As with so many oddball experiments, this one had its seeds in a series of conversations. They were just musings, really – chats and swapped stories my friend Bob and I had shared about the nature of work, health, family, stress and the arguable nuttiness of modern life.
Running in similar, stressed-out circles and frequently tossed on the tides of stress ourselves, when Bob and I did manage to connect for a drink now and then, we would catch up and wind down by relating tales from our own lives and the lives of our friends and co-workers: Who was stressed by what, the toll it was taking, and so on.
Over the course of several years, some patterns emerged from these conversations. It started to seem to us that we, and perhaps most of the men and women in our lives, had somewhat different experiences of stress – differences that cut along gender lines.
We couldn’t be sure, of course. Beer, whiskey and shooting the breeze do not a scientific method make, but still, we were curious. So a few months ago we decided to deepen our speculative musings and do a little (insert double finger crunches) “study.”
We abandoned all thought of using formal, statistical methods (why take on some ambitious research project that we would both botch and later regret?). The last thing either of us was interested in creating was more stress. Really, we just wanted a slightly clearer version of the fluffy anecdotal evidence we’d been collecting over the years.
After kicking it around a little, we resolved to put together a little survey, then cobble together some sort of a “focus group” from people we knew. Our hope was that it would give us just a little more insight into a few of our key questions, namely: What were the biggest sources of stress in our peers’ lives; how did they handle them; and how would their answers to these questions differ by gender?
To encourage open conversation, we figured we’d hold two separate groups: one for the men, and one for the women.
Bob would round up a group of nine guys; I’d pull together a group of nine gals. We’d tell them they were all invited to be part of a “stress summit meeting,” ply them with the promise of drinks and an evening of interesting conversation – and then spring the survey on them once they got there. The two of us would function as facilitators, collecting the surveys, moderating the forum, taking notes and then later comparing data to see if any conclusions could be drawn (or wrestled, or tortured) from the results.
This all worked out as well or better than we expected. Everyone we talked to really dug the idea of getting together and talking stress with a bunch of other guys or gals. The only thing was, while Bob dutifully stuck to the agreed-upon “meet for drinks” plan, I felt guilty about begging free time from so many stressed-out women and secretly sweetened the deal with sushi.
Guys might show up and spill their guts for a few drinks, I reasoned, but all the women I knew were going to talk a lot more freely over a decent dinner. I can’t be sure whether or not it affected outcomes, but the sushi was mighty good.
Being chronically time-poor and having already turned a blind eye on scientific propriety, neither of us bothered searching very far for our subjects. All were culled from our circles of colleagues and their circles of friends. Our final subjects were all in their late 20s to early 40s; most were gainfully employed in professional careers.
You can see the breakdown of ages and professions in our two groups (as well as some of the results of our rather clunky and statistically insignificant survey) in this article’s Web Extra!
The questions – half open-ended and half of the yes/no or ranking variety – were designed to do two basic things: 1) Help us identify the primary sources of stress in our subjects’ lives; and 2) get a bead on what kinds of coping tactics they relied on most heavily, which worked best, and so on. We figured if nothing else, we might be able to co-opt some of our friends’ better stress-wrangling solutions for ourselves (see sidebar at the bottom of this page for ideas).
Different But Equal
Both Bob and I felt that our respective forums were great successes. Everyone willingly offered up juicy details, and everyone seemed to have a good time, especially during the lively forum that followed the questionnaire-answering period.
Several people in each group mentioned that it was nice to have the opportunity to vent and compare notes (the survey results remained confidential, but the conversations were quite uninhibited). One person even sent a really nice thank-you note!
With our completed surveys and notes in hand, Bob and I were eager to compare our results. We were expecting some differences, obviously, but were still surprised to discover that the very first question we asked – “Are you stressed?” – yielded a dramatic discrepancy.
We had just sort of assumed that everyone would answer affirmatively, and in the women’s group, all but one woman did. Five of the eight men, however, stalwartly answered “No!”
Interestingly, when we looked at the second question – “On a scale from 1 to 9 (1 being totally stress-free and 9 being totally stressed-out), how would you rate your daily stress level at this time in your life?” – the average levels of the men’s and women’s group appeared very close to the same (men: 6.1; women: 6.5). In fact, in several individual instances, even when they rated their daily stress levels identically, the men were substantially less likely than female counterparts to identify themselves as “stressed.”
Male pride? Perhaps. But conversation notes revealed another possible reason: Overall, men didn’t seem to regard stress as negatively as women did.
Although both men and women talked about stress as a potentially positive motivating force (particularly in the area of career), the men insisted on this perspective much more strenuously, and also commented on liking to maintain a certain level of dynamic stress in their personal relationships (to keep things from getting boring).
Among the other interesting quirks we discovered by sifting through data and notes:
- The women appeared more likely than the men to be acutely stressed by work concerns. Meanwhile, several men noted that they regarded overly stressed-out women (“women who take everything on and then make everyone else suffer”) as a common source of stress in their workplace. (Good thing our two groups were separated at this point, because we could just imagine the fisticuffs that would have broken out over that one!)
- Among the participants who were parents or caregivers for other dependents, work concerns ranked comparatively lower and family ranked higher than for those who weren’t.
- Women were more likely to identify stress as having serious negative impacts on health and immunity, energy, mood and their ability to focus and pursue goals. Men were more aware of stress impacting their sleep (ever heard of repression, fellas?). Men and women rated the impacts of stress on relationships and sex about the same (and lower than all the aforementioned areas).
- In both camps, sex came up frequently as a stress-relieving activity that people knew to be effective, but weren’t doing (lack of access was the most commonly cited reason).
- Men and women spent about the same amount of time blowing off stress: More than half the people in each group reported spending four or more hours a week. Although several people said they spent 90 percent or more of that time in physical fitness pursuits, the average amount of total stress-relief time dedicated to exercise was about 50 percent.
- On the open-question part of the survey, women produced much longer and more varied lists of constructive stress-relief techniques (both those that they used and those they didn’t). Men were more likely to list two or three things, and to say they actually used only one or two of those methods (see samples below).
Taking It to the Streets
Ultimately, our Stress Summits raised as many questions as they answered. That’s why we’re inviting you to conduct more research on your own!
Why not canvas your own social and professional circles for answers? Feel free to borrow our survey (available in the Web Extra! link at right), if you like. Improve and adapt it as you see fit (and should some technology guru decide to turn this into an online survey, we’d love to hear about it!).
If you’re like us, you may be surprised to discover just how stressed all your friends and colleagues really are (or aren’t) – and why. You’ll also likely get some good ideas for managing your own stress, and perhaps for putting stress in better perspective.