Is Work Your Happy Place?

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Do you feel more stressed out at work or at home?

While work is widely viewed as the major source of stress for Americans, new research shows that people have significantly lower stress levels when they are at the office compared to their time at home.

Researchers from Pennsylvania State University tested the cortisol levels of 122 workers during the workday and on weekends. Using saliva samples, they found that levels of cortisol – which is a biological marker for stress – were on the whole much lower when the person was at work than when he or she went home.

The finding suggests that for many people, the workplace is a sort of haven away from life’s daily problems. At home, the pressures of juggling work and family responsibilities set in and cause us to feel more stress.

“The fact that people’s stress levels go down when they are at work, I don’t think it means that they don’t like their homes or their kids,’’ said Sarah Damaske, an assistant professor of labor and employment relations at Penn State and the study’s lead author. “I think it suggests that there is something about work that is good for you. Being in the moment, focusing on a task, completing that task, socializing with your co-workers — all of these are beneficial and that’s part of what’s lowering your stress level.’’

The researchers also asked men and women about their levels of happiness at work and at home. While men over all reported being happier at home than at work, women were happier at work than at home. Women also reported higher levels of happiness at work than did the men in the study, which will be published soon in the journal Social Science & Medicine. The study was released by the Council on Contemporary Families, a nonprofit group that focuses on work and family issues.

“It speaks to something that we’ve long known – women have more to do at home when they come home at the end of a workday,” said Dr. Damaske. “They have less leisure time. There is all this extra stuff to be done, that second shift.”

Another reason women report lower stress and more happiness at work compared to men is that they might like their jobs better. “I think women who remain employed full time over the long run tend to have found jobs where they want to remain employed,” said Dr. Damaske. “Due to the quality of the job, women might be more satisfied with their jobs than men are.”

Notably, there were no gender differences in stress levels on weekends. “Everyone is less stressed on weekends,” said Dr. Damaske.

The solution to the stress gap between home and work may be for employers to offer more family-friendly policies, including giving workers flexible schedules or the option to work at home to resolve the conflicts that arise from competing responsibilities between work and family.

“This is not a call to work a million more hours or for women to not spend time with their families,” said Dr. Damaske. “There is something about combining work and family that makes a home — at least on a workday — a little less of a happy place.”

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