Daily fix

November 5, 2013

Worker stress differs among the sexes

The sexes are not equal…when it comes to workplace stress! Beyond sex, how old someone is and standing in the hierarchy – or what we call occupational status representing prestige, education, and income of that job – will also interact and influence the mental and physical health of workers.

To tease this all apart, about two hundred healthy Montreal workers were invited to the laboratory of Dr. Bianca D’Antono at the Montreal Heart Institute and exposed to various psychological tests and the collection of numerous biological measures. An allostatic load index or biological levels of ‘wear and tear’ was then calculated by combining information for things like cholesterol, stress hormones, sugar, and blood pressure to name a few. Higher allostatic load therefore meant poorer health.

The research article first-authored by Robert-Paul Juster of the Centre for Studies on Human Stress found that women with higher occupational status experienced lower allostatic load. This demonstrates the expected beneficial effect of occupational status against physiological problems. By contrast and to the researchers’ surprise, the opposite applied to men: higher occupational status meant higher allostatic load, suggesting that being at the top might be more biologically taxing for men. Research among primates shows something similar, where being alpha-male can be unhealthy.

The research group were also able to identify more pieces of the puzzle of how workplace stress ‘gets under our skin’ and what can be done about it. Women with low occupational status, but who maintained a good level of control over their work, had lower allostatic load levels. Additionally, older men with more social support at work experienced less depressive symptoms, while younger women with more social support at work experienced less symptoms of anxiety. Taken together, these findings show how important it is to look at various configurations of risk and protective factors in the workplace specific to one sex.

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