Too Much to Do, Too Little Time

New research looks at stress in work/family responsibilities for men and women.

Posted Mar 22, 2017

How busy are you in the course of a normal working day?    

For many men and women in modern society, the pressure of meeting all the responsibilities at work and at home can be overwhelming. This is largely due to the multiple responsibilities faced by working Americans who often find that there aren't enough hours in the day to do what needs to be done.  

According to the role dynamics theory first proposed by Robert Kahn and his colleagues at the University of Michigan, every role that we assume puts unique pressures on us because of the expectations that we are expected to fulfill. Whether the role is being an employee, spouse, parent, homeowner, volunteer worker, etc., the psychological stress imposed by needing to carry out these roles, along with the guilt if our efforts don't measure up to what is expected of us, can often build up over time.   

With working parents, for example, the role responsibilities of caring for a child can often come into conflict with responsibilities at work as well as other time demands. According to Kahn and his co-researchers, this total role overload that can lead to problems associated with chronic stress. How severe this overload can become often depends on the inner resources of the individual trying to meet these responsibilities as well as the kind of support they are receiving at home and at work.  

Unfortunately, most research looking at total role overload has largely focused on work-related responsibilities with less attention on overload due to family or other non-work activities. There has also been surprisingly little research looking at how different kinds of overload can come into play in overall stress and how they undermine health and well-being.   

A new study published in the International Journal of Stress Management provides a comprehensive look at how role overload can affect men and women with multiple role responsibilities. Maggie Stevenson of Carleton University's Sprott School of Business and a team of researchers used data from a nationwide survey of full-time working parents across Canada (4,947 women and 3,923 men). All respondents came from dual-income households where both partners worked full-time and with children under the age of 18.

All participants completed a survey questionnaire with items measuring:

  • Work role overload: For the purpose of the study, work-role overload focused specifically on how overwhelmed participants felt due to work duties and was measured with a series of items such as "How often do the number of tasks you have to do at work exceed the time you have?"
  • Family role overload: With items such as "How often do the number of tasks you have to do at home exceed the amount of time you have?" family role overload focused on domestic responsibilities, including child care.
  • Total role overload: Based on items such as “I feel I have more to do than I can comfortably handle”; “I feel like I have to rush to get everything done each day”; and “I feel like I do not have any time for myself,” total role overload combined both work role and family role overload.
  • Perceived stress: Using items from a perceived stress scale used in other studies, participants were able to rate the overall level of stress they experienced during the previous three months. Items used included: “How often in the last three months have you been upset because something happened unexpectedly?”

Participants also provided demographic information relating to employment history, educational background, average number of hours working each week, and average number of hours spent on child care per week. Though the researchers tried to make the male and female samples as equivalent as possible, women tended to be slightly younger than males and also reported spending more hours per week in child care and fewer hours per week in paid employment.

According to the research results, women showed higher levels of family role overload, total role overload, and perceived stress than their male counterparts. As expected, work role overload was found to be a strong predictor of perceived stress for both men and women, but there are still significant gender differences concerning the sense of overload experienced due to responsibilities at home.  

As Arlie Hochschild pointed out in her 1989 book, The Second Shift, women often feel the need to work a "second shift" at home to deal with family responsibilities in addition to what they face at work. While men may find themselves taking on more responsibilities at work and home, women still find themselves doing a disproportionate amount of the work in domestic chores, something which also means a disproportionate amount of stress as well.

When Robert Kahn and his colleagues first proposed the theory of role dynamics 50 years ago, women in the workplace were a relative rarity and the gender split between paid and unpaid work was much more pronounced than it is today. Even as women take their place alongside men in the workplace, studies such as this help demonstrate the kind of stress they often face due to their various role responsibilities, something men are only just beginning to catch up on.  

While more research is still needed, the role that family role overload can play in occupational health seems clear enough. Even though many businesses are taking a closer look at work-related stress and how it affects employee health, it is important to recognize that much of the stress faced by employees, particularly female employees, come from the sense of overload they face due to family responsibilities. Along with health programs aimed at reducing work stress, companies also need to provide more assistance to working parents, whether through more flexible hours, access to daycare, or improved family health care coverage.   

More often than not, feeling overwhelmed is something that every working parent will have to face. Recognizing this burden and finding effective ways to handle the stress involved is a key part of living healthy and fulfilling lives.


Duxbury, L., Stevenson, M., & Higgins, C. (2017, March 16). Too Much To Do, Too Little Time: Role Overload and Stress in a Multi-Role Environment. International Journal of Stress Management. Advance online publication

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