Parents still struggling with work-life balance

Sep 04 2003 by Brian Amble Print This Article

Government intervention to reduce the demand for weekend working and for long hours that breach the European Union’s Working Time Directive would be welcomed by parents who are currently struggling to balance their work and family responsibilities.

A Joseph Rowntree Foundation report argues that parents of both sexes support action to help them put their families first, and that stereotyped images of child-centred mothers and work-focused fathers are increasingly out-of-date.

Assessing the key findings from 19 separate research studies, the report also concludes that the Government’s well-intentioned efforts to tackle family poverty by persuading more parents to find work risks sending an unwelcome signal that care for children and other unpaid work is unimportant.

It also warns policy makers that the accompanying implication that paid childcare is somehow ‘better’ than parental care runs contrary to the instincts of many parents.

The analysis, by Prof. Shirley Dex of the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at University of London’s Institute of Education, is the concluding report from the Foundation’s five-year research programme on Work and Family Life.

Prof. Dex notes that today’s ‘typical’ family with dependent children is one where one parent (usually the father) works full-time and the other (usually the mother) works part-time. But while many of these ‘1.5’ earner households cope with juggling work with family life, the research programme found evidence of widespread dissatisfaction among working parents.

More than half all fathers work more than a 40-hour week, including one in three who routinely exceed the 48 hours a week limit set by the EU Working Time Directive. One in eight mothers also work more than a 40-hour week, including 6 per cent who regularly work more than a 48-hour week.

Employed parents are more likely to work outside the normal ‘nine to five’ than other workers. Just over half of mothers and almost eight out of ten fathers frequently work at atypical times of day.

More than half all fathers, and over a third of mothers work at least one Saturday a month, while a quarter of mothers and nearly a third of fathers work on Sundays.

These hours lead to significant childcare issues for working parents, particularly during school holidays and outside normal working hours. Many childminders – the most popular type of formal childcare – do not want to take children at weekends or after 7pm because of their own family commitments.

Hardly surprisingly, then, most working mothers say they would reduce their hours or stop working altogether if they could afford to do so.

Prof. Dex said: "The strategy of having two earners in a family appears to be effective in reducing risk and providing the standard of living to which most low- and middle-income families aspire. Most couples have found ways to juggle their work and family life, even if it means ‘shift parenting’ and sacrificing time they could spend together so one or other can be at home with the children.

"Even so, this research programme found a lot of tired parents, a large amount of dissatisfaction, and a desire to cut down working hours, or even give up paid work altogether. Clearly the preferences expressed by many mothers run counter to the direction of government ‘welfare to work’ policies since they would prefer to do less, not more, work while their children are young."

She added: “Despite the plethora of new legislation and policy on families and work – and the need for new employment laws to bed down – there are areas where the Government needs to consider further intervention alongside its targets to eliminate child poverty.

"Long working hours that routinely breach the EU Directive and pressure to work on Sundays and at weekends deserve particular consideration because they are areas where parents express the strongest levels of dissatisfaction.”