WEDNESDAY, March 9 (HealthDay News) -- The eroding boundary between work and family life, fueled by constant availability via cell phone or e-mail, takes a greater emotional toll on women, a new study finds.
Researchers from the University of Toronto used data from more than 1,000 American workers to determine gender differences in how men and women respond emotionally and psychologically to increasing work-related contact outside of normal business hours.
Men were significantly less distressed than women by frequent work-related contact via phone, e-mail or text, according to the study, published in the March issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.
Study co-author Scott Schieman, a professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, said men and women may perceive the work-family balance differently because of lingering perceptions of gender roles.
"There may be some residual effect of gender roles, but that's purely speculative," Schieman said. "I think one of the main things [to focus on] was how men's level of guilt seemed to be the same at all levels of work contact...whereas women's levels seemed to rise in a significant way."
The study also noted that although men have taken on more responsibility at home over the past few decades, "women continue to do the majority of domestic work and are still considered the primary source of child care in the family."
In the study, men and women were asked how often co-workers, supervisors, managers, customers or clients contacted them about work-related matters outside of normal business hours.
Work-family conflict was assessed by asking participants how often their jobs left a lack of time, energy and focus on their families. Guilt levels were measured by asking participants the direct question, "In the past seven days, on how many days have you felt guilty?" Psychological distress was gauged by asking the number of days they felt tired, run down or unfocused.
Individuals of both genders reported higher levels of guilt being contacted at home when they had young children or when they had previously been married. But overall, regardless of children's age or marital status, women reported both more guilt and distress over work intrusions into the home.
"Initially, we thought women were more distressed by frequent work contact because it interfered with their family responsibilities more so than men," study author Paul Glavin, a doctoral student at the University of Toronto, said 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."
Schieman said the study builds upon research in the 1990s that tested similar patterns in a national sample of working women and men.
"It's affirming the way our findings mapped into a much richer, qualitative in-depth study so many years ago," he said. But, he noted, "overall, the levels of guilt and distress tend to be low in the population. People are not running around riddled with guilt."
Noelle Chesley, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, said the findings tap into the idea "that women's experiences of leisure time are very different from men's. Work intruding into home life is having really different consequences for men and women."
"Women and men bring different things to the table in terms of home interactions," Chesley added. "Women's free time is more interrupted. I could see how, if you're feeling constantly interrupted...how all of this together could produce a very different psychological response."
What can be done to mitigate the intrusion of work into home life amidst the barrage of technology that facilitates it? Not much, Schieman and Chesley said.
"I think technology...is in some ways beyond our control, especially regarding work use," Chesley said. "Those are things people don't have as much discretion with, especially in the precarious economic times we're in."
"There's no stopping it," agreed Schieman. "I think to some extent, we've lost that [battle]."
The Family and Work Institute has more information about work-family balance.
SOURCES: Scott Schieman, Ph.D., professor, sociology, University of Toronto; Noelle Chesley, Ph.D., assistant professor, sociology, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee; March 2011 Journal of Health and Social Behavior
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