If you believe what you read and hear in the media, you'd think that the American working woman is a total wreck. According to what we hear, she's so stressed out that she's going to drop dead of a heart attack right at her desk.
She desperately needs to scale down, to go on the mommy track or to cut back to part-time work to make herself feel better.
Few stories that have been reported on so extensively are as false as the saga of the miserable working woman. And few facts are as well-documented as the good physical and emotional health of women on the job.
Since the mass movement of women into paid jobs began in the 1970s, literally hundreds of studies on their emotional and physical health have painted a very clear picture: Paid employment offers a solid health benefit for women regardless of their income group. The retail worker and the secretary share in enhanced good health along with the lawyer and the doctor.
But what about women who are working not because they want to, but because they have to -- aren't they miserable? No. They, too, share in the health benefits of paid employment.
Taken all together, here's what many media stories imply:
Work is bad for women, causing physical and emotional problems.
Working mothers are bad for the family -- children are wrecked and men's self-esteem damaged.
Working women are bad for organizations -- those home problems distract workers.
The only way to lessen the damage is for women to drop out, work part time or get on a lower and slower career track than men.
A recent survey conducted by the Women's Bureau of the Department of Labor reported that 79 percent of the quarter of a million women who responded said they either "liked" or "loved" their jobs.
Yet the day after a report on the study was released, the Boston Globe headline read, "Working Women's Lot Found to Be Not a Happy One."
What about the claim that work damages a woman's health? A few years back, there were predictions that women would start getting heart attacks just like men.
Cardiologists Meyer Freidman and Ray H. Rosenman, in their 1974 book "Type A Behavior and Your Heart," predicted that as women entered the labor force they would start having heart attacks and lose their survival advantage over men.
The doctors, unfortunately, were unable to test their hypothesis, because the large-scale survey they designed included 3,500 men but no women.
When women are included, however, the picture shifts substantially. The Framingham Heart Study, a major ongoing federal cardiac project, shows that working women are not showing increasing coronary symptoms.
In fact, only one group of working women has problems: women in low-paying jobs with high demands and little control, and who have several children and little or no support at home.
Overall, women are not having more heart attacks, nor has there been any decrease in their life span as a result of entering the work force. The National Center for Health Statistics reported in 1993 that a study of some 13,000 women showed working women at lower risk for heart disease than non-employed women; the working women had lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels and lower weights.
What about the predictions that women would be at risk for all sorts of stress-related illness? True? No. In fact, there's solid evidence that work is associated with reduced depression and anxiety for women.
In study after study, the health of working women is found to be better than that of non-employed women. A few examples:
Women involved in both work and family roles reported better physical health and fewer emotional problems than non-employed women. This was the conclusion of a 1989 report on a national longitudinal study by psychologists Ingrid Waldron and Jerry Jacobs.
A federally funded three-year study of 745 married women shows working women to be in better emotional health than those who are not employed.
Not only is work good for women, but the more committed they are to the job, the healthier they are.
At age 43, homemakers had more chronic conditions than working women and seemed more disillusioned and frustrated, according to a University of California at Berkeley study that followed 140 women for 22 years.
A 1990 survey of depression in 1,000 families found that among the most depressed women were those who did not work and stayed at home with children.
Perhaps the most dangerous myth about women and work is that the solution to any problem should be for women to drop back or drop out.
The impression encouraged by this myth is that women ought to have lesser ambitions than men, and that this would be good for their health.
But there is evidence that these solutions will actually harm a woman's health. "Mommy-tracking" your way to mental health sounds great, but it can be risky. Studies show a significant connection between reducing one's commitment to work and psychological distress.
Sociologists Elaine Wethington of Cornell University and Ronald Kessler of the University of Michigan report that having a child did not increase psychological distress for working women -- unless the birth resulted in their dropping out of the labor force.
The longer a woman worked and the more committed she was to the job, the greater the risk to her health in leaving it. The more years a woman spends on the job, the more impact work has on her well-being, the study showed.
Part-time work is no panacea for stress. Ms. Wethington and Kessler found that low-hour part-time work (fewer than 20 hours per week) didn't give women the "work benefit" that full-time employment did. In fact, it had a negative impact on mental health.
This is important news for women; listening to the drumbeat of the media, its endless cycle of bad news, a woman might think that part-time work would be an automatic solution to the feeling that she has too much to do and too little time to do it.
But if she loses the benefits of being employed full time, she may find she has jumped from a situation that feels stressful to one that is truly harmful to her health.
Rosalind C. Barnett is a psychotherapist in private practice and a senior affiliated scholar at Radcliffe College. Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University.