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Is 'work-life balance' dead and buried, or could help be on the way?

Sydney Morning Herald logoSydney Morning Herald 15/12/2019 Wendy Tuohy
a young girl sitting on a bench: Mia Greves with her children, Georgia and Max. © Eddie Jim Mia Greves with her children, Georgia and Max.

It was mid-afternoon on a Friday when full-time worker and mother of two, Mia Greves, realised "something probably had to give".

She took off from work to retrieve her little girl, Georgia, now five, from childcare and take her to dance class before returning Georgia to childcare and herself to the office.

On her way back into work in the corporate affairs team at Medibank, Ms Greves realised she was one bag short. "I had my laptop bag and my handbag, but the ballet bag must have slipped off the seat on the tram – with $150 worth of of toddler ballet gear in it.

"It was a real wakeup call that ... I can't do everything."

It's a tableau many a flat-out working parent – especially mothers, as statistically it is still mainly Australian mothers who manage "the juggle" – would recognise, and one that was mined to hilarious effect in the 2011 movie, I Don't Know How She Does It.

But several recent reports have revealed the not-too-funny consequences of an almost complete lack of anything like work-life balance in many working parents', especially mothers', lives.

In October, women in the age-group most likely to have young children and work, 36 and under, were found by the National Women's Health Survey to be suffering very high levels of anxiety, stress and sleep deprivation, fuelled by "competing demands" of work and family.

Also in October, the National Working Families Report (for which it was mainly mothers who responded) found two-thirds were considering leaving their job in the next year due to stress caused by the conflict between work and caring. Half of women and one-third of men said they were under "a lot" or "a great deal" of stress, and "overwhelmingly" their greatest challenge was lack of time to care for their physical and mental health.

A third October report, by University of Sydney researchers, found increasing numbers of young women who want children are deciding not to have them because they are dismayed by the lack of work-life balance they see among working mothers around them.

This month, as three prominent women – Sydney radio host Chris Bath, senior Victorian Liberal MP Mary Wooldridge and a2 milk CEO Jayne Hrdlicka – all stepped aside from their roles, they highlighted something many mid-career women, and men, may recognise: balancing work and family demands (especially as the definition of "good" parenting expands) can feel unachievable.

At the same time, an increasing number of American workplace commentators suggest the nature of work is now such that we should give up on the idea of seeking quality and fulfillment in both spheres and, as a new normal has arrived, we should literally suck it up, sister.

So is the notion of work-life balance officially dead? Looking at the faces of your fellow attendees at various end-of-year kids' events, you may conclude the answer is "yes".

Psychologist and workplace consultant Justine Alter, whose business, Transitioning Well, offers companies parental and work-life support services, says boundaries have all but evaporated between work and non-work life, but they should be defended.

"There's been a really big push for flexibility, it's the biggest thing people are wanting, but what that often means is 24/7 connectivity; there are no boundaries around when we respond to emails any more, when we're expected to dial into meetings ... and we have the sense that 'I should be able to do it all," says Alter. The speed at which we work is accelerating to the point where the health impact can creep up, "like boiling a frog".

While being in constant work-mode suits those Alter calls "integrators", others ("segregators") cannot cope with never switching off, and should dare to demand separation from work and home and to apply "absolute non-negotiables" to work hours.

"Some people can navigate being an integrator, can manage the mental load of doing a million things at once – like responding to emails on the go, or while they sit at basketball – but that's their choice ... Segregators (may feel) 'I should be able to to do it all, and I'm a failure if I don't'."

Alter says "lack of confidence" can settle on women during maternity leave and can lead many to return with sense of impostor syndrome and guilt, which in turn may cause them lose control of work boundaries.

Much of the work-life debate has centred on how people transition to parenthood, but she says work-life stress is increasingly a problem for parents of older children, particularly mothers who are often in more senior roles by the time their kids become teens, but are still the "default" parent.

On the up-side, Alter is starting to notice more men engaging with the work-life debate and the need for them to claim non-work lives.

