Penn State Plays Integral Role in $35 Million Stress Project

April 15, 2009

Stress from one area of life can easily invade other areas of life. “We’re seeing that stress in the workplace can create a domino effect that can increase stress and reduce quality of life in families,” says David Almeida, professor of human development and family studies in Penn State’s College of Health and Human Development.

Almeida, Laura Klein, associate professor of biobehavioral health, and Susan McHale, professor of human development and director of the Social Science Research Institute, are the principal investigators of Penn State’s research center within the recently established Work, Family, and Health Network (WFHN), a project operating on a $35 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The project will be analyzing how employees manage stress at work and in their homes, and will also be testing the efficacy of a workplace intervention designed to reduce employee stress and promote well-being.

The project is groundbreaking because it goes beyond analyzing employees and managers; researchers are measuring the amount of stress that spreads from work life to family life, and testing an intervention that aims to minimize that transfer of stress. In doing so, researchers hope to improve the physical and psychological well-being of managers, employees, and their families.

Penn State is one of several organizations involved in the project, and its primary role is to gather data using two methods: obtaining saliva samples, and the “daily diary” method of interviewing. The daily diary method, developed by Almeida and conducted through the Penn State Survey Research Center, targets a subsample of the study’s 3,000 participants—managers, employees, and spouses and children of employees—with a series of phone interviews. Participants will discuss the events of the day, and report on levels of stress, mood, and physical discomfort. At the same time, researchers will be analyzing participants’ saliva samples to measure the change in levels of cortisol, a hormone that is a marker of bodily stress.

Researchers will look for correlations between self-reported work stress, bodily/physiological stress, and disruptions to family life. They’ll assess children’s reports of how attentive their parents are, find out whether or not families spend time together, and measure “parental knowledge” (whether or not a parent knows where and with whom their child spends time on a given day). Children will also provide saliva samples, which will indicate how much stress is transferred from employees in the workplace to their children at home.

The project, which received funding in December 2008 and is funded for five years, will study two industries: the nursing home industry and the information technology industry. Information technology is known to have non-standard employee schedules, and the nursing home industry is known for work overload—both characteristics are common sources of work stress.

“Not only are we trying to understand how work and family responsibilities are important to health,” says Almeida, “but we’re trying to evoke changes in the workplace, to improve health for all individuals involved. In doing this, we’ll also be able to see how work-family stressors affect financial health of the industry by assessing such outcomes as work productivity and worker retention.”

Other key Penn State faculty members working on this project include Nan Crouter, Raymond E. and Erin Stuart Schultz Dean of the College of Health and Human Development; Kelly Davis, research associate and project manager; and research associates Courtney Whetzel and Robert Stawski.

The Work, Family, and Health Network is composed of research teams from the University of Minnesota, Penn State University, Harvard University, Portland State University, Michigan State University, Kaiser Permanente’s Center for Health Research, and RTI International.

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Editors: David Almeida is available at dma18@psu.edu or 814-865-2656. For additional information, please contact the College of Health and Human Development Office of College Relations at 814-865-3831 or healthhd@psu.edu.