At the end of a long weekend like the one we’re approaching, when my husband and his siblings were small, my father-in-law used to say, “Thank God it’s not Christmas break.” Translation: I love my children, but I am relieved to get back to work. It turns out he’s not the only one who feels this way. A new study from researchers at Penn State shows that Americans have lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, at work than they do at home.
Lead author Sarah Damaske and her colleagues measured the cortisol of 122 workers of various socioeconomic levels at work and at home, and also asked them for their subjective stress levels. Across the board, regardless of socioeconomic status or gender or whether or not they had kids, everyone had lower levels of cortisol at work, though subjective levels of stress were different for men and women. Women reported lower levels of stress at work, while men reported lower levels of stress at home.
The study is very small, so we shouldn’t treat the findings as the last word in work-life stress (though they may ring true). Still, there are two questions that arise from these findings: Why don’t cortisol levels match reported stress levels, and why are women less stressed both physically and emotionally at work? On the first question, part of the issue, especially for white-collar workers, is that work responsibilities can bleed into home life. There is an expectation that we will all be answering email 24/7 at home, but unless there’s an emergency, you probably don’t have to deal with your home life in quite the same unrelenting way when you’re at work. Only at work can you set one part of your life aside.
On question No. 2, the researchers speculate that women find more satisfaction at work because it’s more culturally acceptable for women—particularly married women and mothers—who hate their jobs to quit. So the women who remain employed in full-time work are women who actually like their jobs. It’s less culturally acceptable for men who are unhappy at work to quit.
Another part of why women are more stressed at home is the good old second shift. Though many more men are pulling their weight when it comes to child care and housework than they used to, women are still doing more household work than men are. All across the world, regardless of whether they have children or not, men have more leisure time than women do.
The researchers suggest workplace fixes for lowering stress at home, like results-only work environments, where employers focus on outcomes and give employees a lot of personal autonomy (Seth Stevenson wrote about this recently for Slate). While it would be great if more workplaces subscribed to the results-only philosophy, for most workers that kind of schedule control is a pipe dream. So more practically, working women might want to stop putting so much pressure on themselves at home. (Interestingly, according to this study, nonparents had bigger cortisol drops at work then parents did, though the researchers don’t provide any simple explanation for why that is.)
In her wonderful book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, Washington Post reporter Brigid Schulte recommends that women allow themselves to really play. “Understand that for women, there never has been a history or culture of leisure or play, unless you consider sweeping, making cheese, churning butter, quilting and knitting your kind of fun.” What “play” means is different for everyone, but keep in mind that chilling out doesn’t have to be a project in itself. Preserving your own lemons in order to cook an elaborate meal, or fashioning homemade place mats for the dining room table you plan to build, may not take down your stress levels—and hosting your kid’s class potluck most certainly will not.