Brigid Schulte

Work less stressful than being at home

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carrying_house_pc_1600_wht_4461It seems that the idea of “work-life balance” (threatened recently by female American CEOs espousing “work-life merge“) is now so dated.

New research indicates that for many people the workplace is where they are happiest. Of course it’s always been known that some people go to work to get away from an unhappy home life and that people who hate their jobs stay away as often as they can get away with.

But it seems more people are seeing the work-place as a refuge, somewhere where they feel valued; putting off going home to children and partners demanding their time and expecting them to share the domestic duties when they’d rather be at the bar with their colleagues after work.

Or if they are single avoiding going home to an empty space with nothing very satisfying to do. This all sounds rather bleak but Arlie Hochschild, a sociologist at the University of Berkeley, California looked at Fortune 500 companies and discovered that many people didn’t want to take advantage of part-time working, paternity or maternity benefits, and other family-friendly options.

Whilst acknowledging that their families came first (?) they saw the workplace as an escape from the demands of home life. The same applied for single and child-free employees. Many people actively choose to be at work.

It was Hochschild who coined the term “second shift” for the work that women in two-career families have to do when they go home at night. For these women work was a less stressful environment than being at home.

Furthermore about 20% of people she interviewed in her book “Time Bind” said they felt more supported and appreciated and work was the place where they could be “themselves“. One male executive is quoted as saying he found it easier to deal with his “office children” than his actual children.

Researchers at Penn State University have backed up this qualitative research with some  hard science. They recruited 122 men and women (average age = 41) who were employed on a 5-day week with weekends off. About 50% of them  were slightly better off than most middle-income earners ($30k -$75k a year). Roughly half of them were married and half of those had children living at home.

Over a 3-day period each participant gave a saliva sample which was tested for the level of cortisol, a stress hormone.  Each participant was also asked 6 times a day how happy they felt and how much stress they were under.

The researchers found that cortisol levels, a biological marker of stress, were significantly lower at work than at home, indicating lower levels of stress at work.

Although this goes against the idea that work is stressful it supports the fact that people who work have better levels of mental and physical health than people who don’t work.

Sarah Damaske, a co-author of the report, said that previous research showed that mothers who worked steadily through their 20s and 30s report better physical and mental health than part-time or non-working mothers.

Other interesting discoveries were:

  • The fact that women as well as men had lower stress levels at work suggest that they might get more out of being at work; women report themselves happier there than men who report the opposite.
  • Parents had lower levels of stress at home but there was less difference for non-parents.
  • Lower income people reported less stress at work but there was no difference in higher-earning people.

Lower income people might enjoy the distractions of being at work and socialising then face up to the reality of domestic duties and unpaid bills when they get home.

In some workplaces being in a team can be very supportive, being made  a fuss of on your birthday and having social events can be fun. People even get the chance to flirt, have affairs and meet their future partners!

Damaske says that the type of stress people suffer at work is different from that which they suffer at home. Families can be a source of pleasure as well as worry. At work we have some control over things as we can go home every night and if things get really bad change jobs. Not so easy with family commitments!

Especially for women pulling that “second shift“. Modern partners might do more than their parents did but men still don’t do the same share as women. The fact that stress levels drop at the weekend suggests it’s the balancing of competing work and home demands that is challenging.

Brigid  Schulte, author of “Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play when no-one has the time” expresses no surprise at the results. “The lives of women have changed almost completely in the past 40 years and the world around them has hardly changed at all. Women are still expected to do as much if not more at home as they always have, So many are trying to compete with men who don’t have the same responsibilities at home“.

Schulte thinks technology might help in future by allowing people to work in more flexible ways and  give managers the ability to assess performances accurately without worrying about how many hours people have worked.

I think that’s unlikely. There is already evidence that Gen Y employees resent people who use flexible working arrangements and many managers don’t trust employees to work from home. As for performance assessment, it might work at the level of simple repetitive jobs but all the evidence is that for jobs requiring problem-solving, creativity or other high functioning processes it doesn’t work.

Main Source: The Times ‘Body & Soul‘ 6 September 2014