Ana Veciana-Suarez: Work is less stressful than home

I might not have written this column last week, when I was pounding furiously on the keyboard instead of meeting a friend for dinner as planned. It is no secret that journalism has never been for those who can’t handle the kind of nerve-wracking deadlines that drive people to eat super-sized bags of chips while throwing back pitchers of coffee. In the newsroom we have all been weaned on the stress hormone cortisol.

But I’m relaxed today, having recovered during a long weekend, and therefore I can write this without restraint: I love my job. Really, I do, and not just because my boss is editing this with an eye trained to my next performance review. I’ve long considered work as respite from my harried personal life, the endless family commitments that come with being wife, mother, grandmother and general cleanup gal.

At work I may get an occasional attagirl, but at home that compliment is rare. At work I know exactly what I’m supposed to do, when I’m supposed to do it and, as a bonus, how many column inches long it should be, too. The product I produce has a short shelf life, true, but the gratification of a job well done and the response, if not from the bigwigs in the corner offices, at least from readers, tends to be immediate.

At home, my job is never done. Never. Let me emphasize: Ne- ver. My home “colleagues” can be recalcitrant, if not downright stubborn, about doing their own assigned tasks. (And you can’t even fire them!) Worse: At home the hours are long. Actually, they’re infinite. They go on and on and on. And yes, you love your children and your spouse, your hard-of-hearing mother and your cantankerous Uncle Mario, but . . .

So I was not surprised to read about a Pennsylvania State University study that found that the most relaxing part of a person’s day is usually when she’s on the job. This held true across occupation level, education level and gender. Interestingly enough, women were significantly more likely than men to say they were happier at work. The researchers reached this conclusion by asking the 122 respondents specific questions and by having them swab their saliva several times a day for three days to test their cortisol level, a biological marker of stress.

The findings go against conventional wisdom that has long blamed the 9-to-5 (or the 8-to-8 in some cases) for our jangly nerves. For example, one well-known 2005 study found that 90 percent of workers felt they didn’t have enough time in the day to do their job, a demand that rankles even the serenest among us. Other studies show working parents experiencing high levels of work-family conflict

Yet, longitudinal studies report that in the long run people, especially women, who work have better mental and physical health, which dovetails with the Penn State findings and my own experience. I’ll venture a guess why. At work the job title and the responsibilities tend to be specific. At home most women must manage many roles: cook, tutor, chauffeur and organizer supreme, and they do so after a day at the office. At home we also put ourselves last, we do without, we serve as sounding board and figurative punching bag for those we love most. In short, work is a four-letter word, but as a venue it may be safer than the other four-letter place we inhabit.

Penn State lead researcher Sarah Damaske assures us that her team’s conclusion doesn’t mean we’re becoming a nation of worker drones, preferring the quieter, more appreciative pastures of the office or factory to our demanding families. It does prove, though, what I’ve always suspected. Work is good for the soul.