‘Parents stalling or downshifting their careers to get better work life balance’

Work Life Balance


Working parents are struggling to cope with the strain of overwork – and deliberately stalling and downshifting their careers to reverse the negative impact it is having on family life, according to a new study.

The 2018 Modern Families Index, published by Working Families and Bright Horizons, is based on a survey of 2,761 working parents with at least one dependent child aged 13 or younger who lives with them some or all the time. Almost a quarter (24 per cent) were also caring for adults.

It shows many parents are obliged to work far over their contracted hours due to increasingly intense workloads or because they feel it is expected of them.

The study found that:

  • Of those parents contracted to work 35-36 hours per week, 40% are putting in extra hours – of whom almost a third are putting in an extra seven hours – the equivalent to an extra working day each week;
  • Of those parents contracted to work 25 hours per week, a third (34%) are working extra hours. 30% of these are putting in enough hours to qualify as full-time workers, clocking up around 35 hours per week.

The Index calculates the extra hours done by full-timers – those on 38 hours per week – would earn them an average  of £2,429 per year if they were paid; for part-timers (on 24 hours per week) it is an average of £1,927 per year. In households with two full-time working parents, the amount could be as much as £4,858 a year.

Nearly half (47%) said that work affects their ability to spend time together as a family.

The study found that:

  • For nearly two in five parents (39%), work prevents them from being able to say goodnight to their children often or all the time; and for more than two in five parents (42%), work prevents them being able to help their children with their homework;
  • More than a quarter of parents (28%) reported that their work leads to arguments with their partner;
  • Working overtime was also linked to eating less healthily for 38% of respondents and doing limited exercise for 42%.

A third of parents said they feel burnt out all or most of the time, with more than half identifying work as their main cause of burnout.

However, many have changed their working life for family reasons, although the norm is still for men to work full time and women to work part time:

  • Nearly one in five (18%) reported they have deliberately stalled their careers;
  • More than one in 10 (11%) have refused a new job and;
  • One in 10 have rejected a promotion because of the limited work life balance opportunities.

The Index says the figures are similar for men and women and are evidence of a ‘parenthood penalty’.

Some 46% of parents did not work flexibly though most wanted to; and fewer than half – 44% – felt that flexible working was a genuine option for mothers and fathers in their workplace.

Moreover, over a third (37%) of parents who work flexibly said they felt burnt out all or most of the time (compared to 27% of those that said they don’t work flexibly).  Of those parents who work ‘flexibly’, nearly one third (31%) had restricted or no control over where they work, a quarter had restricted or no control over their working hours and one fifth had restricted or no control over their start and finish times.

Other interesting findings included:

  • More fathers (11 per cent) than mothers (9 per cent) said that they were part of a job share arrangement
  • Fathers had more control over their working times, places and hours worked than mothers, with the highest level of control associated with those who were able to work from different locations (including home).  For control over working place the best sectors to work were information and communication, scientific and technical activities and real estate. The worst sectors were accommodation and food and transport and storage.
  • Three quarters of parents said they used their paid annual leave to cover childcare,
    38 per cent of these frequently or often, with mothers taking time off the most
  • Fifty one per cent of fathers said that they dropped their children off more than half the time (24 per cent do it every day) vs 69 per cent of mothers. The figure was 10 per cent higher for millennial fathers, with 61 per cent dropping off more than half the time. 43 per cent of fathers said they picked up children and 61 per cent
    of mothers.
  • Thirty four per cent said that had faked being sick to meet family obligations, rising to 40 per cent of fathers and 42 per cent of millennials. Almost half of millennial fathers (48 per cent) said that they had lied to their employer,
    vs 30 per cent of millennial mothers.

The Index calls for change in several areas: it says flexible working needs to become the norm; jobs need to be advertised as flexible and that involves thinking through job design so jobs can be done in the hours stated; a flexible and generous childcare structure is needed to support working parents; and parental leave rights should be available from day one in  a new job. The report also calls for assumptions on who does the caring to be tackled and for a properly paid, standalone period of extended paternity leave for fathers.

Sarah Jackson, Chief Executive of Working Families, said: “For mothers and for fathers, becoming a parent looks like a bad career move.  Because the norm for people who want to get ahead is still to show up early, leave late and be on email out of hours – and parents have less time to give, putting them at a disadvantage.

“Parents are responding to the pressures on them by acting – deliberately stalling and downshifting their careers. With more than 11 million working parents in the UK, our economy can ill afford this ‘parenthood penalty’. Our findings should be a wake-up call for UK plc.

“We need a more widespread, genuinely flexible approach to work. But on its own, flexible working is not enough if all it delivers is the flexibility to manage a bumper workload.  We need human-sized jobs that allows parents to fulfil their labour market potential and give families back the time together they need to thrive.  This should be central to the government’s forthcoming review of its right to request flexible working legislation.”

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