Electronic Tethers to Work Stress Women More than Men
Women feel more distress when trying to do work from home.
Credit: Dreamstime

The technological "leashes" to the workplace often take a toll on women, while men seem to skate by unscathed, according to a new study.

The results showed that women who experienced frequent work contact at home from cell phones, e-mail and other devices reported were twice as likely to report feelings of guilt compared with both men (regardless of work contact) and women who were never contacted at home. 

Their analyses showed this guilt was responsible for increased levels of distress among women, but not men. It seems even though women's daily roles now encompass more than family- and home-based tasks, they still may feel the tug of this caregiving role.

"Initially, we thought women were more distressed by frequent work contact because it interfered with their family responsibilities more so than men," said lead researcher Paul Glavin, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Toronto, in a statement. "However, this wasn't the case. We found that women are able to juggle their work and family lives just as well as men, but they feel more guilty as a result of being contacted. This guilt seems to be at the heart of their distress."

Galvanizing guilt

Glavin, University of Toronto sociology professor Scott Schieman and their colleagues examined data from the Work, Stress and Health survey from 2005, in which 1,042 individuals participated, including 612 women and 430 men ages 18 to 88. Study participants indicated how often they were contacted outside the workplace by phone, e-mail or text about work-related matters, as well as their guilt and distress levels.

"What we focused on is much more of a malaise aspect of distress — things like feeling run down, having trouble concentrating or feeling like you couldn't get going," Schieman said.

The researchers found that women reported higher levels of distress and guilt than men even though men reported longer work hours and higher levels of work contact. Men also said they had more control over their schedules and job authority. 

They also discovered that factors such as job pressures and autonomy may influence the amount of guilt reported by participants based their effect on work and family life. 

For example, people in authority positions at work tended to report lower levels of guilt, but job pressures were linked to higher levels of guilt; and participants who were previously married and those with young children reported higher levels of guilt.

Dealing with distress

Past research by Schieman and his colleagues may shed light on the connection between work and distress. That research showed that, while men and women in higher status positions have more job autonomy, control over their schedules and financial rewards, they also tend to report higher levels of stress linked to longer hours, more job demands and increased job authority.

"Part of the task and challenge for us is to look at what is happening when the puzzle doesn't fit," Schieman told LiveScience. "When things that should be beneficial don’t seem to be beneficial at all and in fact, maybe even causing unexpected blips on outcomes that most people would say are bad for you."

For women, the unexpected blips may have to do with societal roles imposed on them. For example, some previous findings have suggested a "traditional role balance" where some women may judge themselves negatively for failing to meet expectations for their roles as wives and mothers, even if work contact at home doesn't necessarily hinder those roles. 

This new study, which is detailed in the March issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, should feed into a broader discussion regarding the nature of work, role expectations and time management, Schieman said.

The researchwas funded by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.