feel it or prefer to manage in a more masculine, less relational style. My own research, published in my book New Rules for Women: Revolutionizing the Way Women Work Together, found that if women managers do not invest time in emotional labor, they are judged harshly by both women and men in performance reviews and other forms of feedback. Because of socialized gender role expectations, emotional labor is expected of women and not of men in the workplace. Both domestic and emotional labor are exhausting.
- Women expect to be able to “do it all” and can feel guilty and even more stressed when they cannot.
Why do we still have such a large gender gap in unpaid domestic labor? So much has changed over the past fifty years as the opportunities for women in the workforce have expanded. Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times reports, however, that while “Americans have grown increasingly likely to believe that women and men should have equal roles at work . . . a significant share still say that men’s and women’s roles should be different at home.” She cites a new study, soon to be published in Gender and Society, based on a national survey covering data from 1977 to 2016. This study shows that roughly one-quarter of people’s views reflect a different opinion about equality at work versus home. Specifically, the findings reflect a belief that women and men should be equal at work but women should do more of the homemaking and child rearing. Other research reflects that while women are doing more paid work than in the past, men are not doing much more domestic work.
In a global study, Miller reports that the United States was found to have much lower levels of family-friendly policies and supports than in twenty-two comparable English-speaking and European countries. In countries with family-friendly policies and supports, the relative happiness of people with children versus those without is significantly higher than reported for Americans with children. This could be one more reason why American women experience higher levels of severe stress.
Chronic levels of severe stress have potentially dangerous consequences, such as the following:
- Family conflicts.
- Challenges to heart health, which is affected by disturbed sleep, anxiety, and chronic stress and can lead to heart attacks and early death.
What can women do to deal with severe stress? Wong suggests some approaches to manage and reduce stress:
- Embrace self-care. Yes, self-care takes time, but the payoff is huge and can be lifesaving. For example, find practices to help you sleep, such as relaxation and breathing exercises, meditation, and journaling. Exercise and eat a healthy diet, which will also help with sleep.
- Know your stress triggers. Consider a few therapy sessions to help break some old habits and develop new ones.
- Talk with your partner about more equitable sharing of housework and childcare.
- Seek validation, an essential form of support. Spend time with other women, either at or outside of work, who can help you remember that you are not crazy, and you are not alone. Share best practices about stress management.
These steps can work. Brenda no longer cries during our coaching sessions because she has been able to get her stress level down. You can, too. What has worked for you?