Flexible work arrangements improving parents’ mental health

Flexible work arrangements have a drastic effect on working parents' mental health.

Flexible work arrangements have a drastic effect on working parents' mental health. Photo: Getty

Working full-time while raising a child can take an immense toll on parents’ mental health, but making workplaces more flexible could solve the problem.

Poor mental health costs Australia roughly $180 billion a year, according to Productivity Commission research, with fatigued and burned-out workers unable to perform at their peak.

For parents juggling their familial duties with work, those mental health outcomes can be made worse through ‘ad-hoc’ time management techniques (such as working through breaks or making family-related calls from the office), research from La Trobe University has found.

Worryingly, these informal efforts to balance home and work life were used by 86 per cent of parents.

Lead researcher Dr Stacey Hokke told The New Daily the “widespread” techniques were used by all parents, but mums were more likely to try compressing their work days.

Dads on the other hand were more likely to complete household tasks from the office.

However, the research also found a remedy. Parents with formalised flexible working arrangements experienced much better mental health outcomes.

This was found to be especially true for fathers, the research said.

“Formal work arrangements definitely work for Australian parents,” Dr Hokke said.

“But there’s a caveat to that in that we know there are many other things parents do on a day-to-day basis to get by.”

Opportunity to do more

Under the Fair Work Act 2009 most parents have the right to request flexible working arrangements – although those requests may not be granted.

But Dr Hokke’s research found the number of requests for flexibility has not increased in the ten years since that policy was implemented.

Further, one-quarter of the more than 4000 parents in Dr Hokke’s study were not using any kind of formalised flexible work arrangement, which she attributed to parents’ not knowing their rights.

“But I guess there’s another aspect about the role of workplaces to make those entitlements transparent to their employees as well,” she added.

More flexible workplaces would also benefit employers, Dr Hokke added.

“Flexibility does support parents’ health and that’s beneficial to the employee and to the employer,” she said.

“We know people with high burnout are more likely to change jobs, be more absent from work and have lower job performance, so having that flexibility is one way to reduce those effects.”

The Productivity Commission’s mental health report – currently in draft stage – supports that.

“Data and measurement limitations mean that our estimates for the cost of mental ill-health cannot be complete,” the Commission said.

“Nevertheless, the Commission has estimated that, conservatively, the cost to the Australian economy of mental ill-health and suicide is in the order of $43 to $51 billion per year.

“There is also an approximately $130 billion per year additional cost associated with diminished health and reduced life expectancy for those living with mental ill-health.”

Financial flexibility

Data from government’s Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) found the cost of child care has been “rapidly increasing” since the 1990s.

That’s despite several government subsidies triggering large – but short-lived – drops in the prices parents pay.

ABS data on childcare inflation.

Source: AIFS, Child Care Package Evaluation: Early monitoring report.

Kate Noble, education policy fellow at Victoria University’s Mitchell Institute, told The New Daily the price increases are the result of the current childcare model.

Providers set their own fees, and government sets a cap for how much they’ll subsidise for parents,” she said.

“But at the end of the day, what we know is that in communities where the demand is higher for places in long day-care, for example, that tends to drive up prices.”

Though parents theoretically have the option to shop around for more affordable care, in reality Ms Noble said that rarely works out.

Parents need to find a place which provides quality education and care which meets their children’s needs at an affordable rate within a reasonable distance from their home, drastically reducing their options.

But a greater deal of flexibility in the workplace could help to solve this issue too, by giving parents access to more childcare options than they would otherwise have.

“A lot of parents have really limited options,” she said.

“Flexible working can really increase their ability to choose the kind of education and care they want on the one hand, but also their ability to keep their family costs down.”

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