Flexible, secure, autonomous work makes for a better father

Photo: Alan Cleaver. Creative Commons.

Good work conditions help dads to be warmer, more consistent and less irritable - all vital elements of sound parenting.

Men are better fathers when they have good conditions at work, our research shows, suggesting a need to rethink the terms of the jobs that fathers perform.

Autonomy, job security and some flexibility in working hours and scheduling all improve men’s mental health. Fathers whose workplaces provide these key qualities are warmer, more consistent and less irritable with their children, we found in our study of 10,000 Australian families.

Our findings suggest that policy makers and employers could improve workplaces to support family life, even if total working hours can’t be reduced.

We studied families in Australia, where fathers’ working hours have remained stubbornly long—they currently average 47 hours a week, and 20 per cent of fathers working more than 55 hours. Many new fathers actually increase their hours to compensate for new mothers’ loss of earnings. Most fathers want to spend more time with their children and be more engaged with them. There is also a societal expectation that they should do so. However, workplaces typically do little to accommodate this aspiration; policy focusses mainly on family-friendly supports for mothers.

A job-frazzled dad isn’t good for kids

The strains of balancing the needs of work and family drive the ways that fathers interact with their children, we find, sometimes in harmful ways. When work and family responsibilities came into conflict and fathers became “frazzled”, they became less affectionate, less consistent and more irritable with their offspring. These traits can harm children.

“These findings show how policy makers and employers could improve workplaces to support family life, even if total hours of work aren’t reduced.”

There are emotional, practical and cognitive elements to how commitments to work and family can undermine fathering. Perhaps dad is meant to be at work until 6, but school finishes at 3. After a long day, he might not be in good shape for caring: the behaviours needed for the workplace – such as assertiveness and giving good directives – might not be appropriate for children who need more dialogue. Stress from work might leave him distracted and emotionally removed – he’s cooking dinner or helping with homework but still feeling distracted by a work conversation or a task that wasn’t completed.

The strains of parenting for adults vary over time. With infants, parents face issues of disrupted routines and fatigue. When children reach primary school age, parents face the demands of being engaged with school. With teenagers, parents may no longer need to pick them up from school, but parenting an emerging adult can be fraught. Our research suggests that the age for the most acute work-family conflicts is typically the primary school period, probably because school hours are inflexible, as working hours also often are, and children are not yet independent.

Work can also enrich parenting

However, work can also offer resources beyond just income that are useful to the practice of fatherhood – and, of course, motherhood. We call this “work-family enrichment”, the opposite of “work-family conflict”. We have found that work can enrich family life by giving parents a sense of competence, skill development, achievement, optimism and self-esteem – something that family life doesn’t always offer. This sense of work-generated well-being can improve mental health and spill over into better parenting.

father child bonding
Photo: Bailey Cheng. Creative Commons.

Warmth, consistency and calmness can be lost

We looked at a sample of dads whose children were 4 to 5 years old. Our survey asked them questions about conflicts between work and family responsibilities and about their styles of parenting.

We tested for three key parenting styles. Parenting warmth and affection is about verbal and physical warmth, cuddling up, or sitting on the couch together with your child. Parenting consistency is the ability of parents to set boundaries and to follow through; it’s a powerful determinant of children’s well-being and their ability to mix in socially acceptable ways. Parenting irritability concerns whether a father loses his temper, is impatient, or has knee-jerk, angry reactions; too many of those moments can harm children’s mental health.

We then looked for links between the answers about parenting styles and those about work-family conflict and found that children pay the price for too much paternal strain, as we outlined above.

We also examined correlations between difficulties balancing work and family responsibilities and risks to fathers’ own mental health. To do so, we looked at fathers with children from 4 to 13 years old. For each age group, we found that when fathers reported higher levels of stress in balancing their work and family responsibilities, their mental health deteriorated. If the fathers were unable to resolve the conflict and the problem became chronic, their mental health worsened further. However, we also found that if fathers could resolve these conflicts, their mental health improved.

Much research has shown that having a parent with a chronic mental health problem, such as anxiety or depression, can undermine healthy child development.

We now plan to test whether our finding that work-stressed fathers of children aged 4-5 become less consistent, less affectionate and more irritable is repeated for fathers of older children.

Options for policy makers

Our message to policy makers is that we need to broaden the focus of workplace policies, which have tended to focus on providing parental leave around childbirth. Our research suggests that there may be other critical times when workplace interventions could provide vital support in parenting children until they are 18.

We know that long working hours drive the strain that fathers experience, but our research shows that this strain can be reduced if job quality is improved. Combining work and care requires attention to improving job flexibility, security and autonomy. That means giving working fathers some control over how and when they work, plus access to paid family-related leave so that work is more readily able to accommodate family needs.

These conditions are more likely to be present for skilled, managerial workers. We may need to give special attention to supporting unskilled and casual workers, where the strains may be greatest.