Lone mothers who work are less likely to suffer from depression than those who stay at home, according to new IPR research recently published by the Nuffield Foundation.

The research, carried out in partnership with single parent charity Gingerbread, found that depression among lone mothers in work fell from 32% to 23% between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s, but increased from 33% to 41% among those not in work.

The study was led by Dr Susan Harkness, who is part of the University’s Institute for Policy Research, who used quantitative data from the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) to examine the changing relationship between work and mental health for lone mothers at two points in time, from 1993 to 1998, and from 2003 to 2008. She used the General Health Questionnaire to identify those at a high risk of depression, and interviews with lone mothers who had some experience of poor mental health, conducted by Gingerbread.

There is now a positive association between mental health and work that did not exist in the mid-90s, when there was no difference in the rate of depression between lone mothers with jobs and those without. By 2008, the mental health of lone mothers in work had improved to such an extent that there was little difference between lone mothers and mothers in couples.

This change is related to a series of policies introduced in the late 1990s and early 2000s that made it easier for lone mothers to achieve a satisfactory balance between work and childcare, the most important factor in reducing the risk of depression. These policies included the introduction of tax credits, the extension of state support for childcare, and the New Deal for Lone Parents. The employment rate of lone mothers increased from 42% to 57% during this period.

But it found that balancing work and childcare is a crucial factor. This positive association between work and improved mental health remained evident after accounting for other differences between working and non-working lone mothers such as age, age of children, and level of education.

Being able to achieve a satisfactory balance between work and childcare was the most important factor in reducing the risk of depression. This was more important than level of earnings, type of job, or career prospects.

Work provides a sense of identity and improved self-esteem for lone mothers, and these factors were equally, or more, important to mental health than the financial benefits of employment.

The mental health benefits of working were seen across different types of jobs. For example those working in sales and personal service occupations experienced similar gains to those in ‘professional’ occupations.

The fact that the improvements in mental health occurred under a supportive policy environment suggests that welfare reforms and policy incentives which merely increase the pressure on lone parents to move into any work, or to work longer hours, may risk pushing up the rate of maternal depression in the coming years.

Interestingly, for mothers in couples, there was no change in the relationship between work and mental health. Employment is associated with lower rates of depression in both periods, although the strength of the association is much weaker than that for lone mothers and overall rates of depression are lower.

Dr Harkness, from the Department of Policy and Social Sciences, said: “The positive association between employment and mental health suggests that work can have benefits for lone mothers beyond the purely financial. But the fact that this association is a relatively new one shows that simply having a job is not sufficient in itself to reduce the risk of depression. The important question is what has changed more broadly in our society over this time to enable both the increase in employment for lone mothers and the associated improvements in mental health.”

Teresa Williams, Director of Social Research and Policy at the Nuffield Foundation said: “The improvement in mental health among lone mothers who work is good news, not least because we know that maternal depression is strongly associated with children’s cognitive and emotional well-being. But we don’t know whether it is sustainable. If political and economic changes since 2008 make it more difficult for lone mothers to balance work and home life then we may see a reversal of this trend. We also need to address the needs of those not in work, who have seen their mental well-being deteriorate over the same period.”

Lone mothers, work and depression by Susan Harkness and Amy Skipp is available to download from www.nuffieldfoundation.org