Health
4:38 pm
Thu May 22, 2014

Think Work Is Stressful? For Many, It's More Relaxing Than Home

Originally published on Thu May 22, 2014 5:10 pm

Many Americans say their jobs are stressful — we complain of too much to do in too little time, demanding bosses or difficult colleagues. But researcher Sarah Damaske wanted to know, objectively, is being at work any harder than being at home?

So Damaske, a professor of labor and employment at Pennsylvania State University, had 122 people swab their saliva six times a day for three days to test cortisol levels, a biological marker of stress. And she found something striking: The most relaxing part of most people's day is when they are on the job.

"This is across gender, across education level, across occupation level," Damaske says. "So, a pretty strong finding."

In addition to testing saliva samples, researchers also asked participants how they felt throughout the study. Men reported no big changes across the day, but Damaske says women were significantly more likely to say they were happier at work.

"Part of this might be women are leaving work and then cooking dinner and doing the dishes," Damaske says. "Even though men are doing more than they did 30 years ago, it's still not an even distribution."

During a recent school drop-off in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Washington, D.C., there was no gender divide when NPR asked people — unscientifically — what stressed them out most during their day.

"Getting the kids up, getting them dressed, packing their lunches," said Tonija Navas, who works at an international nonprofit while her two kids are in school. "I am at ease — and then I have to pick them up," she said, laughing. "It starts all over again."

For Jason Hamacher, a massage therapist, a stressor is "feeding [the kids] breakfast. It drives me insane," he said. "I have to distract my 1-year-old with a toy, maybe some kind of video, which I hate doing but it's the only thing that works."

Now — surprise — it's not just parents who feel more stressed at home. The study finds that work is even more of a haven for people without kids, like Leigh Hartless.

Standing in line at a food truck, she says that she feels stressed just thinking about everything she has to do once she gets home from work.

"If your job is that stressful, you can quit," Hartless says. "But your personal life? You can't quit your personal life."

These sentiments don't surprise Arlie Russell Hochschild, a sociologist with the University of California, Berkeley. She made waves in the late '90s, when her book The Time Bind asserted that for some people, home life had become so stressful that work was a refuge.

Hochschild remembers asking, "Where do you feel really good at what you do? Relaxed? Appreciated?"

"People would say, 'Well, gosh. Actually, if I'm doing the right thing at work, chances are my supervisor's clapping me on the back,' " Hochschild says. " 'But if I'm doing the right thing at home, with my teenager who wants the car and is mad at me, I'm doing the right thing but I'm not appreciated.' "

Of course, not all stress is equal, Hochschild says. You still love your fussy baby.

Penn State's Damaske sees a positive element in these findings: that work lowers one's biological stress levels.

"This is good news," she says. "Work is actually good for you."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Americans say their jobs are stressful, at least that's what a long line of researchers have heard: Complaints of too much to do, not enough time. Well, a new study out today finds most people actually experience more stress at home than at work.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden has more.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Sure, work is hard. But Pennsylvania State researcher Sarah Damaske wanted to know objectively is it harder than being at home? She had people swab their saliva to get their cortisol levels, a biological marker of stress. Through multiple tests over several days, she found a striking difference. It turns out the most relaxing part of most people's day is when we're on the job.

SARAH DAMASKE: This is across gender, across education level, across occupation level, so pretty strong finding.

LUDDEN: One exception: higher income people actually had more stress at work. Employees also reported how they felt during the study. For men, no big changes. But Damaske says women were significantly more likely to say they were happier at work.

DAMASKE: Part of this might be women are leaving work and then cooking dinner and doing the dishes, and even though men are doing more than they did 30 years ago, it's still not an even distribution.

LUDDEN: There was no gender divide during school drop off this morning in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Washington, D.C. We asked: What's the most stressful part of your day?

TONIJA NAVAS: Getting the kids up, getting them dressed, packing their lunches.

LUDDEN: Tonija Navas works for an international non-profit while her two kids are in school.

NAVAS: I am at ease, and then I have to pick them up.

(LAUGHTER)

NAVAS: It starts all over again.

JASON HAMACHER: Feeding them breakfast. It drives me insane.

LUDDEN: Jason Hamacher is a massage therapist.

HAMACHER: I have to distract my one-year-old with a toy. Maybe some kind of video, which I hate doing but it's the only thing that works. That's the most stressful part of my day.

LUDDEN: Now, surprise: It's not just parents. Today's study finds work is even more of a haven for people without kids, like Leigh Hartless. Standing in line at a food truck, she says she stresses out just thinking about all the stuff she has to do at home, after work.

LEIGH HARTLESS: If you're work life is that stressful you can quit. But your personal life, you can't quit your personal life.

ARLIE HOCHSCHILD: Well, I have to say I'm not surprised.

LUDDEN: Arlie Hochschild is a sociologist with the University of California at Berkeley. She made waves in the late '90s, when her book, "The Time Bind," asserted that for some, home life had become so stressful, work was a refuge. She remembers asking: Where do you feel really good at what you do, relaxed, appreciated?

HOCHSCHILD: And people would say, well, gosh. Actually, if I'm doing the right thing at work, chances are my supervisor's clapping me on the back. But if I'm doing the right thing at home, with my teenager who wants the car and is mad at me, I'm doing the right thing but I'm not appreciated.

LUDDEN: Of course, not all stress is equal, says Hochschild. You still love your squabbling baby. Penn State researcher Sarah Damaske sees her findings as not so much about being harried at home.

DAMASKE: I see it as this is good news. Work is actually good for you. It's good for you because it lowers your biological stress levels.

LUDDEN: So whatever juggling it takes to get to your job, she says, may well be worth it. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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