Sex/gender analysis: Links between psychosocial work factors and stress not always as expected

IWH study examines differences between men and women when it comes to the links between stress and psychosocial work factors such as supervisor support, job control and job security

Published: August 6, 2018

Sometimes sex and gender differences are not as one would expect. A study examining the influences of workplace psychosocial factors on stress among men and women is a case in point. An article about that study, authored by IWH’s Kathy Padkapayeva, was published in the special edition of Annals of Work Exposures and Health (AWEH) in April (doi:10.1093/annweh/wxy014).

Going into the study, the research team had expected to see differences between men and women when it came to factors such as low job control, low job security, low co-worker support and low supervisor support. The team thought that the link between low co-worker or low supervisor support and stress levels would be stronger among women.

This builds on research elsewhere suggesting that, as a result of both social and biological (physiological and hormonal) differences, women are more likely to seek out and use social support in response to stress, says Padkapayeva. The theory is that a ‘tend-and-befriend’ response is more likely to prevail among women than the well-known ‘fight-or-flight’ response.

However, an analysis of self-reported stress levels and workplace factors in a large, nationally representative sample of Canadians did not fully bear this out. The study drew on the 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey, a wide-ranging survey on health conditions and behaviours administered by Statistics Canada, with a sample size of 25,000 people.

The survey asked about two types of stress: stress in one’s job or business (called “work stress” in this study) or stress in one’s life overall (called “life stress” in the paper). 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 interaction between psychosocial work factors and stress levels, the study did find a strong link between low supervisor support and greater stress (both life and work stress) among women. Among men, low supervisor support had no significant link with either type of stress. And the study found no differences between men and women when it came to the impact of low co-worker support, which was linked to greater stress at work (but not life in general) for both men and women.

Going into the study, the team also thought the link between work stress and life stress would be stronger for men than for women. That was based again on research elsewhere suggesting that men are more socialized to place a priority on work than women, who today still retain the primary responsibility for housework and childrearing. However, the results of the analysis showed that men and women were not different when it came to the strong link between work stress and life stress.

The team did find some unexpected sex/gender differences. One was a link between low job control and lower life stress among men, but not women. Another was the link between high job strain and higher life stress among women, but not men.

Padkapayeva cautioned against making too much of these anomalies, however. There could be something particular about this sample, and we look forward to seeing other studies confirming these patterns before we draw conclusions about them, she says.