Work-life balance and the high cost of child care

Blog Image for article Work-life balance and the high cost of child care

Parenting is a full-time job, and once paid employment is added to the mix, many Australian families find themselves juggling schedules, weighing up child care costs and balancing work responsibilities with family commitments.

This can be challenging, and to get a sense of how parents are negotiating numerous demands over time, the University of Melbourne conducts an annual Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey.

They recently released their 2019 Statistical Report, analysing the latest responses to this survey, so let's see what the HILDA Survey involves and highlight some of its key findings around families.

What is the HILDA Survey?

This Survey started back in 2001 and it is a longitudinal study of Australian households. This means that the same people are interviewed each year to give us a sense of how their lives are changing over time, with respect to things like:

  • Household and family relationships
  • Child care
  • Employment
  • Work-family conflict
  • Education
  • Health and more

The 2019 Statistical Report analyses survey data collected between 2001 and 2017 to make 'selected findings' based on the respondents' answers.

What can we take from the latest HILDA Survey?

When it comes to parenting, there's no doubt that the interplay of work, family life and child care brings certain challenges. Here's what emerged from the Survey:

  1. Many parents experience work-family conflict
    According to HILDA Survey Research Fellow, Dr Inga Lass, 'Most Australian parents combine raising children with paid work,' and this isn't always easy. In fact, 'work-family conflict' is widespread amongst parents, as they try to fit work demands in with family life.

    For the Survey, parents were asked to rank (on a scale of one to seven) how much they agreed or disagreed with statements related to work and family, e.g. 'Working leaves me with too little time or energy to be the kind of parent I want to be.'

    Scores greater than four pointed towards a high level of work-family conflict, and after going through the scoring process, lots of parents reported this level of conflict.

    Specifically, 59 per cent of 'dual-earner couple families' said that at least one parent was suffering from a high level of work-family conflict, and in 18 per cent of these households, both parents felt this way.
  2. Women and men experience different levels of work-life conflict
    The latest Survey indicates that dads have slightly higher levels of work-family conflict than mums (averaging a score of 3.9 versus 3.7).

    Dr Lass says this, 'May seem surprising, considering that it's usually the women who juggle most of the unpaid work at home with paid work,' however, she says this gender gap can be explained by the parent's working hours.

    She says that longer hours equate to a higher level of work-family conflict, 'But once we account for working hours, it is mothers who have the highest levels of work-family conflict. And single mothers are particularly affected.'

    It's worth noting too, that while part-time work helps mothers achieve an easier balance between work and family, fewer hours can affect a woman's career trajectory, earnings and superannuation balance.
  3. High child care costs are putting working parents under pressure
    Since the Survey began back in 2001, median out-of-pocket costs for formal care of under fives have increased by 145 per cent, to $153 a week in 2017.

    Dr Lass says that although higher costs can be linked with increased hours of care, hourly rates have also 'increased considerably.' As such, almost half of the parents with an under five who used, or considered using, child care, ‘Reported difficulty with paying for it;' and it will be interesting to see how the introduction of the single Child Care Subsidy in 2018 affects future HILDA data.
  4. High costs aren't the only challenge around child care
    As well as grappling with increased fees, the surveyed parents also reported problems finding child care. In fact, one-third had difficulty finding care at short notice and 35 per cent struggled to find care for an ill child.

What is the effect of work-family conflict?

In the short-term, this conflict between paid and unpaid commitments has been associated with reduced well-being at home and lower productivity and well-being at work. However, the good news is that high levels of work-family conflict don't last forever.

The Survey indicates that around half of parents succeeded in reducing their high conflict levels within a year. For instance, by reducing work hours, giving up a management role at work or perhaps changing their employer or occupation.

That said, 13 per cent of parents reported high levels of work-family conflict for at least five years in a row.

What can be done to reduce work-family conflict?

To help households strike an easier balance between work life and family life, Dr Lass says the government needs to make child care more accessible, affordable and fair.

Though the Child Care Subsidy's Activity Test favours working mums, she says, 'It reduces access to subsidised care for those with lower or irregular work hours, and in so doing, is likely to penalise economically disadvantaged families.'

She says we also need to, 'Foster the growth of high-quality, part-time jobs' and better share the load at home, with mums and dads doing more equal amounts of unpaid work.

At the end of the day, there are only so many hours in the week, and the HILDA Survey indicates that it is difficult for Australian families to fit everything in.

Hopefully you can find the right balance as your child settles into care and then school, but in the meantime can help you compare child care costs and find emergency care to ease some of the burden of the paid and unpaid work week.


Pursuit: Work or Family?

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