Stress :: How Air Force women are handling the stress

About 20 percent of Air Force women deployed during the Iraq war report that they are experiencing at least one major symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to a University of Michigan survey of 1,114 servicewomen.

The researchers also assessed the prevalence of family-work conflicts among the military women surveyed, and analyzed the impact of these conflicts on mental health and job functioning.

“We were surprised to find that work-family conflict is an independent and significant predictor of PTSD, above and beyond combat exposure,” said Penny Pierce, a colonel in the Air Force Reserve Program, who presented preliminary findings from the survey at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association. “This finding is important because there are things we can do to help minimize work-family stress and the toll it is taking on women in the military.”

Conducted by the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR) and funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Defense through the TriService Nursing Research Program, the survey is part of an ongoing study headed by Pierce, an associate professor in the U-M School of Nursing and a faculty associate at the ISR and ISR research professor Amiram Vinokur.

“Since the Gulf War, the role of women in combat has been a subject of heated debate,” said Pierce. “This study is the latest attempt to assess the impact of deployment-related stressors, including family separation, on military women, who now comprise 13 percent of our nation’s armed forces.”

Nearly half of the women surveyed said that their home-life rarely or never interfered with their work or made it difficult for them to accomplish daily tasks and spend the time they would like to on career-related activities.

But the researchers found that women who experienced higher levels of family-work conflict were more likely to have symptoms of depression and anxiety, and were also less likely to feel they could cope with daily demands and responsibilities.

“We cannot hope to take away the stress of combat, but the additional stress caused by family-work conflicts can be modified,” said Pierce. “Steps can be taken to reduce the anxiety and depression of servicewomen who are worried about what is happening on the home front. In the near future, we hope to identify some areas where we can intervene to help reduce this source of stress.”

A related study of Air Force men that is now underway will establish the levels of wartime stress and of family-work conflict men are experiencing, Pierce noted, as well as its relation to their mental health and ability to perform their jobs.

In a similar U-M study of women serving during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Pierce and Vinokur found that the family-work conflict women veterans experienced was greater than that found in representative community samples of the time.

In other findings from the current survey presented at the APA convention, Pierce and colleague Lisa Lewandowski reported that about 51 percent of the women surveyed said it was “very likely” or “extremely likely” that they would continue to serve in the Air Force. About 18 percent said it was “likely” they would re-enlist.

According to Lewandowski, the perceived attitudes of the women’s significant others and their own views about the military were significant predictors of their intentions to re-enlist.

“Despite the stress of serving in a long conflict where multiple deployments are a very real possibility, the high proportion intending to stay in the military suggests the level of commitment in today’s all-volunteer service,” said Pierce.

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