Professor Tarani Chandola, of Manchester University, and Dr Cara Booker, Professor Meena Kumari and Professor Michaela Benzeval, of the Institute for Social and Economic Research at Essex University, examined 11 indicators of chronic stress, including blood pressure and hormones, in 6025 women. The findings are unsurprising and alarming.
The researchers used 11 markers in five biological systems to measure stress: the neuroendocrine system, the metabolic system, the immune and inflammatory systems, the cardiovascular system, and the anthropometric system. These were taken by nurses as part of the survey which is the largest of its kind.
The overall level of the 11 biomarkers related to chronic stress was 40 per cent higher if women were working full-time while bringing up two children than it was among women working full-time with no children.
Women with two children who worked reduced hours through part-time work, job share or term-time flexible working arrangements had chronic stress levels 37% lower than those working in jobs where flexible work was not available.
Those working flexi-time or working from home, with no overall reduction in working hours, had no reduction in chronic stress.
The researchers found that men’s chronic stress markers were also lower if they worked reduced hours, and the effect was about the same as for women.
“Flexible work practices are meant to enable employees to achieve a more satisfactory work-life balance, which should reduce work-family conflict,” Benzeval said. “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.”
A research fellow of Applied Economic and Social Research at the University of Melbourne, Dr Inga Lass, told Fairfax Media the expectation that women keep the home fires burning is a significant factor.
“Women have to find ways to combine housework, care work, and their paid work, whereas men can be much more focused on their employment. I think this is directly related to women feeling more stressed.”
Professor of Gender, Work and Employment Relations at the University of Sydney, Rae Cooper, agrees and told Fairfax Media:
“If the amount of labour at home doesn’t change, and women still shoulder more of it, while at the same time, being left out of opportunities at work, like being rewarded or feeling valued, then they will continue to feel stressed.”
This study makes abundantly clear the imperative for employers to offer not just flexible work arrangements but reduced hours.
“Work-family conflict is associated with increased psychological strain, with higher levels of stress and lower levels of wellbeing,” the British researchers said in a statement. “Parents of young children are at particular risk of work-family conflict. Working conditions that are not flexible to these family demands, such as long working hours, could adversely impact on a person’s stress reactions.”
The health and wellbeing of parents genuinely depends on it. Living in a permanent state of chronic stress is not sustainable.
The simple reality is there are not enough hours in a week to work full-time and raise children without it being detrimental to physical health.
It is time to radically reimagine how our workplaces and our homes function: women trying to do both at full throttle, which is the status quo in too many cases, is not the answer.