Why are stress levels among women 50% higher than men?

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The ‘do it all’ generation of females is feeling the strain, with working women far more stressed than men.

Women aged between 35-54 - who are likely to be juggling many roles including mother, carer for elderly parents, homemaker and sometimes breadwinner - experience significantly higher stress than men, according to latest Health and Safety Executive (HSE) statistics. Recent anxiety statistics also highlight that women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder compared to men, which could be a result of trying to manage it all.

The figures prompted calls from a leading Priory psychiatrist for more to be done within the workplace to help women struggling to combine family life, target-driven jobs and often a hefty sleep deficit to achieve a better quality of life.

Women more likely to be stressed than men

The number of women experiencing work-related stress is 50% higher than for men of the same age, the data shows.

Dr Judith Mohring (MBBS, MRCPsych, MA, CCST), said women had taken on more responsibilities at work while retaining their responsibilities at home.

And they often felt that when a company cut its workforce, men who had spent time networking with senior colleagues were better positioned to retain their jobs, while women who had responsibilities to children at home were not always able to have bonded in the same way.

According to the HSE’s figures, for the period 2011-12, 2013-14 and 2014-15, men aged 16-24, 35-44, and 55 and over, had “statistically significantly lower rates of work-related stress” than the average.

By contrast, women aged 35-44 and 45-54 had “significantly higher rates”.

Among the 35-44 age group, 68,000 of women reported stress, compared to 46,000 men.

In the older age group, 45-54, the figure for women rises to 78,000 compared to 58,000 men.

The HSE figures are based on a survey of more than 40,000 households with the results extrapolated to give an estimate for the UK as a whole.

Overall, there were 590 cases of stress per 100,000 workers for men and 920 cases for women, meaning that women workers are one and a half times more likely than men to be stressed.

Workplace stress caused by workload

The HSE cites the predominant cause of workplace stress as workload – specifically tight deadlines and too much pressure, work and responsibility.

In 2014-15, stress accounted for 35% of all work related ill health cases, and 43% of all working days lost due to ill health.

Previous studies, including by Tel Aviv University in Israel, found that the quality of the working environment was perceived to be significantly lower by women than men – with women unhappy about lower pay than men, lack of flexibility around working hours, job insecurity and lack of potential for career progression.

Dr Mohring said stress among women frequently related to pressure on them to fill many different roles – but there were also body image and other pressures.

Women still performing traditional roles in the home as well as achieving great careers

“In professional terms, women’s place in the world has been transformed over the last 50 years. We now achieve all that men can. Perhaps what we haven’t managed so well is to transfer responsibility for some of the more traditional women’s roles. So while we might excel at work, we’ll usually pile the pressure on at home too; and that can lead to major stress.

“Women with children will know all too well the tension between being a hands-on mum and managing a busy job. But it’s not just mothers who feel they fail to live up to an imaginary feminine ideal. Women have so many arenas in which they can compete: how we look, the quality of our friendships, and, of course, the work we produce. Sometimes it can feel that there are just too many ways to fail. And that’s when self-doubt, low self-esteem and self-criticism can come to the fore.”

She said women tended to be “under quite intense time pressure” outside work because of external responsibilities, and this had an impact on informal networking, professional development and career development more broadly.

High-achieving women have traits in common

High-achieving women also tended to have a number of traits in common – perfectionism, a strong inner critic, and a desire to be approved of by others.

“All of these traits make for excellent, diligent employees; self-motivated, reflective and naturally seeking high standards. But they often go hand in hand with being sensitive and a tendency to lack self-confidence, which can tip over. We are twice as likely to suffer from anxiety disorders and 2.5 times as likely to develop depression. The reasons for these gender differences are complex, but include elements of role strain and a tendency to internalise negative feelings. Overall, about 1 in 5 women will develop depression during their lives.

“Often, the people I work with are frightened that if they open up and share their feelings, they may fall apart. What I have found is the opposite. The process of sharing your emotions with someone you trust actually builds your inner strength and emotional resilience, giving you tools to cope better in future.”

Some researchers say women are more likely to report stress than men, who may prefer to suggest they are suffering back pain or another physical ailment than acknowledge stress, for fear of looking psychologically weak.

Stress levels high everywhere

Dr Mohring said: “From what I see, stress levels are high everywhere. Everybody working today is being driven harder, and asked to deliver so much more than they were even five years ago, and digital saturation means that work follows us home and often, via smartphones, to our bedside. Most people I see are too tired to enjoy life outside of work as a result.

“In the city, 60+ hour weeks are not rare.

“Women often don’t come to the clinic until they are at absolute breaking point or they turn to alcohol as a work ‘anaesthetic’. But still many senior business managers do not believe stress, anxiety or depression is a serious enough reason for employees to take time off work."‎

The impact of work-related stress

The Priory Group, which runs the largest network of mental healthcare hospitals and clinics in the UK, has recently opened high street clinics in London, Canterbury and Birmingham to help to treat work stress and other conditions including alcohol and drug addiction.

According to official figures, there are now a record number of women in work - with more than 14 million saying they are in some form of employment.

Meanwhile, a Government report in 2014 calculated that 70 million days a year are lost due to stress, depression and other mental health conditions. The cost to the economy is estimated to be £70bn-£100bn a year.

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