Work Life May be Less Stressful than Home Life

In their Social Science & Medicine paper, Assistant Professor of Labor Studies and Employment Relations and Sociology Sarah Damaske, Professor of Biobehavioral Health and Medicine Joshua Smyth, and Social Psychology and Women’s Studies Doctoral Candidate Matthew Zadawski, report that participants had less stress, as indicated by lower cortisol levels, when they were at work than when they were at home.

This finding was consistent across men and women, across marital statuses, and across education and occupation levels. The results showing that cortisol levels are lower at work for a large majority of their research participants may explain, in part, some of the physical and mental health benefits of work. That is, there may be actual physiological benefits of work in addition to the psycho-social benefits identified in prior research.

Damaske and her colleagues found some evidence to suggest that there is a more complicated story as well. People reported more stress on work-days than on non-work days, suggesting  that some  stress from home may stem from the challenges of combining personal and family responsibilities with work responsibilities. Although their overall findings are consistent with the “work as haven” hypothesis, it may also be that combining the responsibilities of work and home may increase people’s subjective experience of stress.

These seemingly contradictory findings are actually quite congruous—work is beneficial for people, but combining home and work responsibilities can be challenging. The results point to the continued need to restructure work so as to reduce its intrusion on home and maximize the potential benefits received from work.

Women are Happier at Work than at Home

The findings further suggest that (unlike men) women were significantly happier at work than they were at home, a finding which also supports the work as haven hypothesis.

Although the implications of the separate spheres theory are that employment man have negative implications for women (lower wages, occupational segregation in lower prestige positions, inability to advance in the labor force), Damaske and colleagues’ research suggests that women may benefit more from work than men. This may be explained by prior research that finds that the challenges women face in maintaining full-time work may push women out of the workplace if in less satisfactory or beneficial employment, leaving employed women who are more satisfied with their work.

Children vs. No Children

Surprisingly, the researchers also found that the relative reprieve from stress observed at work (as seen in lower levels of cortisol at work) is greater for those workers without children than for those with children living at home. This is not consistent with the work as haven hypothesis, wherein the presence of children in the household is one of the stressors at home and a reason that work is less stressful.

Moreover, women with children at home were not more likely to find work to be stress reducing. There are several interpretations of this finding. Perhaps there are fewer benefits of the stress-reduction of work for parents than for non-parents. Alternatively, parents may experience some stress-relief at home from the presence of their children.