Tension at work and tension at home are associated with major depressive episodes and can affect men and women differently, according to a study by University of California researchers published in the August issue of the Journal of Psychosomatic Research.

A person’s situation at home can affect their stress at work, and vice versa.”

Dr. Wendy Robbins, professor in the Department of Environmental Health at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health and co-author of the study.

Robbins, M.D., who also teaches at the UCLA School of Nursing, said the findings demonstrate the role of family stressors in the mental health of today’s working families and help clarify previous findings regarding sex differences in the association of work stress and depression. The researchers said it is important to consider the impact of cross-stress between work and home when studying work stress.

“The goal of our study was to assess how psychosocial stressors, such as work and family stress, can affect mental health,” said Timothy Matthews, a doctoral student in the Department of Environmental Health at the University of California Fielding School of Public Health and first author of the study. “Work strain has been found to be consistently associated with mental illnesses such as depression, but much less is known about how work strain may affect men and women differently — there is conflicting data on this issue.”

Using prospective cohort data over nine years among a national sample of 1,581 U.S. workers with good mental health at baseline, the study found that domestic stress was associated with a one-and-a-half times increased risk of major depressive episode in both men and women; interestingly, work stress was associated with a more than two-fold increased risk of major depressive episode in men, while work stress showed no significant effect in women. Along with the University of California staff, the group included researchers from the Universities of Lausanne and Zurich, based in Switzerland.

The findings suggest that despite a significant increase in female labor market representation in modern societies, including the U.S., there may still be residual effects of traditional gender roles, where men have to be the breadwinners in the family.

“These findings have implications for the design and implementation of workplace stress reduction interventions and health promotion programs targeting workers’ mental health,” said Dr. Jian Li, professor in the Fielding School of Public Health and School of Nursing and senior author of the study. “Interventions can be more effective if they address factors outside the workplace, such as gender roles and the family environment at home.”

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