National surveys and other studies continuously tell us that work is a major source of stress for Americans. A 2005 Work and Families Institute study found that almost 90 percent of workers felt they either never had enough time in the day to do their job or that their job required them to work very hard. A Pew Report from 2013 found that more than half of all working moms and working dads experience work-family conflict. One-third of working moms and dads feel rushed on work-days, and almost 50 percent of working dads (and 25 percent of working moms) say they don’t have enough time with their children. And in a recently completed research project I helped conduct, we found that people report feeling less stressed out on non-work days than on work-days. Home, most of us believe, is where we recover from the stress of the work day.
But actually, when my fellow Penn State researchers, Joshua Smyth, Matthew Zawadzki, and I measured people’s cortisol levels, a major biological marker of stress, we found that people have significantly lower levels of stress at work than at home. These low levels of cortisol may help explain a long-standing finding that has always been hard to reconcile with the idea that work is a major source of stress: People who work have better mental and physical health than their non-working peers, according to research published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, Social Science Research, the American Sociological Review, and the Handbook of the Sociology of Mental Health. Mothers who work full time and steadily across their twenties and thirties report better mental and physical health at age 45 than mothers who work part-time, who stay at home, or who experience repeated bouts of unemployment.Further contradicting conventional wisdom, we found that women as well as men have lower levels of stress at work than at home. In fact, women may get more renewal from work than men, because unlike men, they report themselves happier at work than at home. It is men, not women, who report being happier at home than at work.
We were surprised to find that even parents—both mothers and fathers—had lower stress at work than at home. However, parents did not experience as big a decrease in their stress levels as non-parents.
Our findings suggest that telling people to quit or cut back on work in order to resolve their work-family conflicts may not be the best long-run advice. Rather, companies should consider adopting family friendly policies that allow workers to continue getting the health benefits of employment while still being able to meet their family responsibilities. One model is the “results only work environments,” a policy adopted by Gap, Inc., which allows workers more flexibility in the time and place of their schedules, as long as they are getting their work done. Telecommuting, paid sick days, paternity and maternity leaves, are all policies that make it easier for workers to retain the health benefits of employment and for companies to retain the financial benefits of having loyal employees rather than having to deal with constant job turnover.
To view this report on the Council on Contemporary Families website, click here.