Research — 21 December 2017

CRANKY Aussie parents with “overly demanding” jobs are putting their children’s mental health at risk, according to confronting new findings.

Researchers at the Australian National University, which led the study, are now calling for greater flexibility from employers and for policymakers to promote a healthy work-life balance.

It reveals that more than 60 per cent of Aussie working couples had struggled to manage work and family commitments, and one in seven experienced prolonged periods when one parent was not managing these commitments well.

Lead researcher Dr Huong Dinh said children were at the highest risk when both parents experienced conflict between their job and family time, and this most often happened if they worked in jobs with heavy workloads, long hours and job insecurity.

“When parents struggle to juggle family and work responsibilities, they become tired, stressed, cranky and unhappy, which has an impact on family relationships and their children’s wellbeing,” Dr Dinh said.

The majority of Aussie working couples have struggled to balance family and work life, the study claims. Picture: iStockSource:istock

“We show that when employment and family are in conflict with each other, this undermines the health of both parents and their children — and this occurs when either fathers or mothers are in very demanding or inflexible jobs.”

It comes after studies showing Australians are increasingly worried about their work-life balance. One report even shows Aussie families are struggling with some of the worst work-life balance in the world.

The new research, assisted by Melbourne’s La Trobe University, observed around 2500 working couples and their children over 10 years as part of the Growing Up In Australia research project.

Co-researcher Prof Lyndall Strazdins from ANU said this was one of the first studies to show that a parent’s work-life imbalance affected their children’s mental health.

She said the reports included an assessment of children’s emotional symptoms, behavioural problems, hyperactivity or inattention, and relationships with peers.

“The onset and persistence of conflicts between parents’ work and family life led to greater mental health problems in children, including withdrawal and anxiety, compared to children of parents with little or no work-life challenges,” said Strazdins.

Children are at a higher risk of withdrawal and anxiety if their parents are cranky, says Strazdins. Source: iStockSource:istock

“The good news is that children’s mental health improves when their parents’ work-life balance improves.”

Strazdins said families with both parents working was now the norm in Australia and other developed countries.

She said research showed on average across the Australian population fathers spend more time at paid work than mothers, who take on more care and domestic responsibilities.

“Mothers are more likely to tailor their work around children’s needs, doing flexible or part-time work, and taking time off work to look after a sick child,” she said.

Co-researcher Dr Amanda Cooklin from La Trobe University said employers needed to ensure that workplaces were family-friendly, for fathers as well as mothers, so that children can flourish.

“Jobs with manageable hours, autonomy, flexibility and security will not only support the health and wellbeing of workers, but will also protect the mental health of children,” she said.

“Flexible work arrangements are usually targeted at mothers, but fathers also benefit from these kinds of arrangements — as do their children.”

Adelle Kehoe, head of research at Expert Market told the Herald Sun that Australia wasn’t the worst country in relation its citizens’ overall work-life balance — but it certainly was on the “wrong end of the scale”.

“As other countries adapt and change their infrastructure to support a more equal family-centric life, Australia risks being left behind with an outdated and unfair parental leave system which may alienate younger generations seeking a better work-life balance for their families,” she told the paper.

“If you don’t have the right [work-life] balance, the effects can be devastating. Families are not only put under more financial pressure, but an unhealthy work balance puts more stress on relationships, wellbeing and the home environment.

“For Australia, the focus needs to be on maternity and paternity paid leave — this is where they are really behind.”

This piece by Ben Graham was first seen on ‘News.com.au’ 6 December 2017.

 

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