Millions of American workers are suffering from stress. It's so bad, says a new report, that personal and family problems are interfering with the way we do our jobs.

"Young women, in particular, admit to feeling stressed, as do many dual-career couples," says the report. "For some, competing with each other is actually a source of stress; often the wives had planned to be part of a dual-career marriage, but the husbands had not."This information comes from United Way of America, which asked Chicago consultant William Ashley to look at the work force and come back with a full report on what's going on out there.

Ashley, an organizational psychologist, enlisted 50 "strategic thinkers" from business, government and academia. Together, they concluded that those happy faces we see in the office each day are deceptive. A lot of them - a lot of us - need help.

Most big companies, says Ashley's report, have some form of confidential assistance or "wellness" program to keep workers healthy and help them manage stress.

But the programs aren't as successful as they should be; many of us think it's wimpish to openly admit that our marriage is crumbling, that our children are wild and that we drink too much.

The fact that a fund-raising organization like United Way would worry about worker stress is a tipoff that times have changed. In the old days, men got jobs and women baked bread. Social problems were solved by giving a few bucks each year to the Boy Scouts or the YMCA.

Now we all work and we're having a hard time taking care of our young children and our old parents. The result, says Ashley, is the stressed-out "sandwich generation," costing business an estimated $150 billion a year in health insurance claims, disability claims, lost productivity and other expenses.

"Studies show that office stress can increase employee absenteeism, affect employees' levels of concentration, decrease employees' productivity and lead to health problems such as chronic colds and heart disease," says the report.

Not only that, many of us suffer from "techno-stress" as a result of using computers and other complicated (and boring) machinery.

One purpose of the report is to inspire politicians and companies to do something about child care, elderly care, drugs, AIDS, lack of health insurance, lack of job training and all the other pleasantries of modern civilization. In a sense, United Way has become a lobbyist for the lost as well as a charity for the poor.

Some of the rhetoric in this report is a bit overdrawn. Is it really true that American workers "are fearful of losing their jobs, feel overworked, have less and less leisure time and feel their career opportunities are limited"?

Maybe we should all move back to Bedford Falls, get a mortgage at Jimmy Stewart's building and loan and spend Saturday nights with the kids at the roller rink.

On the other hand, maybe not.

"Strategic thinkers" are right to worry about stress. You can't punch numbers into a computer, or sell stock, or drive a bus, or practice law, if your 6-year-old is setting fire to the house.

But the strategists will find out how smart we are, how ingenious we are, at having it all and having it now. We just haven't quite figured out how to do it yet.