How Are Men and Women Affected Differently by Stress at Work?

In April of 2018, the results of a study into occupational stress were published in the Annals of Work Exposures and Health (AWEH).[i] Comparisons were made between the sexes, including comparisons between actual results and pre-conceived expectations, e.g. that the relationship between ‘low co-worker support’ and ‘low supervisor support’ would be stronger in women.

A team of researchers at the Institute for Work and Health (IWH), in Canada, analysed 25,000 individuals who took part in the 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey.

The effect of psychosocial work factors on stress levels were measured. The following work factors were investigated:

  • Low job control;
  • Low job security;
  • Low co-worker support;
  • Low supervisor support; and
  • High job strain (low job control AND high job demands).

Women reported lower ‘job control’, higher ‘job strain’ and higher ‘co-worker support’ than men, but both sexes had similar levels of ‘job security’ and ‘supervisor support’.

Corresponding stress level findings were separated by gender and by stress type:

  • ‘Work stress’, meaning stress caused by a job or business; and
  • ‘Life stress’, caused by life generally.

Observable differences between male and female stress levels can be seen in the table below, where:

  • a hyphen indicates no significant effect;
  • an upwards vertical arrow indicates higher stress levels; and
  • a downwards vertical arrow indicates lower stress levels.


Men are statistically proven to be more socialised to place a priority on work than women. However, more reports of ‘work stress’ and ‘life stress’ were reported among women than among men in this study. Thus, any expectations that the link would be stronger in men than in women were refuted, as the link was strong in both sexes.

Moreover, ‘low co-worker support’ and increased ‘work stress’ was a common relationship to both sexes.

One of the most noticeable differences between the sexes was the strong link between ‘low supervisor support’ and increased stress (‘work’ and ‘life’) in women. By contrast, ‘low supervisor support’ was not significantly linked with stress in men.

Unexpectedly, men with ‘low job control’ had low ‘life stress’ levels. The same relationship did not exist among women. Further, women with ‘high job strain’ were correlated with higher ‘life stress’. The same could not be said for men who took part in the study.

Study author, Kathy Padkayeva, said:

‘This builds on research elsewhere suggesting that, as a result of both social and biological (physiological and hormonal) differences, women are more likely to seek out and use social support in response to stress. The theory is that a “tend-and-befriend” response is more likely to prevail among women than the well-known “fight-or-flight” response’.

Ms Padkayeva hopes to see other studies confirm the validity of patterns observed in this study.

It is important that employers take action to reduce stress in the workplace to avoid liability in occupational stress claims.

Under common law, employers owe a duty of care to employees. This includes the provision of a safe place of work. In occupation stress claims, the key issue is whether psychiatric harm to the particular employee, which is attributable to work, is reasonably foreseeable.

As discussed in edition 42 of BC Disease News (here), the Court of Appeal established 16 guiding principles of occupational stress, in Hatton v Sutherland [2001] EWCA Civ 76. This was subsequently upheld at the House of Lords in Barber v Somerset County Council [2004] UKHL 13.

Foreseeability depends upon the characteristics of the employee, signs of impending harm and the nature and extent of employment undertaken by the claimant. The standard applied is that of a reasonable employer.

If it is established that a psychiatric injury is foreseeable, the court will consider steps that an employer could and should have taken. These steps should do some good. However, there will be no breach if the only effective step is dismissal or demotion and breach is unlikely if confidential advice, counselling, or treatment services are available. Nevertheless, the cases of Daw v Intel Corp [2007] EWCA Civ 70 and Dickins v O2 plc [2008] EWCA Civ 1144 show that the employer’s duty cannot always be discharged by offering counselling services; sometimes managerial intervention is necessary.

The latest Canadian study shows that psychosocial factors may affect stress in men and women differently. Future complimentary research may allow employers to better foresee harm and prevent the risk of injury and also provide more effective steps for discharging employers’ duty of care.


[i] ‘Sex/gender analysis: Links between psychosocial work factors and stress not always as expected’ (6 August 2018 Institute for Work & Health) <> accessed 3 September 2018.