Research Article: Mental and physical health effects of meaningful work and rewarding family responsibilities

Date Published: April 24, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Nadya Dich, Rikke Lund, Åse Marie Hansen, Naja Hulvej Rod, Sergio Garbarino.


Positive feelings about work and family responsibilities benefit psychological well-being, but their physical health effects remain unexplored. The study assessed whether meaningful work and reward from taking care of family benefitted physical health to the same degree as mental health. Participants were 181 Danes aged 49–51. Participants reported on working conditions, providing care to family, depressive symptoms, and perceived stress. Physical health was operationalized as a physiological dysregulation (e.g., hypertension, high levels of blood sugar and cholesterol, high body mass index). A multidimensional index of physiological dysregulation was created using parameters of cardiovascular, metabolic, and immune function. As expected, meaningful work and sense of reward from taking care of family members were associated with better mental health. However, in women, the very same factors were positively associated with higher physiological dysregulation. We conclude that work and family factors promoting psychological well-being may have physical health trade-offs, particularly in women.

Partial Text

Health effects of work and family life have been of interest to researchers for a long time. Numerous studies have linked psychological stress and emotional strain from work and family to adverse health outcomes [1,2]. Recently, however, the interest within psychological theory has shifted towards positive health effects of work and family life [3], underscoring the fact that work and family demands not only potentially result in strain, but can also be a source of gratification, meaning, and reward [4–6]. Positive feelings about work and family responsibilities have been shown to benefit mental health and contribute to psychological well-being [5,7,8]. However much less is known about the role of these positive feelings in physical health.

Table 1 shows the distribution of study variables by gender. The majority of participants provided care to at least one person. Sixty-seven percent of caregivers found caregiving rewarding to a large or very large degree. Only a small fraction of participants reported caregiving to be straining to a large degree or very large degree (2% for physical strain and 11% for emotional strain). Women and men found their work equally meaningful and 81% of respondents rated their work as meaningful to a large degree or very large degree. Table 2 shows the proportion of participants taking care of children, parents, spouse, grandchildren and other persons and the strain and reward scores across different groups of care recipients.

Deriving sense of purpose from one’s professional and family life has long been recognized as an important component of thriving and well-being [3,30]. Studies have confirmed that the pursuit of meaning and engagement contributes to happiness and enhances life quality, life satisfaction, and mental health [31,32]. Because psychological well-being and physical health are not independent from one another [3,9], it is often assumed that the same factors that promote psychological well-being and mental health should also contribute to better physical health. However, our findings suggest that this may not always be the case. The results of the study show that, especially in women, the very same factors that appear to be protective of mental health, namely meaningful work and caregiving reward, are associated with higher levels of physiological dysregulation.




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