Men at Work: Stress Linked to Harmful Practices

Article Date

18 January 2011

Article Author

By Sandy Won

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

New findings on men’s attitudes and practices from the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) show that men who regularly experience stress over not having enough work or income are more likely to be involved in criminal activity, have suicidal thoughts and use violence, including violence against women. And although the majority of these men were unemployed or underemployed, substantial numbers of men with stable employment also reported similar stress.

The initial findings emerge from an analysis of the International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES), a three-year, multi-country study conducted among men and women ages 18 to 59. The gender attitudes survey covered health practices, parenting, relationship dynamics, sexual behavior and use of violence. Questions about work-related stress were asked of men in urban settings in Brazil, Chile, Croatia, India and Mexico. Overall, between 34 percent (Brazil) and 88 percent (Mexico) of men experienced stress or depression about not having enough work or income.

ICRW experts say the data illustrate the need for policies and programs to address men’s experiences, including how they internalize societal expectations of work and their role as primary income providers. This, they say, is particularly important in the midst of a global recession that has devastated industries traditionally dominated by men and as women enter the workforce in unprecedented numbers.

“Across cultures, men commonly derive their identities from work and the social expectation that they are providers,” said ICRW’s Gary Barker, lead researcher of the analysis. “But the idea that men are sole breadwinners is increasingly unrealistic in today’s societies.”

Work stress links to harmful practices

IMAGES aimed to understand men’s perceptions of their socio-economic situation by going beyond basic questions about their employment status and household income. All men interviewed were asked if they felt stressed or depressed about not having enough work or income. 

Researchers found that men across the spectrum of employment status and income level reported experiencing this stress in large numbers. While unemployed men and low-income earners are more likely to report this stress in most countries, IMAGES data affirm that the experience of feeling pressure to work and earn more does not disappear when men hold stable jobs or earn comparatively high salaries. Furthermore, these experiences have important effects on the lives of men and their families.   

“What we found was that the shame and frustration men feel about a lack of work or income – perceived or real – creates vulnerabilities for men and those around them,” Barker said.

Indeed, results show clear associations between men’s reported stress and harmful practices such as violence against female partners, criminal behavior and suicidal thoughts. Among men in four countries – Chile, Croatia, India and Mexico – reports of economic stress were associated at statistically significant levels with committing physical violence against a female partner.

Other trends in the data, to be released on Jan. 26, show that work stress also was linked to sexual violence, transactional sex and criminal activity. And in all five countries, men who experienced work-related stress considered suicide far more often than other male peers who did not express stress over work or income.

Among unemployed men, between 35 percent (Brazil) and 77 percent (India) said they were ashamed to face their family, considered leaving their family or stayed away from their family because they were out of work. At the same time, unemployed men were much more likely to report being involved in the daily care of children, suggesting that some men are carrying out such activities even if they may not be finding a sense of identity in this role.

Interestingly, even among men who say their work situation is mostly stable, 26 percent (Brazil) to 91 percent (Mexico) say they frequently feel such stress.

“The fact that so many men reported experiences of stress and depression related to work and income, including those with permanent, high-paying jobs, underscores the widespread influence of the ‘man as primary financial provider’ norm,” said ICRW’s Manuel Contreras, a gender and public health specialist who co-authored the report.

Changing the norms

ICRW experts say the IMAGES findings echo previous research on how restrictive definitions of manhood, especially those tied to the primary financial provider role, have negative influences on communities, families and men themselves.

“IMAGES is among the first studies to test the influence of work stress across broad categories of men’s attitudes and behaviors,” said Brian Heilman, a program associate at ICRW who helped analyze the IMAGES data and is a co-author of the report. “We hope that its findings will prompt additional research on the power of this norm.”

Meanwhile, ICRW experts say policies that reflect the gendered realities of both women and men will help spur change. Barker said this is particularly timely, as traditional gender roles are shifting in many countries: more women are working outside the home and more men are becoming active in family life. These shifts have the potential to yield societal benefits. IMAGES data also showed that men who take on more traditionally feminine roles such as domestic duties and child rearing were also less likely to use violence against a partner, and their partners were generally more satisfied in their relationships with the men.   

Paternity leave is one such example of a policy that can help change society’s views of men as solely providers by offering incentives for men to become more involved in their children’s lives. For example, generous leave policies in Denmark, Norway and Iceland have been shown to have a striking impact on gender roles, paternal bonds with young children and lower divorce rates. IMAGES found about 37 percent of men in six study countries (including Rwanda) took some type of paternity leave but for far less than the length of time allowed by national policies, which were generally limited. Younger men and men with more education were more likely to take leave.  

Policies to engage men in prenatal care and childbirth are other ways to promote men’s sense of connection to their children.  IMAGES data from Chile showed that more than 90 percent of the younger generation of fathers were present in the delivery room of their last child, largely a result of a national health policy to “humanize” the birth process.

“Change is happening, more slowly in some places than others, but it is happening” said Barker. “It’s an important reminder that norms about what it means to be a man or woman can – and do – change. Further analysis of these results will help us understand more about how such change happens and how it might be sped up with appropriate policies.”

* Next week: IMAGES findings on factors associated with violence against women.

Sandy Won is ICRW’s strategic communications manager.