Your Cubicle Is Your Oasis

happy work

Here’s a way to reduce stress you probably hadn’t considered: go to work.

People have significantly lower levels of stress at work than at home, according to a study by Penn State researchers published in Social Science & Medicine. The team measured levels of cortisol—a marker of stress—during workdays and on weekends and found most people had less cortisol at work. The findings held for both women and men, regardless of occupation, marital status or even if they reported actually liking their job.

While both parents and childless adults were less stressed at work, people without children saw the biggest difference between their stress levels at home and work. That might be due to parents bringing their home stress to work, or because children help relieve stress once you are home.

At first glance, the results seem surprising. No one is suggesting that people don’t value their time at home with their families. But for many people, work can be less stressful. Tasks are more defined–compare finishing a work project to a seemingly endless list of domestic chores–and workers can socialize with and share experiences with colleagues. And the psychic benefits of getting a paycheck for your efforts may also have an impact.

Sarah Damaske, assistant professor of labor and employment relations at Penn State and the study’s lead author, told The New York Times: “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.’’

Less Work Does Not Equal Less Stress

The difference in cortisol levels was more significant for women than for men. That raises the question of whether the typical approaches toward work life balance–part-time work, taking time off or leaving the work force–may not be the best choices for many women.

Several previous studies concluded that people who work have better mental and physical health than people who don’t. And a 2012 study by Damaske and a colleague published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior found that mothers who worked full-time through their twenties and thirties were healthier at 45 than those who had worked part-time or taken time off for any reason.

The authors suggest that companies adopt family-friendly policies such as flexible schedules and telecommuting to allow both men and women to get the health benefits of work while reducing the conflict between work and home. For companies struggling to retain employees and recruit the best talent—and keep them engaged—it seems policies that work for employees also work for them.

About the Author

Susan Price has been writing about careers, entrepreneurs and personal finance for more than a decade. She’s been an editor at BusinessWeek, Money, and, among others.