Unpaid Domestic Work and Psychological Distress among Women
Bonnie Janzen PhD & Ivan W. Kelly, PhD
University of Saskatchewan
Recent research suggests that time spent on paid work and domestic labor
have become more
similar between partners over the last four decades in economically developed countries (Kan,
Sullivan & Gershuny, 2011). This gradual convergence, however, remains far from complete as
women continue to perform more hours of domestic work than men (and men more hours of
paid work than women) (Marshall, 2006). A growing body of research has been dedicated to
trying to understand the persistence of this gendered division of labor (Lachance-Grzela &
Bouchard, 2010) along with, importantly, the long term economic consequences for women
(MacDonald, Phipps, & Lethbridge, 2005). Relatively few studies in comparison have studied
the potential consequences of unpaid family work for mental health – a state of affairs which is
in stark contrast to the voluminous literature dedicated to understanding the impact of paid
work on mental health (Stansfeld & Candy, 2006). This lack of research attention is likely the
result of numerous factors, ranging from bias on the part of researchers in considering
household labor as “real work” and therefore worthy of study as a potential determinant of
mental health, to the many conceptual and measurement difficulties in attempting to
accurately characterize such a complex, often invisible role. This is an important gap to address
given the hundreds of hours that North Americans in general, and women in particular, will
spend in housework and child rearing over a life time (Kan et al. 2011).
The purpose of this chapter will be to critically review the quantitative research literature that
examines the relationship between unpaid domestic work and psychological distress.
specifically, this review will highlight: 1) the aspects of unpaid domestic work which have been
studied in relation to women’s psychological distress; and 2) the conceptual and
methodological challenges and limitations of this body of literature which need to be addressed
in order to advance the field.
Unpaid domestic work has been defined in a number of ways in the research literature, though in
most studies, the definition must be inferred from how it is measured in that particular study
Throughout this chapter, the terms “family work”, “domestic work”, “household work” and “household labor”
are used interchangeably.
This review is restricted to quantitative methods. We acknowledge, however, the important contributions of
qualitative approaches to measurement, such as those used by Hochschild (1989) in The Second Shift, and by
DeVault (1991) in Feeding the Family.
(Coltrane, 2000; Shelton & John, 1996). As noted by Shelton and John (1996), the most common
definition of housework is as “unpaid work done to maintain family members and or a home”
(p.300). Researchers may include childcare in their definitions, but often leave out more
“invisible” types of work (e.g. emotional work) from their studies.
Similarly, with some exceptions (primarily from the sociological literature) (e.g. Robinson &
Spitze, 1992; Bird, 1999; Glass & Fujimoto, 1994), explicitly stated theory regarding how unpaid
family work may be related to psychological distress is often neglected in the research
literature. More often than not, connections between elements of domestic work and mental
health have to be surmised based on relatively vague statements by authors in the
introduction/discussion sections of papers and/or according to how unpaid domestic work is
measured in their study (for example, the absolute amount of housework performed versus the
extent to which household is shared between partners). Despite this limitation, several
explanations can be gleaned from the literature which link unpaid domestic work with mental
health outcomes. These are: 1) the role strain perspective; 2) the division of household labor;
and 3) the psychosocial work environment.
The starting point for much research in the area of unpaid domestic work and mental health is
the view of domestic work as an inherently negative activity (Lennon, 1994; Robinson & Spitze,
1992). This perspective of family work is consistent with the broader context of women’s health
research. That is, despite overwhelming evidence of the mental and physical health enhancing
effects of multiple role occupancy for many women (McMunn, Bartley, Hardy, & Kuh, 2006),
the majority of research continues to implicitly or explicitly adopt a role strain perspective
(Barnett & Hyde, 2001). This approach focuses on the premise that human energy is limited,
and the more demands within a role, or the more roles a person occupies, the more strain
experienced and the greater the likelihood of negative effects on mental health (Goode, 1960).
