Abstract Two contrasting theories of the relationship between paid employment and women's health are examined using data from the 1975 and 1976 General Household Survey. The ‘role accumulation’ hypothesis, which proposes that paid employment has beneficial effects on health, was supported for women without children, and for women over 40 with children. However, the causal ordering is unclear, for there is evidence that ill-health reduces the likelihood of labour-force participation especially among women over 40. When those reporting chronic illness are excluded, the association between being a housewife and short-term illness largely disappears.
The contrasting hypothesis, that for married women with children the strain of occupying multiple roles leads to poorer health, was also supported, but only for women under 40 who work full-time and have children. These women reported higher levels of illness, although this was less clear among women working in professional and managerial jobs. It is concluded that full-time work for young mothers may be detrimental for their health unless there are adquate financial resources to help with the burden of maintaining the multiple roles of housewife, mother and employee, or until the sexual division of labour in the home changes.