The first of November marked International Stress Awareness day. The theme for 2017 was “speak up and speak about stress.” While talking about my experience with stress is something I’m now very comfortable with, this hasn’t always been the case. When I was in the thick of it, I didn’t realize I was stressed. Yes, I had a busy office job, a regular one-hour commute to work, and at home I was a wife and a mum to three boys. Of course I was busy, but isn’t everyone?
That’s just life as a parent, right?
That exact attitude was what stopped me from recognizing the signs and symptoms of stress. Over the last year, I’ve been very intentional in making changes to my habits to counteract the negative effects of recurring stress. But I often feel I’m still in a minority. Stress seems to be accepted as part and parcel of modern-day life and parenting. And to me, that doesn’t feel right.
I’ve been doing a lot of research on stress, and the book “Overwhelmed” by Brigid Shulte definitely resonated with me. Shulte talks about how most Western societies still adhere to the idea that a woman should raise children and look after the household while a man should concentrate his energies on his work. But she also aims to prove how this outdated, backward point of view is making us all lead unfulfilled, over-stressed lives.
Parents are stressed, with no free time and too much to do
Find me a parent who doesn’t have too much to do. Someone who says they feel their work-life balance is exactly where it should be. Or someone who claims they have plenty of free time for their children, their partners, their families and friends, and for themselves. In a 2011 paper the American Psychological Association reported that Americans as a whole are chronically overstressed. And a lack of free time certainly plays a role in this.
According to Shulte, mothers are especially overburdened and overwhelmed. Most modern families find themselves in a situation where both parents have to work full time. With too many responsibilities, work and financial pressures, and simply too much to do, it’s easy for parents to become overwhelmed. And we know that chronic stress doesn’t just cause us to lose control of our emotions, but it’s detrimental to our health as a whole.
Our workplaces negatively impact on our stress levels
Modern workplaces tend to be competitive and extremely stressful environments. Over time the habit of working harder for increasingly extended periods of time has become (and then stayed) the norm. Shulte quotes that in 2001, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found in its Better Life Index study that Americans work the longest hours in the industrialized world. In addition to this, American workplaces seem to be rather inflexible when compared to other countries, which can cause tension between work responsibilities and home life.
Outdated gender stereotypes are simply unhelpful
In a lot of modern families where both parents work, the main responsibility of caring for the children and the home still seems to fall on the mother. While I can see that things are definitely changing around us, Shulte points out that the perpetuation of such roles places particular pressure on women, who find themselves torn between expectations at work and society’s view of their role at home. Of course, this only produces feelings of guilt and stress.
The situation isn’t any better for men, who face a "flexibility stigma" when they seek out more flexible working hours to care for children or family members, for example. According to a 2013 study by sociologist Joan Williams, co-workers and managers judge a man as uncommitted and lazy if he diverges from the stereotype of the ideal worker. Consequently, these men are even often overlooked for promotions.
Gender stereotypes are not innate and can be overcome
Gender stereotypes are socially constructed and not biologically determined. Shulte quotes the example of the Kung tribe of the Kalahari Desert in Africa as an example where children are brought up collaboratively in the tribe, a practice called alloparenting.
While this may sound unrealistic in industrialized countries, the Western world has at least one great example that shows how negative gender stereotypes can be overcome. In the last 40 years, Denmark has seen the introduction of active and interventionist state policies aimed at addressing gender biases. Some examples include one-year parental leave during a child’s first year of life for mothers and fathers, and guaranteed, high-quality child care. Such policies have inspired significant social change in Denmark. For example, there is an almost total gender convergence with regards to time spent on housework, which is highly uncommon by world standards. Women in Denmark also enjoy the highest amount of leisure time in the world.
And the impact of all this is significant. Denmark is consistently ranked (by the United Nations World Happiness Report, for example) as having one of the world’s happiest people, as well as more competitive economy per hours worked than the US. Denmark achieves this with eighty percent of Danish women in paid employment. So this shows that good public policy and supportive workplaces have the power to change stereotyped gender roles and reduce unnecessary stress for men and women.
Let’s change this for our children
While we can certainly hope that our children will know a more flexible workplace, we should not forget that we have the power to make small changes to our lives. The first step is to admit that we can’t do everything. Being swamped with an endless list of chores both at home and at work often leads to confusion as to what we should be doing right now, which causes further stress and leads to lack of productivity. Letting go of what’s not crucial, lowering our standards of perfection, and spending time exercising and practicing mindfulness meditation are some of the daily habits that we can all start to embrace.
We can and should stop accepting that chronic stress is a natural part of life. Societal and workplace-related stressors can be tackled, and so can outdated and unhelpful stereotypes that don’t serve men or women in our society. In fact, we have a responsibility towards our own children to speak up and speak about stress. And we should do it now, because I’m sure that, like me, when you think about your children’s future, you want them to be leading happier and less stressful lives.
Do you agree? Do you think there is more that we could do as individuals and a society to overcome the stress epidemic? Let us know it the comments below.