Published: 28/07/2005, Volume II5, No. 5966 Page 36

A study investigating the link between fathers' well-being and the hours their wives work outside the home is set to generate more controversy in the debate around working wives and mothers.

The research by sociologists Vincent Duindam and Ed Spruijt of Utrecht University in the Netherlands is unique for investigating two groups of fathers: modern, caring ones (in this context, those in less than full-time employment) and the more traditional (in full-time employment).

For both groups, the more their wives worked the worse the fathers' physical and mental well-being. One theory for this suggests the role of a wife or mother is as a kind of 'director of health'. She seems to shoulder responsibility for healthy eating, sport, not drinking too much, going to bed on time, taking vitamins or medication. If the woman takes on many hours of paid work, this function could be threatened.

The sociologists argue that girls learn to pay special attention to the mental and physical health of themselves and others, whereas boys do not. Later, after starting a family, It is therefore more likely the woman will care for the health of her husband, children and herself.

A second theory suggests a man is more likely to feel inadequate if his wife works longer than he does, or earns more. This is referred to as the 'unfulfilled husband' theory. A woman contributing more to the family income could create insecurity in the man.

This latest research has made the first attempt to resolve which theory explains the astonishing negative effect on husbands of their wives working.

Data partly confirmed both theories, but there was more evidence for the unfulfilled husband hypothesis in both types of fathers. Apparently, they feel particularly good when they see themselves as the main breadwinner.

Much current policy supports women's participation in the labour market, but offers far less active support to encourage men to learn to look after themselves and others. When it comes to future policy, the sociologists argue, it would seem to be important to address this.

Dr Raj Persaud is consultant psychiatrist at South London and Maudsley trust and Gresham professor for public understanding of psychiatry.