The Effect of Employment on the Mental Health of Lone Mothers in the UK Before and After New Labour’s Welfare Reforms

Susan Harkness*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

8 Citations (Scopus)


Since 1999 a series of reforms have been introduced to the UK welfare system with the aim of increasing rates of lone parent employment. Increased employment was expected not only to reduce rates of lone parent poverty but to provide wider benefits, including improvements in lone parents’ mental health. Yet for lone mothers there is very little evidence on how work influences mental health. Using data from the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) between 1991 and 2008 this paper assesses how lone mothers’ mental health, measured in the BHPS using the General Health Questionnaire, is influenced by employment and how this relationship changed over the period of welfare reform. A range of panel data models are estimated and the results and compare the results for lone mothers are compared to those for mothers with partners. In the period after welfare reform being in work was associated with significant improvements in lone mothers’ mental health. This was in sharp contrast to the situation prior to reform when there was very little association with employment, both those in and out of work had a very high risk of poor mental health. For partnered mothers, employment is also associated with improved mental health, although the effect is much smaller than that for lone mothers in the period after welfare reform and shows no significant change over time. That there was no change in the relationship between work and mental health for those with partners suggests that reforms to the welfare system have been an important source of the observed improvements in the mental health of working lone mothers. We conclude that under a supportive policy environment employment can lead to improvements in lone mothers’ mental health but that these gains are not automatic, as was the case in the 1990s when lone mothers saw no significant mental health benefits to work.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)763-791
Number of pages29
JournalSocial Indicators Research
Issue number2
Early online date29 Jul 2015
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sep 2016


  • Lone mothers
  • Mental health
  • Welfare reform
  • Work

Fingerprint Dive into the research topics of 'The Effect of Employment on the Mental Health of Lone Mothers in the UK Before and After New Labour’s Welfare Reforms'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this