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Does the Workplace Provide a Respite From Stress at Home?

Cortisol levels are higher at home than work, supporting ethnographic findings.

Conventional wisdom dictates that work is a major source of stress and that time at home enables workers to recuperate and recharge after their stressful workdays. But is that truly the case?

In her highly-acclaimed book The Time Bind, sociologist Arlie Hochschild [1] reverses this logic, arguing that the workplace may provide an escape from the stresses of family life even as lengthened work hours exacerbate the stress at home. Her qualitative account is supported by recent research indicating that individuals have higher cortisol levels at home than they do at work [2]. Cortisol is a major biological marker of stress, so the obvious conclusion is that for the volunteers in this study the workplace is less stressful than home life.

Why would home surpass work as a source of stress? Hochschild argues that women’s mass entry into employment created a time shortage at home as families face a “second shift” of housework, cooking, and childcare after the workday [3]. Not only are these chores often onerous in themselves, the division of tasks is frequently contentious [1, 3]. As a result, individuals may experience more stress at home than at work, enticing them to spend more time at work [1]. However, ironically, the stress at home is increased by long work hours. The more time one spends at work, the more housework is waiting at home. In addition, long work hours exacerbate tensions between family members over work-family balance and the division of chores.

In this light, research indicating that people feel more stressed on workdays than on weekends [2] might be capturing the stress of the second shift at home, rather than the stress of work itself. It seems that work is not especially stressful in itself, but working may make home life more stressful. Indeed, over half of working parents report that balancing home and work responsibilities is very or somewhat difficult [1]. If, as Hochschild argues, workers increase their hours at work to escape the stresses of home life—thus exacerbating the stress at home—home life will become increasingly stressful over time.

What might break this vicious cycle? Clearly, Americans need to improve their work-life balance, but quitting their jobs would not improve their overall well-being—employment is associated with improved physical and mental health [2]. Moreover, offering employees flexible work plans may not solve the problem either, unless workers can be persuaded to use them—some of the workers most pressed for time may prefer the time they spend at work over their time at home. (Many workers may also be justifiably concerned that taking advantage of “family friendly” job options would de-rail their career.) Unfortunately, there is unlikely to be a simple solution to America’s work-home conflict.


[1] Hochschild, Arlie. 1997. The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work. New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC.


[3] Hochschild, Arlie. 1989. The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home. New York: Penguin Books.

More from Elizabeth Aura McClintock Ph.D.
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