Thus, more time and effort spent in housework and child rearing may create role overload,
particularly if combined with paid work, resulting in time pressure and subsequent
A variety of measures have been employed to assess the burdens of domestic work. Some
research has relied on household structural variables as proxy indicators domestic workload,
such as household size, children’s age or the presence of older adults (Artazcoz et al. 2001;
Regidor, Pascual, de la Fuente, Santos, Astasio, & Ortega, 2010). Given the lack of specificity of
these variables, it is perhaps not surprising that these indicators have been inconsistently
related to women’s psychological distress (Matthews & Powers, 2002; Artazcoz, 2001). Time
use measures are an alternative operationalization of domestic workload level. Although some
studies have relied on time diary data (Hook, 2006), most family work studies with mental
health as an outcome have used direct questions; these require respondents to estimate how
much time they usually spend per day or week on specific domestic work tasks (Boye, 2010,
Glass & Fujimoto, 1994). However, more time spent on domestic work has not been associated
with women’s mental health in a predictable way. That is, some research has found more time
spent in family work to be associated with poorer mental health (Vaananen, Kevin, Ala-
Mursula, Pentti, Kivimaki, & Vahtera, 2004; Glass & Fujimoto, 1994), other studies have found
more family work to be unrelated to mental health (Harryson, Novo, & Hammarstrom, 2010;
Escriba-Aguir & Tenias-Burillo, 2004; Robinson & Spitze, 1992; Voydanoff, 1999) or even
associated with better mental health (but only up to a particular threshold of hours, after which
more time spent in housework is associated with an increase in psychological distress) (Boye,
2010). Glass and Fujimoto (1994) however found no evidence of a non-linear association
between time in housework and psychological distress. Yet other research has found more time
spent in domestic labor to be associated with poorer mental health but only for particular
subgroups of women, such as employed women with lower education levels (Artazcoz et al.
2004), blue-collar workers (Asztalos et al., 2009) or women with stressful jobs (Mellner, Krantz,
& Lundberg, 2006). Hence, no consistent findings have emerged within the role strain
Household division of labor
A second explanation linking domestic work and psychological distress focuses, not on the
absolute amount of work done, but rather, on the proportion of family work done relative to
one’s partner (Glass & Fujimoto, 1994). According to equity theory, couples evaluate both what
they put into a relationship and what they get out of a relationship; equity between partners is
attained when both contribute and benefit fairly within the relationship (Thompson, 1991). The
division of family work is one area that can contribute to couples’ perceptions of equity or
inequity in a relationship, and thus potentially impact psychological well-being. In the case of
household labor, equity theory predicts that those partners who perform an equitable share
will be less psychologically distressed than either those who perform a disproportionately small
or large share, the latter being associated with the greatest likelihood of psychological distress.
Various measures have been applied to assess the household division of labor. “Objective”
measures involve obtaining an estimate of hours of domestic work from both partners and
dividing each respondent’s housework hours by the total number reported by both partners
(Glass & Fujimoto, 1994; Bird, 1999) or having respondents rate their domestic responsibilities on
an ordinal scale, from no responsibility to total responsibility (Matthews and Powers, 2002).
Several studies using objective measures of equity have reported that the more proportionate
time women spend in household labour relative to their partner, the greater their level of
depression or psychological distress (Harryson, Novo, Hammarstrom, 2010; Khawaja & Habib,
2007), whereas other studies have reported no such relationship (Barnett & Shen, 1997; Boye,
2010; Goldberg & Perry-Jenkins, 2004). Bird (1999) reported a curvilinear relationship between
contribution to housework and psychological distress; that is, among employed women,
performing an increasing proportion of the housework was associated with lower psychological
distress but only up until a particular point (ie., 50%) after which psychological distress began to
increase. Boye (2010) however, failed to replicate this association. Goldberg and Perry-Jenkins
(2004) claim that understanding of the relationship between family work and mental health has
been impeded by the tendency of researchers to only include measures of housework or to
combine questions on child rearing and housework into one measure, so that the independent
associations of each with mental health, if present, cannot be determined. The few studies which
have considered child rearing and housework separately suggest that an unequal division of child
rearing may be more strongly associated with women’s psychological distress than an unequal
division of housework (Des Rivieres-Pigeon, Saurel-Cubizolles, & Romito, 2002; Matthews &
Power, 2002; Tao, Janzen & Abonyi, 2010). In addition, although women’s actions directed toward
improving the emotional and psychological well-being of family members (ie., emotional labour)
has not been traditionally included in domestic work research, increasing evidence suggests that
more time spent in emotional work relative to one’s partner is associated with higher levels of
depression among women in dual-earner families (Stranzdins & Broom, 2004).
