Study: Working moms' stress levels linked to 'mental labor'

We all know how challenging it is to juggle the responsibilities of work and family, but a new study is highlighting just how much time parents spend thinking about and planning all the details of family life.

The study, presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in New York City, shows that for moms (but not for dads), this thinking is associated with increased stress and negative emotions.

Much of the research on household and family responsibilities focuses on the physical demands—such as cleaning, cooking, and chauffeuring children to doctor’s appointments and extracurricular activities—but there’s been less written on the amount of thinking parents do—or the “mental labor” surrounding these tasks. Mental labor refers to the planning, coordination and management of everyday tasks and responsibilities, and the concerns that surround it.

“We are often preoccupied with the things we have to do, we often worry about them, and feel stressed not to forget to do them or to do them on time,”  said study author Dr. Shira Offer, assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

Offer wanted to examine how much time parents spend doing mental labor about their home life and their job, and how it affects their levels of stress.  The study used data from the 500 Family Study, a U.S. study which included dual-income parents in professional occupations, who tended to work longer hours and report higher earnings than middle class families.

In the study, patients were pinged eight times during their waking hours (for a week) and prompted to report and evaluate their activities, thoughts and emotions.

Overall, the study found that working mothers spent about 1/4 of their waking time (or 29 hours per week) thinking about either family or job-related tasks and their ability to accomplish them in a timely manner.  Men spent only slightly less, 1/5 (or 24 hours per week) of their waking time doing mental labor. Both moms and dads spent about the same time thinking about family-related responsibilities.

From here, though, the genders diverged. Mental labor had a negative effect on moms but not dads. Offer suggested that women tend to address the less pleasant aspects of family care, which may lead to these negative emotions.

“I think that mothers feel more stressed because they assume the role of household managers and bear the major responsibility for childcare and housework,” she said.  “Mothers are also the ones typically held accountable and judged for how their children fare and households are run. This makes family care overall a more stressful and negative experience for mothers than for fathers,” she said.

The study also found that women were more likely to think about their jobs during free time than were men. Because mothers are often the ones to adjust their work schedule to meet family demands, they may feel they need to give more of themselves to the job during their free time, Offer suggested.

Offer aimed her advice at men, rather than women.  She acknowledged that men are helping carry more household responsibilities, but they need to do even more.

“I think that to ease mothers' sense of stress and emotional burden, fathers need to be more involved in the domestic sphere and take more responsibility for family care,” she said.

It’s also important for men and women to be aware of the many hours women spend planning and organizing and that it can take a toll on their state of mind. Women may take it for granted and men may not realize just how much time they put in.