"Just in the last six to 12 months, we have seen such a shift in dads taking primary parental care leave," she says. "I was talking to a top lawyer who just moved to a big firm and told me 'If you had asked me 12 months ago if I would even consider secondary parental carer leave I would have said 'no', as culturally it just wasn't accepted'.

"Now he would not only consider secondary carer's leave but potentially taking more time and sharing (care) with his wife by taking primary carer's leave." Another organisation told her this month that of all their employees taking secondary carer's leave (usually done by fathers) half are going on to take primary carer's leave: "That's an incredible shift which means we are actually seeing cultural change."

Associate Professor Elizabeth Hill, co-chair of the Australian Work Family Policy Roundtable, says while data showing parents' stress levels caused by the work-life conflict, as reflected in the regular Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey, "point to the fact we're not only doing badly, it's getting worse ... stress levels are ratcheting up and they are not experiencing any kind of release or relief", the fact more young men are engaging with work-life issues is promising.

The latest HILDA figures showed working mothers' stress due to the work-family conflict was increasing, but fathers' had fallen a little.

But Associate Professor Hill said there was hope families of the future may be less impacted, as research was suggesting young men "are definitely changing their attitudes to success in their future" and those were now "dependant in part on equitable household relationships – so sharing".

"We found once men are fathers their attitudes [to work-life balance and shared parenting] are very similar to women's ... Young men with children are thinking about their lives in very similar ways to young women with children," she said.

Data also showed young women considering children are factoring in their desire for work-life balance "anticipating the need for parental care and childcare and manoeuvring themselves through the labor market seeking jobs that will give them those".

Young women said in focus groups that they looked at colleagues battling to cover their work-life basis and felt "I don't want to be like that, how am I going to make it work? Its a disaster". They were planning their career path around which employer or job would offer the best change for them to be satisfied workers, and parents.

"They will move sideways or track into jobs at the same level and sit there a couple of years if this job gives them parental leave and flexible work options. Their trajectory is motivated by how they're going to secure workplaces that are going to meet their future needs."

Professor Marian Baird, head of the University of Sydney Business School’s Discipline of Work and Organisational Studies and co-director of the Women, Work & Leadership Research Group, has been studying how working parents are faring for 20 years and says that while men are increasingly interested in blending parental responsibilities into their own work-life equations, an enduring roadblock was that not all workplaces were as flex-friendly as they may appear.

While two-thirds of employees said flexibility policies were available at their workplaces, one-third had been knocked back when they applied to use them, in part due to the fact organisations are "so lean there's no extra staff anywhere".

Professor Baird said she was aware of "critical and cynical" viewpoints that we should give up stressing over our lack of work-life balance and accept the new norm as a state of constant flow between the two, but "I would not foster that".

Instead, women's careers should be viewed "more as a marathon than a sprint". "Maybe we're judging women by the wrong standard; we keep comparing women at that age with men at that age. My research suggests women can peak in their careers maybe a decade after men; women at 55 [for example] have got over the young children and school years and they're doing very well," said Professor Baird.

"They may actually pick up pace a bit later in their lives: they've just got to hang in there in those critical years when they're having children."

Happily, those who have found satisfying solutions thanks to active flex policies at employers including Medibank (where 76 per cent of employees work flexibly), such as Mia Greves are doing better than hanging in there.

With support from "my bosses who are mums", Ms Greves dropped half a day to spend a relaxed Friday with children, which leads to a relaxed start to the weekend.

She works late other nights to get it all done, if necessary, and opted to take a half-day pay cut to avoid any "guilt" associated with really not working during her hours with the kids, and has found the shift life-enhancing.

"I want to be able to enjoy this time with her (Georgia), to have an ice-cream, it's been pretty special ... It's made a huge difference to our family dynamic, that Friday afternoon, I've added on swimming with my son (Max, now 3) and they get all of me. I am present and I enjoy it."

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