Stress, extra work put women’s health at risk

Johannesburg – People seldom take into account the extra unpaid hours of work that women put in each day – hours that increase their risk of serious health problems due to the added stress.

While the extra hours were mainly duties performed at home after long stressful hours at work, what compounded the problem was that women often felt it “necessary to exceed expectations to break through the glass ceiling”, said Lizette Bester, an executive at employee risk-management company Agility Corporate.

As a result, women sustained high levels of stress with associated high blood pressure and insomnia, which could trigger psychological problems.

Bester said stress makes the body release high levels of the hormone cortisol, which regulates adrenal functions.

“There are potentially dangerous consequences to this, including blood-sugar imbalances, heightened blood pressure, impaired immune function, and sleep disturbances,” she said.

“Some of the major consequences of prolonged periods of overwork include irritability, anxiety and even depression. This can directly impact relationships both at home and in the workplace, which can in turn lead to other problems and stress both personally and professionally.”

Statistics SA’s most recent time-use survey showed that women spent more than two hours a day on housework, even in households that employ a domestic worker. This was almost double the time spent on housework by their male counterparts.

Women in households without a domestic worker spent more than three hours a day on housework.

This represents a working day of at least 11-and-a-half hours for women with full-time jobs, without taking into account overtime, travel time, the eight hours of sleep that a healthy adult should have and other necessary everyday tasks such as eating and showering, for example, Bester explained.

She said many women felt additional pressure to prove that their work performance was at least equal to that of their male colleagues, given the historical gender-bias in the workplace.

“Often they feel it was necessary to exceed expectations in order to break through the glass ceiling.” On top of this, gender norming has also had the effect that women are often expected to also take on responsibility for caring for children and being homemakers.

“The role of domestic goddess represents a significant labour burden, over and above their paid work, and this is often taken for granted because it is traditionally and culturally expected,” she said.

Bester appealed to women to invest time in themselves instead of continually putting the needs and well-being of others first.

“Setting aside an hour a day for some exercise and ‘me time’ can go a long way to help an individual cope with stress.

“A healthy diet and exercise is critical to help the body cope with stress. Good quality sleep is vital to restoring balance and equilibrium,” she said.

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