Last Updated 08 Jul 2021

Occupational Stress and Work-Life Balance in the Public Sector in Saudi Arabia

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The context of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia presents a unique set of challenges to female academic employees, because of a modern conundrum stressing the importance of globalization and therefore an increased support for the place of the female in non-traditional work environments. Simultaneously however, there is a stable support for conservative values underpinned by societal norms and traditions based on Saudi religion and culture. Therefore there is increased support for improved job performance in sectors that are not traditionally considered the realm of the female employee, because of the longevity required in order to develop a successful career path, such as academic jobs. At the same time however, women are empowered to follow these career paths whilst still maintaining traditional values perpetuated by religion and culture that hold dear family values and the moral ethos of the female as the matriarchal centre of the family nucleus.

There exists therefore a stress on female academic employees in Saudi Arabia which is multifaceted. Traditional values find the place of women in the workplace as a resisted ideal where conservative members of public organizations do not respect the authority and standing of female employees as highly as their male counterparts. This ingrained gender discrimination not only causes an emotional stress on female employees, but also prevents the commensurate career progression that is due to these employees, which is known as a ‘glass ceiling’ (Yamani, 1996). Whilst the private sector may be more persuasive to globalization and increased female quotas in these organizations, the public sector of Saudi Arabia represents a more traditional set of values which are deeply rooted in religion and culture which historically do not recognize the role of females in these organizations. Arguably therefore female academic employees in the public sector will feel these burdens in a more pronounced manner than their private sector counterparts.

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The culture of Saudi Arabia adds a further pressure on these female employees to perform the matriarchal functions in their homes in addition to their employment commitments which adds another dimension to the occupational stress suffered by these women as they are now committed to perfecting a work-life balance. The central hypothesis of this research therefore seeks to investigate the relationship between the occupational stress and work-life balance of female academic employees in the public sector in Saudi Arabia.

Overview of research

The study of occupational stress centers on stress at work. Stress is defined in terms of physical and physiological effects on a employee whether this be mental, physical or emotional strain. It also encompasses tension, situations or factors that can cause stress in a work environment. Occupational stress occurs when there is a discrepancy between the demands of the workplace and the individual’s ability to meet these demands (Henry & Evans, 2008). The nature of academic work is in itself problematic for inducing occupational stress due to the ‘never-ending’ nature of the work, with guilt associated with constantly needing to improve the performance of students and contribute to the body of knowledge currently available.

Sociologists have expressed increasing interest in the study of work-family conflict since the 1970’s where the majority of adults need to work for a living-wage and the result is the need to balance this need to work with the need to raise a family, whilst still maintaining traditional values. Paid employment conflicts with the family environment in a number of ways, intruding significantly on the leisure aspect of family life, but also attempting to balance the commitments of work and the family leads to stress trying to balance different aspects of individual’s lives. To a certain extent therefore, work and family commitments are incompatible with one another as hours of work detract from time available for the family and vice versa.

Traditionally women have been concentrated in narrow fields of employment where the balancing of work and family is made significantly easier through fewer working hours and less workplace responsibility. With globalization and the gender equality movement becoming more prevalent, even in traditional society, these roles have begun to change. Despite the increased advent of women in non-traditional work environments such as academics, there is still the same pressure on women to maintain their traditional roles within the family nucleus. Particularly in conservative societies, such as Saudi Arabia, it is becoming increasingly important for the balance to be maintained for the broader societal good. In a sense, the care and maintenance of the family in society is the responsibility of the woman and therefore a careful balancing act is of vital importance.

Organizational responses to work-life issues vary according to the type of employer in the organization in which the employee works. A family-responsive employer would provide flexibility in work programs that afford employees greater control over their working hours and considerate responses to meeting their family or personal obligations. This is often translated in fiscal responses such as adequate insurance and pension funds that allow for family support over and above that which may be the immediate concern of an individual in an organization. These are transmitted through organizational culture formally in the form of organizational policy and informally through supervisors and coworkers. Essentially this gauges the value and support available for work-life integration with the objectives of the organization.

