Women back at work earlier, but feeling the stress

Government policies have helped women back to work - but the cost is increased stress. AAP

New data has shown that the number of women returning to the workforce earlier is increasing thanks to improving economic conditions and welfare to work initiatives - but they are also feeling the pressure.

Annual data from the Household, Incomes and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey shows that during the eight years from 2001 to 2008, labour force participation rates of mothers with children under the age of 15 increased from 63% to 69% for partnered mothers, and from 52% to 61% for lone mothers.

While some of this increase in labour force participation can be explained by an improvement in economic conditions during this period, a part of the increase is likely to be due to changes in eligibility for parenting payments which were part of the ‘Welfare to Work’ changes introduced in 2006.

Over the past ten years, the number of mothers returning to work when their child was aged between eight and eleven months has increased from 5% to 11%.

Among mothers whose youngest child was under the age of 2, participation rates increased from 40% of partnered mothers and 30% of lone mothers in 2001 to 52% of partnered mothers and 40% of lone mothers in 2008.

This dramatic increase in the labour force participation among mothers with young children is likely to be a result of a combination of factors.

These include better economic conditions, the need for extra income for the family, a preference for shorter career breaks after the birth of a child and also the increased affordability of child care as a result of the introduction of the child care tax rebate in July 2004.

Families were able to claim 30% of their out-of-pocket costs for approved child care, and the subsequent increase in the rebate to 50% of out-of-pocket expenses in July 2008.

With the increase in the labour force participation of working mums, children are spending more time at child care, and this appears to be adding to the stress of working parents.

The HILDA Survey data shows that, in 2008, 20% of working mothers and fathers said they felt worried about what goes on with their children while they are at work.

For mothers, average levels of life satisfaction and job satisfaction decrease slightly with the number of hours their children spend in child care.

Fathers whose children are in child care for 30 hours per week or longer also have slightly lower levels of both life satisfaction and job satisfaction.

The type of child care used also appears to have some impact on satisfaction levels, with parents whose children are in formal child care having slightly lower levels of both life satisfaction and job satisfaction.

In terms of stresses associated with balancing work and family responsibilities, mothers seem to feel pressure on their work time as a result of their family responsibilities, while for fathers the opposite is true, with fathers more commonly reporting that work pressures have a negative impact on their time with the family.

Compared to working fathers, it is more common for working mothers to say that to say that they had to turn down work opportunities because of their family responsibilities, and that the time they spend working is more pressured and less enjoyable because of their family responsibilities.

On the other hand, fathers more commonly agree with the opposite statement — “Because of the requirements of my job, my family time is less enjoyable and more pressured”.

Fathers are also more likely to say that they miss out on family activities because of their work responsibilities; that their work causes them to miss out on some of the rewarding aspects of being a parent; and that their work leaves them with too little time or energy to be the kind of parent they want to be.

While combining work and family responsibilities clearly adds to the stress of daily life for both mothers and fathers, there is a positive side.

Over 50% of working mums with children under the age of two strongly identified with the statements “Working makes me feel good about myself, which is good for my children”; “Working helps me to better appreciate the time I spend with my children” and “Having both work and family responsibilities makes me a more well-rounded person”.