Briefing paper

Conflicts between work and family and fathers’ mental health

Work-life balance Working hours Quality of work life Well-being Fathers Australia

In the context of long work hours, and the slow progress on fathers’ access to flexible or part-time work, Australian fathers continue to be tied to their work and workplaces. What does this mean for fathers’ wellbeing and, more broadly, for their capacity to foster warm and nurturing relationships with their children?

Contemporary expectations for fathers continue to prioritise a ‘breadwinner’ model, where fathers’ jobs and income are seen as vital resources for families, in the same way that mothers’ unpaid work is viewed. However, fathers also want, and indeed are expected, to be warm, caring, involved and equal carers for infants and children. These competing demands and dilemmas create conflicts for fathers between their job demands and family care – referred to as work–family conflicts (Goode, 1960).

In scientific terms, work–family conflict is a well-established construct in occupational health and organisational psychology literature, capturing parents’ experiences of ‘felt strains’ that arise when work and family demands are incompatible in core ways (Goode, 1960; Greenhaus & Beutell, 1985). These can include ‘time-based strains’, when fathers’ miss out on family events due to work commitments or miss opportunities at work due to caring responsibilities. They can also include the more daily and incremental experiences of divided attention or distraction, exhaustion and lack of energy – these are vital resources for family wellbeing and parenting. While the ‘work–family’ juggle has typically been viewed as a problem for mothers, Australian research has shown that one in three fathers’ report work–family conflict (Strazdins, O’Brien, Lucas, & Rodgers, 2013).

What implications do these conflicts have for Australian fathers’ mental health and wellbeing? Which are the most ‘risky’ jobs for fathers and how can we promote fathers’ wellbeing at work?

Key messages:

  • Fathers who reported high work–family conflict also reported high psychological distress.
  • When fathers can ‘escape’ out of high work–family conflict their mental health shows significant improvement.
  • In the workplace, access to flexibility, job security, reasonable work hours and control over work scheduling and tasks can protect fathers from work–family conflict.
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