Moms who work full-time are healthier at age 40 than moms who stay at home, work part time, or moms who find themselves repeatedly out of work.

This was the result of a study reported on Monday, the last day of the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association in Denver, Colorado.

Co-author Adrianne Frech, Assistant Sociology Professor at the University of Akron in Ohio, told the press, work is good for both physical and mental health, for many reasons:

“It gives women a sense of purpose, self-efficacy, control and autonomy.”

“They have a place where they are an expert on something, and they’re paid a wage,” she added.

However, Frech and co-author Sarah Damaske of Pennsylvania State University, said rather than stir up the going-out-to-work versus stay-at-home debate, their research highlights a recently identified group, whom they label the persistently unemployed.

They say this group of mothers deserves more attention because they appear to be the least healthy at around age 40.

Persistently unemployed mothers are in and out of the workforce, often not by their own choice. They repeatedly experience the highs and lows of finding rewarding work, only to lose it and have to start all over again.

This becomes a health risk because of the stress caused by work instability.

Struggling to hold onto a job or being in constant job search mode wears on their health, especially mentally, but also physically,” said Frech.

“Women with interrupted employment face more job-related barriers than other women, or cumulative disadvantages over time,” she added.

For their study, Frech and Damaske analyzed longitudinal data on 2,540 women who became mothers between 1978 and 1995.

After adjusting for other factors that could influence the findings, such as prior health, employment before pregnancy, race/ethnicity, single motherhood, cognitive ability, and age at first birth, they found the choices women make early in their professional lives can influence their health later on.

Women who go back to full time work shortly after having children reported better health, both physical and mental. They have more mobility, less tendency to depression, and have more energy, at age 40.

Frech and Damaske suggest if women are able to make good choices before they have their first child, they are more likely to enjoy better health later on.

“Examples of good choices could be delaying your first birth until you’re married and done with your education, or not waiting a long time before returning to the workforce,” said Frech.

Frech suggests working full time brings many benefits that part time workers rarely see: not only is the pay higher, but the chances of promotion are better, there is more job security and more fringe benefits.

In contrast, mothers who stay at home may find themselves socially isolated and financially dependent.

Work makes you healthier and gives you the opportunity to save a nest egg, says Frech.

“Also, should a divorce happen, it is harder to enter the workforce if you don’t have a solid work history. Don’t give up on work and education,” she adds.

Frech also suggests society benefits when single mothers are offered child care and transportation, because this results in better job prospects for them.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD