NPR logo

When Work Becomes A Haven From Stress At Home

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
When Work Becomes A Haven From Stress At Home

Hidden Brain

When Work Becomes A Haven From Stress At Home

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


We've been reporting about stress in America, and we have more coming, including something today from NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam, who joins us each week. Hi Shankar.


INSKEEP: OK. Stress me out.

VEDANTAM: Well, Steve, all our stories have been based on a nationwide poll conducted by NPR, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health. Something really caught my eye in the data. When I think of stress, I think people racing between meetings, crashing up against deadlines. What I found striking in the survey data was the amount of stress people seem to be experiencing outside of their work lives - health problems, the death of a loved one, even day-to-day events like juggling schedules among busy family members. These were among the top sources of stress in people's lives, and it's brought to mind some new research that I'd just seen by Sara Damaske, Joshua Smyth and Matthew Zawadzki at Penn State University. They've been studying stress a home and stress at work. I told Damaske about the survey, and she told me a big difference between stress at work and stress at home was the role of emotional entanglement. Here she is.

SARA DAMASKE: No matter how urgent something is at work, you're not as attached to - to that urgency as you would be to, say, a health scare or the death of a loved one. So I think it makes a lot of sense because we're emotionally entangled at home in a way that we aren't at work.

INSKEEP: OK, that makes intuitive sense when she says it, but is there evidence to show that's true?

VEDANTAM: Yes, so Damaske and her co-authors measured the levels of a hormone called cortisol - this is sometimes nicknamed the stress hormone. Levels of cortisol typically go up during times of stress. They recruited 122 volunteers and had them collect saliva samples at different points in the day because cortisol can be measured from your saliva. Here's the interesting thing. Cortisol levels didn't spike when the volunteers were at work. They spiked when the volunteers were at home.

INSKEEP: Wow, now, I wonder if that is, in part, because when you go to work, it may be a stressful job but you know what you're doing. You know what your job is. You're surrounded by people who may be supportive in one way or another. You go home and things can actually be, in many ways, unpredictable if you talk about a health crisis or problem with your kids.

VEDANTAM: That's right, and it comes down, I think, to a question of control. As Damaske says, we experience different kinds of control at home and work, At work, you actually have one ultimate trump card which you do not have in your home life. Here she is again.

DAMASKE: You just know you can quit. You can look for something else - that you can kind of leave your - leave your boss and your bad day behind - where those aren't exactly, necessarily, strategies that you have for home, right? So most of us aren't going to up and leave our families because they're stressful - although, most people's families are stressful from time to time.

INSKEEP: Shankar, I want to mention that although men are doing a lot more around the home, women still shoulder the greatest burden at home, and I wonder if these stressors are greater for women?

VEDANTAM: Well, it's interesting you should ask that, Steve, because one of things Damaske did do was she asked her volunteers to rate their happiness levels each time they provided a saliva sample. And she found that when you track those numbers, women were significantly happier at work than at home. And this meshes with earlier work that she and others have done showing that work can have protected effects on your physical and mental health.

INSKEEP: At the same time, it's not like work is un-stressful. People do complain about their jobs a lot.

VEDANTAM: That's right, and we hear about this all the time, Steve, and this is something Damaske and I talked about, which is one reason we might hear much more about stressors at work rather than stressors at home - is that it is socially acceptable to talk about stressors at work. It's much easier to talk about having a bad boss than it is to talk about having a bad marriage. Bottom line, Steve - I think there's a market in America for a restaurant called thank God it's Monday.

INSKEEP: Shankar, thanks very much.

VEDANTAM: Thank you Steve.

INSKEEP: We'll see you at that restaurant. You can find Shankar on Twitter @hiddenbrain. You can find this program as always @MorningEdition and @NPRInskeep as well as @NPRgreene. You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.