Work May Not Help Women’s Mental Health if Reliable Child Care Lacking, Study Warns

Research has found employment is linked to better mental health – but low-income urban women with children may experience more mental distress upon gaining paid work if their jobs aren’t accompanied by reliable child care, found a study published in Women’s Health Issues. Women’s Health Issues is the official journal of the Jacobs Institute of Women’s Health, which is based at Milken Institute School of Public Health (Milken Institute SPH) at the George Washington University.

Anna W. Jacobs, of Vanderbilt University, and her colleagues used data from Welfare, Children, and Families project surveys of more than 2,000 low-income women with children in Boston, Chicago, and San Antonio. Between 1999 and 2001, 7% of the women who were unemployed at the first survey obtained jobs and reported problems getting child care, while 31% gained employment and did not report child care problems.

As a whole, the women who gained employment had greater reductions in symptoms of mental distress, Jacobs and her colleagues found. However, they report, the group of women who gained jobs but experienced childcare conflict actually experienced worsening mental health from 1999 to 2001, with increases in nonspecific psychological distress and symptoms of anxiety and depression. “In other words,” the authors summarize, “under the conditions of child care conflict, acquiring a job actually undermines mental health.”

Federal welfare rules aim to encourage work by limiting the duration of cash benefits for unemployed parents. However, this study found that working may harm the mental health of low-income, urban women with children if the women face difficulties with child care. “Policies that focus on moving low-income women off of government assistance and into paid work could be more effective if greater resources were devoted to increasing access to quality child care,” the authors conclude.

The study, “Employment Transitions, Child Care Conflict, and the Mental Health of Low-Income Urban Women With Children,” has been published online and will be the Editor’s Choice selection in the July/August Women’s Health Issues.