Chronic stress levels 40% higher in full-time working women with children, but flexible work reduces stress

Biological markers for chronic stress are 40% higher in women bringing up two children while working full-time, new research shows.

Working from home and flexitime have no effect on their level of chronic stress – only putting in fewer hours at work helps, according to the study published in the British Sociological Association journal Sociology.

Researchers from the universities of Manchester and Essex analysed data on 6,025 participants in Understanding Society, UK Household Longitudinal Survey, which collects information on working life and readings of measures of stress response, including hormones levels and blood pressure.

The researchers are Professor Tarani Chandola, of the University of Manchester, and Dr Cara Booker, Professor Meena Kumari and Professor Michaela Benzeval, of the Institute for Social and Economic Research at Essex.

They found that the overall level of 11 biomarkers related to chronic stress, including stress related hormones and blood pressure, was 40% higher if women were working full-time while bringing up two children than it was among women working full-time with no children. Women working full time and bringing up one child had 18% higher level.

They also found that women with two children who worked reduced hours through part-time work, job share and term-time flexible working arrangements had chronic stress levels 37% lower than those working in jobs where flexible work was not available. Those working flexitime or working from home, with no overall reduction in working hours, had no reduction in chronic stress.

The researchers found that men’s chronic stress markers were also lower if they worked reduced hours, and the effect was about the same as for women.

The researchers adjusted the raw data to rule out other influences on their findings, such as the women’s ages, ethnicity, education, occupation and income, so that the influence of working hours and family conditions could be studied in isolation.

“Work-family conflict is associated with increased psychological strain, with higher levels of stress and lower levels of wellbeing,” the researchers say. “Parents of young children are at particular risk of work-family conflict. Working conditions that are not flexible to these family demands, such as long working hours, could adversely impact on a person’s stress reactions.

“Repeated stressful events arising from combinations of social and environmental stressors and major traumatic life events result in chronic stress, which in turn affects health.

“Flexible work practices are meant to enable employees to achieve a more satisfactory work–life balance which should reduce work-family conflict.

“The use of such reduced hours flexible work arrangements appeared to moderate some of the association of family and work stressors.

“[But] there was little evidence that flexplace or flextime working arrangements were associated with lower chronic stress responses.”

The researchers used 11 markers in five biological systems to measure stress: the neuroendocrine system, the metabolic system, the immune and inflammatory systems, the cardiovascular system, and the anthropometric system. These were taken by nurses as part of the survey.

This set of markers measures the overall ‘allostatic load’, the long-term stress a person experiences. The allostatic load model is thus a measure of cumulative wear and tear in a number of physiological systems. It has been consistently associated with poor health and greater risk of death.

Women bringing up two children (aged 15 and under) and working 37 or more hours a week had an allostatic load level around 37% higher than those working full-time with no children, but this is an overall figure and does not mean that every marker, such a pulse and blood pressure, was 40% higher.

Read the full journal article here.


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