People juggling paid work and care responsibilities are struggling to find work-life balance according to research by the University of South Australia.

Source: Adapted from University of South Australia Australian Work and Life Index report.

People juggling paid work and care responsibilities are struggling to find work-life balance according to research by the University of South Australia.

Ladybug balancing

Care responsibilities are associated with extremely high levels of work-life interference, the study found.

Caring responsibilities of the current workforce are increasingly diverse and go well beyond the care of children. Findings include:

  • Nearly 20 per cent of Australian employees are caring for an elderly person or someone with a chronic illness or disability, while 44 per cent of employees are parents.
  • The majority of workers aged over 45 are providing care and assistance to an elderly person; 70 per cent of men and almost 85 per cent of women in this age group report they are juggling paid work and caring for an elderly relative or friend.

The study was undertaken by the University’s former Centre for Work + Life (which has now been amalgamated into The Centre for Workplace Excellence). Report co-author Dr Natalie Skinner says it is important that government and organisational policies recognise the work-life strains faced by carers.

In particular, working women caring for children, or combining childcare with other caring responsibilities such as caring for a sick or elderly relative, have the worst work-life balance of anyone – a finding that has been consistent for more than a decade.

“Our research reveals that many Australian workers are struggling with balancing paid work and caring responsibilities which go beyond those with young children. This trend is set to continue as the population ages and people are remaining in the paid workforce for longer,” Dr Skinner says.

For the Australian Work and Life Index (AWALI) survey, Dr Skinner and her team interviewed more than 2,600 working Australians across a range of different industries and occupations, living in capital cities and regional areas, and from different age groups and backgrounds to build a representative picture of the experience of working in Australia.

“This survey is important because it measures where we’re at in terms of Australians’ experiences of paid work and how it impacts on other areas of our lives,” Dr Skinner says.

“The findings are useful in evaluating the effectiveness of government and organisational policies such as paid parental leave schemes and the right to request flexible work arrangements.”

Nearly 60 per cent of women reported they feel chronically pressed for time. This is compared to just under half of men who feel the same way, as women continue to do the majority of domestic work while also trying to balance paid work.

The survey shows that workers with caring responsibilities other than young children, such as caring for an elderly relative or an older child with a disability are experiencing the highest levels of strain.

“Our research shows that caring for an elderly person or someone with a chronic illness or disability has the equivalent work-life interference to caring for a young child,” Dr Skinner says.

“As a society we need to recognise the unpaid care work that is undertaken on a daily basis by ordinary Australians who are also juggling paid work responsibilities. We need to see a shift in attitude and real actions in the workplace backed up by policies that support these employees.”

Working long hours (48+ per week), working more hours per week than preferred, and unsocial hours (evenings, nights and weekends) are also associated with higher levels of work-life interference.

Managers, machinery operators and drivers, corporate professionals and community service workers are among the occupations with the worst work-life balance.

Dr Skinner says the gaps that often emerge between policy and practice are widely observed.

She says initiatives to address working time require a holistic approach that examines the factors encouraging or requiring long hours, inflexible schedules or forgoing leave entitlements. These include workloads, performance expectations, implicit and explicit rewards for long hours (links to promotions and other rewards), staffing levels, job design and organisational culture.

“There is an expectation and cultural assumption that workers are willing and able to prioritise work over other life activities such as care for children or elders,” she says. “This needs to change.”