In her 1997 book, “The Time Bind,” the sociologist Arlie Hochschild shook up conventional notions of family life when she argued that work was becoming more like home for many parents, a place of order and belonging where they willingly put in long hours. “I come to work to relax,” one person told her. Home, Hochschild said, was becoming more like work, with sullen children, resentful spouses, endless chores, stress and chaos.
Hochschild blew everyone’s mind by arguing that home, that once-sacred haven of rest and renewal, was in fact more stressful for people than work.
And now, researchers have the data to prove she was right.
In a newly released study in the Journal of Science and Medicine, researchers carefully examined the levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, of a variety of workers throughout the day. The data clearly showed that both men and women are significantly less stressed out at work than they are at home.
And the women they studied said they were happier at work, while the men said they felt happier at home.
“We found a big gender difference,” said Sarah Damaske, a sociologist and women’s studies professor at Penn State and one of the report authors. “Women were much happier at work than at home. And men were only moderately happier at home than at work.”
The results, Damaske said, are mind-blowing. Most people blame work as the source of stress in their lives.
Yet their findings – study subjects took saliva swipes five times a day to measure cortisol levels and wore beepers to report on their moods when contacted by researchers – support earlier research that people who work have better mental and physical health than those who don’t. And mothers who work steadily full-time in their 20s and 30s report better mental and physical health at age 45 than mothers who work part-time, stay home with children or have been unemployed.
“At work, people are potentially completing tasks. They’re able to focus their attention and accomplish things, both those with low and high incomes. They’re not multitasking,” she said. “We tend to think that jobs are rewarding if they’re professional, but actually people with lower incomes have more stress reduction at work.”
But those with high incomes, she said, both men and women, had much higher levels of cortisol at work, and felt happier at home.
But why do most people feel more stressed at home?
“Well, you just have a lot more going on,” Damaske said. “Trying to get anything done is a challenge.”
The findings are particularly disturbing. Stress and elevated levels of hormones like cortisol have been associated with high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, inflammation and cancer, to name a few diseases. Previous research has found that cortisol can act like a contagion and spread like a virus through a family. It can even alter the DNA in children.
But before you go off and think that parents, and mothers in particular, are heartless workaholics who prefer endless hours at the office or on the job to the joys of home and hearth, consider this key point: Both men and women were a lot less stressed out on the weekend – when they were home – than on the weekdays.
What does this tell you? It’s not so much that people prefer to be at work rather than at home or with kids. It’s that trying to do both in the same day is stressful. It’s the juggling that’s killing us.
“I don’t think it’s that home is stressful. When you’re home on Saturday, you’re not working. You go to the park, catch up on laundry. The day goes at a slower pace,” Damaske said. “I think it’s the combination of the two, work and home, that makes home feel so stressful to people during the work week.”
Damaske and her co-authors argue that the best way to lower stress levels is to make the juggle more manageable. And the best way to do that is to foster creative workplace policies like Results-Only Work Environments, or ROWE, which measures employees by their performance, not when, where, how or the hours they put in. Research funded by the National Institutes of Health has found ROWE significantly lowers stress levels, improves health, mood, employee commitment and loyalty and has other benefits.
“I know it can feel like we’re stuck, like we’re still in the era of the Organization Man of the 1950s,” Damaske said. “But the more we learn, the more we listen to people, like millennials, who want to find meaningful work, don’t want to be so devoted to work that they don’t have time for their outside lives, the more we can change.”