Duke Study Shows One Child Enough To Put Working Mothers At Higher Stress, Health Risk

July 22, 1997

DURHAM, N.C. --Stress hormone levels in working mothers rise each morning and stay high until bedtime, putting them at higher risk than other working women for health problems such as heart attack, according to a study by Duke University Medical Center researchers. The number of children at home made no difference in stress levels -- stress hormone levels were as high with one child as with several.

"The good news would be that working mothers' stress levels don't go up with the number of children in the home," said Dr. Redford Williams, chief of behavioral medicine at Duke and primary investigator for the study published in the July 23 issue of Psychosomatic Medicine. "The bad news is it only takes one to boost that stress level."

Linda Luecken, lead author of the study, cautioned that since the study did not include stay- at-home mothers, the researchers can't compare stress levels of working mothers and mothers not employed outside the home. "It is tempting to consider this as evidence that mothers should not work outside the home, but until we compare stress levels of the two groups of mothers, we cannot draw any such conclusions," she said.

The research, funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, studied 109 women working in clerical and customer service positions. The level of hormones associated with stress that are excreted in urine was measured over a two-day period. Study participants collected urine samples in three time periods, during the workday, in the evening after work and from bedtime through waking. Urine samples were later measured for hormones related to stress, including cortisol, norepinephrine and epinephrine.

The women also completed a series of questionnaires, including demographic information, evaluation of stress at home and at work and measures of social support. Researchers correlated hormone excretion levels with other factors such as whether the women were single or married, whether they had children at home and the number of children in the household.

Regardless of marital status, women with children living at home excreted higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol throughout a 24-hour period than did working women without children, the researchers reported. Mothers with one child at home had stress hormone levels as high as working mothers with more than one child. While the level of cortisol peaked during working hours for all women, the levels were consistently higher throughout the day for working mothers.

All participants showed a significant increase in levels of epinephrine and norepinephrine, known as catecholamines, during the workday and there was little, if any, change from workday to evening levels. In contrast, other studies have shown men experience a drop in catecholamines when they come home from work.

Catecholamines are associated with "effort" or activity, Williams said, while cortisol has been shown to relate to "distress" and a lack of personal control. Chronic elevations of cortisol in working mothers could lead to health problems, he said, by suppressing the immune system and also heightening the impact of the catecholamines.

"We believe the increased stress levels seen in the employed mothers is related to increased strain at home, rather than work strain, but that the increased strain exerts its physiological effects over the entire day," Luecken said.

Williams said job strain was about the same in all the women, but the working mothers reported significantly higher levels of home strain than women without children, and that again, the level of strain was independent of marital status. The working mothers reported both higher demand on them in the home and lower control of the situation.

In other studies, increasing social support reduced stress levels, but the Duke researchers found social support did not buffer the effect of having a child. Instead, Williams and the other Duke researchers said quality of work and family experiences may be key factors in the women's stress levels.

"The level of satisfaction at work and home may be what makes a difference," Williams said. "Maybe the only way to reduce the burden on these working mothers is to share it, to more equally divide home responsibility."

Besides Williams and Luecken, Edward Suarez, Cynthia Kuhn, John Barefoot, James Blumenthal and Ilene Siegler worked on the research project.

Duke University

Related Stress Articles from Brightsurf:

Stress-free gel
Researchers at The University of Tokyo studied a new mechanism of gelation using colloidal particles.

Early life stress is associated with youth-onset depression for some types of stress but not others
Examining the association between eight different types of early life stress (ELS) and youth-onset depression, a study in JAACAP, published by Elsevier, reports that individuals exposed to ELS were more likely to develop a major depressive disorder (MDD) in childhood or adolescence than individuals who had not been exposed to ELS.

Red light for stress
Researchers from the Institute of Industrial Science at The University of Tokyo have created a biphasic luminescent material that changes color when exposed to mechanical stress.

How do our cells respond to stress?
Molecular biologists reverse-engineer a complex cellular structure that is associated with neurodegenerative diseases such as ALS

How stress remodels the brain
Stress restructures the brain by halting the production of crucial ion channel proteins, according to research in mice recently published in JNeurosci.

Why stress doesn't always cause depression
Rats susceptible to anhedonia, a core symptom of depression, possess more serotonin neurons after being exposed to chronic stress, but the effect can be reversed through amygdala activation, according to new research in JNeurosci.

How plants handle stress
Plants get stressed too. Drought or too much salt disrupt their physiology.

Stress in the powerhouse of the cell
University of Freiburg researchers discover a new principle -- how cells protect themselves from mitochondrial defects.

Measuring stress around cells
Tissues and organs in the human body are shaped through forces generated by cells, that push and pull, to ''sculpt'' biological structures.

Cellular stress at the movies
For the first time, biological imaging experts have used a custom fluorescence microscope and a novel antibody tagging tool to watch living cells undergoing stress.

Read More: Stress News and Stress Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.