Gender aspects of self-reported stress

Stress is an increasing problem in most industrialised countries. Within the last two decades, self-perceived stress has increased by approximately 20%. A recent study by the Danish National Institute of Social Research indicates that: stress is only indirectly related to the number of working hours; it increases with disposable income; good health reduces stress levels; different stress factors affect men and women differently.

Prevalence of stress

Within the last two decades, subjective stress has increased by about 20%. From 1987 to 2000, surveys indicate that self-reported stress rose from approximately one in three adults to nearly one in two. A recent investigation of stress, by the Danish National Institute of Social Research, reveals that 68% of all individuals living with a partner report being sometimes or nearly always stressed. Underlying this figure, however, is the fact that approximately 60% of all men and 76% of all women report being sometimes or nearly always stressed.

Interestingly, a comparison between double income couples and single income couples does not reveal any substantial differences in reported stress levels - a finding similar to those of Australia, Germany, Canada and the USA, according to the study at hand (Table 1). However, if the data are examined further in this respect, as outlined below, this similarity actually appears to disguise notable differences.

Table 1: Stress or time pressure, individuals in couples, 2001
Stress or time pressure, individuals in couples, 2001
  One or two employed spouses Two employed spouses
  Men Women Men Women
Not stressed 41.2 23.8 39.6 24.2
Sometimes stressed 52.1 66.0 52.9 67.0
Stressed 6.7 10.3 7.5 8.7
No. surveyed 480 488 376 446

Source: Bonke, J. and Gerstoft, F., Stress, time use and gender, Danish National Institute of Social Research, Copenhagen, 2005

Determinants of stress

In investigating the gender aspect of stress within the Danish welfare state context, the correlation between stress and a number of other variables were tested (Table 2). It emerges that different stress factors affect men and women differently.

Table 2: Stress determinants*, individuals in double income couples, 2001
Stress determinants, individuals in double income couples, 2001
  Men Women
1. Economic and employment variables    
Working hours (weekly)    
Household work (hours per week)   - ·
Constantly rushing (less than 1.5 hours’ free time after paid work and household work) ·
Health (very good or good) - · - ·
Household income (disposable)   ·
Wage rates   -
2. Other variables    
Marital status - ·  
Urbanisation ( ) ·
Children (six years and younger)    
Children (seven years and older)  
3. Partner    
Working hours (weekly)    
Household work (hours per week)   -
4. Work organisation variables    
Flexibility of working time -  
Working weekend    
Working evening or night    
Occupational sector (private occupation)   ( )
Regular leisure activity (yes)    
5. Satisfaction    
Satisfaction with own economic situation (not satisfied) ( ) ·
Satisfaction with weekly working hours (not satisfied)  
* /- indicates that a unit increase in the variable adds to/reduces stress levels. Significantly correlated to stress: · . Non-significantly correlated to stress: / - . No correlation to stress: blank cell. Just barely correlated: parenthesis

Source: Bonke and Gerstoft, 2005

As shown in Table 2, the number of weekly working hours, contrary to expectation, has no direct impact on stress levels. Similarly, the amount of household work is negatively correlated to stress: those doing more household work seem to have lower levels of stress. At first sight, these results seem to question much of the theory and evidence regarding the work-life balance issue. However, when the data are examined more closely, they reveal that the timing of activities has a considerable impact on stress levels: constantly having to rush implies increases in stress. This increase is only statistically significant for women, indicating that women undertake more household work than men do, and that work-life balance related problems are more prevalent for women.

Moreover, the table shows that, for women, levels of stress increase with household disposable income. According to the report, the reason for this might be that income often correlates with working time: the richer people are, in terms of money, the scarcer leisure time typically becomes. People with higher incomes thus face a time constraint that might lead to increases in experiencing stress.

At first, this finding appears to contradict the data presented in Table 1, which indicate that there are no substantial differences between single and double-income couples in reporting stress. The finding that stress increases with disposable income suggests that it is necessary to distinguish between the two groups. It seems most likely that different stress factors have different impacts depending on the occupational situation. Even though the reported stress levels are similar, they may reflect completely different determinants.

For women, their partner’s behaviour also influences the experience of stress. The husband’s contribution to household work lessens the level of stress for women. On the other hand, the opposite seems to have no effect on stress levels for men. However, none of these effects are significant.

With regard to the variables, health, marital status and urbanisation, good health decreases significantly the likelihood of being stressed for both sexes. Indeed, according to the study, the most important determinant of stress might be poor health. Marriage decreases men’s stress levels, while living in a metropolitan area increases women’s stress more than men.

Surprisingly, the survey finds that the only stress-influencing variable directly related to the organisation of work is the flexibility of working time. In this, opposite tendencies may be seen for men and women. More flexibility in terms of working time reduces stress levels for men, whereas women are more likely to report stress when working times are flexible. However, this is not statistically significant in the case of the women.

When information on satisfaction is taken into account in the explanation of self-perceived stress, it becomes clear that not being satisfied with one’s economic situation increases the likelihood of reporting stress for both men and women, though this is only barely the case for men. Furthermore, not being satisfied with the number of working hours also affects perceived stress, suggesting that the number of working hours, according to what is individually viewed as appropriate, has an impact on well-being.

About the study

In the study, stress is measured through the respondents’ self-reported experiences of stress, rather than measuring different symptoms of illness and behavioural problems. Thus, it is based on a subjective rather than objective stress index. The data are based on two questions, ‘How often do you feel stressed?’ (Almost never stressed/sometimes stressed/nearly always stressed) and ‘Under what circumstances?’ (When shopping/at work/at home/on the way to and from work/in other situations/always).

The study Stress, time use and gender (630Kb pdf) can be downloaded at the Danish National Institute of Social Research website.

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