A work-life-family balance is highly valued by most workers and employers now realise they need to offer flexible arrangements such as reduced hours, flexi-time or telework (working from home).
Workplace flexibility is particularly important to working parents whose childcare needs may not fit well with standard work hours.
To date, it has proved difficult to know how satisfied employees are with their level of balance, and it has been similarly challenging for employers to assess balance in their organisations, with some disputing the usefulness of the term.
Yet, it is well established that organisational culture and managerial support for work-life balance is vital to the success of such policies. However, balance remains difficult to measure, partially because people’s definitions differ and it is an elusive concept.
My research has found that measuring time pressure is a more tangible way to assess balance. Time pressure refers to how rushed or pressed for time people feel on a daily basis.
It also relates to whether individuals perceive they have sufficient time to do what they need or want to do (including time for work, family, leisure, travel, study, volunteering or exercise). For men, long work hours is the main predictor of time pressure, and for fathers having young children increases this time stress.
While the upside of this is that fathers are spending more time caring for their kids, it is mainly squeezed in evenings or weekends and on collaborative or more enjoyable childcare tasks. For women paid work, housework and childcare contributes to time pressure.
Unsurprisingly then, women are significantly more time pressured at home than men, and mothers far more time stressed at home than fathers. This is despite many mothers in Australia reducing to part-time hours at work when their children are young. It seems job quality counts as well in terms of minimising time pressure.
When working mothers have access to flexible work arrangements and have a predictable rather than on-call work schedules, this helps to reduce their time pressure at work. This makes intuitive sense as it is difficult to organise children’s activities and appointments around an unpredictable work schedules, and mothers do more of this organisational family work than fathers.
Working fathers also need access to flexibility, to be able to contribute to care needs of their children, or like women, to pursue other life balance interests. At present this is not happening as much as it should.
Although fathers have in many cases greater access to workplace flexibility arrangements than mothers, due to being in tenured employment or in positions that offer greater autonomy over work hours, they are less likely than their female partners to request flexibility for reasons of care. It just not what an ideal (male) worker does, particularly if he is in a high level position.
Therefore, it is not surprising that men complain more often than women that time pressure at work keeps them away from spending time with their family and friends. Evidence from the ABS time use studies show that that between 1997 and 2006 employees time spent on leisure decreased by one hour and 45 minutes.
In 2008, the gap between men and women’s leisure time widened most markedly between the ages of 30 and 35, suggesting that time spent rearing young children absorbs a larger proportion of leisure time from mothers than from fathers.
Research has found time sovereignty (having enough time to do what you want or need to do) is vitally important to the health and well being of individuals and families. My research interviewing time pressured working mothers showed that lack of personal time contributed to them feeling sick, stressed and depressed.
There were also negative spillover effects into their relationships with partners and children. For women, including a nurse who worked in a hospital emergency department, work offered a refuge from time pressures at home. But it was having job autonomy to decide the number of hours and types of shifts that enabled her to reconcile her work and family time demands.
The catch 22 with working part-time hours for most working women with children is that it frees them up to take on more unpaid work rather than spending this time on relaxation or leisure.
Possible solutions to reducing time pressure and stress boil down to enabling men and women equally to have time for work, care and life pursuits. Having work-life options written into workplace policies is not enough. Managers and bosses need to model time balance, so that employees can follow their lead.
Instead of penalising employees for working part-time, compressed work weeks, or taking up other flexibility arrangements, recognition should be given to employees who have reduced their time stress while maintaining or increasing their productivity at work.