By Julie O’Connor

With its many pressures, the workplace can be a stress hub. Studies have shown that work stress can creep into everyday family life and negatively impact the mood at home, and that the high unemployment rate is causing increased feelings of stress and worry even among those with jobs. But what exactly happens when workplace stress diffuses at home?

Richard B. Slatcher, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology in WSU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, has found novel answers to this question and others in his study of the relationship between stress and human physiology.

Slatcher assessed the effects that work stress had on the stress hormone cortisol for working parents of young children and their spouses. The 37 married couples in the study completed six questionnaires per day from a Saturday morning to a Monday night and provided saliva samples to measure their cortisol levels. The questionnaires were used to measure individual feelings of worry and tenseness about work, and to examine their links with daily cortisol levels.

“This is the first study to demonstrate that one person’s momentary feelings of stress are related to another person’s stress hormones in daily life,” said Slatcher, who investigates the effects that close relationships have on human health in his Close Relationships Laboratory at WSU.

His study showed that for both husbands and wives, work worries are linked to higher levels of one’s own cortisol levels. But Slatcher found that the husband’s work stress spreads to the wife, increasing her cortisol levels, too.

“Wives seem to be picking up on their husbands’ worries about work and, as a result, react biologically,” said Slatcher. “We found that the more worried husbands were about work when they were at home with their families, the more their wives’ cortisol levels increased.”

But the opposite was not observed, as husbands’ cortisol levels were unchanged when their wives’ work worries increased. This could be due either to husbands not picking up on their wives’ stress, or their not being physiologically reactive to it, Slatcher said.

The study suggested that the links between work worries and wives’ cortisol levels are buffered by higher-quality marriages.

“Wives reporting both low marital satisfaction and low self-disclosure (they’re less open to their husbands) showed a stronger association between work worries and cortisol compared to wives reporting high marital satisfaction and/or high self-disclosure,” Slatcher said. “Disclosure in the context of close relationships — the context that affords the greatest opportunities for self-disclosure — is beneficial.”

But, again, husbands did not exhibit the same reactions. “For husbands, neither marital disclosure nor marital satisfaction buffered the association between work worries and cortisol,” Slatcher said.

He added, “The results of this study represent an important step toward understanding how everyday feelings of stress influence one’s own physiology and the physiology of others close to us.”