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Home, stressful home

Study shows many of us are happier at the workplace

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Juggling work and home life causes the most stress. Women still shoulder the burden, a new study says.

MATT MCCLAIN / THE WASHINGTON POST FILES Enlarge Image

Juggling work and home life causes the most stress. Women still shoulder the burden, a new study says.

In her 1997 book, The Time Bind, sociologist Arlie Hochschild shakes up conventional notions of family life by arguing 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 more stressful for people than work.

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 show both men and women are significantly less stressed out at work than they are at home.

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 -- 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 multi-tasking," 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 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 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."

It's something I can relate to. Once, when my husband, Tom, a military reporter, was overseas for another long stint covering the war in Afghanistan, he sent me a photo of himself in the middle of nowhere. He was sitting outside a metal box, his bunk. He was wearing a bullet-proof vest, probably hadn't showered in days and was beaming. My reaction shocked me: I was jealous. All he had to do when he woke up, I thought at the time, was go to work. And in my world, I was trying to manage work and kids and home and broken appliances.

Tom said he hears the same from soldiers all the time: that in some ways it's easier to be deployed, doing one thing, no matter how dangerous, than back in the swirl of work and doctor appointments and bills to pay and unpredictable toddlers.

And, although Damaske said the study findings are counter-intuitive, in some ways, they're entirely predictable. Think about it. Although gender roles have shifted far enough for women to go to work, they haven't budged much for men to do more at home. So women not only shoulder about twice the housework and child care, they're carrying the mental load of planning, organizing and keeping track of it all. So home, really, is just another demanding workplace. And without fair help, one that can leave you feeling resentful and unappreciated after a long day at work.

Damaske argues 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 that measure employees by their performance, not when, where, how or the hours they put in.

"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."

 

-- Washington Post-Bloomberg

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 1, 2014 A1

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