Average cortisol levels were lower in both men and women, single or married, parents or not, at work.
Picture a busy day at work: The phone is ringing, emails are piling up, co-workers are interrupting with questions and your boss is making last-minute requests.
That might just sound like a picnic compared with a day at home filled with chores, errands, meals and child care. Even for those with a happy family life, home sometimes can feel more taxing than work.
After decades of social scientists examining the corporate workplace and studying ways to improve it, experts now say being at work is good for our health. And there are aspects of work we might want to emulate at home.
In a new study, published online last month in Social Science & Medicine, researchers at Penn State University found significantly and consistently lower levels of cortisol, a hormone released in response to stress, in a majority of subjects when they were at work compared with when they were at home. This was true for both men and women, and parents and people without children.
The researchers randomly solicited 122 participants in a midsize northeastern U.S. city, which they declined to identify due to the university’s research privacy guidelines. All were over age 18 and worked outside the home five days a week within the 6 a.m.-to-7 p.m. time window.
The researchers taught the participants to test their own cortisol levels by swabbing the inside of a cheek, and gave each of them a palm device that prompted them to do it six times a day. At those times, they also reported where they were, how stressed they felt and how happy they were. The researchers looked only at participants’ levels of cortisol and not other hormones.
The majority of subjects had on average lower levels of cortisol at work than at home. It made no difference what their occupation was, whether they were single or married or even if they liked their job or not. One intriguing finding: The only participants who didn’t have lower levels of cortisol at work—their levels remained the same as at home—were those who earned more than $75,000 a year. (The researchers, who didn’t pursue that finding for this study, said they believe the salary bar would have been higher in a city with a more expensive standard of living.)
The study also found that while both parents and childless adults were less stressed at work, the difference was greater for people without children. Researchers say this may be because parents bring some home stress to work with them, or because children may help relieve stress at home.
Both men and women showed less stress at work. But women were more likely to report feeling happier there. Men were more likely to feel happier at home. The researchers say this may be because women still do more housework and child care and may feel they have less free time.
Experts say there are other reasons why work is less stressful than home for many. “Paid work is more valued in society,” says Sarah Damaske, assistant professor of labor and employment relations, sociology and women’s studies at Penn State, who was the lead researcher on the study. “Household work is monotonous and not particularly rewarding.”
We get better at our job with time (hopefully), and the increased competence means less stress and more rewards. Yet none of us, no matter how long we’ve been doing it, ever truly feels like an expert at parenting or even at marriage.
We are more likely to feel appreciated at work, Dr. Damaske says. At home many of our efforts go unnoticed. And let’s not forget: At work, we get paid. Imagine giving your family an invoice.
There is behavioral etiquette at work. No yelling, storming off or crying—at least, not if we want to keep our job and our colleagues’ respect. Support and friendship of co-workers offer stress relief. We may listen to others’ problems, but ultimately they aren’t our concern. At home, meanwhile, stress is contagious. “You can’t pause and say to your toddler, ‘Mommy needs a timeout,’ ” Dr. Damaske says.
Much of the advice to families and couples includes the warning to “leave work stress at the office” and even to build in a transition activity, such as a walk around the block, to change our mind-set from work to home. The recent findings, though, suggest our home life, not our attitude, might be due for some change.
Tara Kennedy-Kline, a family advocate and owner of a toy-distribution company, says on an evening or weekend she has been known to go to her warehouse and rearrange 1,500 boxes in a shipping container just to get away from her family’s requests of “What’s for dinner?” and “Where is my uniform?”
“I love my home and family, but there is just something about being able to walk away from the homework, dinner, karate, football, piano lessons, roller-skating transport and laundry folding, and retreat to my cold concrete warehouse,” says the 43-year-old, who lives in Shoemakersville, Pa.
So how can we make domestic life less stressful? “Make home a little more like work,” says Richard Levak, a Del Mar, Calif., psychologist
First, learn to set boundaries—just as when we are in our office or cubicle and we say no to a request that isn’t in our domain. Explain to children or a spouse that you need uninterrupted time alone. Help them rehearse what to do while you are unavailable. Create a place where they can write down what they want to tell you when they have the urge to interrupt, so you can read it together later.
Prepare for pushback. “Everyone will resist. They want access to you all the time,” Dr. Levak says. “You have to be mindful that your spouse or kids will feel rejected.” He suggests preparing them by telling them when and for how long you are planning to take a break.
Build down time into everyone’s schedule. Set aside specific times at home to relax and have fun, and make them inviolate. Plan a movie night. Put a regular exercise time on the calendar. Take a walk after dinner every evening.
People who live alone can fall into a stressful pattern of drifting around the house, doing small chores, checking the fridge, flipping channels on the TV—responding to stimuli but not focusing on a task, Dr. Levak says. “You have to envision some rewarding event and plan for it.”
If you want appreciation, try modeling that behavior. Bring your spouse coffee in bed. Give the children a treat when they’ve done something well. If you live alone, celebrate your own accomplishments (I like to take myself to lunch).
Time at home is usually unstructured, so chores can drag on endlessly. At work, we take scheduled breaks—for a quick walk, a cup of coffee or a laugh with a co-worker—which help us stay focused.
Create a greater sense of control at home by building in more structure, Dr. Levak says. Don’t watch TV mindlessly; record only what you care about and watch one evening a week. Sit down to meals at the table. Try not to answer email or texts after a certain time. “If you want to improve your level of happiness at home, you need to be as mindful of following a structure at home as you are at work,” Dr. Levak says.