One or both parents in a majority of dual-income families are working hours outside the standard ‘nine to five’ – including almost one in three fathers whose employment routinely takes them over the 48 hours a week limit set by the European Working Time Directive, according to research published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation during National Work–Life Balance Week. Fathers in professional and managerial jobs work the longest hours of all and are least likely to be involved in their children’s care.
– A fifth of mothers (21 per cent) and four out of ten fathers (41 per cent) work early mornings, starting between 6.30 and 8.30am several times a week.
– A quarter of mothers (25 per cent) and 45 per cent of fathers were regularly working in the evening between 5.30 and 8.30pm.
– One in seven mothers (14 per cent) and one in six fathers (17 per cent) were working night shifts several times a week (after 8.30pm).
– Almost four out of ten mothers (38 per cent) and more than half of all fathers were working at least one Saturday a month.
– A quarter of mothers and just under a third of fathers were working on Sunday at least once a month, including 18 per cent of mothers and 22 per cent of fathers who were working both weekend days.
– While one or both parents were working ‘atypical’ hours in most dual-earner families, the same was true of more than half (54 per cent) of employed lone mothers in the survey.
– Parents in professional jobs were more likely to say their working arrangements were chosen to suit their career aspirations and family needs. By contrast, parents (especially fathers) in lower socio-economic groups were more likely to say they had no option about working unusual hours, and that there was no scope to negotiate more flexible arrangements.
– Families where one or both parents frequently worked at atypical times were more likely than others to say they depended on informal childcare, provided by other family members or friends. Fathers whose partners frequently worked outside normal hours were especially likely to look after the children while their mother worked if they, too, worked unusual hours.
– Parents who operated this type of ‘shift’ parenting often said they wanted to maximise the time that their children spent with at least one of their parents. A minority said their arrangements arose from a lack of suitable, affordable childcare in their area.
In general, the time that parents could spend together as a couple was the main casualty of atypical work, since parents gave priority to time with their children and the whole family. However, 32 per cent of mothers and 46 per cent of fathers who worked unusual hours said their job limited the time they could spend reading with, playing with and helping their children with their homework, compared with 12 per cent of mothers and 18 per cent of fathers who worked between 9am and 5pm. And while half the households where both parents were working atypical hours shared at least one family meal most days of the week, the proportion rose to three-quarters in other families where both parents worked.
Parents who worked long hours, or regularly worked on Sundays, were the most likely to express dissatisfaction with the time they had available for family activities. The study, nevertheless, suggests that atypical working was viewed as beneficial by some families, enabling parents to spend more time with their children and enjoy more time for themselves. Two-parent families were, not surprisingly, better placed to enjoy these opportunities than lone parents, for whom atypical hours and limited access to alternative childcare were especially problematic.
The researchers urge government policy-makers to take particular notice of differences revealed in the survey between parents who have some control over their working arrangements and those who have little choice about long or atypical hours. Although new employment laws taking effect in April 2003 will give parents of young children the right to have their case for flexible working arrangements heard by employers, this may not be enough to help parents whose power to negotiate is already weak.
Ivana La Valle, a co-author of the study, said: “Low-income families may feel they simply cannot afford to exercise their new ‘right’ to ask for options such as part-time working, reduced hours or unpaid parental leave. Their need to enhance their take-home pay by working overtime and atypical hours is a major constraint on their ability to achieve a better balance between work and family life.”
She added: “The negative impact that long hours have on family life emerges very clearly from this research. Long hours for mothers as well as fathers were associated with less involvement in children’s activities and frequent disruption to family life. These findings raise important questions about the effectiveness of the EU Working Time Directive as it is currently applied in the United Kingdom.”