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Study: When wives overwork, husbands' health declines

Study:  When wives overwork, husbands' health declines

CHICAGO (CNN) -- New research shows that when a wife works more than 40 hours a week, her husband's chances of being in good health decline by more than 25 percent.

"It's not so much what you do that matters, but how much you do," said study author Ross Stolzenberg, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago. "Up to 40 hours a week, there are no negative effects on a husband's health. But the effects are substantial after 40 hours, say, more than 50 hours a week."

A research associate at the university's Alfred P. Sloan Center for Research on Working Families and Children, Stolzenberg analyzed three years worth of data on 2,867 husbands and wives who were interviewed for an unrelated study being done by the National Institutes of Health at the University of Michigan.


Like it or not, gender roles are at play here, the professor found. Still, there appeared to be far more delicate ingredients in the mix as well. Yes, women are generally better at nurturing relationships and "health nagging," or chivvying men to see their doctors and take better care of themselves.

"But the major mechanism is really arranging constructive social contacts," said Stolzenberg, explaining that regular gatherings with friends and family members are a very effective way to reduce stress.

"One of the worst things a man can do for his health is to get divorced," the sociologist said. "Men just aren't anywhere near as good, on average, at setting up social contacts, as their wives." Losing social contacts will cause men's health to suffer -- "and it suffers pretty fast," he said.

"Everyone should be responsible for his or her own health, but I think what this survey shows is how much more dependent husbands are on their wives than wives are on their husbands (when it comes to) health issues," Stolzenberg said. "This difference is pretty well established in gender roles."

The professor's most surprising finding, however, dealt with effect of working on women's health, he said.

"Previous research had found that any employment at all is beneficial to the health of both men and women," explained Stolzenberg. "It seemed like a reasonable argument."

But adjusting the NIH data to account for the study participants' pre-existing health conditions stands such conventional wisdom on its head, it seems.

Stolzenberg learned that whether women were employed full-time or not had no effect on their health. Both husbands' and wives' health declined, however, when husbands lost jobs, he found.

"Not working has been known for a long time to be terribly damaging ... as a health risk for men," said the sociologist, who presented his findings Wednesday at a meeting of the American Sociological Association in Washington, D.C. Publication is expected soon in a professional journal.

Both spouses' health improved when men were employed at least 16 hours a week, he found. And overtime work on a husband's part seemed to have no negative affect on either his health, or his wife's, Stolzenberg said, again pointing to traditional gender roles.

When the subject is health care, such roles appear "to be fully institutionalized," he said. Women pay attention to family health and well-being, and men tend to ignore their own health concerns or stresses.

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