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Lone parents’ mental health and employment

Researchers: Professor Susan E Harkness

By Nuffield Foundation

Project overview

This project explored three key questions:

  • Does employment alleviate depression among lone parents?
  • To what extent does job quality matter?
  • How does current employment policy affect mental health outcomes?


  • Lone mothers who work are less likely to suffer from depression than those who stay at home. 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.
  • 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.


Susan Harkness 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 the charity Gingerbread.

Latest on this project


  • Professor Susan E Harkness
    University of Bath

  • Director, Welfare
    Nuffield Foundation

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