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Stress levels of working mothers: what could help improve their health?

‘Working mothers disproportionately more stressed (1)’, ‘Working mothers ‘up to 40% more stressed, study finds (2’)’ and ‘Full-time working moms with two kids are highly stressed: Study (3)’ were just a few of the headlines from a piece of research that explored the relationship between provision of childcare, flexible working arrangements and biological markers of stress.

Ttlv cara stressed mums

While these headlines pointed to the finding that working mothers showed higher levels of stress compared to women with no children, they did not focus on the subsequent finding on use of flexible working arrangements and stress levels among working mothers.

Flexible working arrangements are designed to allow employees to have a say in when and where they work (4). One of the benefits of flexible working arrangements is thought to be increased work-life balance. Questions remain however about whether use of flexible working arrangements actually allows workers to adequately tackle their stress or may actually increase stress levels due to increased blurring of roles or multi-tasking (5, 6).

Compared to childless workers, those with children may be under additional stress, particularly if they are responsible for child caring. The availability and use of flexible working arrangements may allow parents to reduce some of the biological effects of stress resulting from being primary carer for their children.

Most of the research on flexible working arrangements and stress or work-life conflict has used subjective measures of stress or conflict as more objective measures have not been available. While subjective measures of stress may give a good picture of perceptions of stress, objective measures are able to show the biological effects of prolonged exposure to stress.

The aim of this research project was to explore the relationship between different types of flexible working arrangements and allostatic load, an index of biological markers that cover several physiological systems.

The findings from data on over 3,000 women showed that those who had two or more children under the age of 15 and worked full-time (30 or more hours) had higher levels of allostatic load compared to women with no children and who worked part-time (less than 25 hours). Further analyses showed that stress related to working and caring did not differ amongst women who worked less than 37 hours per week. However, amongst women who worked 37 or more hours per week, levels of allostatic load were greater for women with two or more children compared to women with no children.

We then looked at the availability and use of reduced working hours arrangements to explore how markers of stress may differ between use and non-use among working mothers. The findings showed that markers of stress amongst women with two or more children and who worked reduced hours were lower compared with women with two children but who did not have reduced working hours arrangements available to them.

The findings of this study suggest that while parents, specifically mothers, may be more stressed when they work greater number of hours and have more children, that this stress may be mitigated by use of reduced working hours arrangements. Thus employers should offer these arrangements and parents should be encouraged to use them as this may lead to reduced biological impact on the body due to longer exposure to stress and increased work-life balance.

1. Franklin N. Working mothers disproportionately more stressed, study claims. 2019 [updated January 30, 2019; cited 2019 May 21];
2. Barr S. Full-time working mothers are 40% more stressed, study finds. Independent. Sunday 27 January 2019.
3. TNN. Full-time working moms with two kids are highly stressed : study 2019 [cited 2019 May 21]
4. Rau BL, Hayland MAM. Role conflict and flexible work arrangements: The effects on applicant attraction. Personnel Psychology. 2002;55(1):111-36.
5. Ashforth BE, Kreiner GE, Fugate M. All in a day’s work: Boundaries and micro role transitions. The Academy of Management Review. 2000;25(3):472-91.
6. Desrochers S, Hilton JM, Larwood L. Preliminary validation of the work-family integration-blurring scale. Journal of Family Issues. 2005;26(4):442-66

Photo credit: Anthony Cullen