Ask any parent who works how their stress levels are and they’ll probably tell you they’re quite high.
It’s no secret that working parents juggle a lot, but now a new study has found that working mothers really do feel more stressed.
The study from the University of Essex and University of Manchester in the UK found that mothers who worked full time had considerably higher stress levels than those who work full time but don’t have children. Working mothers with one child were 18 per cent more stressed than their childless counterparts. And it didn’t get easier for parents with more than one child; working mothers with two children were found to be 40 per cent more stressed than those who didn’t have children.
In conducting the research, the investigators examined data from more than six thousand employed people in the UK Household Longitudinal Study. The study gathers data from households on topics like their experiences with stress, their working life, blood pressure and hormone levels.
The researchers found that not only did working mothers experience more stress than others, this stress didn’t improve when flexible working arrangements like different working hours or working from home were offered.
“We often hear that giving workers control over their work schedules (when they start and end their work for example) or work locations (working from home) could help to reduce their stress. So I wanted to test those ideas directly,” Professor Tarani Chandola, author of the study and Professor of medical sociology at the University of Manchester told Theravive.
“I was surprised that flexitime (changing the start and end times of work) or flexplace (working from home) arrangements were not correlated with lower levels of stress related biomarkers. Only reduced hours flexible work (working fewer hours when needed by the employee) were correlated with lower stress levels,” he said.
Chandola and colleagues used 11 biomarkers to assess the stress levels of those in the study.
“The 11 biomarkers are related to the biological stress response and are a mixture of neuroendocrine (for example hormones), metabolic (for example cholesterol), inflammation, cardiovascular (for example heart rate and blood pressure) and anthropometric (for example obesity) biomarkers. Individually, each biomarker in itself is not a measure of stress. However collectively, raised levels of these biomarkers indicate allostatic load, which is when a person cannot cope with the types of stressors they encounter and they have a biological stress response that is prolonged,” Chandola said.
Some levels of stress can be normal and even helpful in certain situations. Stress experienced before a job interview or presentation may motivate you to adequately prepare to perform well. If the body senses danger, stress manifests in the form of a speedy pulse, faster breathe, and tension in the muscles. This response to stress is a fight or flight response and can assist in responding properly to a bad situation.
In situations like that, stress can be a good thing. But prolonged, constant stress can be damaging both to mental and physical health. Constant stress interferes with the proper function of various systems in the body like the immune system, reproductive system and the digestive system. Stress can also interfere with sleep.
If stress continues without relief, there is a greater risk for health problems like heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. Those under constant stress are also at greater risk of developing anxiety or depression.
“These biological stress measures are correlated with a range of physical and mental health problems like early death, increased risk of heart attacks and depression. This is true for all adults, whether they are parents or not,” Chandola said.
Given the extra stress experienced by working parents, Chandola says more effort needs to be made to enable parents to reduce the amount of hours they work, even if this is more difficult for managers.
“It is clear that they should have the choice to reduce their working hours when they need to. Not having the ability to reduce their hours to cope with their family or other related issues could result in raised stress levels and potential future health problems, as well as leaving their job earlier than expected,” he said.
“For managers, the toughest part of managing flexible working arrangements is probably allowing workers to work part-time or reduce their hours when the workers need to. It is probably easier to allow for flexi-time or flexi-place arrangements for some workers. However, we show that it is reduced hours flexible work that can help workers cope with their stress levels, not flexi-time or flexi-place arrangements.”
Elizabeth Pratt is a medical journalist and producer. Her work has appeared on Healthline, The Huffington Post, Fox News, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The Sydney Morning Herald, News.com.au, Escape, The Cusp and Skyscanner. You can read more of her articles here. Or learn more about Elizabeth and contact her via her LinkedIn and Twitter profiles.