Study: Multitasking Multistressful For Working Moms

A study in the American Sociological Review shows that working moms are more stressed out by multitasking than working dads. It's a significant finding because women report they do a lot more multitasking than men.

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Working mothers spend significantly more time multitasking when they are at home than their counterparts, working dads. That's according to a new study published in this month's journal The American Sociological Review. The findings are something that many women are surely saying, even as I speak, that they already knew. NPR's Patti Neighmond has this report.

PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Three hundred and sixty-eight mothers and 241 fathers took part in the study. They all worked outside the home and they all wore watches that beeped randomly seven times throughout the day.

Sociologist Barbara Schneider with Michigan State University co-authored the study and she says she wanted to find out how much the moms and dads were multitasking.

BARBARA SCHNEIDER: When the watch goes out, they fill out a form which says, what are you doing? But not just what are you doing, but what else are you doing?

NEIGHMOND: And how do you feel about it? Do you wish you were doing something else? After gathering all the information, it turned out, mothers spend 10 and a half more hours than fathers every week doing more than one thing at a time.

SCHNEIDER: So preparing dinner and talking to their child, preparing dinner and helping with homework, preparing dinner and doing laundry.

NEIGHMOND: Maybe even bringing some work home from the office. Fathers, on the other hand, did a different kind of juggling.

SCHNEIDER: When they're multitasking, it tends to be more work related. So it might be answering a work call.

NEIGHMOND: Or working on the computer while watching TV or doing other recreational activities with the kids. Overall, fathers were pleased with their multitasking, and they viewed coming home after work as a relief. Mothers, says Schneider, saw it completely differently.

SCHNEIDER: You know, it's that time when you come home and you work again.

NEIGHMOND: Some women dubbed it the arsenic hours between 5:00 and 8:00 or 4:00 and 7:00, when they're on overdrive and feeling overwhelmed.

SCHNEIDER: Because the first thing that they had to start worrying about is getting dinner, interfacing with their kids, dealing with all of the household chores that needed to be done, so that you could actually, from the data you could see all of the stresses and strains that they felt as they walked in the door and the kinds of, you know, tasks that they had to accomplish between, you know, the hours of when they first get home.

NEIGHMOND: As a result, it was only mothers who reported feeling stressed and conflicted while multitasking at home. Fathers reported feeling fine. Psychologist Russell Poldrack studies how our brains make decisions and process information. He's at the University of Texas at Austin. Poldrack says there's a big difference between multitasking in the short-term - answering the phone while driving, for example - versus multitasking over a number of hours like the mothers in this study.

RUSSELL POLDRACK: Our brains can only hold so much in working memory. And when we get overloaded, a different set of systems turns on in the brain, chemical systems that are actually related to the stress response, and the neurons in our prefrontal cortex just lose the ability to hold on to information in the same way that they can when we're not stressed out.

NEIGHMOND: Understanding the biology behind being frazzled may not be much comfort to the average over-stressed working mother, which is why researcher Barbara Schneider suggests some big changes. While men in the study worked longer hours on the job outside the home than women, Schneider says employers could be more creative in scheduling, giving men more flexible hours and more time at home so that childcare and household chores can be more equitably divided. Patti Neighmond, NPR News.

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