In addition to the type of task, whether one perceives the division of family work as fair or
unfair may also be relevant to understanding the relationship between household labor and
psychological distress (Claffey & Manning, 2010). Performing a disproportionate amount of the
family work does not invariably result in perceptions of unfairness (Lennon & Rosenfeld, 1994).
Subjective measures of the household division of labor involve asking respondents how fair
he/she perceives the amount of paid or domestic labor undertook relative to their partner's
contribution, with typical response options being: 1=very unfair to me, 2=somewhat unfair to
me, 3=fair to both, 4 =somewhat unfair to partner, 5 = very unfair to partner) (Glass &
Fujimoto, 1994). A growing body of research has focused on identifying factors associated with
perceptions of fairness; that is, understanding why a considerable proportion of women
perform the bulk of domestic work and view the division as fair (Braun, Lewin-Epstein, Stier, &
Baumgartner, 2008; Greenstein, 2009). However, relatively few studies have focused on the
potential mental health consequences of perceived unfairness in household work. The limited
research which does exist suggests a positive association between perceived unfairness in the
division of family work and depressive symptoms (Claffey & Mickelson, 2009; Robinson &
Spitze, 1992; Voydanoff & Donnelly, 1999).
Psychosocial work environment
Drawing upon the paid work literature which suggests that the psychological and social
conditions of work vary greatly among the employed and in ways which impact mental health
(Stansfeld & Candy, 2006), another body of research has examined the relationship between
the psychosocial quality of unpaid domestic work and mental health outcomes. The
psychosocial environment refers to “the sociostructural range of opportunities that is available
to an individual person to meet his or her needs of well being, productivity and positive self-
experience” (Seigrist & Marmot, 2004, p. 1465). Schooler and colleagues (1984) hypothesized
that people engaged in domestic work that requires intellectual activity, task variety, and
authority over their work would have better psychological health than those participating in
monotonous work that was lacking in cognitive challenge and control. Most research examining
the relationship between the psychosocial quality of domestic work and psychological distress
has been based on Karasek’s and Theorell’s (1990) job strain model. Within this framework,
workers’ psychological job demands (e.g., pace, effort, volume) interact with their level of
decision latitude (e.g. ability to make decisions at work and opportunity to use skills) to
determine the psychosocial quality of their work. Job strain occurs when the psychological
demands of the job are high and the worker’s decision latitude (ie., job control) is low. Others
have conceptualized the psychosocial quality of domestic work as the difference between the
rewarding aspects of the work (e.g. being able to set one’s own standards) and that concerning
unrewarding aspects of the work (e.g. being bored by the routine)(Kibria, Barnett, Baruch,
Marshall, & Pleck, 1990; Walters et al. 1996). To assess the psychosocial quality of unpaid
family work, many researchers have developed their own study-specific, typically multi-item
scales (Kushnir & Malamed, 2006; Staland-Nyman, Alexanderson, & Hensing, 2008; Kibria et al.,
1990; Lennon, 1994; Walters et al. 1996), none of which have been universally adopted within
Research indicates that the psychosocial characteristics of women’s unpaid family work do vary
appreciably and in ways which are associated with their mental health. For example, higher
levels of depression, anxiety, and burnout have been found among women reporting domestic
work characterized as highly demanding (Peeter, Montgomery, Bakker, & Schaufeli, 2005;
Kushnir & Malamed, 2006; Lennon, 1994; Schooler et al. 1984; Walters et al. 1996), routine
(Lennon, 1994) or lacking in substantive complexity (ie., degree to which performance of the
work requires thought and independent judgment) (Schooler et al. 1984). Control over work
activities has been identified as particularly critical for promoting mental health in the paid
work environment (Siegrist & Marmot, 2004) and the concept has become an increasing foci in
