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Work may be haven to recuperate from home life stress, research says

Specialist Charles Boedinghaus, left, and trader Robert Moran, work at a post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, during the IPO of Parsley Energy, Friday, May 23, 2014. Founded in 2008, Parsley Energy is an independent oil and natural gas compan
Specialist Charles Boedinghaus, left, and trader Robert Moran, work at a post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, during the IPO of Parsley Energy, Friday, May 23, 2014. Founded in 2008, Parsley Energy is an independent oil and natural gas company with operations in the Permian Basin.
Richard Drew, Associated Press

Thoughts that home is the place to unwind and relax from the stresses of work are backward, according to new research that found more stress at home, based on cortisol levels.

Cortisol is the stress hormone.

When Pennsylvania State University researchers measured cortisol levels of 122 subjects, they found that "people have significantly lower levels of stress at work than at home," according to a research brief prepared for The Council on Contemporary Families by Sarah Damaske, assistant professor of labor and employment relations, sociology and women's studies at Penn State and the study's lead author.

The research will be published in Journal of Science and Medicine.

The findings were true for men and women, though women derived more stress-lowering benefit from work than men did. Women also reported being happier at work than at home, the study said. Conversely, men said they are happier at home than at work.

Damaske said parents didn't get as much decrease in stress as do employees who don't have children.

The research findings were true across education and occupation levels and across gender, she noted. On cortisol levels, the one difference they found was between income levels. Those in the highest-income group did not have lower cortisol levels at work.

Damaske said researchers cannot explain the "why" of well-documented findings that people who work have better physical and mental health than people who don't work. Some have theorized, she said, that there are social and cultural norms that value paid work, so there may be penalties for not being employed: "We know work done in home primarily by women is undervalued, so there may be a health cost to that," she said.

Damaske and co-authors Joshua Smyth and Matthew Zadwaski noted other research on the health benefits work provides, citing studies in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, Social Science Research, the American Sociological Review, and the Handbook of the Sociology of Mental Health.

Even women with poor work history and "lots of unemployment," when asked why they kept trying to get back to work, told the researchers it was not just about money, but for many work provided a sense of pride. They noted that pride whether the job was an executive position at a major corporation or employment as a store cashier, Damaske said in a telephone interview.

Findings were different when they asked people how they felt. They responded that they felt, on average, less stress on the weekend than on weekdays. That makes sense, Damaske said, when you consider it more closely.

"Work is good for you, but it can run into the rest of your life and it's hard to fit the rest of your life in and around your work schedule," Damaske said. "Dinner has to be made, kids need help with homework and laundry doesn't do itself. I think on weekdays, there maybe is the added experience of feeling the stress of trying to get everything done that you don't have on the weekend."

Pew Research Social and Demographic Trends last year published a report on modern parenthood, noting that parental roles are more similar in some ways than in past generations. Dads do more housework and child care than they used to, while moms are more likely to work outside the home for pay than they did in bygone years. They are close to equal in how many report stress about work-life balance.

Even then, the report said while men are spending more time than they used to with housework and child care, "fathers have by no means caught up to mothers in terms of time spent caring for children and doing household chores, but there has been some gender convergence in the way they divide their time between work and home."

The Penn State research finding was similar and emphasizes the need for people to find balance between work and the rest of their lives, Damaske said.

"This suggests that work is still structured as though there's a stay-at-home mom and a bread-winning dad, which is usually not the case," Damaske said. "There are ways to structure work so that people can do it and still have full lives outside of it."

She said men, in particular, may be constrained by notions of traditional roles and find it hard to change what they do.

The researchers suggest companies embrace policies that help workers remain employed and loyal, reaping health benefits while removing some stress from home life. Examples include telecommuting, paid sick days and paternity and maternity leave.

"Flexible workplace means that people aren't in a position to 'fail' at home in order to succeed at work," said Virginia Rutter, professor of sociology at Framingham State University and senior scholar at the Council on Contemporary Families.

She called the research important because "it refocuses our awareness of the tensions in modern life away from too much work and the simplicity of home — i.e. nostalgia for a time that barely existed ever — and says that really we have a lot more to do to give humans balance or peace," said Rutter.

Damaske said she and her colleagues hope the research will prompt more broad discussion about work-life balance: "We keep circling around these questions," she said.

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