America’s Workers: Stressed Out, Overwhelmed, Totally Exhausted
Perhaps the most poignant detail from Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic cover story, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” was also one of the smallest: an overworked mother of three who “organized her time so ruthlessly that she always keyed in 1:11 or 2:22 or 3:33 on the microwave rather than 1:00, 2:00, or 3:00, because hitting the same number three times took less time.”
That may be extreme, but it illustrated a familiar feeling, one the writer Brigid Schulte calls “the overwhelm.” In her new book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, Schulte scrutinizes this state of affairs: Why do we all feel so overworked? How is that feeling different for men than for women? Is a better, less harried life possible? I spoke with Schulte about her research, and a lightly edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Can you start by telling us about what “the overwhelm” is, how you see it now after years of research and writing on the topic, and how you think that your understanding differs from the conventional one?
This whole book started when a time-use researcher told me I had 30 hours of leisure a week. And when I told him he was out of his flipping mind, he challenged me to keep a time diary and he would show me where my leisure was.
The whole premise of his challenge was that there was something wrong with me. That I should have this time, and if I didn’t feel that I did, it was my fault. I already felt totally inadequate—felt that I never did enough work, or that it was good enough, that I wasn’t spending enough time with my kids, or that I was so exhausted I was yelling at them, and I stomped around seething that my “egalitarian” marriage left me up late folding laundry or wrapping Christmas presents or doing the dishes while my husband slept soundly.
Before I began working on this book, I thought that’s just how life had to be—fast, crazy, busy, breathless—particularly for working mothers in the 21st century. I didn’t think it could change. I had no role models. And didn’t really stop and think about why. Most everyone I knew was busy, with schedules going every which way. I remember talking to another working mother on my cell phone in the car weeping after going back to work after my maternity leave about how burned out I felt and how I missed the companionship and understanding of the mother’s group I’d joined after maternity leave. “This is it,” she’d said. “This phone call is the only kind of mother’s group you’re going to get now.”
There was also no real national discussion on what I was experiencing. If women were feeling overwhelmed, I had the feeling that the culture just thought, “Tough. You made this choice to work, now deal with it.” That view was always reinforced after I would write a piece for the Washington Post about juggling work and life. I would always get comments about how working mothers were just selfish. I would get into big back and forths with readers who thought working mothers just wanted big houses and were abandoning their kids. They didn’t deserve free time. Anything approaching discussion about feeling overwhelmed was dismissed as a “Mommy issues,” and [the upshot seemed to be] that middle-class women just needed to to get to the spa for an afternoon or take an anti-anxiety med and chill out.
But I discovered soon enough that these are hardly “Mommy” issues—these are human issues, how we work and live, the pressures to spend so much time at work, or living up to crazy ideals, is affecting all of us. And you’re beginning to see the conversation change—even conservatives now are looking at birth-rate declines and work like Stewart D. Friedman’s Baby Bust showing that more young people don’t see a way to combine work and family in a rational way, so are choosing not to have families. That’s huge. That’s when work-life issues become the problem of society, especially one that purports to value families and that wants to survive into the future.
What I discovered in researching the book has been infuriating, enlightening and ultimately liberating. It is so clear now how on the bleeding edge we are of changing gender roles, how so much has changed in our lives and yet how so much remains stuck in amber, in the nostalgia of another era. I’m not just talking about workplace laws which were written in 1938 when the world was a different place and tax policies that favor breadwinner-homemaker family models, but our cultural attitudes, our unconscious biases.
I had one of those “aha” moments when I found the General Social Survey question about whether mothers of preschoolers should work. As late as 2002, the last time the question was asked (at least at the time of my reporting) majorities of both men and women said no, she shouldn’t, or she should only work part-time. What that showed me was such a deep and pervasive ambivalence about working mothers— no wonder we don’t have national policies and workplace cultures to help women better juggle work and home, if we’re deeply conflicted about whether she should be at work at all.
How can work stress affect well-being?
Long-term exposure to work-related stressors like these can affect mental health. Research links burnout with symptoms of anxiety and depression. In some cases, this sets the stage for serious mental health problems. Indeed, one study shows younger people who routinely face heavy workloads and extreme time pressure on the job are more likely to experience major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.
High levels of stress at work –– and outside of it –– can affect physical health, too. Repeated activation of the fight-or-flight response can disrupt bodily systems and increase susceptibility to disease. For example, repeated release of the stress hormone cortisol can disturb the immune system, and raise the likelihood of developing autoimmune disorders, cardiovascular disease, and Alzheimer’s disease. Chronic stress can also affect health by interfering with healthy behaviors, such as exercise, balanced eating, and sleep.
Work stress can also harm companies or organizations. Burnout reduces job productivity and boosts absenteeism and job turnover, and also leads to conflict between coworkers, causing stress to spread within a workplace.
How can you cope with work stress?
- Relaxation strategies. Relaxation helps counter the physiological effects of the fight-or-flight response. For example, progressive muscle relaxation helps reduce muscle tension associated with anxiety. To practice this skill, sit comfortably with your eyes closed. Working from your legs upward, systematically tense and relax each major muscle groups. Hold the tension for 10 seconds; release tension for 20 seconds. Each time you release muscle tension, think “relax” to yourself. This skill and many other relaxation strategies can help reduce symptoms of anxiety.
- Problem-solving. Problem-solving is an active coping strategy that involves teaching people to take specific steps when approaching a roadblock or challenge. These steps include defining the problem, brainstorming potential solutions, ranking the solutions, developing an action plan, and testing the chosen solution.
- Mindfulness. Mindfulness is the ability to pay attention to the present moment with curiosity, openness, and acceptance. Stress can be exacerbated when we spend time ruminating about the past, worrying about the future, or engaging in self-criticism. Mindfulness helps to train the brain to break these harmful habits. You can cultivate mindfulness skills through formal practice (like guided meditation) and informal exercises (like mindful walking), or try mindfulness apps or classes. Mindfulness-based therapies are effective for reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety.
- Reappraising negative thoughts. Chronic stress and worry can lead people to develop a mental filter in which they automatically interpret situations through a negative lens. A person might jump to negative conclusions with little or no evidence (“my boss thinks I’m incompetent”) and doubt their ability to cope with stressors (“I’ll be devastated if I don’t get the promotion”). To reappraise negative thoughts, treat them as hypotheses instead of facts and consider other possibilities. Regularly practicing this skill can help people reduce negative emotions in response to stressors.
About the Authors
Nicole J. LeBlanc is a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at Harvard University, where she conducts research on the association between social factors and the development and maintenance of emotional disorders. She is also a clinical … See Full Bio
Dr. Luana Marques is the director and founder of Community Psychiatry PRIDE at Massachusetts General Hospital and an Associate Professor in Psychology at Harvard Medical School. She completed her PhD in Clinical Psychology at The State … See Full Bio