According to a new study, the stress of serving for long periods of time far from home and family significantly increases an individual's likelihood of suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) regardless of exposure to combat. This has important implications for those serving in conflicts like the current Iraq War, in which the armed forces are relying on volunteers and reservists to an historically unusual degree.

About 20 percent of Air Force women serving in the Iraq war report that they are experiencing at least one major symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Researchers from the University of Michigan also examined the prevalence of family-work conflicts among the military women surveyed, and the impact of these conflicts on mental health and job performance.

"We were surprised to find that work-family conflict is an independent and significant predictor of PTSD, above and beyond combat exposure," says 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."

The survey is part of an ongoing study headed by Pierce and U-M Institute for Social 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, but 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 work 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."

An ongoing study of Air Force men will assess the levels of wartime stress and of family-work conflict men are experiencing, Pierce noted, as well as how this may affect their mental health.