As workplace stress levels rise and employers expect more and more from their workers, a new study from Penn State University uproots the conventional wisdom that for most, the office is a major stressor, while home is a sanctuary away from it all.
For the study, researchers took into account participants’ self-reported stress levels, as well as, their actual cortisol (stress hormone) levels, at work and at home. Surprisingly, they found that people – particularly parents — tend to be less stressed at work than at home.
“This is across gender, across education level, across occupation level,” said Sarah Damaske, a professor of labor and employment at Penn State. “So, a pretty strong finding.”
In order to come to this conclusion, researchers tested the saliva of study participants three times a day to determine their cortisol levels, and asked participants to rate their mood both during and after work. They found that across the board, cortisol levels were higher at home than at work, indicating that participants were actually less stressed while on the job. In general, men self-reported feeling happier at home than at work, while women (and parents of both genders) reported better moods at work than at home.
The continuing unequal distribution of household chores between women and men could very well be the reason that women were likely to report feeling calmer at work.
“Part of this might be women are leaving work and then cooking dinner and doing the dishes,” Damaske said. “Even though men are doing more than they did 30 years ago, it’s still not an even distribution.”
Still, the fact that male and female parents, as well as non-parents, find themselves more stressed and overwhelmed at home than on the job suggests that the stress epidemic in this country really has seeped into every area of our lives.
Of course, the study results seem like the opposite of what we might expect. Going home at the end of the day is typically thought of as a huge relief after hours of hard work. But as we become busier as a society, shuttling the kids to and from school and practice, taking on more obligations for which we aren’t getting paid, all the while facing pressure from every angle to be able to “do it all,” our homes aren’t the sanctuaries they once were. This is especially true for the growing number of workers who are expected to be reachable and responsive even after business hours have ended.
However, this study also supports the well-established (but hard to reconcile) findings that people who have consistently worked full-time through their adulthoods tend to be in better physical and mental health as they age. Damaske notes that this means things just aren’t as simple as “less work equals less stress.”
“Our findings suggest that telling people to quit or cut back on work in order to resolve their work-family conflicts may not be the best long-run advice,” she wrote. “Rather, companies should consider adopting family friendly policies that allow workers to continue getting the health benefits of employment while still being able to meet their family responsibilities.”