Thinking about family matters at the office is more stressful to working moms than dads, new research finds.
In a study to be presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, researchers discovered that contemplating family issues during the workday takes a greater toll on working mothers than fathers in the form of increased stress and negative emotions.
“I assume that because mothers bear the major responsibility for child care and family life, when they think about family matters, they tend to think about the less pleasant aspects of it — such as needing to pick up a child from day care or having to schedule a doctor’s appointment for a sick kid — and are more likely to be worried," said study author Shira Offer, an assistant professor at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.
The research was based on data from the 500 Family Study, a multi-method investigation of how U.S. middle-class families balance family and work experiences. The 500 Family Study consisted of 402 mothers and 291 fathers in dual-earner families who completed a survey and a time diary about the content and context of their daily experience, as well as the emotions associated with them, in the course of a week.
Overall, researchers found that working mothers experience about 29 hours of mental labor — the thoughts and concerns that can impair performance — each week, compared with just 24 hours a week for working fathers. Of that time, they each spent 30 percent thinking about family matters.
Offer said she thinks societal expectations push mothers to assume the role of household managers and lead them to disproportionately address the less pleasant aspects of family care.
"I believe that what makes this type of mental labor an overall negative and stressful experience for mothers only is that they are the ones judged and held accountable for family-related matters," she said.
Researchers also found that while dads spent a greater percentage of their mental labor time thinking about work-related matters than mothers, thoughts and concerns about work were less likely to spillover outside the office among fathers. One-quarter of the time fathers engaged in job-specific mental labor, they did so in nonwork contexts, compared with 34 percent among mothers.
Since moms are the traditionally the ones who adjust their work schedule to meet family demands, they also feel extra stress of how they're performing as an employee, Offer said.
"Mothers may feel that they do not devote enough time to their job and have to 'catch up,' and, as a result, they are easily preoccupied with job-related matters outside the workplace," she said. "This illustrates the double burden — the pressure to be 'good' mothers and 'good' workers — that working moms experience."
Offer said she was surprised by the relatively low level of work-related spillover for fathers. She thought that in an organizational culture that requires workers to be accessible and available 24/7 no matter where they are, highly educated fathers holding professional and managerial positions would often be preoccupied with job matters when doing things such as housework or during their free time.
"It appears, however, that fathers are quite adept at leaving their work concerns behind and are better able to draw boundaries between work and home," Offer said. "I believe that fathers can afford to do that because someone else, namely their spouse, assumes the major responsibility for the household and child care."
The study suggests that fathers need to take a greater role in family care to make mental labor less stressful for working mothers and ease the double burden that they experience, the researchers suggest.
"It is true that fathers today are more involved in childrearing and do more housework than in previous generations, but the major responsibility for the domestic realm continues to disproportionately fall on mothers' shoulders," Offer said. "This has to change."
Offer thinks that in order for this change to occur, dads must be encouraged, rather than penalized, for being more active in the domestic sphere.
"This encouragement should take place at the federal, state, and organizational levels by making it possible for fathers, for example, to leave work early, start work late, take time off from work, and take pauses during the work day to deal with family-related matters," she said. "I think that if fathers were able to do this without the fear of being viewed as less committed workers, they would assume greater responsibility at home, which would lead to greater gender equality."