Mental health and gender: Stress agender

Are men and women affected by different things at work? New research shows that women are more likely to be stressed by workplace relationships while men are more affected by change and workload.

The research, by the author of this article, suggests that women relish change but cannot get on with each other, while men do not care about each other but struggle to cope with change.

The findings, based upon a study of just over 900 respondents, seem to support psychologists’ theories based on studying behaviour and hormone release in the genders, which suggest that stressed men are likely to become aggressive, while women resort to gossip and bitching.

Solving problems

The implication is that what works for tackling stressed women may not be effective for men. Women are more likely to benefit from psychological therapies and men could respond better to the early involvement of human resources and occupational health professionals.

Arthur (2004) describes work-related stress as a new and more acceptable name for mental health problems such as anxiety or depression.

But attempts to treat the condition have not been successful, or reduced its prevalence. To achieve either of these goals would need a radical policy and cultural change. But employer awareness is low. A Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health report in 2007 said: “High rates of prevalence are not well recognised by employers. In a recent survey, 50% of senior managers thought that none of their workers would ever suffer from a mental health problem.”

The author’s study, conducted between 2003 and 2007, examined 907 people suffering from work-related stress. Clients were employed in both the private and public sector services, with 525 women (58%) and 382 men (42%). The author used clinical notes from the therapy sessions to identify each employee’s primary reason for seeking psychological therapy.

Collection of data

Data were collected using the Clinical Outcomes for Routine Evaluation (CORE) System, designed in the UK for use in psychotherapy and counselling to measure therapy outcomes and to provide information for service audit, evaluation and performance management.

The CORE workplace counselling form, launched in 2002, was used to categorise workplace concerns into 12 domains, ranging from change in job situation to formal proceedings with subcodes for each category. The aim was to establish the primary stress factor each employee held responsible for their difficulties.

Work relationships appear as the primary stress factor demonstrating the largest difference between the genders, with 42% of females citing relationship difficulties at work, compared to 8% of males. This demonstrates a substantial disparity between the sexes: is it possible that men do not get as involved in office politics? Are men less aware of/less focused on relationships at work as well as outside?

A far greater proportion of males suffer from stress due to a change in their job situation: 25% of men against 4% of women. This could represent organisational change or a shift in role responsibilities or workload expectations.

Males show a greater propensity to suffer stress due to workload, with 32% citing this as a factor. Men’s loudest complaints were about having to increase multi-tasking skills. Only 20% of women report excessive workload as a primary stress factor. Organisational issues inflict more stress on men (9%) than on women (4%).

Exploring the figures for bullying/harassment as a primary cause, women reported this more than their male colleagues: 12% compared to 7%.

The remaining areas of work-related stress reported showed minimal disparity between the genders.

If we take two key areas, change and flexibility, and human relationships, a trend becomes apparent, with 66% of men highlighting the three change and flexibility areas as their primary stress factor. These are: change in job situation workload and related issues, and organisational/employment issues. Only 28% of women report these as a primary stress factor.

The human relationships themes of work relationships and bullying/harassment, demonstrate a different trend, with 54% of women and 15% of men choosing them as the primary stress factor.

These findings echo the pioneering work of Taylor et al (2000) which showed that gender distribution in research on stress responses had been inequitable prior to 1995, with only 17% of the participants in physiological and neuroendocrine responses (the production of hormones by specialised cells) being female.

Fight or flight

Although the human stress response was characterised by American physiologist Walter Cannon in 1932 as “fight or flight”, Taylor et al’s research suggests females are more likely to “tend and befriend”. Tending is defined as the nurturing activities designed to protect self and young, promote safety and reduce distress, and befriending is defined as the creation and maintenance of social networks.

The researchers hypothesised that neuroendocrine evidence supports this theory, with women producing the hormone oxytocin, associated with bonding behaviour when stressed, as well as using social groups to manage stressful situations, especially with other females.

Men are more likely to be verbally or physically aggressive, releasing the hormones testosterone and vasopressin, involved in aggression and the regulation of blood pressure and temperature.

According to the researchers: “Females reliably show less physical aggression than males, but display far more indirect aggression in the form of gossip, rumour-spreading and enlisting the co-operation of a third party in undermining an acquaintance.”

Research by Stroud et al (2002), demonstrated that the genders showed differing adrenocortical responses – hormonal responses related to cancer – to different stressors. Women showed greater physiological responses to social rejection stressors, whereas men tended to react more to achievement challenges.

Their study suggests that women are more physiologically reactive, showing increased levels of cortisol (sometimes referred to as the stress hormone), to negative interpersonal events than men, with the reverse pattern for achievement challenges. They suggest that “women may not only use interpersonal strategies to cope with stress but also may show greater physiological responses to interpersonal events”. This might explain the gender differences in the author’s study related to changes of job situation and work relationships, which could arguably parallel achievement challenges and social rejection respectively.

Tend and befriend

If the tend and befriend mechanism breaks down, do some women become psychologically impaired and experience stress? Isolation through marginalisation appears to increase emotional vulnerability in the work environment. This appears to warrant further investigation into these important human responses.

What are the practical implications? Further research is needed into how UK employees are managed, led and supported.

We need a heightened awareness of the causes of workplace stress and the relationship with gender. The accepted, informal diagnosis of stress covers a multitude of socio-economic, occupational and individual psychological variables and relies too often on self-definition.

If relationships at work are the primary cause of distress, whether conflict with colleagues or managers, then access to psychological therapies and gender-specific mediation services could be provided.

On the other hand, if organisational change is the issue, active involvement from human resources and occupational health departments may be advisable, particularly focused on male employees. This more targeted approach could reduce absenteeism and raise job satisfaction for many.

Roger Rowlands MA, BSc (Hons), PGCE, RMN, is employed as a therapist in the NHS Primary Care Mental Health Services, Occupational Health (Capita Health Solutions), and works for a number of employee assistance programme providers. He is also a part-time senior lecturer in mental health at the University of Central Lancashire.


Primary Reasons for stress

                                                   Female                     Male

Change in job situation                 35 (4%)                   95 (25%)
Work relationships                      220 (42%)                29 (8%)
Workload & related issues          105 (20%)              120 (32%)
Bullying/harassment                       65 (12%)                26 (7%)
Organisational/ employment issues 19 (4%)                  35 (9%)
Work conditions                            10 (2%)                   5 (1%)
Traumatic incidents                        15 (3%)                  25 (6%)
Violence/assault                               5 (1%)                    6 (2%)
Work-related health                       26 (5%)                  11 (3%)
Career issues                                  14 (3%)                 15 (4%)
Formal proceedings                         11 (2%)                 15 (4%)

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