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Managing family and work life balance

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Father with baby working at home


Struggling with flexible work arrangements, many parents are carrying enormous guilt over long work hours, resorting to lying to cover for their sick children or paying a wage gap penalty as they cut back hours or leave the labour market.

Research indicates that many Australian families report feeling that their devotion to their employer is questioned when they want to, or need to, prioritise the care of their children.

A feeling more often felt by mothers.  

“We need to reconfigure how family and work go together,” says Dr Lyndall Strazdins, a Professor and ARC Future Fellow at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, Australian National University.

“We have an old system of thinking about work and it hasn’t ever accommodated the significant time in the day needed to care for families,” she says.

“We need to realise that raising families is important, and we need a long-term cultural change in the workplace.

Fortunately, the change is slowly happening around the world.

In July this year, a flexible working bill was introduced to the UK parliament.

Anna Whitehouse, founder of the campaign Flex Appeal, told the BBC, “The 40-hour, five-day working week made sense in an era of single-earner households and stay-at-home mums, but it no longer reflects the reality of how many modern families want to live their lives,” she said.

“ don't get to spend as much time as they might like with their children, women miss out on career opportunities, and the country loses out on the contribution they could and would like to make - if only they could do slightly different hours or work some days from home.

“Ensuring that employers offer flexible working would open up new jobs to a whole raft of people who want to work, alongside carrying out caring responsibilities or simply achieving a better work-life balance.

“There are also clear benefits to employers - offering flexible working to employees creates a stronger, loyal and more diverse workforce, which pays dividends.”

Ensuring that employers offer flexible working would open up new jobs to a whole raft of people who want to work, alongside carrying out caring responsibilities or simply achieving a better work-life balance.
Anna Whitehouse

Why are we hiding our children from our work?

“Parents say they feel they have to to hide the need to spend time with and care for their children because of the need to demonstrate commitment to their work and employer,” says Dr Strazdins.

“What we have seen in our research is that even with family-friendly work practices, the reality is that the family orientates itself and adapts to support family members to work.

"It’s usually a one-way street.”

Dr Strazdins says that regardless of what industry the main income earner is in, family life is still built around supporting that main income earner, often the father, to manage what is often a long working week. The other parent, in most cases the mother (in heterosexual relationships), works less hours to be able to continue care for their children.

In a 2013 report, Dr Shireen Kanji from the University of Birmingham and her colleague examined “the experiences of a group of professional and managerial women who had returned to work after having a child but then subsequently gave up work”.

Dr Kanji says, “for many of these mothers there was little flexibility in timing which made it very difficult to accommodate work and care because full-time professional work requires being seen to do much more than this”.

“For some mothers their experience at work was that they were side-lined into less interesting roles, while others felt excluded from social networks.”

Dr Kanji and her colleague found that women felt they needed to lie about their children, in order to keep up with the cultural norm of keeping work and family separate.  

Women explained that when their child was sick, it was an “unwelcome reminder that employees care about their children and by implication not enough about the organisation”, so rather than say they were caring for their child, they claimed they themselves were sick.

Dr Strazdins points out that while there is a big focus in supporting women re-entering the workforce when their children are young, we need to remember families need support beyond those early years.

“We often assume that when children enter school, the time requirements for running a household and looking after children go away and they don’t,” she says.

“At every age, the needs of children are different, but the time is equally important.

“Being available and being flexible is very important for parents.”

What does having children do to our careers?

The Australian Institute of Family Studies published a report this year which outlines the statistical trends in fathers’ employment over recent decades.

The report says that when children are born, a father’s employment hours remain the same, while a mother’s dramatically decreases.

Dr Kanji adds that a low proportion of women work continuously for the first five years following the birth of their first child and that this break from employment has been found to be an important explanatory variable in the motherhood wage gap.

“There is a term call the ‘motherhood penalty’,” explains Dr Strazdins.

“Once women have a child, there’s a king hit to her career and earning capacity.

“Women leave the labour market or cut back their hours, so they lose work experience, or they don’t progress.

“We have found that a father’s work hours are independent of mother’s work hours, in other words, a father’s work hours aren’t impacted on how many hours the mother works, they are fixed.

“All the ‘give’ goes into women’s work patterns.”

Dr Kanji notes in the USA, “some married men are actually rewarded for fatherhood in terms of their wage rates.”

“Fatherhood can enhance men’s status at work,” says Dr Kanji.

“There’s plenty of evidence of women trying to hide their status if they are mothers because being associated with care is seen as being lower status.”

Dr Strazdins explains that in Australia we have a ‘one and a half job’ dynamic.

“There is a ‘real job’ which is a fixed, often long full-time hours, often held by the father,” she says.

“Then there’s half a job which is the person, usually the mother, who manages both the job and the care of the children and household.”

A third of the children studied considered that their father works too much, one eighth wished that he did not work at all, and one third wanted more time with him or did not enjoy time together.
Long Hours and Longings: Australian Children's Views of Fathers' Work and Family Time

Do all parents feel the strain of being pulled in both directions?

The guilt of wanting to be there for your children and be a devoted employee is felt by both parents.

In the 2013 report, Dr Kanji and her colleague found that the mental load of managing the care of children and being a dedicated employee impacts mothers in the workplace.

“Most mothers felt that the main responsibility for taking over from child care workers was theirs.

“If they had a male partner, he sometimes provided backup support, but the mother was actually responsible.

“Hegemonic masculine culture in the workplace was felt directly by mothers and also indirectly by the priority that was often accorded to a male partner’s workplace arrangements.

“They faced the incompatibility of being an involved parent and having a professional role.”

Dr Strazdins notes that in her research, fathers are more likely to say their work interferes with their family life.

“It’s not necessarily a matter of will, it’s harder for men to feel they won’t suffer a consequence, or their workplace won’t suffer a consequence if they give more time to their family,” she says.

There is some data on the ‘fatherhood penalty’ where if men take on flexible work arrangements, they are penalised.

“There isn’t a lot of data on this, simply as men are less likely to take the risk, but research has shown that the few men who do take flexible work arrangements, they are penalised for it, in similar terms to how women are penalised.”

In research conducted in 2017, Dr Strazdins and her colleagues found that children were impacted by their parents work hours, particularly their fathers.

“A third of the children studied considered that their father works too much, one eighth wished that he did not work at all, and one third wanted more time with him or did not enjoy time together,” says the report.

“Working on weekends, being time pressured, being unable to vary start and stop times, and working long hours generated negative views in children about fathers’ jobs and time together.

“The time dilemmas generated by fathers’ work devotions and demands are salient to and subjectively shared by their children.”

As for single parents, the predicament is even greater.

“Single parents have both an enormous need to be earning money and half the time to do that and care for their family,” says Dr Strazdins.

“There is a lot of evidence that shows single parents either work, often in jobs they usually wouldn’t take but have favourable hours, or don’t work and are driven onto welfare.

“It’s very tough for single parents unless they have other support systems in place to help them.”

How do we change?

There is a call for workplace culture to change, for working hours to become more flexible and a call to recognise that both parents need to be actively involved in the care of their children.

Dr Kanji says that, “if organisations were to restrict the current status quo of full-time working hours to actual full time working then the playing field between men and women would be more level and more parents would be able to be involved in their children’s lives”.

“Some of the requirement for long working hours is about presenteeism rather than performance and about perpetuating male cultures.

“Work and home are really affecting each other for many workers.”

“We have yet to come to grips with a different workforce than what we had 50 years ago,” agrees Dr Strazdins.

“For parents, it might be helpful to see that their struggle is part of a long term social change that hasn’t happened yet.”