Annual Report 2005‚Äď06

Mothers, fathers, work and wellbeing

(Taken from the unpublished report commissioned by FaCSIA titled Mothers and fathers with young children: Paid employment, caring and wellbeing by Jennifer Baxter, Matthew Gray, Michael Alexander, Lyndall Strazdins and Michael Bittman.)

In recent decades, the increasing employment rates of mothers, combined with other changes in Australian society, have had a major impact upon many aspects of family life. Data from Growing Up in Australia provide a unique opportunity to examine the different patterns of parental employment and the impacts of this on family life. This article provides an extract from the report Mothers and fathers with young children: Paid employment, caring and wellbeing, and provides an overview of some relationships between parental employment and parental wellbeing.

Parental employment and working hours

The labour force status of mothers was strongly associated with age of children. Maternal employment (excluding those on maternity/parental leave) was lowest for mothers with an infant (38 per cent) and highest for those with a youngest child aged 4-5 years (60 per cent). (The rate of employment for mothers with a study child aged 4-5 years and a younger sibling was 46 per cent.) In contrast, the employment rates for fathers did not vary according to the age of the child - just over 92 per cent of fathers were employed for both the infant and child cohort.

There were large differences in working hours between mothers and fathers. For mothers, the average usual hours worked was 20 hours per week for those with an infant and 26 hours per week for those with a youngest child aged 4-5 years, compared with the average of 46 hours for fathers in both cohorts.

Work-family spillover

In Wave 1 of Growing Up in Australia, employed parents were asked to indicate on a five-point scale ranging from 'strongly agree' to 'strongly disagree' the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with a number of statements describing the relationship between work and family. These statements capture the extent to which work is perceived to 'spill over' to family or family to 'spill over' to work in a positive way ('work/family gains') and in a negative way ('work/family strains'). The infant and child cohorts were combined for this analysis.

Most parents were positive about the impact of their work on their family, with more than 65 per cent of employed parents agreeing that these responsibilities made them more well-rounded, gave their life more variety and made them feel more competent (Figure 9). More than 70 per cent agreed that working helped them to better appreciate the time that they spent with their children and less than one-quarter agreed that their work responsibilities made their family time less enjoyable and more pressured. Employed mothers and fathers differed very little in their assessment of the impact of work on their family, despite their very different employment patterns.

Figure 9 - Employed mothers and fathers: Work-family gains

Work-family strains for employed mothers and fathers are shown in Figure 10. The only statement for which there were large differences between mothers and fathers was 'Because of my work responsibilities I have missed out on home or family activities that I would have liked to have taken part in'. Employed fathers were more likely to agree with this statement (66 per cent) compared with employed mothers (40 per cent). For the other measures, one-quarter or fewer of parents agreed, whether considering the effects of family on work or the effects of work on family.

Figure 10 - Employed mothers and fathers: Work-family strains

Employment and wellbeing

Growing Up in Australia collects a range of measures of parental wellbeing. To illustrate the use to which these data can be put, two measures were examined: how well the parent was coping and how often they felt rushed or pressed for time. A parent was classified as having 'problems coping' if they were not coping well or very well. A parent was classified as experiencing time pressure if they said that they 'often' or 'always' felt rushed or pressed for time.

Some 46 per cent of mothers and fathers had problems coping, and 44 per cent of mothers and 43 per cent of fathers experienced time pressure. For mothers and fathers, not being employed was associated with having less time pressure. Not-employed fathers were more likely to have problems coping but this was not the case for notemployed mothers.

Figure 11 - Employed mothers: Problems coping and time pressure by hours worked; 
Figure 12 - Employed fathers: Problems coping and time pressure by hours worked

Focusing on employed parents, mothers working 35 hours or more were more likely to report problems coping than those working fewer hours. For mothers working parttime, problems coping increased as working hours increased, but the differences were relatively small (Figure 11). Not surprisingly, the extent to which employed mothers reported having time pressure increased as hours worked increased, although about one-third of those working full-time did not experience time pressure. The pattern for employed fathers differed to that of mothers (see Figure 12). Fathers working part-time hours did not differ to fathers working very long hours (more than 55 hours per week) in their likelihood of having problems coping. Fathers working 35 to 44 hours were the least likely to report problems coping.

The full report explores employment patterns, child care use, time with children, coparenting and a more extensive range of data on work-family spillover and wellbeing. The analysis illustrates the interconnections between these aspects of family life. Participation in paid employment can have a positive or negative effect on family life, and understanding the conditions under which negative effects are minimised and positive maximised is an important challenge facing individual families as well as those responsible for design of policies that impact on young families.

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