Multiple Children and Complex Communication Increased Stress For Women Working Remotely

woman caring for multiple children

Catherine Falls Commercial / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Stress levels among women with children increased when working remotely during the pandemic following remote work.
  • Video chats and texts added to the stress on remote workers, regardless of parental status, age, race, education, etc.
  • This research provides meaningful insights into how to support remote staff without increasing work pressure.

Work-life balance is often encouraged, even when the reality may feel impossible. A recently published study in Communication Reports found that stress was higher among women with children when working remotely during the pandemic, with increased stress with multiple children.

Based on this research, gender did not impact stress levels among remote workers until the presence of children was taken into consideration, which may be indicative of gendered expectations with respect to parenting.

Given how the pandemic has impacted the way in which work is managed, this study provides worthwhile insights for supporting marginalized genders with children as they navigate competing responsibilities.

The Research

This cross-sectional study was conducted with 540 adult remote workers across the US to assess their use of information communication technologies (ICT) during the pandemic, and its impact on their stress.

Researchers explored how such ICTs as e-mail, phone, video chat, texting, and instant messaging, and the frequency of communication for work purposes impacted stress levels during the sheltering-in-place period.

Findings indicate that increased stress was uniquely associated with both video chat and texting with colleagues, as well as being a mother, with increases in stress noted as the number of children mothers had rose.

Limitations of this study include the use of a single-item measure for stress, the cross-sectional survey design, and the lack of data regarding whether participants had worked remotely prior to the pandemic.

Simpler Communication Needed

Lead researcher for this study, and Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Natalie Pennington, PhD, says, "I do think more work is needed; this is a good first look at the role technology plays in the work from home environment."

Pennington explains that it is possible that over time, users may adapt to technology to help it work better for them, or maybe they can find ways to balance responsibilities. "At the same time, especially in the work environment, the need to be on and available can be exhausting," she says.

It is why Pennington says that allowing workers the chance to use more asynchronous or less intensive forms of communication, such as a phone call instead of a video call, can help to relieve some of that pressure that could spill over to work productivity and job satisfaction.

Pennington notes, "If managers and executives set clearer and more humane policies about technology use, I think that could help create a better environment to support workers and make these transitions easier, especially if remote work or hybrid work continues."

When workers shifted to work from home during the pandemic, Pennington explains that individuals were not always given work phones to use, so she heard many stories where people were using their personal devices for work reasons regularly, which may have increased stress as well.

Pennington highlights that texting is best in short form, but it may not be ideal to solve work issues as some details can get lost. "A quick phone call may help to complete tasks faster and avoid miscommunication," she says.

Natalie Pennington, PhD

I've heard stories of having to sit next to your kid to make sure they are staying on task with their work for school, while also trying to do your own work while your other kid is also in the room doing work.

— Natalie Pennington, PhD

In noting that this was one snapshot in the pandemic, Pennington explains that different trends may be seen over time as workers adjust. "It is also possible, and likely, that some types of employment made the transition more smoothly than others, which is not something we dug into," she says.

Pennington notes, "In the larger body of research about technology use during the pandemic, we do see some trends, like video chat contributing to stress, and it is important to think about how the features of the communication tools we use can help or hinder our goals."

Since just about everyone may have been more stressed out during sheltering-in-place, Pennington highlights that working from home may have been impacted. "There are things that can make it easier, like having a larger income, but this was a big shift for a lot of people," she says. 

Pennington reflects, "From my own experience, it was definitely a hard balance to strike, and I know for my colleagues and friends with children, the pandemic has been an incredibly difficult time."

She says, "I've heard stories of having to sit next to your kid to make sure they are staying on task with their work for school, while also trying to do your own work while your other kid is also in the room doing work."

Employers Can Do Much Better

Psychotherapist, Haley Neidich, LCSW, PMH-C, says, "The most actionable takeaway from this research is that employers need to improve measures to support work from home parents and mothers in particular."

Neidich explains, "Limiting video conferences and keeping them to set times only, decreasing the expectations of response time in Slack and more asynchronous communications should be implemented immediately." 

With this research, Neidich notes that employees can feel emboldened to request accommodations, by citing the fact that they would enable them to improve their performance at work, as well as stress management. 

Neidich highlights that secondary caregivers and extended family members who have the ability to provide additional support to mothers who are navigating working from home and caring for a child should step in.

Rather than asking a mother how they can help, Neidich says, "Loved ones should identify things they know need to be done. Doing the laundry, taking care of meals, and spending time helping the children navigate home."

Neidich notes, "While I'm thrilled to see this topic getting attention, the stress of being a working mother is certainly not a new problem that has arisen with the pandemic. It is already clear that the 40-hour workweek is unmanageable for primary caregivers and families need more support."

Haley Neidich, LCSW, PMH-C

Loved ones should identify things they know need to be done. Doing the laundry, taking care of meals, and spending time helping the children navigate home.

— Haley Neidich, LCSW, PMH-C

The pandemic has illuminated the stress of juggling childcare and a career, but Neidich highlights that this feels unmanageable for most. "There is a larger cultural issue at play here beyond integrating the appropriate employer accommodations and bolstering social supports," she says. 

Neidich explains, "This article very closely reflects what I'm hearing from the mothers and primary caregivers who I work with, in my private practice. Folx have not been given the support to effectively manage a career and childcare all at the same time, even before a global pandemic." 

With the added pressures of homeschooling, Neidich notes that stress levels have become unmanageable. "All of this can also explain the long waitlists that mental health professionals are dealing with in their practices, especially those of us who specialize in maternal mental health," she says.

Beyond the stress score measures used in this study, Neidich highlights that mothers are presenting with symptoms of diagnosable anxiety, depression, and insomnia at a much greater rate than she has ever experienced. 

Neidich says that one of the biggest issues that she observes from her therapy practice is that when women are "given a break" from childcare, that time is typically spent working in other ways.

Neidich notes, "Working is not a break. Women need to be given actual time to themselves without their children, without feeling tied to their computers. Family members and employers need to support this."

What This Means For You

As this study demonstrates, mothers reported increased stress levels during the pandemic, which only increased with multiple children. While COVID-19 may have highlighted these challenges, they are longstanding and deserve attention. Employers have an opportunity to operationalize work-life balance by shifting their expectations.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Pennington N, Holmstrom A, Hall J. The toll of technology while working from home during COVID-19Communication Reports. 2021:1-13. doi:10.1080/08934215.2021.1993947

  2. Lin KY, Burgard SA. Working, Parenting and work-home spillover: Gender differences in the work-home interface across the life course. Adv Life Course Res. 2018 Mar;35:24-36. doi: 10.1016/j.alcr.2017.12.003

  3. U.S. News and World Report. Doing nothing isn't a choice: Fix the COVID-exposed fissures in mental health care.

By Krystal Jagoo
 Krystal Kavita Jagoo is a social worker, committed to anti-oppressive practice.