Study Reveals the Physical Toll of Working Motherhood
A new study puts a figure to the intangible tension most working mothers feel: Working moms are 18% more stressed than their childless peers; working women with two children are 40% more stressed.
Interestingly, flexible work arrangements did not have any mitigating effect on working mothers’ stress levels; the only thing that did improve them was a reduction in total working hours.
The study, the largest of its kind, tracked physiological markers, including hormone levels and blood pressure, of chronic stress in 6,025 women participating in the UK Household Longitudinal Survey. While the results are decidedly British, the conclusions feel universal. Last week, an Oxfam report revealed that urban Indian women on average do 10 times more carework than urban men in any given day, suggesting that working women’s work days are far from over when they leave the office. And previous research has found Indian women are the most stressed in the world.
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It’s important to note the study focused on chronic stress, a physiological state of strain on the critical internal organs and systems (for instance, the proper functioning of the immune and cardiovascular systems), that keep us alive, not just the temporary feeling of being ‘stressed out.’ Chronic stress can lead to allostatic overload — when these internal processes become too strained — which threatens health. Chronic stress has been linked to cardiovascular damage, low immunity, diabetes and other conditions associated with poor health.
“Flexible work practices are meant to enable employees to achieve a more satisfactory work-life balance, which should reduce work-family conflict,”
Michaela Benzeval, PhD, of the Institute for Social and Economic Research at Essex University, told The Guardian. Benzeval is one of the authors of the study published in the journal Sociology. “The use of such reduced-hours flexible work arrangements appeared to moderate some of the association of family and work stressors. But there was little evidence that flexplace or flextime working arrangements were associated with lower chronic stress responses.”
Perhaps that’s because other research increasingly suggests that it’s not specific flexitime policies so much as workplace autonomy to utilize, for instance, flexitime when and as personally needed that contributes to employee happiness, productivity — and personal and family health.