The Stress Gender Gap and How to Close It

An Arivale Hot Topic

Jennifer Lovejoy, Arivale Chief Science Officer, PhD
Jennifer Lovejoy
Arivale Chief Science Officer, PhD

There is a gender gap in stress. The American Psychological Association consistently reports women are affected more by stress than men – often with a larger impact. And, among the findings of an APA survey is the fact that money and family responsibilities are listed as a source of stress more often for women than men.

This matters, both because chronic stress is a significant risk factor for poor health and because it affects quality of life, energy, and vitality. Higher stress levels are associated with day-to-day problems like headaches, backaches, and digestive trouble, as well as more serious problems like heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and depression.

The Story

A recent story in the New York Times highlights some of the reasons for the gender gap in stress. First, there are family and household responsibilities. Despite progress made toward gender equality in recent decades, women still do disproportionate amounts of domestic labor compared to men. Even smart, highly successful professional women may find that when it comes to unpaid household labor, they’re doing more than their share, which carries both emotional and physical costs.

Secondly, the idea of “emotional labor” has come to the forefront in recent years. As originally coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild, emotional labor referred to the work of managing one’s emotions in professional settings. An oft-cited example is flight attendants, who are expected to smile and be pleasant regardless of how they may be feeling or how stressful the circumstance may be.

Author Gemma Hartley defines emotional labor as “the unpaid, often unnoticed labor that goes into keeping everyone around you comfortable and happy. It’s emotion management and life management combined. This definition envelopes many other terms associated with this type of work: the mental load, worry work, invisible labor as well as the emotion work described by sociologists.”

Women are particularly vulnerable to this sort of emotional work because often, in addition to their regular job, they’re expected to plan office parties, give advice, and be a shoulder to cry on, while also, in many cases, doing much of the “worry work” at home. While business experts have focused on the impact this has on women’s careers, it also impacts stress levels and may in part explain the gender gap.

One study cited by the Times determined the effect of “surface acting” on bus drivers. Surface acting is a form of emotional work that involves changing the way you appear (e.g. “putting on a happy face”) without changing your underlying feelings. The researchers found that daily surface acting was associated with increased emotional exhaustion, family conflict, and insomnia.

Arivale’s Take

The data discussed above suggest that women often bear the brunt of emotional work and it’s taking a toll on their health and wellness.

Fortunately, there are ways to address the problem. Start by simply being aware of emotional work. Stay mindful when you’re in situations that require you to “surface act” and notice how it feels in your body. Are your shoulders or jaw getting tight?

Interestingly, studies show “deep acting” – actually trying to change your internal state to match what you are displaying externally – may be less psychologically harmful than surface acting. Is it possible to find something good in the moment or evoke a true feeling of appreciation that you can tie to the emotional “face” you need to present?

Another strategy pointed out in the Times is to truly embrace self-care. Women (and many men) often put everyone else’s needs first, skimping on their own sleep, nourishment, and other physical needs. Make it a priority, especially during busy times, to put yourself first. Focus on the basics: get seven to eight hours of sleep, stay hydrated, eat healthy foods, don’t skip meals, and enjoy some physical activity. If time and budget allow, additional self-care practices, such as getting a massage or manicure or having dinner with an old friend, can help with recharging your emotional battery.

Lastly, self-compassion is very important. Acknowledge that these can be challenging times we live in. No one can do it all. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, don’t keep pushing yourself until you crash. Find a good counselor, take a relaxing vacation, or get help with all the details so you can feel – and be – your best.

Further Reading


[Arivale Hot Topics address health stories currently in the news. The Arivale Clinical Team’s commentary on these news articles is not a review of the scientific evidence, nor an endorsement of a specific study, and is not meant as official medical opinion.]