Workplace stress is killing our marriages

America has the highest divorce rate in the world. We also have one of the most stressed out and over-worked workforces in the world. More and more, I believe this is not a coincidence.

Here are some sobering statistics about our dysfunctional relationship with work:

  • 85.8 % of males and 66.5 % of females work over 40 hours/week.
  • According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), “Americans work 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours per year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers.”
  • The average productivity per American worker has gone up 400% since 1950.
  • 65% of workers in a 2000 Integra Survey reported that workplace stress had caused life difficulties.
  • In that same survey, “62% of workers reported ending the work day with work-related neck pain, 44% reported stressed-out eyes, 38% complained of hurting hands and 34% reported difficulty in sleeping because they were too stressed-out.”
  • In California, the number of Workers’ compensation claims for mental stress increased by almost 700 percent over eight years.[i]

At least 134 countries have laws setting the maximum length of the workweek—the U.S. is not one of them. The U.S. also falls dead last in the number of paid vacation days and holidays workers receive. [ii]

workplace-Stress-Pie-ChartThe American workforce as a whole—from low income to high—is overworked, underslept, and stressed out.

Workplace stress can come from any combination of long hours, perceived lack of control, pressure to perform, low pay, high-risk activities and non-stop deadlines. Unemployment or feeling you are not working enough is also a source of stress. Not only can lack of work can cause financial difficulty, but Americans share a strong cultural belief that work is the #1 worthwhile activity in life. In other words, if you are not working (and at %110 capacity) you are wasting your time. Hobbies, self-care, personal growth, social time and time with our families are simply the icing on the cake instead of being worthwhile activities in themselves. At worst, they are selfish passtimes!

Without the rigid gender and social roles of the past to keep spouses together, it’s no wonder American marriages are suffering.

Research has shown a direct link between workplace stress and marriage problems. “Work and family are two major domains in our lives and experiences from one domain can spill over into, or impact, the other,” writes Nicole A. Roberts and Robert W. Levenson in the Journal of Marriage and Family. After following 19 couples for a month with self-reported “stress diaries” and therapy meetings, the two researchers found that their subjects’ stressful experiences at work significantly impacted the emotional environment at home. After challenging work days both spouses were more physiologically aroused (“on edge”) and reported more negative feelings and/or lack of emotional engagement. All these factors are indicators of “heightened risk for poor marital outcome,” meaning, divorce.

In addition to “contaminating” home life with workplace stress, the amount of hours Americans work in a week leaves little time to nurture their relationships and themselves. So much of how to rekindle a marriage is simply making time for it—time where couples can relax and just be together, reminded of how much they enjoy each others company. In addition to making more space for their relationship, individuals need time to fulfill their own spiritual, physical and emotional needs. Self care is not selfish. Rather, it allows husbands and wives to come to their marriages as a calm, fulfilled and loving partners.

Kids complicate this picture further. In addition to taking care of a larger family’s basic needs, children present additional relationships that require nurturing and attention. High parental involvement is linked to children’s healthy emotional development, school performance and even reduced juvenile crime.[iii] Sadly, research has linked having “workaholic” parents to mental health difficulties in children later on in life. A 1998 study published in The American Journal of Family Therapy found that “children of workaholic fathers not only had greater depression and external locus of control but also scored higher on anxiety.”[iv] At the same time parents are caught in a terrible catch-22: many fathers and mothers work grueling hours and unsatisfying jobs to support their families. In return, their relationships with family members suffers.

Luckily some companies are catching on the the fact that happier and healthier employees are better employees.

Workplace stress directly impacts your marriage.
Workplace stress directly impacts your marriage.

Fortune and Working Mother magazines publish yearly lists of companies that score well on healthy work-life balance policies such as flextime and easy parental leave. At the same time, labor reform or large-scale changes in business culture are likely far off. Large ships change course slowly. To that end, pushing for changes in these areas—to make family life easier as well as preventing divorce—should be the next step for marriage advocates trying to figure out how to fix a marriage.

In the meantime, the fate of work-life balance is in the hands of individuals. If you feel that workplace stress is getting in the way of your family and personal well-being—even if your hours are the norm in your office—there are steps you can take. You can ask for fewer hours at work, to take a week’s vacation purely for your mental health, to work from home half the time, or to take unpaid leave to care for a family member.  There are laws in place that obligate employers to provide some work flexibility without repercussions. This is still a grey area, so visit the U.S. Department of Labor website or talk to a labor law specialist for answers to questions on your rights as a worker.

Unfortunately, due to the difficult economy, you may not feel this is a time you can afford to challenge the status quo. Yet perhaps there is a way to tackle the work problem from the other end. The primary goal of work is to make money to support a household, to put food on the table and maintain a lifestyle. Reducing what you need to support financially can reduce your need to work. Quite likely there are a myriad number of little things at home that you can change or do without that will let you live a simpler and cheaper life – cable TV, for instance, or the latest tech gadget, or more than two cars. The less you need to focus on obtaining and maintaining all the “stuff” in your life, the more time you have to focus on what truly matters: your well-being and your relationships.


[i] The American Institute of Stress. “Job Stress.”

[ii] Ray, Rebecca and John Schmitt. 2007. “No Vacation Nation.” The Center for Economic and Policy Research.

[iii] Allen, Sarah and Kerry Daly, 2001.  ”The Effects of Father Involvement:  An Updated Research Summary of the Evidence Inventory.” Centre for Families, Work & Well-Being, University of Guelph.

[iv] Robinsona, Bryan E. & Lisa Kelleya. 1998. “Adult children of workaholics: Self-concept, anxiety, depression, and locus of control.” The American Journal of Family Therapy, Volume 26, Issue 3; pp. 223-238