University professor studies family ties

By Charlotte van den Hout

Spending time with family reduces stress, according to a recent study conducted by University sociology professor Linda Waite. The study was conducted in cooperation with the Alfred Sloan Center for Parents, Children and Work, which is currently co-directed by the University’s sociology department.

Waite, the Lucy Flower Professor of Sociology, studied 548 families with both parents working. The study families had children either in their teens or in kindergarten. Mothers, fathers, and teenagers were interviewed, and all members of the family were given a beeper watch to wear for one full week. The beeper went off eight times a day, at which point the wearer was to fill out a log about where they were, what they were doing, who they were with, and what they were feeling.

The wearer also assessed their emotions, one of which was stress. The results of the study found that levels of stress were significantly lower if the research subjects were with family members at the time they filled out the log.

Waite believes these lower levels of stress can be explained by the fact that stress is elevated by daily challenges and responsibilities. “It’s pretty clear if you look at people’s emotions,” Waite said. “When people go out into the world, they have things to do, they’re challenged. But they’re not really relaxed.”

According to Waite, when people are at home, these challenges and daily responsibilities fall away, and stress levels decrease. The study revealed that this effect is especially apparent for fathers, who typically have less responsibility in the home than women. Women’s constant responsibility at home makes their levels of stress change less dramatically, Waite said.

The initiative for the study came mainly from the Sloan foundation. “I’ve been working on this general topic for a while,” Waite said. “The Sloan foundation came to us for a study on working families. They were interested in how working families were coping.” The Sloan Center considers it a fundamental social change to have two workers in one family and was thus interested in researching how families are emotionally handling such a situation.

Waite plans to continue to analyze the current data, and foresees a future study on what specific situations lead people to exhibit higher levels of stress. Another angle might be to study whether there are specific types of people who show higher levels of stress, and if so, what characterizes those people, Waite said.

Waite currently teaches a combined graduate-undergraduate course on family structure in the sociology department. In the past, she has conducted research on marriage, aging, women’s employment, cohabitation and divorce, and family structure and wealth.