the domestic work and health literature (Chandola et al. 2004; Griffin et al., 2002). For
example, Barnett and Shen (1997, p. 2) categorized various domestic tasks in terms of schedule
control, that is, one’s “ability to schedule tasks to reflect one’s personal needs rather than
having to perform the tasks on a schedule independent of one’s personal needs”. Low-schedule-
control tasks, such as laundry and cooking, are those which must typically be done every day
and at certain times, with the worker experiencing very little discretion in the scheduling of
tasks. In contrast, high-schedule-control tasks, such as yard work and car maintenance, are
often initiated and completed according to the worker’s preference and can often be
performed without any time urgency. The performance of high- and low-schedule-control
activities is highly gendered within households, with women typically spending more hours on
low-schedule-control tasks and men on high-schedule-control tasks (Kan et al. 2011). Barnett
and Shen (1997) found for both husbands and wives, more time spent performing low-
schedule-control tasks was associated with greater distress, whereas the amount of time spent
on high-schedule-control tasks was unrelated to mental health outcomes, though Robinson and
Spitze (1992) failed to find such an association. Although it is often assumed in the literature
that it is the low schedule control domestic activities that are most harmful to psychological
well-being (Coltrane, 2000), little research was found which has systematically tested this
hypothesis. This gap in knowledge is important to address, particularly given recent research
suggesting that although couple’s paid and unpaid work hours are slowly converging over time,
the least amount of convergence has been observed with respect to low schedule control
housework tasks (e.g. cleaning, laundry), the bulk of which is still performed by women (Kan et
It is important to note that the conceptualization of control in the domestic work literature still
remains preliminary, with little clarity regarding the key components which are most important
for understanding women’s mental health (Kushnir & Melamed, 2006). While some
researchers, like Barnett & Shen (1997), have focused on aspects of control which have been
similarly defined and measured in the paid work literature (Staland-Nyman et al. 2008;
Lombardi & Ulrich, 1997), others point to the uniqueness of the home environment and the
need for revised concepts and measures which reflect that uniqueness. For example, Kushnir &
Melamed (2006) developed a measure of shared control in family-related decision-making, and
though unrelated to measures of burnout among employed mothers, was associated with life
satisfaction. Others point out the need to clarify whether control in the domestic environment
is best conceptualized in terms of women’s degree of access (or lack of access) to resources
needed to successfully cope with family demands or control in terms of power (ie., decision
making ability) within the household (Griffin et al. 2002; Chandola, 2004). Although Griffin et al.
(2002) found women (and men) who perceived themselves as having low control in the home
environment to be at greater risk of depression, the single item measure of control used in the
study precluded the ability to make informed interpretations.
Discussion and Conclusion
The study of occupational exposures and their mental health effects has been an important
research focus within the health and social sciences for many years. Although the early
emphasis of this research was on men, an understanding of the qualities and characteristics of
paid work which impact women’s mental health has increased greatly over the last two
decades, though gaps remain (Artazcoz, Borrell, Cortas, Escriba-Aguir, & Cascant, 2007). In
contrast to paid work, relatively little is known about the characteristics of unpaid family work
which may influence mental health. This lack of research attention is likely the result of
numerous factors, ranging from bias on the part of researchers in not considering household
labor as “real work” and therefore worthy of study as a potential determinant of mental health,
to the many conceptual and measurement difficulties in attempting to accurately characterize
such a complex, often invisible role (Warren, 2010; Coltrane, 2000).
