Why Constantly Switching Roles Stresses You Out

A recent study finds that the more often you switch roles--from work, to social obligations, to caregiver--the more stressed you become. (Bad news, ladies: it affects us twice as much as men.)

It's no secret that working moms wear many hats--caregiver, professional, friend, partner. And now, a new study from Cornell University proves what we all suspected: this constant switching of roles is stressful.

Professor Benjamin Cornwell, a sociology professor at Cornell University, studied how maintaining social relationships can increase stress, particularly for women. His findings were published in the June 2013 issue of Social Psychology Quarterly.

Cornwell examined 24-hour time diaries of 7,662 employed respondents (both male and female, across the country) from the 2010 American Time Use Survey to measure frequency of switching (moving from one social context to another) and stress levels. Switches were defined as role switches (for example, addressing another person at a meeting), setting switches (leaving a party to go home), and complete switches (transitioning between different roles and contexts).

Respondents were asked to provide detailed information about their activities from the previous day, accounting for each activity that lasted at least five minutes, reporting with whom and where they were. A computer randomly selected three of the listed activities, and respondents were asked how, on a scale of 0 to 6 (0 being not stressed and 6 very stressed), they felt during that activity.

Are Social Connections The Problem?

Women were nearly twice as likely as men (48.3%) to report experiencing extremely high stress levels, Cornwell found. Women were also twice as likely to experience more than 20 switches throughout the day, presumably due to the increased social roles and settings women experienced than men, the study suggests. Not surprisingly, women also reported a higher number of switches involving children.

“Switching is a constant reality for women--morning, day, and night--and they switch between more disparate social roles,” Cornwell tells the Cornell Chronicle. “They go from being at work, which is formal, authoritative, and hierarchical, to being at home with a child within a matter of 10 minutes,” he says.

While previous research has established a link between gender and stress, Cornwell’s study examined the everyday stress associated with switching roles, settings, and contexts. His research questions previous claims that having more social connections and contacts is good for one’s health.

“A key paradox of social life is that a rich and supportive social network creates a complex of microsocial problems associated with sequencing social interactions, synchronizing schedules, and transitioning between contexts. Maybe the secret to understanding health issues like stress is to look at those social connections more microscopically,” Cornwell tells the Cornell Chronicle.

Hat tip: Cornell Chronicle

[Image: Flickr user nuruzzaman babu]

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  • Daar Fisher

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