Background. The study of stress in mental health nurses has almost always focused on factors intrinsic to their job roles and has neglected the interaction between work and home roles, which may also be a source of stress. Moreover, role theory has not provided an adequate account of either personal or occupational change, especially when this results from the experience of stress.
Methods. Twenty community mental health nurses agreed to participate in semi-structured interviews about the stresses they experienced at work and at home. A grounded theory analysis disclosed the centrality of conflicts between work and home roles in participants' accounts and this provided the focus for subsequent detailed readings of the interview transcripts.
Findings. Participants described how difficult and often demanding family situations were integrated with professional careers in a climate of rapid organizational change in the health service. As well as being an ongoing source of strain, these competing role demands were often described as leading to sudden changes for individual workers, such as periods of illness or re-evaluation of their work role. To assist in making sense of this process, the term ‘punctuated equilibria’ was adopted to illuminate the build-up of tension between work and domestic lives, which was described by some workers as leading to a sudden reformulation of their relationship to their work roles and employing organizations.
Conclusions and limitations. The study was small-scale and relied on retrospective self-reports. Nevertheless, it emphasized the importance of considering all the roles that individuals play and highlights the possibility that, even when staff are apparently coping with their roles at work and home, difficulties may be building up which could lead to a sudden period of absenteeism or disillusionment.