Stress is a natural part of the human experience. At times we try to ignore its presence and its impact, adopting an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality in the hopes that it will just go away; other times, however, it completely takes over us and can destroy our mental and physical wellbeing. Stress has always been a popular topic of discussion, because it is something that we all wrestle with, yet none of us can rid ourselves of it completely. Countless articles are written on where stress comes from, how it impacts us, and how we can manage it. Workplace stress, in particular, is a very hot topic. As our lives become busier and more interconnected, it is often difficult to switch off and have moments to decompress before the next task’s deadline, the next fire that needs to be put out, or the next demanding project lands on our desk. How, then, do we deal with this stress? And do men and women manage stress differently?
How Stressed Are We?
We are all pretty stressed out due to our jobs, our relationships, and the other demands we face. Since personality and individual experiences can define our ability to cope with stress, it can be quite personal – we cannot all look to the same resources to help us cope. However, stress is not always a negative thing. Without stress, our body would not have the ability to respond to and adapt to change.
What may not be as obvious, however, is that our coping mechanisms and our responses to stress are often impacted by our gender.
Gender Stereotypes: Depression and Anxiety Disorders
One of the negative results of stress is the development of depression and anxiety disorders. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), women are twice as likely than men to suffer from depression and anxiety disorders. Anxiety disorders also tend to occur at an earlier age for women than for men. Much of the research conducted by the between societal pressures and gender stereotypes and mental illness, as well as the differences in brain chemistry present in the female brain versus the male brain.
Gender stereotypes begin to appear during puberty or adolescence when gender roles intensify and become more clearly defined. The inequalities between men and women increase well into adulthood, which leads to heightened societal pressures on women to adhere to certain roles and responsibilities. Women are also more likely to experience traumatic events, such as abuse or harassment, for no other reason than their gender. Further, according to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, women are more likely to make less money than men, be sexually harassed on the job, live in poverty, perform child rearing responsibilities while holding down a full-time job, and simultaneously manage the care of both their children and elderly parents. These pressures undeniably contribute to stress and depression in women, particularly for those who live in cultures with an extreme gender divide. This is not to say that men do not experience traumatic events that trigger high levels of stress and depression as well, but the sociocultural pressures on women tend to be more impactful on their psyches.
Gender and Responses to Stress
Our responses to stress are also inextricably linked to gender. That is to say that although men and women have very similar stress triggers, our responses are quite different. University of Vienna psychologist Claus Lamm and his team have found that men tend to take a very egocentric approach when responding to stress; men adopt a “fight or flight” response where they prepare themselves for impending stress by conserving their energy and ignoring the perspectives or needs of others. Women, however, adopt a “tend and befriend” approach in which they try to better understand the other people’s perspectives or the reason for why the stress is present. When under stress, the emotion processing areas of the female brain light up, causing women to begin to reason around why they are feeling stressed. They are more readily able to recognize variances in facial expressions, while men under stress can only see neutral or angry faces, triggering a more negative and aggressive response to stress. Lamm and his team claim that these responses to stress are a result of our evolutionary past: Women wanting to protect their offspring and themselves laid low with other members of their kin, choosing strength in numbers rather than heading out into danger. They saw the benefits of creating a social support system or befriending the enemy, allowing them to talk through the stress, and, in turn, better understand and respond to it.
A study published in BioEssays by Prince Henry’s Institute researchers Joohyung Lee and Vincent R. Harley determines that there may be a single gene responsible for how men and women respond to stress. The SRY gene that men have on their Y chromosome contributes to the release of norepinephrine into the bloodstream, leading to an increase in blood pressure that encourages the “fight or flight” response. Women, on the other hand, do not have the SRY gene, and instead secrete endorphins that motivate them to behave in a “friendly manner towards children and social partners and facilitates the tend and befriend response.” It is, of course, important to note that these responses become a bit more complicated depending on each individual’s estrogen and testosterone levels.
Rise of Workplace Stress
On the whole, people are experiencing an increased amount of stress in the workplace. Toronto-based Shepell-FGI, for example, have seen a 50% increase in the usage of their employee assistance offerings since 2010. Further, the American Institute of Stress (AIS) claims that job stress is the leading source of stress for Americans. They emphasize in particular the link between job stress and the increased likelihood of heart attacks, hypertension, and other disorders. Despite knowing where the stress begins, however, finding remedies is by no means a simple matter.
The experience of stress is a very personalized matter; the stress a police officer experiences on the job, for example, is vastly different than that of a teacher. Even though their stress may manifest similarly, it affects them in drastically different ways – which makes finding a solution to job-related stress exceptionally difficult to pinpoint.
Despite this difficulty, stress in the workplace can drastically affect employee morale, productivity, and a company’s bottom line. Stressed out employees are less likely to perform at a high level and tend to miss more days of work. It is, therefore, in a company’s best interest to invest in solutions that help to manage employee stress levels.
What Can Employers Do?
The first step is to acknowledge that workplace stress exists and to ensure that employees are aware of any assistance programs available to them. The second step is to train leadership teams to recognize how key milestones can affect an employee’s ability to perform effectively at work, whether their employees have children, get married, or experience a death in the family. Finally, it is critical to recognize that there is a gender divide in the workplace when it comes to the experience of workplace stress; acknowledging that the male and female workforces have drastically different experiences at work is an important step in addressing stress-related issues. By ensuring there is sufficient support for over-stressed employees and offering a welcoming and flexible work culture, employers can tackle the issue of gendered workplace stress head on.
While it can be problematic to evaluate gender differences in stress management because it could lead to stereotyping or bias, it is not something that can be ignored. As discussed, stress can have devastating effects on wellbeing and quality of life, and have long-lasting affects on mental health. While the coping mechanisms that both genders use are helpful to consider when navigating how to approach stress on a corporate level, it is critical to understand that stress impacts men and women differently. It’s not about creating new gender stereotypes, but rather evaluating how societal pressures and evolutionary biology generate differences in each gender’s experience of stress. Ultimately, the first step is acknowledging these variances, and the second is looking at how we can move forward and break down these barriers.