Women and Work-Place Stress. ERIC Digest.
by Long, Bonita C.
North American women have joined the paid work force in record numbers
and much-needed attention is now focused on the effect employment has on
women's well-being (Long & Kahn, 1993). Until recently, theories and
research about job stress have been directed primarily at men's experiences,
as a result, women's experiences of stress have remained relatively unexplored.
The conceptual literature on stress suggests that working women are
prone to the same stressors experienced by working men. Yet, women are
also confronted with potentially unique stressors such as discrimination,
stereotyping, social isolation, and work/home conflicts. In addition, taking
care of children and aging parents continues to be a source of stress for
women who work outside the home (Repetti, Matthews, & Waldron, 1989).
Even though women in the paid work force face numerous stressors, the
conventional wisdom that work is necessarily harmful to women has not been
proven. Repetti et al. (1989) found little evidence to support a global
relationship between paid employment and either mental or physical health
in women. Instead, they found that paid employment had clearly beneficial
health effects for some women and clearly detrimental effects on others.
These effects depended on the characteristics of the individual woman,
her family situation, and the properties of her job:
Employment contributes to greater health benefits for unmarried women
than for married women.
For married women, employment has more health benefits if their husbands
participate more in household labor.
Employment has beneficial effects when there is a match between a woman's
desire for employment and her employment status.
Job characteristics such as heavy demands and low control increase health
Some women derive greater satisfaction from employment roles than from
traditional roles as wife, mother, and community volunteer.
Work relationships that provide social support appear to improve health.
Obviously, the global conclusion that employment is inherently harmful
to women in unwarranted. Employed women experience a multitude of work-related
stressors, yet they appear to be better off than women who are not employed.
Although multiple roles for women produce a number of benefits, certain
work conditions are deleterious to women's well-being (Repetti et al.,
SEX SEGREGATION AS A SOURCE OF STRESS
While women's work-force participation has doubled in the last 25-30
years, most women are still employed in a limited number of occupations,
performing labor different from the kind of labor performed by men. For
example, while 6 out of every 10 women are in the paid labor force, 58%
of Canadian women work in clerical, sales, or service occupations. Men
are employed in a wider range of jobs and more frequently hold higher paying
jobs (Statistics Canada, 1990). Sex segregation of work roles creates further
stressors unique to women. For example, secretaries, waitresses, and nurses
experience high demands, but receive limited autonomy and low pay. Routine,
bureaucratic work is common in female dominated jobs (e.g., clerical work).
In addition, women in jobs that remain male-dominated often experience
social isolation-a situation that limits women's opportunities for social
support. Although women are joining the paid work force in record numbers
and are moving into men's occupations, men are not moving into women's
occupations. Until women's work is valued as much as men's work, this imbalance
is unlikely to change.
BARRIERS TO CAREER PROGRESS AS STRESSORS
Another important stressor for employed women is the lack of career
progress. While this is a potential stressor for all employees, it is particularly
problematic for women because they are clustered in the lower levels of
the hierarchy. For example, women hold only 2% of senior management positions
and only 5% of corporate board positions (Friedman, 1988). An explanation
for this finding is that stereotypes and biases of male decision-makers
prevent women's career advancement. The barrier formed by these biases
has been referred to as the "glass ceiling."
The well-known Framingham Heart Study showed that women's health may
be jeopardized by such barriers (Haynes & Feinleib, 1980). One of the
major predictors of coronary heart disease among female clerical workers
was decreased job mobility. Furthermore, women reported more job changes
but fewer promotions than did men, indicating that their upward mobility
may be severely constrained.
If barriers to career progress are related to decision-making processes-and
there is evidence that managers use decision models that systematically
discriminate against women (Hitt & Barr, 1989), then programs need
to be developed that focus on the decision-making behaviors of male managers.
Education is another way to decrease occupational segregation. Thus, organizations
can encourage continued education through such means as tuition refund
programs and flexible work schedules (Nelson & Hitt, 1992).
ADDRESSING WOMEN'S WORK-PLACE STRESS
While organizations recognize the costs of stress to women, researchers
and authors have suggested a wide range of strategies aimed at preventing
or eliminating women's experience of work stress. The suggestions range
from individually focused actions to broad based organizational policy
changes (Freedman & Phillips, 1988; Nelson & Hitt, 1992). These
include the following:
Promote equity in pay and benefits for women.
Promote benefit programs of special interest to women.
Eliminate occupational segregation.
Produce a bias-free job evaluation program.
Provide equal starting salaries for jobs of equal value.
Support educational opportunities for women.
Educate men regarding importance of sharing responsibilities outside
Provide parental leave, day care, and alternative work scheduling as
resources for preventing stress.
Provide more job flexibility for women and men to better manage work
Promote childcare and eldercare options in the community or the organization.
Support programs to educate and develop skills among women for managing
and controlling organizational politics.
In recent years much has been learned about the unique stressors which
employed women experience, as well as some of the health-related outcomes
resulting from these stressors. Policies and programs need to be developed
that are preventive in focus in order for women to maximize their career
potential, and for organizations to benefit from the rich resources that
women bring to the work force.
Freedman, S. M., & Phillips, J. S. (1988). "The Changing Nature
of Research on Women at Work." Journal of Management, 14, 231-251.
Friedman, D. E. (1988). "Why the Glass Ceiling?" Across the Board, 7,
Haynes, S. G., & Feinleib, M. (1980). "Women, Work, and Coronary
Heart Disease: Prospective Findings from the Framingham Heart Study." American
Journal of Public Health, 70, 133-141.
Hitt, M. A., & Barr, S. H. (1989). "Managerial Selection Decision
Models: Examination of Configural Cue Processing." Journal of Applied Psychology,
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A Multidisciplinary Approach to Workplace Stress." Montreal: McGill-Queen's
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Implications for Enhancing Women's Mental Health in the Workplace." In
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at Work: Assessments and Interventions for Occupational Mental Health (pp.
164-177). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Repetti, R. L., Matthews, K. A., & Waldron, I. (1989). "Employment
and Women's Health: Effects of Paid Employment on Women's Mental and Physical
Health." American Psychologist, 44, 1394-1401.
Statistics Canada. (1990). Women in Canada: A Statistical Report (2nd
Ed.). Ottawa, ON: Ministry of Supply and Service.