As part of the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children, a large sample of working mothers have been studied across eight years of early childhood. Researchers examined the cause-and-effect relationship between work-family conflict and mothers’ mental health, and whether this differed over time.
Lead author La Trobe’s Dr Elizabeth Westrupp says most researchers have assumed that conflict between work and family roles drives poor parent mental health, with strongest effects likely to be for mothers of young babies. ‘However, our findings show that there are reciprocal and ongoing effects between mother’s mental health and their work-life balance. It is not a one way street; conflict in these roles affects mental health, and mental health affects how mothers juggle work-family roles.’
The study shows the relationship between work-family conflict and worse mental health persists across the first eight years of motherhood. Jan Nicholson, co-author and La Trobe Professor of the Transition to Contemporary Parenthood Program, says ‘what’s really interesting is that work-family conflict and poor mental health doesn’t get better as children get older. Problems juggling work and family continue when children are in primary school.’
The report also found:
- Patterns were consistent regardless of child age when mothers returned to work.
- In general, mothers facing social and financial disadvantage and those who worked longer hours experienced more work-family conflict.
- However, mothers who were older and from advantaged backgrounds had better mental health despite experiencing greater work-family conflict.
Policy agendas in Australia currently encourage all parents to be in paid work. Dr Westrupp says these findings suggest a dual focus is needed: providing mental health support earlier and for longer, and providing more flexible work practices and supportive management to help working mothers transition back to a rewarding experience of employment.
Parents’ mental health is one of the most important determinants of parenting, family functioning and a child’s wellbeing. So the relationship between work-family conflict and mental health has important and wide-ranging implications beyond the parent’s workplace.
Media contact: Catherine Garrett; 9479 6565 / 0418 964 325