But what does the research that has been conducted say? That is, is unpaid domestic work
among women associated with psychological distress? Unfortunately, research on this topic
has, to date, produced equivocal findings: some studies say yes (Glass & Fujimoto, 1994), other
studies say no (Goldberg & Perry-Jenkins, 2004), and even more say “it depends” (Artazcoz et
al. 2004; Asztalos et al., 2009 ). Unfortunately what “it” depends upon is not at all consistent
across studies. While this review of the literature does suggest that, all in all, unpaid work can
be detrimental to women’s mental health, it is difficult to clearly articulate under what
conditions such a relationship would hold. Adding to interpretative challenges is that with a few
exceptions (e.g. Harryson et al., 2010; Goldberg & Perry-Jenkins, 2004), most research has been
conducted cross-sectionally, making it difficult to tease out the actual direction of association
between unpaid domestic work and psychological distress.
Disparate research findings themselves are likely the result of numerous factors. Lack of
consistency across studies in what constitutes unpaid domestic work is a likely contributory
factor (e.g. housework, child-rearing or both), as is the diversity of measures used. In addition,
study participants have varied widely between studies in terms of age, stage in the family life
course, employment status, and family role characteristics. Family and paid work
responsibilities and resources vary considerably throughout the adult life course in ways which
may impact the division of family work, the psychosocial quality of the work, and thus, the
potential impact of that work on mental health (Marshall, 2011). Inconsistent adjustment of
covariates in multivariate models also likely contributes to disparate research findings.
Others have questioned whether current quantitative measures of domestic work actually
encompass the “essence” of unpaid domestic work (Warren, 2011; Walters et al. 2002). After
all, family labor is complex, often invisible, characterized by some as , “…largely mental, spread
over time, and mixed in with other activities, often looking like other things” (Mederer, 1993, p.
135). Following a review of research examining unpaid work in the UK over the past decade,
Warren (2011) concluded that many of these studies were based on data sets which failed to
adequately reflect the complexities of unpaid work, such as “domestic work practices (who does
what); relationships (for, from and with whom); negotiations (how); and meanings of domestic
work (for those carrying out domestic work and others)” (p. 132). Canadian researchers have
similarly drawn attention to the lack of quality information on domestic work contained in large
scale government health surveys, such as Statistic’s Canada’s National Population Health
Surveys and the Canadian Community Health Surveys (Walters et al. 2002), thus having to rely
on superficial indicators of family workload such as the number and ages of children. To
address the measurement deficiencies of large scale government surveys, a number of
researchers over the last several decades have developed their own measurement scales to
assess various qualities of family work (e.g. Lombardi & Ulbrich, 1997; Lennon, 1994; Walters et
al. 1996; Kushnir & Melamed, 2006; Staland-Nyman et al. 2008). Certainly, some interesting
relationships are emerging from this body of work, such as those between perceptions of
control (Griffin et al. 2002) and demands (Peeter et al. 2005) within the domestic environment
and women’s risk of psychological distress. Unfortunately, none of these measures appear to
have undergone rigorous scale development procedures nor do they appear to have been used
on more than one occasion or by more than one researcher.
Clearly articulated theory is critical for the development of valid and reliable measures.
Although expressed a decade ago, this review of the literature suggests that the opinion voiced
by Walters and colleagues (2002) still applies today: “Research on work within the home is still
in its infancy. We do not have conceptual frameworks which are as well developed as in the case
of paid work, nor are the elements of domestic labor clearly identified” (p.679). Nor is it clearly
and consistently articulated in the literature as to why (and how) unpaid domestic work should
be related to psychological distress. As recently observed, “…without careful attention to theory
and building models that are empirically testable, research results can be interpreted in any
fashion, full of the influence of biases, proclivities, ideologies, and possibly even ignorance. The
theory building process not only helps to keep us honest, it helps us progress” (Carpiano &
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