Gender differences in the link between psychosocial work exposures and stress

In brief

  • Women’s and men’s work and life stress levels may be affected differently by psychosocial work exposures such as supervisor or co-worker support, job control, job demand and job insecurity.
  • Lower supervisor support is associated with higher work stress levels among women but not among men.
  • Job strain (high demand and low control) is associated with higher life stress among women but not among men.
  • Job insecurity is more strongly associated with life stress among men compared to women.
  • The link between higher work stress and higher life stress is similar for men and women.

Published: August 2018

Why was this study done?

Men and women are exposed to different types and levels of psychosocial conditions at work. But are men and women different in their responses to these potential stressors? Previous studies produced inconsistent results regarding the impact of psychosocial work exposures–such as low job control, high strain (i.e. low control and high demands) and job insecurity—on stress levels among men and women. Some of this inconsistency may be explained by the fact that few studies have examined these questions in population samples that are representative of the labour market. This study set out to do that.  

How was the study done?

The study used data from the 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey, a survey conducted by Statistics Canada with a nationally representative sample of Canadians. The study drew on a sample of more than 8,000 respondents who were 20 to 64 years old and who worked 15 hours or more a week. The study focused on survey questions that asked about the level of stress people experienced at their job or in their business (work stress) as well as the level of stress people experienced overall in their lives (life stress). The study also zeroed in on questions about job content, including four main psychosocial work exposures: job control, job security, co-worker support and supervisor support. The study used path analysis to examine the direct and indirect relationships between these four main psychosocial work exposures, as well as job strain (the ratio of job demand to job control) and both work stress and life stress.

What did the researchers find?

In this sample, a larger proportion of women than of men reported high levels of work and life stress. Women also reported lower job control, higher job strain (low job control coupled with high job demands), but also higher co-worker support. Men and women had similar levels of job insecurity and supervisor support in this study.
When it came to the link between psychosocial work exposures and work stress, the researchers did not find much difference between men and women. They did find notable differences between men and women when it came to the link between work exposures and life stress. They also found that men and women were similar in the extent that work stress spilled into life stress and vice versa.  
Looking at work stress, its association with low supervisor support was stronger in women than in men. However, contrary to what the researchers expected, the association between work stress and each of co-worker support, job insecurity and high job strain was similar for both men and women; indeed, low co-worker support, greater job insecurity and higher job strain were associated with greater work stress among both groups. With regards to life stress, the researchers found differences in the way men and women were affected by job insecurity, job control and job strain. The link between low job security and life stress was stronger for men than for women. High job strain was linked with greater life stress for women but not for men. Surprising to the research team, low job control among men was linked to lower life stress.   

What are the implications of the study?

This study paints a nuanced picture of the role that workplace psychosocial factors play in work stress and life stress among men and women—one that runs counter to expectations in some ways. Previous research would suggest that men are more affected by low job control and low job security, and that women are more affected by personal relationships at work (i.e. supervisor support and co-worker support). With the exception of supervisor support and work stress, these expected differences were not borne out in this study. Also not supported in this study was the hypothesis that men experience a stronger link between work stress and life stress because they are socialized to prioritize work over family responsibilities. Instead, the link between higher work stress and higher life stress appears to be similar for both men and women.

What are some strengths and weaknesses of the study?

A strength of this study was its use of a large, representative sample of the Canadian population that allowed the research team to examine important mediating factors while adjusting for a range of potential confounders. A limitation of the study is that information on other potentially important factors, such as ethnicity or immigrant status, was not collected in the survey and could not be included in the analysis.