NEW research suggests we have been looking at the work-life balance in the wrong way. Work may represent more than just a means of paying the bills — many of us feel happier there than we do at home.
Those of you who were secretly relieved to return to work after the summer holidays will have already realised this. While colleagues count down the hours until they clock out, you see work as a refuge, a place where you are less stressed than you are at home.
American research now shows that instead of being the exception, those of us who prefer being at work may be in the majority.
Penn State University recruited 122 men and women, of the average age of 41 who work Monday to Friday with weekends off. More than half were married and had children living at home.
They had their cortisol levels measured three times a day over the course of the experiment. Cortisol is the hormone the body releases when under stress. They were also asked how happy they felt and how much stress they felt.
Cortisol levels in men and women were shown to be lower at work than they were at home. This finding did not come as a surprise to Sarah Damaske, co-author of the report and assistant professor of labour and employment relations at Penn University.
“My research was inspired by my interest in the work of sociologist Arlie Hochschild,” she explains. “She wrote a book called The Time Bind, arguing that work has become a haven and home has become work. Our findings suggest work is good for you and combining work and family life can be a challenge.”
Hochschild identifies the rise of two-career families as a reason for this. Parents returning from work have children to feed and homework to supervise as well as cooking and cleaning to do before they collapse into bed. For many, and especially for working mothers, home life has become what Hochschild calls ‘a second shift’.
Finding that men and women felt less stress at the weekend reinforced this concept for Damaske. “Work gives us a break from the pressures of home life,” she says. “But the demands of both lead many to try to cram too much in during the week. This explains why we feel more relaxed at the weekend, when we have just our home lives to deal with.”
What factors make the workplace more attractive than home? Tony Moore, a couples counsellor and psychotherapist with Relationships Ireland, says it’s about different levels of responsibility.
“There are more stresses at home because everything that must be done must be done by us. We cannot delegate to colleagues or other members of the team,” he says.
He also believes the recognition we are given in the workplace.
Senior colleagues praise our efforts whereas our spouses may take us for granted at home. And when was the last time the children thanked us for doing the laundry, cooking or cleaning?
“We are rewarded at work through pay,” adds Moore. “The status of housework is low in comparison; we all tend to devalue it.”
Evin Cowhey, an occupational psychologist with Enact, a work psychology consultancy in Dublin, highlights the relative emotional stability of workplace relationships as another attractive factor. “We all make more of an effort at work and this may be more agreeable than the mix of positive and negative emotions and moods of husbands, wives and children,” she says.
The research also found a difference in the reported happiness levels of men and women. Both were less stressed at work but women reported themselves happier there, while men reported themselves happier at home.
Cowhey believes this may be because women are expected to contribute more to the running of the home. “Research shows female managers with children living at home report higher levels of stress than their male colleagues,” she says.
“Suggestions have been made that women experience greater difficulty in controlling competing demands between home and family life as they are expected to be just as committed to their work as men, but also required to give priority to their family role.”
Most men don’t experience this combination of pressure. There is much less pressure on them at home because it is still women who bear the brunt of domestic chores and childcare.
However, it wasn’t just multi-tasking mothers and hassled parents who saw work as a haven from home. The research showed single and child-free people were more relaxed there too.
Perhaps the fact that workplaces are now more enjoyable places to be has something to do with it? Top companies such as Google now offer perks that few homes could ever hope to match. Google employees can avail of free gourmet food, dry cleaning services and car washes as well as on-site yoga classes, fitness classes in the gym and subsidised massages and haircuts. Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft and other multinationals offer similar benefits. Perhaps it’s no wonder some of their staff don’t want to go home, especially if home means an empty house with nothing to do or a noisy house with too much to do.
Moore sees a danger in prioritising work to this extent. “It can be a huge relief for some people to get out of the house and leave their problems at home,” he says. “We spend more time with colleagues than with family and close attachments can result. One of the reasons infidelity is on the rise is because people value their relationships with their colleagues more than their relationships with their partner and children. We need to realise we only see part of the real person at work.”
Cowhey also warns against prioritising work too much. “Some organisations offer great benefits and perks and these positively impact on the job satisfaction and performance of employees,” she says. “A caution would be that employees should not allow their work life to influence their experience of a positive family life as a result.”
How’s that for a complete reversal of the way we see the work-life balance?
1: You were relieved your holidays were over and excited about returning to the office. You may even have splashed out on new office clothes or a haircut in anticipation of your return. And you’ve booked lunch with your office friends.
2: You have close relationships with your colleagues. You go out for lunch most days and plan regular nights out. You miss the socialising when you’re away.
3: You are meticulous about your desk. You may have to put up with untidiness at home but your desk is a refuge from all that. Your pens are stored in neat containers and papers are carefully filed. It’s all about control as opposed to the chaos of home.
4: You prefer who you are at work. At home, you’re stressed and exhausted but you are calm and efficient at work. You enjoy the clear division of labour in the workplace and enjoy the escape from the muddle of childcare and housework.
5: You feel more appreciated at work. You are rarely thanked for all you do at home but your efforts are always noticed at work. It makes a refreshing change.
6: You appreciate the advice of more senior colleagues. If only you had someone to go to for guidance when it came to your personal life at home.
7: It’s gratifying when junior colleagues seek your advice too. Your spouse and children rarely listen to what you have to say.
8: You delay going home at the end of the day. Going out for drinks always seems like a more enjoyable option than returning home.