Work-Family Stress Research Highlighted at Congressional Briefing

November 4, 2009

Penn State researchers are examining how stress at work impacts employees and their families. To do so, they use a data collection method known as the “daily diary.”

Dr. Susan McHale, professor of human development and director of Penn State’s Social Science Research Institute, and three other investigators on the $35-million, multisite Work, Family & Health Network (WFHN) presented data at a congressional briefing in October, titled “Workplace Practice, Health and Well-Being: Initial Research Findings from the Work, Family & Health Network.” The briefing was sponsored by the offices of Senator Tom Harkin (IA-D) and Congressman Earl Blumenauer (OR-D) and arranged by Workplace Flexibility 2010, located at Georgetown University Law Center. McHale’s presentation focused on studying the effects of workplace stress using a daily diary.

The daily diary involves collecting data from study participants across consecutive days; in the WFHN, participants are telephoned nightly by interviewers at Penn State’s Survey Research Center and report on topics including stressors at work, their mood and physical health, and their interactions with family members during the day of the call. This method allows researchers to see how emotions and behaviors fluctuate from day to day and whether or not those fluctuations correspond to events of the day. For instance, researchers can look for associations between stressful interactions at work and conflicts with children after work.

“People often are as different from themselves from one day to the next as they are different from other people,” says McHale. “We all have good days and bad days, and by taking careful note of how behaviors and moods change in relation to what’s going on in our lives—such as what goes on at work—it’s possible to pinpoint what makes one day better or worse than another and possibly figure out ways to intervene to decrease stress and improve quality of life.”

McHale spoke about data gathered during a study that preceded the WFHN: the Hotel, Work, and Well-Being (HWWB) project, which analyzed hotel workers and their families to find associations between stressors at work and disruptions to family life. Using a combination of daily diaries and measuring levels of cortisol (a hormone that is a marker of bodily stress) in both children and parents, the HWWB project showed that on days when employees experienced an interpersonal stressor at work (compared to days when employees did not experience a stressor at work) mothers knew significantly less about their children’s activities and whereabouts and children reported spending one less hour than usual with their parent.

Using these findings, researchers in the WFHN are testing workplace interventions to promote more positive experiences at work and improve family life and family members’ well-being. “Our goal is to target those experiences and circumstances that make a difference for people’s health and well-being: if we can pinpoint what causes stress, we know what to change,” says McHale. “The working family is the family of the millennium. We have to figure out how to make work and family mesh better than they do right now.”

Other presenters at the briefing included:

The Work, Family and Health Network (www.workfamilyhealthnetwork.org) is composed of interdisciplinary research teams working with corporate partners in several industries. Researchers come from nine institutions: Michigan State University; Portland State University; University of Minnesota; Harvard University; Penn State; RTI International; Center for Health Research, Kaiser Permanente; the University of Southern California; and the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development (NICHD).

Funding for the Network is provided by a cooperative agreement between the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Additional funding is provided by the William T. Grant Foundation and the Administration for Children and Families.

In addition to McHale, the Penn State team includes Dr. David Almeida, professor of human development and family studies, Dr. Laura Klein, associate professor of biobehavioral health, Dr. Ann Crouter, Raymond E. and Erin Stuart Schultz Dean of the College of Health and Human Development, Drs. Kelly Davis and Courtney Whetzel, project coordinators, and a large group of graduate and undergraduate research assistants.

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Editors: Susan McHale can be reached at x2u@psu.edu. For additional information, please contact the College of Health and Human Development Office of College Relations at 814-865-3831 or healthhd@psu.edu.