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Work may be haven to recuperate from home life stress, research says

Thoughts that home is a place to unwind and relax from the stress of work may be backward, according to research that says the opposite is actually true. To find out, Penn State researchers measured cortisol levels and asked questions.
Lois M. Collins, Deseret News Modified: May 23, 2014 at 4:42 pm •  Published: May 27, 2014
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Thoughts that home is the place to unwind and relax from the stresses of work are backward, according to new research that found more stress at home, based on cortisol levels.

Cortisol is the stress hormone.

When Pennsylvania State University researchers measured cortisol levels of 122 subjects, they found that "people have significantly lower levels of stress at work than at home," according to a research brief prepared for The Council on Contemporary Families by Sarah Damaske, assistant professor of labor and employment relations, sociology and women's studies at Penn State and the study's lead author.

The research will be published in Journal of Science and Medicine.

The findings were true for men and women, though women derived more stress-lowering benefit from work than men did. Women also reported being happier at work than at home, the study said. Conversely, men said they are happier at home than at work.

Damaske said parents didn't get as much decrease in stress as do employees who don't have children.

The research findings were true across education and occupation levels and across gender, she noted. On cortisol levels, the one difference they found was between income levels. Those in the highest-income group did not have lower cortisol levels at work.

Damaske said researchers cannot explain the "why" of well-documented findings that people who work have better physical and mental health than people who don't work. Some have theorized, she said, that there are social and cultural norms that value paid work, so there may be penalties for not being employed: "We know work done in home primarily by women is undervalued, so there may be a health cost to that," she said.

Damaske and co-authors Joshua Smyth and Matthew Zadwaski noted other research on the health benefits work provides, citing studies in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, Social Science Research, the American Sociological Review, and the Handbook of the Sociology of Mental Health.

Even women with poor work history and "lots of unemployment," when asked why they kept trying to get back to work, told the researchers it was not just about money, but for many work provided a sense of pride. They noted that pride whether the job was an executive position at a major corporation or employment as a store cashier, Damaske said in a telephone interview.