Competing pressures of work and caring responsibilities are adversely impacting the health and well-being of Australian working families. Government and the business community are being called on to do more to invest in and embed family friendly workplace practices that support people to thrive at work and at home, and address gender inequality when it comes to sharing the caring load.

The National Working Families Report commissioned by Parents At Work has found that 62 percent of Australian parents and carers report difficulties looking after their own physical and mental health as they attempt to balance job and family responsibilities.

This study surveyed more than 6000 parents and carers to gain insight into the impact of managing work and caring responsibilities to better understand the future of work needs of families to determine what employers and government can do to best support them.

The impact on employers

It’s important to note that these pressures aren’t just impacting employees. They have a tangible and negative impact on employers. One in four parents and carers report that they had considered – or actively intended – leaving their job in the next 12 months due to difficulties combining their job with caring.

The modern working family needs are different to that of a few decades ago – the last Australian census found that families with both parents working are on the rise, as are working mothers.

If employers want to attract talent and sustain employee high performance and engagement for the long term, then workplaces need to respond to the changing needs of these families - as they count the cost of balancing the personal, mental, physical and financial load and trying to make it all work.

Increasingly, employees want to work for organisations that recognise and supports their outside of work responsibilities.

And the study firmly confirms this. Parents and carers reported that their job did help them feel personally fulfilled, but they want additional measures to help them better manage work, family and care demands.

New parents are needing more support.

The main priority reported was having more control over when or where they worked, followed by having access to childcare at work. It suggests that current workplace flexible work policies, parental leave and caring support are falling short.

New parents need support

Parental leave remains a major issue for many working parents.

Despite 85 percent of those surveyed saying paid parental leave was offered in their workplace, and that around half of all mothers and fathers had used it, there are still issues with access and attitudes around taking parental leave.

Half of fathers and a third of mothers reported that the leave was ‘too short’. Given most employees have access to only 18 weeks minimum wage and Dad and Partner pay offering just two weeks at minimum wage, this comes as no surprise - for many parents, the financial pressure causes them to return to work early.

23 percent of mothers and 13 percent of fathers reported receiving negative comments from managers and supervisors for using paid parental leave.

Carer discrimination and stigma remain an issue workplaces must address.

Best practice parental leave is gender-neutral – we need to be rid of the common ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ carer labels, which only reinforce outdated breadwinner vs caregiver mentalities, and ensure that both men and women have the opportunity to an equal amount of leave. And with a major barrier to parental leave being finance – this study found that financial reasons were the most common reasons why parents didn’t take longer paid leave – we need to ensure that parental leave is paid according to each parent’s salary.

And importantly, it needs to be flexible in nature. Best practice employers enable parents to take their leave in a manner that works for their individual circumstances. For some, this may be in a large lump right after the baby is born, but for others this may mean intervals of leave taken in the first 12-24 months.

Investing in the culture - tackling gender inequality and flex-ism

But it’s not just about updating and implementing new family-friendly policies. Policies are futile if the workplace culture discourages employees from using them, and unfortunately there still remains problems with attitudes to flexible work arrangements.

Although 88 percent of our parents and carers reported being able to access some type of flexible work, two-thirds reported that it is more acceptable for women to use family-friendly work options than men.

And nearly half of all parents said that a worker’s commitment to their job was questioned if they used family-friendly work arrangements.

It’s incredibly important that employees feel comfortable accessing these policies when they need them, to be able to better balance their carer demands.

Employers need to actively lead by example in this. When an expectant dad sees his CEO taking extended parental leave, it in turn gives that dad permission to do the same without fear of stigma. Or if a working mother sees her manager leaving early for the end-of-year Christmas concert, that mother will feel more comfortable asking for the same without fear of her request being denied.

These sorts of examples from organisation ‘champions’, which the study found employees wanting, create a culture of flexibility and ‘family friendliness’ – which in turn empower employees to thrive in the workplace and as a parent.

The next steps

It is clear workplaces can and should do more to be family-friendly employer.

A lack of government and employer support for employees with caring responsibilities has a profound impact on the well-being of individuals, their families and our wider society and economy. Employers need to step-up and evaluate the ways they support their workforce to find an effective work-life balance.

Download the Executive Summary (PDF).

Is the parental leave you offer adequate? Do you allow flexibility in how and where your employees work? Do you encourage a balance between home and work life? Do you lead by example in this?

We encourage employers to develop a clear strategy and commitment for how to support families at work.

Support at a national level

It’s time to align Government, Business and Community leaders to unite and design a ‘future of work’ national working families framework. This needs to be aligned with the broader health and well-being needs of children and families, and tackle the gender caring divide that holds back progress.

By Emma Walsh, CEO Parents At Work


To learn more about the National Working Families Report, visit the homepage here.
Download the National Working Families Executive Summary (PDF).
To join the Advancing Parental Leave Equality Network (APLEN), learn more here.