WEDNESDAY, March 5, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Husbands beware: Wives now have another reason to want you to work longer and harder. The more a male spouse works, the healthier his wife will be, new research suggests.
But there's a catch -- most husbands don't enjoy the same health benefit when their wives work overtime, the study found.
The researchers analyzed both the work and health histories of nearly 3,800 men and women.
"We looked at the health of wives when their husbands worked the 40-hour week norm, and compared that with the health of wives whose husbands worked more than that," study lead author Sibyl Kleiner explained.
"We found that husbands working particularly long schedules was associated with their wives being in better health," said Kleiner, a postdoctoral research associate in the department of sociology at the University of Texas, Dallas.
It's not just that having more economic resources brings health advantages, she said, although previous research has made that link. The new study tested for that as well.
"And yes, we did find that the husband bringing in more money did explain somewhat the improved health of the wife," Kleiner said.
"However it's complicated, because we didn't find the same to be true in reverse," Kleiner added. "The husbands' health didn't improve when wives worked longer hours. In fact, the husbands' health actually suffered when wives worked moderately longer hours, in part, we think, because husbands had less time to exercise."
The new findings appear in the March issue of the journal Social Forces.
To explore the impact of work on spousal health, the authors sifted through data collected between 1979 and 2004 by a long-term national survey of U.S. youth.
When launched, participants were between the ages of 14 and 22, and those who married were followed over the decades as they developed their careers and formed families.
Investigators focused on the period 1998 to 2004. They asked all the men and women to rank their health as they turned 40, while completing a 12-point checklist that looked at both general health and the onset of any physical limitations, disabilities or pain issues.
Two years after providing health information, both male and female participants reported their work hours, with most couples being part of a two-breadwinner household.
The result: Husbands who worked 50 or more hours per week had healthier wives than those who worked 40-hour weeks, principally due to the extra cash coming through the door, the study authors said.
The reverse picture was more complicated. Most of the wives were working full time. But those wives who worked anywhere from 41 to 49 hours per week were found to have less-healthy husbands.
This, the team theorized, might perhaps be explained by lower hourly pay for women. The upshot, they suggest, is that while a wife's longer schedule doesn't necessarily translate into appreciably more money, it may leave their husband with more homebound responsibility and less time to work out.
That said, wives who worked extra-long hours, in excess of 50 per week, had husbands who were just as healthy as if their schedule had adhered to the 40-hour norm.
The picture was further complicated by the fact that the so-called "traditional" male breadwinner structure -- in which the husband works a lot and the wife works very little -- did not seem to benefit either the husband or wife in terms of improved health. In the end, a household in which both spouses worked seemed associated with the best health on both sides of the coin.
"But at this point we can't really say that we know what the ideal amount both spouses should be working to gain the biggest health benefit," Kleiner acknowledged. "If there's a magical scheduling combination we didn't find it."
For her part, Corinne Reczek, an assistant professor in the department of sociology at Ohio State University, praised the new study.
"Most studies look at how socioeconomic resources in marriage, such as an income boost, affect health and health behavior, [while] this study is innovative in its attention to how spouses' work hours matter for both spouses' health," she said.
"Interestingly, this study demonstrates that men and women experience very different consequences of their spouses' work hours," Reczek added. "What is most interesting is the effect of women's work hours on men's exercise, suggesting that when women work only moderately over the so-called standard work week, men may pick up additional household duties that reduce their leisure and thus exercise time."
Husbands can't win either way, it appears.
"For men, then, the potential health boost from women's economic contribution to family income via their labor force participation appears to be offset by a reduction in free activity time for men," Reczek said.
Although the researchers found an association between work hours and spouses' health, the study did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship.
Visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for more about marriage and health.