Credit: Let Ideas Compete on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

 (WOMENSENEWS)–Will we ever get sensible work-family policies on the front burner of American politics and policy?

Not as long as we see this as a “men versus women” or a “women versus women” battle.

Not as long as we pretend that women at work are frantic, exhausted creatures just longing to be home, while men are cool, composed and happy as clams as they work endless hours.

Not as long as we don’t recognize that work-family stress is an equal opportunity plague that hurts men just as much as women.

More, in fact.

Despite the seemingly perennial articles about women opting out of work because it’s just too stressful for them not to be home with the kids, there’s data on men crying out for more attention.

In 2011, the New York City-based Families and Work Institute reported for the first time that American men now suffer more work-life conflict than women.

Even though many women work and contribute to the family income, the report says that “men have retained the ‘traditional Male Mystique’–the pressure to be the primary financial providers for their families.” At the same time, they don’t want to be the distant dads of the 1950s.

“Men today view the ‘ideal’ man as someone who is not only successful as a financial provider, but is also involved as a father, husband-partner and son. Yet flat earnings, long hours, increasing job demands, blurred boundaries between work and home life and declining job security all contribute to the pressures men face to succeed at work and at home and thus to work-family conflict,” said the report.

In a 2008 national survey of 3,500 employees, including 1,298 men, the Families and Work Institute found that 60 percent of men in dual-earner couples reported work-family conflict, up from 35 percent in 1977. Among the roughly equal number of women, the percentages rose much less, from 41 percent to 47 percent.

Updating Gender Images

Since the 1980s women have been seen as the big jugglers of work-and-family roles, but now it’s time to update that gender image. Today men are also juggling the often conflicting roles of parent, partner and earner.

Because the role of the worker is so closely tied to the male stereotype, few researchers have focused on the centrality of men’s family roles to their mental and physical health.

Most studies of the sources of men’s stress-related mental and physical ailments focus exclusively on workplace stressors. But there is also a significant amount of other data indicating that for men, parenting and partnering have at least as much to do with their well-being.

Here is what Rosalind Barnett and her colleagues found in a research sample of 300 full-time employed dual-earner couples:

  • The strongest predictor of the fathers’ physical ailments was a concern about their relationships with their children. Neither problems at work nor concerns about their marriages predicted stress-related health problems. However, if they were having problems with their children, they reported symptoms such as insomnia, lower back pain and fatigue.
  • The quality of the men’s marriages was strongly associated with psychological distress. The better the relationship, the fewer mental-health symptoms they reported. The strength of this association was the same for men and women. Troubled marital relationships are bad for your mental health, whether you are male or female.
  • Rewarding parenting experiences were linked to low psychological distress. Once again, this linkage was as strong for fathers as for mothers. Counter to prevailing stereotypes, there was no evidence that parenting experiences affected women’s mental health more than that of the men.

For fathers, a good relationship with their children is extremely important. Yet, just as for mothers, society is not structured to permit an easy fit between parenting and work. For example, fathers’ wishes to be engaged in their children’s lives often run afoul of rigid school and work schedules. In a sample of 53 employed married fathers, Barnett and her team found that when these schedules meshed well, fathers reported high job satisfaction and few psychological problems. When they conflicted, fathers reported low job satisfaction and many more such mental-health problems.

Search for Flexibility

For many, if not most, fathers (and mothers) rigid workplace hours severely limit the investments they can make in their children’s lives. The search for workplace flexibility is leading some professionals to make novel career choices.

Consider, for instance, the growing acceptance of part-time work about among physicians. In 2011, 22 percent of surveyed male doctors and 44 percent of female doctors worked less than full time, up from 7 percent of men and 29 percent of women in 2005, according to a survey conducted by Cejka Search, a physician search firm based in St. Louis, and the American Medical Group Association, which represents multi-specialty practices.

The survey covered 14,366 physicians in 80 practices of varying sizes. In response to a growing demand for shorter work hours, 75 percent of practice groups in 2011 offered a four-day workweek and 30 percent allowed job sharing.

In 2006 concerns over increased turnover spurred the American Medical Group Association and Cejka Search to survey more than 90 American Medical Group Association groups nationwide. High among the reasons the doctors gave for leaving their jobs was “work pressure and hours incompatible with quality lifestyle.”

Hospitals and practices are learning that offering part-time options is a good strategy for recruiting and retaining good physicians, male and female alike.

All employers will do well to do the same because work-family stress is a fact of life for all employees. If employers want a satisfied work force, they need to offer policies and practices that enable their workers to do their jobs and nurture their family relationships.

Rosalind Barnett is senior scientist at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University and Caryl Rivers is professor of journalism at Boston University. They are the authors of “The Truth About Girls and Boys” from Columbia University Press.

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