Unequal Housework Could Be Damaging Women's Health

Their work never ends.
Women who worked 60 or more hours a week for over 30 years were at higher risk of six chronic diseases compared to men who worked the same amount of hours.
Anna Peisl via Getty Images
Women who worked 60 or more hours a week for over 30 years were at higher risk of six chronic diseases compared to men who worked the same amount of hours.

We've long known that the way couples divide housework can have a serious impact on a woman's career. For example, in her 2013 book Lean In, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg advises women that unless their partners pitch in with at least 50 percent of the housework and childcare, they may not advance as much as they would like to in their workplace.

Research backs this up: One reason there are so few women in leadership positions could be because women continue to do the majority of housework and childcare even in households in which both partners work full-time, according to a McKinsey study.

Now, a new study finds that women who work more than 60 hours a week are at a higher risk of several chronic diseases. And the researcher who found this connection suspects that an unequal division of domestic labor may be to blame, because the same risk increases aren't seen in men.

In a study of a national survey data, it was discovered that women who worked 60-plus hours every week over three decades have triple the risk of early-onset diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, and certain kinds of cancer compared to women who work the more standard 30- to 40-hour week. They also had about double the risk of chronic lung disease and asthma.

These results are alarming enough, but are even more so when you consider that these are just the women who were diagnosed early, between the ages of 40 and 50. The study doesn’t reveal lifetime risk for these chronic diseases, which could be even worse.

Among men, those who worked more than 60 hours a week didn't have nearly the same risks for these same chronic and deadly diseases. The findings mirror past research that shows 10 overtime hours a week are linked to increased hospitalization rates in women, but not men, and an increase of five hours of overtime work heightened the risks of early death in women, but not in men.

Housework could explain the gender divide

Lead study author Allard Dembe, a professor of health services management and policy at Ohio State University’s College of Public Health, suspects that the unequal distribution of domestic labor may magnify the effects a long workweek has on a woman’s health. When office and home labor hours are combined, it seems women are generally working for much longer overall.

“My speculation is that women have to play a lot of multiple roles,” said Dembe, adding that these roles, like caregiving or housekeeping, can contribute added stress that leads to disease risk.

"It’s less surprising that women who are then into their 50s and 60s are really bearing the disease repercussions of what’s happened during those early years of really working their butts off," he said.

The domestic divide endures

Dembe’s study was conducted among 7,500 Americans who were born between 1957 and 1964, meaning their prime working years were in the 1970s and 1980s -- a time period in which more women were entering the workforce, but with little public debate about who would continue doing the work that keeps a household running.

The challenges those working women faced as they were expected to maintain traditional levels of housework were described in the groundbreaking 1989 book The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home. Author and sociologist Arlie Hochschild described women's working achievements as a "stalled revolution," because men's leisure time was still valued more than women's. This resulted in deeply unequal divisions of domestic labor among the couples she interviewed for her book, despite the fact that both spouses may have had jobs and career ambitions.

Millennial couples are equal in theory but unequal in practice

Even though the risks of working long hours may not be the same for millennial families due to changing views on the division of household chores, Vincent Passarelli, a clinical psychologist who also consults with companies on corporate culture and wellness plans, pointed out that the U.S. is still in a “transitional” stage when it comes to domestic equality.

For example, a modern heterosexual couple may agree in theory that all household tasks should be split evenly. But despite the fact that men are definitely stepping up more at home compared to their forbears, the most up-to-date studies show that women still shoulder most domestic tasks -- especially when children enter the picture.

According to 2014 reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, men who worked full time clocked about 8.4 hours a day, while their female counterparts spent an average of 7.8 hours a day at work. But the figures also showed that women spent on average about 2.8 hours a day on household activities and caring for other family members, while men spent just 1.7 hours doing the same. Women also spent more than twice as much time every day making food and cleaning -- and more than four times as much time doing laundry.

“Proof that more needs to be done is evident when visiting the house of family or friends,” Passarelli concluded. "People still feel a conditioned response to first critique the woman of the house and not the man if there are dirty dishes in the sink or a messy table."

How offices can support workers' home lives

Corporations need to learn more about the deleterious health effects of working long hours and consider adopting new work schedules that emphasize flexibility, control over one’s hours and shorter hours overall, Dembe writes in his study.

And in recognition that his research finds these higher disease risks for women only, he suggested that “family-friendly” policies be created to help improve conditions at home.

"On the one hand, reducing work hours can lessen workers’ stress and improve their health,” he writes. "At the same time, employers can also benefit from increased productivity and enhanced performance by healthy workers, as well as fewer accidents and errors related to worker fatigue."

Dembe, who focuses mostly on research that links work and disease, also suggested that businesses adopt wellness programs that communicate the risks of working long hours, as well as screening programs that alert people in their 20s, 30s and 40s about their individual risk factors for diseases that could show up in their 50s and 60s.

Finally, at the risk of oversimplifying things, Dembe has one more suggestion -- this time aimed at the home: “Get men to cook dinner, take care of the kids and change diapers."

Before You Go

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