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Parental division of paid labour and mental health

Do dual-earner couples report fewer depressive symptoms than parents in other family types?

Anna Baranowska-Rataj (Umeå University) examined how parental division of paid labour is related to depressive symptoms, comparing parental couples in 25 countries with varying social policies.
Man and woman on the couch doing finances

Soucre: fizkes (Adobe Stock)

Raising children requires a reorganisation of both professional and private lives, which can have significant consequences for mental health. Couples often adopt role specialisation, with one of the partners focusing on paid work and the other on unpaid labour. Such role specialisation facilitates the management of family-related demands, but it also deprives one of the parents from financial – as well as non-monetary – benefits related to employment. However, the relationship between the parental division of paid labour and mental health may vary across institutional contexts. Social policies alter the balance of the advantages and the disadvantages associated with different models of parental division of paid labour. While generous financial support may buffer families with only one earner (or with none) from economic difficulties, the availability of childcare helps dual-earner households reconcile their work and parenthood responsibilities. Anna Baranowska-Rataj (Umeå University) examined how parental division of paid labour is related to depressive symptoms, comparing parental couples in 25 countries with varying social policies.

This study draws on data from the waves of European Social Survey, which included measures that validated shortened version of the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression scale constructed to identify populations at risk of developing depressive disorders. The analyses focus on 7,779 partnered men and women aged 20-50 with preschool children.

The results show that single-earner families tend to experience more depressive symptoms than parents in dual-earner families. This contradicts the idea that role specialisation provides favourable conditions for parents with young children. It also highlights the advantages of a dual-earner family model, which gives both partners sources of income and non-monetary benefits such as time structure and social contacts.

The gap in mental health between parents in dual-earner and male breadwinner families varied across countries according to the availability of childcare services. There may be several explanations for this pattern. Childcare policies reduce the work-life conflict among dual-earner couples and create better possibilities to engage in jobs involving more hours of work, which also means higher incomes for working parents. Better earning opportunities may in turn reduce the risk of financial hardship and consequently limit depressive symptoms in dual-earner families. Strengthening social pressure on stay-at-home parents to get involved in paid work may be an alternative explanation.

Additionally, this study showed that parents in jobless households have the highest levels of depressive symptoms. This finding adds to the understanding of the long-term consequences of the parental division of paid labour. Given that families are most likely to become jobless when the male breadwinner loses his job, in addition to impeding parental wellbeing in the short run, role specialisation involves a long-run risk of transitioning into dual joblessness, which is associated with even more severe mental health problems.

The results do not confirm that financial support for people who are out of work reduces the relative mental health disadvantage of families in which one or both parents are not employed. One possible explanation is that cash benefits do not fully replace earnings and do not compensate for the non-monetary benefits of employment.


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This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 802631 (HEALFAM: The effects of unemployment on health of family members) PI. Anna Baranowska-Rataj.

Additional Information


Anna Baranowska-Rataj

Authors of Original Article


Baranowska-Rataj, A. (2022). The impact of the parental division of paid labour on depressive symptoms: The moderating role of social policies. Acta Sociologica, 65(3), 275–292.