When a Man is the Breadwinner of the Family, His Health Suffers

When a Man is the Breadwinner of the Family, His Health Suffers
If this man is the main breadwinner of the family, he may have poorer mental and physical health. Photo courtesy Flickr.com/Marc Brüneke.

It is no secret that when a woman takes on the role of Supermom, working full-time while doing housework and taking care of the kids, she can get burnt out and suffer both mental and physical health effects. Now a new study finds that men do not have it so easy, either. When a man takes on the traditional role of primary breadwinner in the family, they can face psychological stress and declining health.

The research comes from Assistant Professor of Sociology Christin Munsch, along with graduate students Matthew Rogers and Jessica Yorks, from the University of Connecticut. They are set to present their findings at the 111th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA) August 21st. Although the prevailing wisdom is that women can face a disadvantage when they take on a traditional gender role in a relationship, the researchers set out to discover if taking on a traditional male role is an advantage or disadvantage to men.

To find out, the researchers looked at data from a group of about 3,100 married men and women between the ages of 18 and 32. These couples were involved in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth between 1997 and 2011, filling out a survey every year of the study. The data included each spouse’s income contribution and information on their psychological well-being and health. In the survey, each participant would rate their psychological well-being on a scale of 1 to 5, from “all the time” to “none of the time”, for feeling calm and peaceful, happy, nervous, downhearted and blue, and down in the dumps. The study participants also rated their physical health in a similar fashion.

When the researchers looked at the relationship between relative income contribution, health, and well-being over time, they discovered that in the years that men were their family’s primary source of income, they tended to have poorer physical and mental health. Men who contributed equal amounts financially as their spouse tended to have a psychological well-being score of 3.33, but when they contributed twice as much, their well-being score dropped to 3.27, and when they were the only breadwinner, their score sunk to 3.17. The men who brought in less than a quarter of the household income scored 3.33 but tended to have higher anxiety. Generally, in years where men made less than their wife, they scored 5 percent lower in mental well-being compared to years where each partner contributed equally.

There was a similar pattern for physical health. Men who depended more on their wife’s income tended to have a physical health score of 3.99, and when they made equal amounts as their partner, this dropped to 3.93. When men were the sole breadwinner of the family, they had a physical health score of 3.81. This means that when men were the main breadwinners of the family, they tended to score 3.5 percent lower than in years where the partners were equal. There seems to be a correlation between men taking on more financial responsibility and suffering stress and health consequences.

While it may not be entirely surprising that more financial responsibility takes its toll on health, as work takes a physical and mental toll, that only seemed to be true for men. The researchers discovered that in years when women made more of a financial contribution, their psychological well-being actually improved, and when they contributed less to the household finances, their well-being declined. Their psychological well-being score was an average of 3.08 when they relied on their partner’s income, but as they became the primary breadwinner, their well-being rose to a score of 3.17 There did not seem to be a relationship to health, however. For both men and women, the results did not seem to be linked to absolute income, number of hours worked per week, education, or age.

The researchers think they know what may be going on with the differences between men and women. When men take on the traditional role of breadwinner, they may see their ability to bring in more money than their wife as an obligation and they may feel pressure to maintain their status as breadwinner of the family. Women, on the other hand, are not traditionally breadwinners. When they do act as the breadwinner, bringing in more money than their husband, these women may be viewing their status as a choice or opportunity. They may take pride in their role as breadwinner without worrying about societal pressure to bring money into the family. The difference between men and women in this group of millennials may be that the men may tend to make sacrifices for their high-paying jobs, choosing a job they do not enjoy only for the high salary, and the women may tend to take high-pressure jobs they actually enjoy, without the pressure to do it just for the money.

The researchers point out that women are often viewed as at a disadvantage in traditional gender roles, being more likely to be a victim of domestic violence and taking on the majority of housework. However, the research seems to show that these traditional gender roles can also be harmful to men.

Since the seventies, women have been getting into the workforce more, with four times as many women working as the family breadwinner today. In 1987, 23.7 percent of women had a higher income than their husband, but as of 2009, this number rose to 37.7 percent.

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