Image: A woman uses her BlackBerry.
ADEK BERRY  /  AFP - Getty Images
A woman uses her BlackBerry phone. The PDAs, cell phones and pagers that are supposed to make their lives easier are actually stressing working moms out, a new report shows.
By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 3/14/2011 7:39:30 AM ET 2011-03-14T11:39:30

When business deals heat up for realtor Katie Clancy she spends a lot of time in the evening answering e-mails and firing off text messages instead of focusing on family time with her husband and four kids, ages three to 16.

“I eat, sleep and breathe my iPhone,” said Clancy, 41, of Denis, Mass., who admitted that “whenever work and family interfere with one another, I feel guilt.”

The guilt leads to stress, but that’s par for the course, Clancy said.

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“My number one job is to be mother, so when e-mails or jobs things dilute that, I’m not doing my job,” she added.

When it comes to balancing work-life issues, women appear to have the same issues as men. But the PDAs, cell phones and pagers that are supposed to make their lives easier are actually stressing working moms out.

At least, that’s the key finding of a new study released last week by University of Toronto. Researchers looked at thousands of men and women in the United States and examined the way they deal with work-related communications outside normal work hours.

The research found that mothers are more likely than men to feel guilt or stress when they receive an e-mail or call from work during non-working hours, said Scott Schieman, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto and co-author of the study, which was published in the March issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

Initially “we thought women were more distressed by frequent work contact because it interfered with their family responsibilities more so than men,” added Paul Glavin, lead author on the study.

“However, this wasn’t the case,” he continued. “We found that women are able to juggle their work and family lives just as well as men, but they feel more guilty as a result of being contacted. This guilt seems to be at the heart of their distress.”

What’s creating that guilt is anyone’s guess, but Schieman surmised it has to do with cultural norms for women as protectors of the household and family from outside influences.

“If work intrudes into the home, women may negatively evaluate their family performance,” he noted. Even though, he continued, traditional gender roles are outmoded, women are still largely handling most of the responsibilities at home, even if men and women are working outside of the home.

Wendy Sachs, author of “How She Really Does It: Secrets of Successful Stay-at-Work Moms” and editor of caregiver services website Care.com, thinks it goes deeper than that.

“Dads are not hard-wired to feel as guilty as moms,” she explained. “Dads, like my husband, can go on business trip for many days, work late nights, and really not be that torn up over it. Moms just feel it more, and are more angst-ridden over it. Of course, these are gross stereotypes, but they exist because of how many moms feel.”

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These feelings of anxiety among moms, she continued, trickle down to technology, how we use it and our love-hate relationship with those pesky beeping gizmos.

Some more interesting findings from the University of Toronto study show:

  • Workers with authority at work show lower levels of guilt.
  • Employees with younger children have higher levels of guilt.
  • Job pressures are associated with higher levels of guilt.

Job pressures are building as the line between work time and person time blurs, mostly due to technology, notes Schieman. Given the preponderance of smartphones and other gadgets, a worker can be contacted at any point. That person may assume he or she has found balance between work and personal time, but not actually have it. A working mom may be able to attend a kid’s soccer game, but be too stressed out to enjoy the family time, Schieman pointed out as an example.

Schieman’s research appears to indicate that women are indeed stressed out about “the long reach of work,” as Schieman describes the technological tether.

“We need to have a deeper discussion of potential consequences about this for emotional and family life,” he said.

Do working moms need to rid themselves of these nasty gadgets that keep us connected to work? While they may seem to be a curse, lots of working moms also see these gadgets as a blessing that gives them the ability to juggle work and family responsibilities.

“Technology liberates us, but it’s tethering us to our jobs in ways other generations of working moms just didn’t feel,” said Care.com’s Sachs. “No one can drop off the grid. Moms just feel more strung out about it.”

Tamara Lackey, a mother of three and a professional photographer from Durham, N.C., believes electronic devices have made her life easier by freeing her from desktops and conference tables. “Unfortunately,” she added, “when not monitored, [the devices] also act as a constant electronic leash.”

Lackey combats stress by scheduling “mandatory unplug timeframes” that she includes on her calendar, parsing out home-at-work time, family time, date night time and even time for relaxing.

“Ironically,” she noted, “locking down a schedule frees me up more than just bouncing from call to e-mail to meeting.”

The best approach, advised Laura Lowell, author of “42 Rules for Working Moms,” is to use technology to manage your both your work and personal lives. You don’t want technology to manage you, she said; technology is “a tool we have to use appropriately.”

And women have to stop feeling guilty about having work responsibilities, Lowell added.

“I see women hiding when they answer their e-mail, or answer a text message because they don’t want their family to know they’re working,” she said. “We put a lot of this guilt on ourselves. We want to be everything to everybody.”

Maybe it’s simply a matter of accepting the fact that technology, work and family life are now inextricably intertwined.

Kathy Thomas, an executive vice president for Dallas-based Half Price Books, Records, Magazines, receives work e-mails on her Blackberry. She also receives e-mails about her daughter’s volleyball games, school alerts and text messages from her son in college.

“I need it and want it,” Thomas said about her Blackberry, which keeps her connected to her mommy responsibilities and work. “We have stores on the East and West Coast. If a catastrophe happens in the morning or evening I need to know about it.”

Yes, the after-hours work e-mails stress her out, but it’s a price she is more than willing to pay for the flexibility her Blackberry affords. Thanks to the device she’s able to work on the weekends, but she’s also able to have lunch with her daughter, or attend tournaments without thinking she’s missing something at the office.

“I think women are stressed out most of the time anyway, trying to manage a family and their professional life,” she said. “I would rather have the freedom and work all the time.”

Eve Tahmincioglu writes the weekly "Your Career" column for msnbc.com and chronicles workplace issues in her blog, CareerDiva.net.

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