The Key to Unwinding After Work

Last Updated May 23, 2011 1:35 PM EDT

Are you helping your wife unload the dishwasher when you get home from work--or chilling in front of the TV or computer? Fascinating new research suggests that how a husband spends his time when he gets home from work can affect the stress hormone levels of his wife--and vice versa. The study also found that women have a harder time unwinding from work-related stressors then men, putting them at greater risk of health issues.

Researchers at the University of Southern California had a few theories as to why, so they decided to eavesdrop (with permission) on 30 families.
The researchers followed 30 dual income middle-class families that had at least one child between 8 and 10 years old. The families were monitored by a researcher inside their home, who recorded their whereabouts and activities every 10 minutes in the mornings and after work for a week.

They also measured cortisol levels of the spouses. Cortisol should gradually decline at the end of the day as you unwind. When it stays elevated, it has been linked to burn-out, depression, and a shorter lifespan.

Here's what the researchers found:

  • Wives spent more time doing housework, while husbands spent more time enjoying leisure activities after work. Wives spent 30.5% of the time doing housework, compared to 20% for husbands. Women spent 10% of their time in leisure activities, while men spent nearly double that in leisure pursuits.
  • Wives spent much more time with child care responsibilities and homework supervision.
  • Devoting more time to housework was associated with poorer end-of-the-day recovery in cortisol levels for both husbands and wives, so women, doing more housework recovered less easily.
  • Curiously, men couldn't relax as much if their wives were relaxing too. Men had lower levels of cortisol when they were pursuing leisure activities and their wives were busy with housework. The authors wrote, "perhaps it feels more stressful to do housework while one's partner is relaxing, or more restful to pursue leisure while someone else is taking care of household duties."
  • Wives, however, could relax when their husbands were relaxed, and were more relaxed when their husbands were assisting in the household chores. "Men seem to benefit from more down time, while women seem to benefit from more help around the house," says Darby Saxbe, Ph.D, the lead author of the study.
  • Husbands and wives were sensitive to how their partner spends his or her time and "may adjust to maintain homeostasis, exerting more effort when one partner is relaxing and relaxing more when the other partner is helping to relieve the housework burden," they write.
The key to easing women's stress
The study makes a convincing case for relying less on traditional gender roles to divvy up the household workload and more on simply drawing a dividing line down the middle. Women may feel the sting of unfairness when they do more housework than their husbands, but many don't insist on equality because they are influenced by traditional gender roles. But now research points to a health reason--not just an emotional-intellectual one--to have a more equitable household. Not only that, women feel more marital satisfaction when the work is more equally divided.
How have you divided some of the household and childcare chores between you and your spouse? Do you find your spouse has an easier or harder time than you in unwinding after work? Post your experiences below.

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Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist who writes for the New York Times, national magazines and websites including Health, Prevention, Ladies Home Journal, iVillage and the Huffington Post. Follow her on twitter.
Photo courtesy of flickr user the Italian voice
  • Laurie Tarkan

    Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist who writes for The New York Times and many national magazines. She is a contributing editor at Fit Pregnancy magazine and the author of three books, Perfect Hormone Balance for Fertility, Perfect Hormone Balance for Pregnancy and My Mother's Breast: Daughters Ace Their Mothers' Cancer.. You can follow her on Twitter at @LaurieTarkan.