Is your job stressing you out? [Commentary]

The answer might surprise you

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Most of us hate work. We would find it hard to believe that it is actually good for us. But a pair of reports seems to support both notions.

The first study, from the founders of The Energy Project in cooperation with Harvard Business School, suggests that we are miserable at work, and it is only getting worse. And if employers don't address this, it will drastically affect their bottom lines.

"For most of us ... work is a depleting, dispiriting experience, and in some obvious ways it's getting worse," Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath wrote in an essay for the New York Times.

Demands on our time are draining us, and the leaner post-recession work force adds to the pressure. An inescapable flood of information and requests follows us home from work so that the boundaries between the two disappear, they wrote.

Their recommendations may sound familiar to you. Employees are more engaged and more productive when they believe their bosses care about their physical and emotional well-being, creating opportunities to recharge during the workday and making them feel valued and appreciated.

Flexibility — the opportunity to define when and where the work gets done — is also very important. So is a sense that the work employees are doing has some meaning.

The more an employer helps accomplish this, the more likely the employees are to report engagement, loyalty, job satisfaction and positive energy at work and lower perceived levels of stress, they wrote.

You might think this is a bunch of feel-good nonsense until you see what high turnover rates can cost a company. Or when it can't attract talent because any millennial with a choice isn't going to put up with less.

So that's it, right? Work is hell and it is getting hotter. Perhaps not.

Another study, done by Penn State University researchers, found lower levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, in people when they were at work compared to when they were at home. And this was true for men and women, parents and workers without children. It was even true for people who said they liked their jobs.

The Penn State study is fascinating because it suggests that no matter what is going on at work, we are less stressed there than we are at home.

The researchers prompted workers to swab the insides of their cheeks six times a day and make notes about how they were feeling, according to their report in Social Science & Medicine.

The majority had lower levels of cortisol at work no matter what their occupation, whether they were single or married, or even if they said they liked their jobs.

Both men and women showed less stress at work, but women self-reported to be happier there.

The explanation might be as simple as the fact that paid work makes us feel better about ourselves than the unpaid work of housekeeping and child care.

But it is also likely that the support and friendship of co-workers reduces stress, the researchers said, and behavior at the workplace is more predictable than it is at home with the kids.

These two reports do nothing if not reflect our love/hate relationship with our work/life balance.

You can say that having a job in this economy is nothing to complain about, no matter whether you feel appreciated and connected to a higher purpose or not.

Be that as it may, work and home have undergone huge changes in the last 40 years, and balancing the two keeps getting harder.

Women are in the workforce in growing numbers, and it looks like they will stay longer than their male counterparts, changing the character of family life and of care-giving.

The workplace is constantly changing, thanks to technology — elevators made high-rises possible and the concentration of manpower, for example. But that change is exponentially faster and will continue to be so.

It helps to know that despite the conflicts and pressures, we are not as stressed out at work as we thought.

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at sreimer@baltsun.com and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.


To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.
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