Women and men react differently to strain and stress

August 6, 2023

Listen to this article

Women and men react differently to strain and stress

Does anyone still remember the initial phase of the Covid pandemic in 2020? When shops, restaurants, cinemas, and theatres remained closed. When meetings with friends and relatives were prohibited. When school lessons had to take place at home. When there was no question of traveling.

Most people seem to have long forgotten these times. Yet, the various measures taken by politicians caused enormous stress for many people. The fear of losing one’s job, the worry about sick relatives, the nervous strain when parents and children sat together in a small apartment and tried to reconcile home office and homeschooling: All this has had nasty mental health effects, as numerous studies show.

How and to what extent did these experiences affect the mental health and quality of life of women and men during the pandemic? This question was investigated by a German research team. The scientists were primarily interested in whether the results show mental health differences between men and women.

The findings are unambiguous. There are distinct gender-specific differences.

What the researchers say: "In men, anxiety increases along with concerns about the job, an effect which does not show in women. On the other hand, we were able to register a parallel increase in anxiety levels in women due to their worries about family and friends," the lead author said. In addition, the study shows that women in times of crisis respond positively to support from friends and family by experiencing enhanced quality of life. In men, this phenomenon did not manifest itself.

"In the past, numerous studies have investigated the influence of psychosocial factors such as support from friends and colleagues and financial, professional or personal worries on mental health and the quality of life. Yet, data on whether these correlations are the same for men and women were lacking," the lead author added, explaining the background to the study.

The team obtained the relevant information from a large group of test subjects: the participants of the so-called STAAB study. This study comprises a cohort of around 5,000 randomly selected volunteers from the general population of Würzburg and originally focused on the development of cardiovascular diseases. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the program was expanded to include the psychosocial impacts of the pandemic, the lockdown, and other side effects.

A total of 2,890 people (1,520 women and 1,370 men) took part in the survey. Their ages ranged from 34 to 85 years, with a median of 60 years. During the first year of the pandemic they were asked to fill out an extensive questionnaire about their mental health. Among other things, they were asked to provide information about how strongly they felt supported by their social environment, their colleagues and superiors, and whether they had someone with whom they could discuss their problems. They were also asked to what extent bans on contact with parents and grandparents burdened them and how much stress they felt at work or at school. Financial problems or worries about them were the subject of further questions.

To evaluate, the data team used the so-called network analysis. "Analyses based on a network approach enable a graphical representation of all variables as individual nodes," the researchers explained. Thus, it is possible to identify variables that are particularly related to other variables. The network can, for example, show complex relationships between symptoms of different mental disorders and thus explain possible comorbidities.

The researchers were hardly surprised by the results. "The observation that men are more strongly associated with work and women more strongly with family and friends can be traced back to traditional gender norms and roles," they explained. Hence, men usually feel more affected by job insecurity and unemployment, which leads to higher psychological stress. Women, on the other hand, experience more strain when they feel that they are neglecting their family.

It is also plausible that women cope better psychologically when they receive support from friends and family: "This is in line with the traditional female family role, which includes a stronger tendency to maintain close social contacts and to seek social support in order to reduce stress and increase well-being," they said.

So, what? The study’s results may not be surprising, but the very fact that researchers are looking at gender differences in crisis situations is important. Too much official speak has assumed that men and women will react similarly in these situations.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

Join the discussion

Join our tribe

Subscribe to Dr. Bob Murray’s Today’s Research, a free weekly roundup of the latest research in a wide range of scientific disciplines. Explore leadership, strategy, culture, business and social trends, and executive health.

Thank you for subscribing.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form. Check your details and try again.