Are you more stressed at home than at work?

PAUL CHAI
Last updated 15:51 31/07/2014
Kids

STESS OVERLOAD: Household chores, rowdy children... sometimes a few hours of office overtime starts looking appealing, doesn't it?

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Everyone knows that marriage and parenting is hard work, but who knew it could be harder work than, well, work; more stressful than your day job; and more tedious than being confined to your office cubicle for eight-plus hours?

But for me there are days, or weeks, even months where having to deal with two boys under 8 and the assorted family craziness attached to this domestic set-up that can make work look like a walk in the park. And not the type of walk in the park with kids -- who are moaning, fighting, picking up dog poo, and asking you if there really is a God -- but the other type of walk in the park... the alone type. Remember that? No, me neither.

After talking about a recent perfect family storm to a colleague who also has a wife and two kids, I was surprised to hear his response: "Why don't you work late more often?" At first I thought he was kidding, but it was delivered sans irony, just two blokes sharing some useful advice.

Really? Spend more time at work? I wondered why I was shocked. Was it that this was "a thing", or that it was a thing to which I was giving some serious thought, just for a moment?

I have lowered my expectations over time about returning home from work. I know now instead of cracking a beer, hitting the couch and chilling out, I am more likely to be cracking the whip, hitting the roof and singing along to Frozen. But the idea that I would prefer to be at work did give me cause to pause.

It reminded me of something my father once said about a time in my childhood where my mother was unwell, I was no doubt at the age of peak handful (somewhere between birth and moving out), and that sometimes he would stand in the driveway and each step towards the front door would feel heavier somehow, like he was physically mired down in the reluctance.

I get that now; coming home to two rambunctious boys can have me doing the front-door shuffle. But, according to recent research, my dad and my home-shy colleague may have been on to something -- apparently home really is the new work and many of us feel less stressed in the office than in our family lives.

The US-based Council on Contemporary Families (CCF) recently measured the cortisol levels of adults -- a key factor in stress -- and found that most people in the study had lower (ie: less stressful) levels at work than when they were at home.

"We were surprised to find that even parents -- both mothers and fathers -- had lower stress at work than at home," said Sarah Damaske of the CCF at Penn State University. "However, parents did not experience as big a decrease in their stress levels as non-parents."

I can unravel that particular scientific mystery for you, Sarah -- just drop around at our place about dinner time.

The Penn State team posited a number of theories, from the value we attach to 'real paid work' (as opposed to real unpaid kids' lunch-making) and feeling more appreciated, to my favourite one: "We get better at our job with time (hopefully), and the increased competence means less stress and more rewards," the study said, but "none of us ever truly feels like an expert at parenting or even at marriage."

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It's true, isn't it? Every time I feel I have cracked this Superdad gig, my kids seem to find a Lego container full of kryptonite. Home life lacks the structure, clear goals and regular appraisals of work life (and no, I don't count the fight my wife and I had the other night about how loudly I chew apples as constructive feedback). Work can seem to be more rewarding because it is set up to motivate people; home is just, well, home.

So, perhaps the key is to take a more work-like approach to home life. Instead of going home to switch off, maybe we should arrive back from work to a list of household economic deliverables, a series of family meetings and then we can all get together to diarise the week ahead?

When the junior employees are out of our hair, we could organise a management meeting where we have a one-one-one deconstruction of how the day's tasks went, work out which juniors are pulling their weight and which ones might need to be disciplined. We could even follow this with some messing around on Facebook, before we do some bonding over a couple of glasses of wine.

Or as we call it in our house: Wednesday night.

- Daily Life

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