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Workplace stress has been a longtime interest of mine, but now there is research indicating that for most people, being at home is more stressful than being at work. Does this seem counterintuitive to you?

One study asked volunteers to collect saliva samples over the course of the day. When the samples were analyzed for the presence of a stress hormone, it turned out that levels were significantly higher when the volunteers were at home, compared to levels at work.

Consider some of the reasons for workplace stress that occupations are rated on in the O*NET database:

  • Dealing with unpleasant or angry people
  •  Competition
  • Time pressure
  • Needing to be exact or accurate
  • Consequences of errors
  • Dealing with physically aggressive people
  • Conflict situations
  • Decisions that have impact on co-workers or company results
  • Working at a pace determined by the speed of equipment

Now consider some of the reasons for stress at home:

  • Dealing with unpleasant or angry family members or neighbors
  • Time pressure to meet nonwork commitments (such as housekeeping chores)
  • Conflict situations with spouse, children, or neighbors
  • Illness or death of a loved one
  • Unruly pets
  • Malfunctioning appliances or furnishings
  • Decisions that have impact on family
  • Adjusting to suit family members’ schedules

What’s the difference between these two sets of stressors? Researchers speculate that people are better able to shrug off workplace stressors because they imagine (whether realistically or not) that they always have the option of quitting their job (or getting a reassignment), whereas it is much less common to imagine walking away from domestic woes. In addition, people are more able to vent about workplace stressors, because it is socially more acceptable to complain about your boss or your clients than it is to badmouth your spouse or your kids.

It’s interesting that one group among those in the saliva study were an exception to the general trend and found work more stressful than time at home: people with high incomes. I’m not surprised. I have run correlations between stress factors and income, using the O*NET ratings and the BLS figures for median incomes across the spectrum of occupations. I find a correlation of 0.33 for Impact of Decisions and 0.34 for Level of Competition, as well as 0.25 for the overall need for Stress Tolerance. It seems that when you’re earning the big bucks, your home can really be a refuge from stress—although technology (a cell phone or a networked computer) is now allowing work to intrude on your time at home more than ever before.

I remember what my life was like when I was working as a lowly and low-paid research assistant at Educational Testing Service and had just bought my first house. On my weekends, I had so much fixing-up work to do on that little Cape Cod house that I was happy when Monday morning rolled around. I used to say to my carpool, “I’m so glad to get back to work. Now I can relax!”

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