Healthy Living

Working Parents Can Experience Stress From Societal Perceptions Of Their Jobs

Stressed Attorney
For working parents, reconciling their career and home attributes can be a constant source of stress. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Attorneys, salespeople, and politicians may have more psychological baggage than doctors, nurses, and teachers because of a subtle, nagging stressor: the search for identity and meaning.

A doctoral student at the University of Iowa is putting forward this idea, that a complicated internal conflict exists between the attributes of good parenting, professional success, and societal opinions (real or imagined). Frequently, this haggardness is attributed to the toll of work and parenthood on time and energy. That's "one source of stress," says sociologist Mark Walker, who was unconvinced this was the only source of stress and has published a paper on his findings.

"What I wanted to examine was the extent to which discrepancy between the cultural meanings of a person's occupational and parental identities could impact the psychological well-being of working parents," he said in a statement preceding the presentation of his paper Saturday at the 109th annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.

We all know the cultural meanings: Attorneys are sly; business people are powerful; teachers are nurturing; clergy are compassionate. Good parents, however, are not sly or powerful. They are nurturing and compassionate. And for the corporate lawyer at home as mom or dad, reconciling these conflicting attitudes — imposed by society, their colleagues and themselves — can wreak havoc on the psyche.

To establish his theory, Walker mined data on "cultural sentiments" toward parents and particular occupations, then matched them to a large-scale survey on work-family conflict. He plotted the occupations, along with the attitudes and conflicts, on a three-dimensional graph. The bottom line: Walker discovered "the public is often skeptical about the abilities of parents whose occupations seemingly do not align with being a mother or a father."

"If a person is constantly met with skepticism, he or she can begin to feel stressed because that skepticism will take a toll over time," he said. "Those parents are always swimming upstream trying to convince people they are, for example, a legitimate parent or a legitimate attorney." His co-author, the professor Mary Noonan, said the findings are new and revelatory.

Noonan admitted that before the undertaking, she had always assumed work-life stress to be solely a function of burnout. Now, burnout can be viewed through a psychological, and not just physical, lens. "If employers are aware that working parents in a given occupation are more at risk of experiencing psychological strain, they could potentially provide more targeted mental health resources for those in 'at risk' occupations," Walker said.

Source: M. Walker, M. Noonan. More Than 'Maxed Out': Working Parents and the Psychological Toll of Spanning Culturally Discrepant Roles. American Sociological Association. 2014.

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