The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Family Caretaking Beneficial to Mental Health

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

The first place of both giving and receiving needed care is, of course, the family, so it is only natural that researchers have long been interested in the benefits to caretakers of providing that care. Most recently in this effort, Danish researchers have highlighted that “[n]umerous studies have linked psychological stress and emotional strain from work and family to adverse health outcomes.” More recently, however, studies  have sought to assess what positive effects might accrue to caretakers: “Positive feelings about work and family responsibilities have been shown to benefit mental health and contribute to psychological well-being.” 

The researchers explain the groundwork for their study. The aim, they say, is “to investigate whether positive feelings about work and family responsibilities benefit objectively measured physical health to the same extent as they might benefit mental health. Specifically, with respect to work, we chose to focus on the perception of work as meaningful.” They also emphasize that women especially tend to experience “role-conflict” in combining family-care tasks with employment.

For their data set, the researchers obtain a sample of 94 Danish men and 87 Danish women aged 49-51, from the Copenhagen Ageing and Midlife Biobank. “Meaningful work” was assessed by asking a number of questions: “Is your work meaningful?, Do you feel that the work you do is important?, and Do you feel motivated and involved in your work?” Participants were also asked how many hours a week they provided care to parents, children, grandchildren, and other persons, and to rate physical and emotional strain on a five-point scale. Four variables were created: average caregiving reward, average physical strain, average emotional strain, and total caregiving hours a week. Depressive symptoms and perceived stress were measured by a series of questions, and physiological dysregulation was measured based on eight biomarkers, which reflected cardiovascular, metabolic, and immune activity. 

The results demonstrated that meaningful caregiving activities were indeed beneficial to mental health. Specifically, in their sample, a “majority” provided care to at least one person, and 67% “found caregiving rewarding to a large or very large degree.” Only a small percentage reported caregiving to be straining to a large or very large degree (2% for physical strain and 11% for emotional strain). Furthermore, “81% of respondents rated their work as meaningful to a large or very large degree,” with no difference between the genders.

When the researchers dig more deeply into the data, they find, “For both men and women, higher levels of work meaning were moderately associated with lower levels of depressive symptoms.” In other words, finding caregiving tasks to be meaningful seemed to have a protective effect on mental health. At the same time, however, “meaningful work was related to higher levels of physiological dysregulation” in women but not in men. So even though they find it rewarding, and even though it provides some mental benefit, caregiving work does seem to take a higher physical toll on women.

Why the gender imbalance? The researchers aren’t sure, but posit that “Gender differences in health effects of employment have long been known, and the health benefits of being gainfully employed alongside family responsibilities tend to be more pronounced among men, while women are more likely to experience role conflict and role strain from combining work and family duties.” But they shy away from making too strong a statement on this, instead cautioning that “Female employment has been a politically charged topic and extra care should be taken when interpreting potentially controversial results presented herein.” They instead suggest that “policies aimed at improving work-life balance” and “interventions helping workers prioritize down-time and physical well-being” may be beneficial. 

There are a few notable takeaways from this study. First, both men and women find caretaking to be rewarding, and in fact even protective of mental health. And second, it could be that women’s higher modern investment in the workplace and the conflict they feel over work/family balance is causing physical strain in these caretaking roles, even though they themselves believe caretaking to be “highly rewarding.” What is the solution to this strain? There may not be a good one, but this study is a good place to start when seeking one.

(Nadya Dich et al., “Mental and physical health effects of meaningful work and rewarding family responsibilities,” PLoS ONE 14.4 [April 2019]: e0214916.)