In graduate school, I read a book called The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work by sociologist Arlie Hochschild. At the time, I did not have children and could not imagine how people could feel more at home at work than they did where they actually lived. I’ve always loved my work and been comfortable in my office, but how could it ever be better than the place where you go to trade your uncomfortable clothes for yoga pants and a hoodie so you can eat junk food while watching mindless, but highly entertaining television? Then I had kids: two boys, who are now four and seven. And Monday morning at eight o’clock, when I sit alone in my office, is the most peaceful and relaxing moment of my week.
What could possibly make people feel more at home at work? For me, after a long, loud, chaotic weekend of living room wrestling matches, epic meltdowns and endless questions that have no answers, I long for the quiet and solitude of my office. Hochschild spent three years interviewing and observing employees of a Fortune 500 company. She noted the reversal of the “home as haven in a heartless world (work)” model to be evident among all levels of employees, among women and men, and among those who were married and who were single. Hochschild notes that people often felt more appreciated at work than at home, that they enjoyed seeing their friends, and that the problems that needed to be solved at work were more practical, with well articulated, achievable outcomes than, say, my kids’ insistence that we need to have a swimming pool in our kitchen.
A more recent study (Damaske, Smyth, and Zawadzki 2014) seeks to empirically test this “work as haven” hypothesis. Researchers measured self-reports of happiness and stress at work and at home as well as cortisol levels ( chemical measure of stress) of participants while at home and at work. The study’s findings support the “work as haven” hypothesis. Overall, participants had lower cortisol levels (indicating lower stress) at work than at home. This finding was stronger for those with lower incomes and for those with no children at home. Interestingly, there was a contradiction between participants’ self-reported feelings of stress and their cortisol levels, with participants reporting higher subjective feelings of stress on workdays than on non-workdays. As for self-reports of happiness, women were significantly happier at work than at home, while men reported slightly higher levels of happiness at home.The finding that people with no children in the home had lower cortisol levels at work than people with children at home was surprising to the researchers (and to me). Age of children in the home was not included in the analysis, nor was the difference between mothers and fathers. Also, I wonder if parents may have different self-reports than what their cortisol levels reveal? The study authors did not address this.
Maybe I’m very happy on Monday morning to be sitting quietly in my clean office, drinking coffee while someone else has to listen to my kids complain about how the color blue hurts their toes, but my cortisol level tells the story that I know at some point this week, likely today, I will forget to sign a permission slip, turn in a report to my boss that has a dinosaur battling a robot drawn on the front in red marker, and get a call from the school asking me to pick up a sick kid who will then end up clinging to me like a monkey while I give welcoming remarks to a group of Azerbaijani government officials. I wish someone had taken a picture that day!
Damaske, Sarah, Joshua M. Smyth, and Matthew Zawadzki. 2014. “Has work replaced home as haven? Re-examining Arlie Hochschild’s Time Bind proposition with objective stress data.” Social Science and Medicine 115:130-138.
Hochschild, Arlie. 1997. The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work. New York: Metropolitan Books.