It doesn’t take a scientist to tell us that working hard while caring for a family can be highly stressful, but a 2020 study reveals the true health cost to women’s hearts of trying to do both well.
The study, published in The Journal of the American Heart Association, revealed that the combined strains of holding down a job and keeping up with social responsibilities increases the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) for women.
This twin stress, dubbed in the study as “psychosocial stress” can be lethal, doing more damage to women’s hearts than the effects of drinking, smoking, depression and high cholesterol.
According to the authors of the study, in which the mean average age of women was 63: “Daily life stressors and family problems may act synergistically with job stress, accelerating the development of CHD in women since they usually take more domestic and caregiving responsibilities.”
During the pandemic, these stresses increased exponentially with women shouldering much of the emotional and physical labour of looking after the family as well as working – and the ripple effect is still ongoing.
“Psychosocial stresses are the demands put on you from finance, work and relationships and can be anything from looking after elderly relatives and diffusing family feuds to work deadlines and organising your children’s daily activities,” explains Professor Andrew Steptoe, head of the department of behavioural science and health at University College London.
“Focusing on work alone tends to traditionally be in the male domain which is why these toxic stressors are particularly associated with women who tend to carry more of the social burden and don’t have the luxury often of being able to focus simply on work.”
As busy, multi-tasking caregivers, Regina Giblin, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, worries that women aren’t aware of the physical signs of stress and will ignore them – until it’s too late.
“Palpitations, headaches, trouble sleeping, comfort eating, sudden weight loss or weight gain, easily getting angry or feeling numb are all symptoms of stress and women need to be aware of them,” says Giblin. “Stress causes adrenaline to be released in the blood and for your heart rate and blood pressure to rise. This is the body’s normal flight or fight response. Chronic stress can also cause inflammation throughout the body, rupturing the plaque inside the arterial walls, generating cells to go and fix it which can then cause a clot which could lead to a heart attack.”
A 2017 study in the Lancet also linked constant stress to higher activity in an area of the brain linked to processing emotions. The results of the study suggested that when you are stressed, your amygdala (an area of the brain that deals with stress) signals to the bone marrow to produce extra white blood cells and this, in turn, causes the arteries to become inflamed, resulting in CHD.
While the post-pandemic WFH lifestyle may be a godsend for working women practically, it may well be detrimental to our health physically, overloading our bodies – and our hearts – with toxic stress.
“In theory, WFH is great for women because you lose the commute, can be closer for the nursery or school run and you can do little domestic things like load a dishwasher while you’re on a work coffee break,” says Christine Armstrong, researcher and vlogger on the Future of Work at Armstrong & Partners. “But 2020 research from Kent University revealed that the more flexibility we have at work the harder we tend to work and post-pandemic, we are now struggling to set boundaries. Being a great parent and being good at your job was easier when life was separated between work and home but when they crash into each other, it’s much harder and is more stressful.”