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It’s no catch-22: Here’s why you love (and hate) work

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When I tell people I'm a sociologist who studies work stress and its effects on health, one of the most common reactions is something like: "Oh … you should study me!"

And there's good reason for this reaction. A 2011 Statistics Canada report, titled What's Stressing the Stressed?, found that roughly 1 in 4 Canadian workers characterize most of the days of their lives as "quite a bit" or "extremely" stressful. When asked about the main source of this stress, what do you think 62 per cent your fellow Canadians reported? You got it: Work.

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Knowing this, I was surprised by the findings of a new study published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, by Sarah Damaske and her Penn State colleagues titled Has Work Replaced Home as a Haven?

The study found unexpected results: Workers experienced higher hormone cortisol levels – a biological indicator of stress – when they were at home compared to when they were at work.

One takeaway message presented by various media outlets (including The Globe and Mail) was: Work is a haven from the stress of home life.

But then, I read a New York Times op-ed, titled Why You Hate Work, which conveys a rather dismal portrait of work: "The way we're working isn't working. Even if you're lucky enough to have a job, you're probably not very excited to get to the office in the morning, you don't feel much appreciated while you're there, you find it difficult to get your most important work accomplished, amid all the distractions, and you don't believe that what you're doing makes much of a difference anyway. By the time you get home, you're pretty much running on empty, and yet still answering emails until you fall asleep."

The article sustained the coveted "most e-mailed" status for several days, so this depiction resonates – at least among the Times-reading demographic.

So which is it? Is work a haven … or is it hell? The reality is: It can be (and often is) both.

The hellish part

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If work is a haven away from home, why do so many of us identify work as the most stressful part of our everyday lives?

One reason is that work generates some of the most taxing demands and unpleasant challenges we face.

In my 2011 Canadian Work Stress and Health study (CANWSH), roughly one-third of Canadian workers reported that they feel overwhelmed by work or that the demands of their job exceed the time to do the work "often" or "very often." Four in 10 report having to work on too many tasks at the same time "often" or "very often."

And what happens at work doesn't always stay at work. We're no longer living in an age where work stress is contained by the temporal or spatial parameters of the office. Work and home are not separate spheres with impermeable borders. When biological indicators of stress are elevated at home, work-related stressors are often a highly potent direct or indirect source of that stress.

The CANWSH study found that overwork is one of the strongest determinants of work-family conflict and increases your risks of feeling tense, restless, nervous, worrying a lot about little things and difficulties concentrating. More importantly, work-family conflict is a key mechanism that links overwork to these symptoms of anxiety.

The heavenly part

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If many of us face these kinds of stressors – and supposedly hate our work so much – how could it possibly be a haven? One reason: Work provides some of the most satisfying resources and rewards, and I'm not just talking about money.

Population-based studies demonstrate that supportive co-workers and supervisors are commonplace. Many people cite "friendships at work" as one of their favourite parts of the job.

In the CANWSH study, the vast majority of workers described close bonds at work. This isn't just a polite Canadian thing: Remarkably similar patterns are found in the 2008 National Study of the Changing Workforce (NSCW) conducted by the New York-based Families and Work Institute.

Together, these studies show that more than 6 in 10 Canadians and Americans strongly agree with the statements, "I really feel a part of the group that I work with," and, "I have the support from co-workers that I need to do a good job."

The NSCW also shows that majority of Americans agree with the following statements:

  • “I really look forward to going to work most days” (85 per cent)
  • “I can really be myself on my job” (91 per cent)
  • “The work I do on my job is meaningful to me” (93 per cent)
  • “My work has a positive impact on the lives of others” (94 per cent)
  • Also, 55 per cent are very satisfied with their job and 71 per cent say they’d take the same job again without hesitation.

These don't sound like people who hate their work.

Collectively, each of these positive aspects of work – the haven part – protects workers against the harmful consequences of the hellish parts (e.g., overwork and work-family conflict). Social support is strongly related to better mental health and a capacity to withstand stress.

This could be one reason why, even in the face of heavy job demands, objective indicators of stress are sometimes lower at work, and why so many of us have a love-hate relationship with our jobs. Which leaves most of us, on balance, liking what we do.

Dr. Scott Schieman is a Canada Research Chair (Social Contexts of Health) and professor of sociology at the University of Toronto. His research focuses on the causes and health consequences of social stress. You can follow him on Twitter @ScottSchiemanUT

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