How work impacts on women's health

Boys' club.
Boys' club. Photo: Jessica Shapiro

Workplaces need to find new ways of fostering social support among employees in a bid to increase the wellbeing of single working mothers, researchers say.

The call follows the release of a study which has shown sole working mothers have poorer health than partnered working mothers.

University of Wollongong researchers compared the physical and mental wellbeing of almost 1000 Australian working mothers, both single and those in a relationship, and examined whether their health differed depending on the level of social support they had and the number of hours they worked.

Study co-author Laura Robinson, from the University's School of Psychology, said single working mothers reported having lower levels of social support than partnered working mothers, which went hand-in-hand with lower levels of physical and mental health.

She said the results were not surprising, given the many demands on a single working mother's time and the lack of a partner to share parental responsibilities with.

Organisations need to create ways for staff to get to know each other and communicate with each other more effectively.'

However, the findings did suggest that increasing social supports in the workplace might lead to better levels of physical and mental health for sole mother employees.

"Organisations need to create ways for staff to get to know each other and communicate with each other more effectively,'' she said. 

"Whether it be through team building exercises or a mentoring program, anything that helps create bonds between workers has the potential to increase the social support enjoyed by vulnerable groups such as single working mothers,'' Ms Robinson said.

One finding from the study which did surprise researchers was that single working mothers who worked long hours - that is, more than 40 hours a week - reported higher levels of physical and mental health than all other working mothers, including those in a relationship.

"Possible explanations include greater access to higher income which is linked to better health, and also these women may have greater resources available (such as childcare), which reduces some of the strain in balancing work and family demands,'' Ms Robinson said.

Researchers were also surprised to find that working mothers who were in a relationship reported the same levels of mental and physical health regardless of whether they worked part-time or full-time.

The study, which was published in Women's Studies International Forum, is part of a longitudinal research program at the University looking at burnout and work-family balance in Australian working mothers.