For decades now, psychologists and social scientists have been waving a red flag about stress in the workplace. The last big government study in 2012 showed that in the UK a shocking 40% of employees experienced work-related stress.
But while the workplace undoubtedly has its challenges, is it really the sole source of the rising rates of stress-related illness in the UK, or are we missing a trick? If a new study causing a stir is anything to go by, the answer is a resounding yes, we are.
The study, carried out by Penn State University in America, found that in many ways being at work is good for our health and our stress can come instead from our home life.
Researchers discovered that cortisol, a hormone the body releases in response to stress, was much lower in subjects when they were at work versus when they were at home. One imagines this news is hardly surprising for many, especially the working mothers amongst us (the study did find that while both men and women found the workplace more relaxing, women more so). That said, lower stress rates at work were found amongst people who both did and didn’t have children, although those who did have kids had a greater difference in their cortisol levels between work and home.
Of course there are a number of factors to keep in mind before getting stressed tonight at home about your stress levels! The study only covered a very small group of 122 participants, as opposed to the British government survey with a sample group of over a million. We don’t know how many of those participants also took work home, and to top it off, the participants tested cortisol levels themselves, which leaves margin for error. And almost all participants felt less stressed on weekends than during the week, showing that it’s the juggling of work and stress that is at the heart of the matter.
And if you are making a high income, the results didn’t hold – the study showed thosewho were making a high income had the same level of stress at work and home. This is still an interesting finding. It shows the stress didn’t get worse at the office, and proves work is not the extreme danger zone we like to think.
Despite the small size and variables of the study, it did actually measure bodily reactions to stress, as opposed to just carry out workplace stress questionnaires,which makes it groundbreaking. We are sure to see more research questioning workplace stress in the future.
Until more research floods in, what can you do?
Why not start by looking at the way you manage your work life and finding ways to translate those successful methods into less stress for your home life?
Do you find yourself rushing around before bed on Sunday night trying to simultaneously hang the laundry, pack school lunches, and prepare a presentation? Or, if you live alone, do you find yourself drifting about and procrastinating, doing one thing than another, only to get to the end of the day and your paperwork and household chores are still not touched?
The danger of home is that we can throw away the structure we naturally put into practise at work in favour of ‘taking it as it comes’, with the result that we end our days anxious at what is left undone.
The secret is to bring some time management to your home life. Note the word some. While you don’t need to go for lunch at exactly the same time every day, don’t be adverse to having clocks in the right places, such as near the television, or setting your phone alarm to go off a few times a day to remind you how your day is passing. Get a handle on where the hours are going by timing the activities you are doing; how many hours being wasted surfing the web, or watching TV you don’t even really like? How could you spend that time in ways that would make you more fulfilled?
And schedule in quality relaxing time over less effective ‘pottering’. Go for a walk for an hour at midday and schedule in social time with friends then commit to making it as non negotiable as a work meeting.
2. Communicate properly.
It’s amazing how we can be so good at communicating at work but then when it comes to our home lives it all fizzles down to picking on each other, fighting about the same old things, and manipulating to get what we want instead of asking for it. The result? Everyone is stressed and there is constant tension.
If we need something at work, we think about it carefully then ask for it in the most appropriate, productive way. Why not start doing this at home, too?
Remember to use responsible statements. We don’t walk around work saying ‘you make me feel this so it’s your fault I do that.” So why do it at home? Start sentences with ‘I’ and take out blame. And give constructive, not destructive feedback. Try imagining your flatmate, partner or child is a colleague – how would you then share your opinion?
And why not set scheduled meetings to communicate? Talking things over as one person is driving or cooking or as you sort the laundry, or as everyone eats a meal, means things get misunderstood or people get indigestion. A household meeting even once a month can do wonders for lowering stress at home.
If the communication is too far gone, consider counselling. At work, a manager will intervene if things aren’t working. And at home? Sometimes what it takes to get yourselves back on track and really listening to and seeing each other properly is a third party. A family therapist does not take sides, but merely helps you communicate and move forward and even a few sessions can show real results. Note that ‘family therapy‘ nowadays applies to any sort of grouping at all.
If you let everyone have non-stop access to you all weekend long, and never take down time? You are on the road right to feeling taking for granted and stressed. Have a room where if the door is closed it means you are left alone for a few minutes, or get a hotel ‘unavailable’ sign for the handle if necessary.
And don’t think you can’t have non-negotiables at home like you do at work. If you really don’t want your teenage daughter stealing your makeup, say so. Of course we must also allow others to have boundaries and non-negotiables, too. If your teen daugther in turn doesn’t want you reading her diary, then don’t.
3. Let everyone have a purpose.
At work, everyone has a job description. At home, it can be all to easy for all of this to slide. And with responsibilities often changing hands (I did the laundry last week, it’s your turn) confusion and stress can easily be created.
Be up front about what you want to do around the house and what you want others to do, and it can be surprising how it can all be worked out. You might find that your kids are happy to try making dinner.
The funny thing about being given responsibility is that it brings with it a sense of achievement, and that lowers stress by making us feel good.
Of course while at work it’s important that the sexes are equal, at home an obsession with equality can actually cause more stress than it solves. If your husband likes taking the garbage out and you hate it but actually prefer cooking, then why not be honest about it?
Don’t forget responsibilities are not set in stone, but can be rediscussed and changed. Give family members (or flatmates) a purpose with an open and flexible mind, and you might find everyone not just less anxious but more confidentto boot.
5. Celebrate more.
At work a fuss is made when targets are made or someone is being promoted, and let’s be honest – it feels really good. It makes us feel appreciated, which means we will feel less stressed and more confident about our work in the future.
Feeling good about ourselves lowers cortisol, so being made to feel competent is one of the reasons stated as to why work might be less stressful. How many of feel naturally competent, though, in the face of a messy house, a pile of bills, grumpy flatmates, or the challenge of parenting?
The secret is to celebrate successes at home as much as at work. We’re not talking just graduations and anniversaries, but all ‘wins’. And that can include your own wins, if you live alone. If you’ve managed to finish all your paperwork at last, why not take yourself out for dinner?
If you are a family, look to not just celebrating together but to winning together. That means having goals to get to in the first place. If your family life consists of a loose set of ‘must get dones’ that are carried out helter skelter, finished with a sigh of relief, and never mentioned again, it can create a disorganised tension that affects everyone.
Schedule in things that need to be done as ‘group goals’. For example, if the kitchen is being refitted, can everyone be kept updated on how it is going to take place, with a calendar that days can be crossed out on, and can each person be given a responsibility so they are part of it? If you have a small child, can they be declared in charge of footprint patrol when the builders leave every night? And then, when it is done, you can all make dinner together on the new stove to celebrate.
It’s interesting to notice that with the government’s survey on workplace stress, the occupations reporting the highest cases of stress were health professionals (in particular nurses), teachers, and educational professionals. In other words, those whose sole focus was taking care of others.
So the best advice of all when it comes to keeping stress levels low is to take care of yourself first no matter where you are, work or home. After all, if you are a codependent bundle of stress to be around, are you really doing anyone a favour or helping them?
Of course, if you find yourself stressed no matter where you are, then don’t feel you have to handle it by yourself. Stress is not ‘normal’ and does deserve to be taken seriously, as it can have long-term repercussions on both mental and physical health if ignored. Most workplace insurances cover appointments with a psychotherapist, or look into private practitioners in your area.
Has this article inspired you? Do share it and help us spread the word that it’s time we all talked about our psychological health as much as our physical health. Have a comment about workplace stress vs at home stress? Use the space below, we love to hear from you.