Positioning of research in current knowledge

The Saudi culture emphasizes the importance of family, and the first priority for women is to be a wife and a mother while paid work is a secondary issue. This research therefore aims to highlight the work-life considerations of Saudi women in the context of their cultural and religious values. Islam does not prohibit women from entering paid employment whenever there is a need for it, particularly in positions, that suit their feminine nature and in surrounding Gulf countries, the place of women in academics has been encouraged particularly in foundation phase education.

Previous research has indicated a number of unique and shared factors that help Saudi women maintain a balance between life and work (Bahkali, 2012). This research found that culture and religion, health insurance and transportation are considered unique factors to the female employees in Saudi Arabia. The women who worked in the education sector all recognized their work as being culturally acceptable. Part of this sector necessarily includes academic employees, however education generally refers to primary, secondary and tertiary education institutions, whereas the current study proposes examine the academic field as a whole rather than isolating this to traditional forms of academics in the form of teaching. In contrast, women who worked in the medical field stated they did not always feel comfortable because they do work in the same space as male colleagues. Arguably, when one moves towards more advanced levels of academic employ, this lack of comfort becomes more pronounced as the employment moves away from being matriarchal (lower levels of education dealing with children and adolescents have been noted to respond better to females). In Saudi Arabia, many in these fields do not have health insurance whereas most of them suffer from the issue of transportation.

In terms of family and personal lives, Saudi women workers do not consider childcare centers as important as entrusting their maids or nannies with their children and therefore, most Saudi women workers bring maids to care for their children whilst they are at work. In addition, some Saudi women are not satisfied with their work hours especially when work hours surpass lunch hours or work occurs at night. Finally, Saudi women workers can find help at home either from husband, mother or maid and this may reduce work family conflict that Saudi working women face.

Based on the findings of these previously conducted research papers, it is evident that this is a relevant gap in the current knowledge on occupational stress. The proposed research aims to further the current field of knowledge by conducting a specific inquiry into these factors as they relate to academic employment. If one considers the importance of education as a foundational pillar of society and development, adopting appropriate organizational behavior to mitigate organizational stress and therefore improve academic outcomes is an important and relevant study for sociological and corporate purposes.

This research therefore aims to use the underlying theoretical considerations of organizational stress and the difficulties of establishing and maintaining a work-life balance to study the effects of the unique Saudi experience on female academic employees in the public sector. To current knowledge, there have been no similar studies undertaken in this field and therefore the gap in knowledge is evident. By understanding the unique factors of this situation, helpful recommendations for the adjustment of organizational behavior of academic institutions can be made to mitigate these stresses and improve overall organizational efficiency.

Research design & methodology

The methodology proposed for the research is qualitative in nature, where the researcher aims to gain an understanding of the human behavior and the reasons that govern this behavior. The hypothesis of this research will be founded in academic literature sourced from a variety of secondary sources and thereafter supported by empirical evidence in the form of interviews conducted with relevant study participants. Thereafter this qualitative data will be analyzed in order to conclude recommendations and findings as to the nature of occupational stress and the work-life balance in the public sector for female academic employees.

Proposed structure


Modern challenges to traditional ideas of organizational structure, behavior and culture have an important place in modern academic literature. Through understanding the particular circumstances in a geographical region such as Saudi Arabia, as well as the challenges facing these employees, one can begin to develop a conceptual framework for streamlining organizational objectives and maximizing the performance of these employees. The current research therefore proposes to undertake a study which examines these factors through understanding of the relevant theoretical considerations, as well as the factors particular to this sector and geographical region.


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Alqahtani, S. (2006) The Education in Saudi Arabia critical view (1ed.). Riyadh, KSA.

Bahkali, W. (2012) The Issues of Work Life Balance for Saudi Women Workers: A dissertation. Masters Thesis, University of Waikato

Gurney, Sarah (2010) Gender, work-life balance and health amongst women and men in administrative, manual and technical jobs in a single organisation: a qualitative study. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

Henry, O. & Evans, A. (2008) Occupational Stress in Organizations and Its Effects on Organizational Performance. Journal of Management Research, 8(3).

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