As I research the office fitness book, I’m encountering all kinds of interesting items in the scholarly research literature. For example, it turns out that women and men respond differently to stress (and this difference might explain why women live longer than men). Who knew? Well, we didn’t actually have the opportunity to know until recently, since women had been largely excluded from stress research.
For years, stress research focused on college-aged (a captive audience on any research university campus) males (who have no pesky monthly fluctuations, which were perceived as distracting in the hormonal world of stress research). For decades, the stress experience of men was simply extrapolated to women.
We now know that men and women differ quite a bit in their response to stress, both psychologically and biologically. While men typically respond to stress with the well-known fight-or-flight reaction, women are more likely to respond with a “tend-and-befriend” response. Under stress, women are more likely to protect and nurture (“tend”) and to reach out to friends for support (“befriend”).
The body of new stress research that includes women puts a number of earlier assumptions about human behavior in an entirely new light (for example, the old idea that opportunistic individualism is a universal human motivation no longer holds up). As UCLA stress researcher Shelley Taylor says in her book, The Tending Instinct), “When we look instead to women’s lives for clues about human nature, the significance of nurturance snaps into place with such clarity that you wonder how its centrality could possibly have eluded scientific concern for so long.”
Think about the implications of these differences in the office. When stress arises, the men are girding for battle, while the women are circling the wagons, looking out for their friends and reaching out to each other for help. OK, it’s probably not as simple as this (and in fact, the research reveals a lot of behavioral overlap between genders), but it’s worth bearing in mind these differences the next time you butt heads with someone of another gender during a stressful stretch at work.
Gender differences in responding to stress may also make men more vulnerable to the effects of chronic stress. “Because the tend-and-befriend regulatory system may, in some ways, protect women against stress,” says Taylor, “This biobehavioral pattern may provide insights into why women live an average of seven and a half years longer than men.” Gentlemen, perhaps we should be nurturing our feminine side?