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Families struggle with work life balance

Family day at home
Credit: iStock.com/filadendron

One in four Australian parents are thinking of or “actively intending” to leave their job due to the tension between work and caring roles.

The findings, just one of many from the inaugural National Working Families Report, comes as almost two thirds (62%) of working parents surveyed said they were struggling to care for their physical and mental health due to the tension between work and caring.

CEO of social enterprise Parents at Work, Emma Walsh, one of the bodies which commissioned the report, says it’s no surprise so many of the 6,289 parents surveyed reported that looking after their physical and mental wellbeing is their most challenging issue.

“What has surprised me is how many more parents have come forward sharing their own personal work-life balance challenges since we released the report findings. Without a doubt, parents’ self-care comes last,” Emma says.

The data is helping catapult a broader conversation Walsh believes needs to be had about the realities of being a working parent in Australia.

It’s the work of a new group of parenting and employment advocates which came together earlier in 2019 to form APLEN – the Advancing Parental Leave Equality Network.

Those involved in the network are concerned that after ten years of government-funded Paid Parental Leave and the Right to Request Flexible Work not enough had changed for families juggling the pressure of work and home life and commissioned the study to “take the pulse” of working parents and carers.

The findings worry Emma.

“We have a lot of people ‘just hanging in there’. Of course there’s a ripple effect. Everyone is just trying to make it work and be the best they can be.  But at the moment parents feel the brunt of the responsibility to ‘make it work’ falls on them. It shouldn’t be an individual burden, it is a societal one, and we all need to realise we have a role to play in it,” she says.

Emma believes the data shows the impact of creating a society and work environments where choosing to have a child is seen as an individual’s responsibility, and therefore it is up to each individual to make it work. 

“This is despite knowing that we absolutely need a community to help raise a child. In Australia, you may or may not get your job back [after parental leave], and you may or may not be supported by your employer to work flexibly or receive paid time off to raise children. Yes, there are some basic safety nets, provided for under the National Employment Standards and PPL scheme but for the most part you are crossing your fingers and hoping that your boss has your back,” she says.

We have a lot of people ‘just hanging in there’. Of course there’s a ripple effect. Everyone is just trying to make it work and be the best they can be. But at the moment parents feel the brunt of the responsibility to ‘make it work’ falls on them. It shouldn’t be an individual burden, it is a societal one, and we all need to realise we have a role to play in it.
Emma Walsh

Balance not just an issue for those with babies

While it’s easy to imagine that work life balance issues mostly exist for those with young babies, Emma says the data proves otherwise.

“Parents responded with children of all ages. It shows us that this is not something that’s isolated to the first year of a child’s life. It carries through to children at 16 to 18, and parents are struggling at all age groups with all sorts of different challenges trying to make this work…what caregiving is required of you changes as your child grows, but it doesn’t get less important,” she says.

A gender-skewed burden

Returning to work after a period of parental leave is often a challenging and difficult time, particularly if jobs and employment conditions have changed without consultation during leave.

The survey showed that on returning from parental leave, mothers’ jobs were much more likely to change than fathers’ jobs. Twenty-eight per cent of mothers stayed with their employer but reported changes to their job, while only six per cent of fathers experienced any job change. On top of this, one in three mothers missed out on an opportunity for promotion due to their use of paid parental leave, as did 11 per cent of fathers.

The result? Not only are women needing to adapt at work, whether they are happy with the changes (or lack thereof) to their role or not, but they are shouldering the main burden of caring work at home, regardless of how much they work in paid employment.

“Generally it’s up to the woman to make up the adjustments needed to make the ongoing primary caring role work…We need to ask ourselves what we are doing to support women and men and how does workplace policy around families help or hinder that process? I don’t think we’ve asked ourselves that as a nation,” Emma says.

Better support for transitioning to parenting

Emma believes that the time we transition to becoming a parent is a period of vulnerability.

“There are physical, mental and financial changes that all need to be considered, and people need time to work all that out,” she says.

“Even now, getting access to decent paid parental leave and flexible work is not a given. There is still a lot more support required from managers and businesses that is needed,” says Emma.

Her own experience comes from decades of coaching new parents through their first twelve months of parenting. She believes broader access to these types of programs would not only help parents’ stress levels but assist Australia in having a higher return to work rate.

“It’s very difficult to adapt to the changes that come with becoming a parent without having someone to talk to or to help you work through the implications of it, and to navigate the critical conversations you need to have. We cannot expect families to completely get on with that themselves without support,” Emma says.

Key findings from the National Working Families Report

  • Half of all parents returning to work after parental leave report significant fatigue.
  • A third are worried and anxious and one in five report feeling depressed.
  • Parents taking stress home from work impacts on their wellbeing, particularly when there is a lack of employer support or when returning to work after the birth of a child.
  • 44% said that having more control over when or where they worked would help