Family Matters No. 89 - December 2011

Institute seminars

Work hours, requests for flexibility and work-life interference in Australia: what we know, what we need to know

Professor Barbara Pocock, Director, Centre for Work + Life, University of South Australia

Seminar held at the Institute on 23 June 2011

Report by Rhys Price-Robertson

Professor Barbara Pocock is the inaugural Director of the Centre for Work + Life, at the University of South Australia. Professor Pocock, who was initially trained as an economist and completed her doctorate in gender studies, has been researching work, employment and industrial relations in Australia for over 25 years.

In this seminar, Professor Pocock reviewed the relationship between flexibility in the workplace and work-life interference (i.e., when work interferes with other responsibilities or activities; restricts time with family, friends and community; leads to feelings of being rushed or pressed for time; or leads to feelings of dissatisfaction with work-life balance). Studies have shown that flexibility in the workplace is associated with a number of positive outcomes. In the workplace, it can increase organisational commitment and productivity, reduce absenteeism, and improve employer-employee relationships. For employees and their families, it has been shown to lower work-life conflict, reduce stress and be supportive of both physical and mental health.

As of 1 January 2010, the Fair Work Act has included a new "right to request" (RTR), which gives working parents of preschoolers or children under 18 months with a disability the right to request flexible working conditions. Drawing on the Australian Work & Life Index (AWALI), Professor Pocock and her colleagues have been investigating how the RTR provision in the Fair Work Act has affected the working lives of Australians. In this seminar, she presented information collected in 2009, before the RTR was introduced, which will act as baseline data for further research.

The AWALI data indicated that:

  • long work hours are associated with high levels of work-life interference;
  • 51% of workers had a "poor fit" (i.e., more than four hours' difference) between the actual number of hours they worked per week and the number of hours they would have liked to be working;
  • those with a "poor fit" had higher levels of work-life interference than others;
  • prior the RTR provision in the Fair Work Act, 22.4% of workers made a request for flexibility in the workplace; and
  • women were much more likely to request flexibility than men.

Of those who were not content with their current work arrangements and who did not make a request for flexibility, the main reasons given for not making a request were: "job does not allow it/nature of the job" or "it's a new job/recently started".

When people did request flexibility, the types of requests they made were: "for some other arrangement"; "to work reduced hours for a limited period"; "to work part-time"; "to work flexi-time"; and "to work from home on a regular basis".

The majority of requests for flexibility made were fully granted (68.8%) or partially granted (14.4%), although 9.8% were refused and 6.9% were awaiting decision at the time of the survey. Women's requests were more likely to be approved than men's (72.9% compared to 62.3%).

When requests were fully granted, workers' work-life outcomes were better as a consequence.

Professor Pocock argued that there are a number of implications of this research. It was good judgement by the Government, she argued, to introduce the RTR provision to the Fair Work Act, and mothers in particular will benefit from these changes. However, it is clear that a number of workers are a long way from their preferred working patterns, and many do not ask for more flexible arrangements. Males in particular tend to be more reluctant to request flexibility, and male-dominated jobs and industries are often the most resistant to flexible working arrangements. More inclusive, robust laws around the right to request flexibility may assist in encouraging more of both male and female workers to find working arrangements that suit their needs, and therefore lower negative work-life interference.

Finally, Professor Pocock indicated that the next step in her and her colleagues' research will involve analysing the relevant AWALI data in March 2012 - three years after the introduction of the RTR provision in the Fair Work Act - to investigate the changes that have occurred as a result of the new laws.

Multiple experiences of childhood maltreatment and victimisation

Dr Daryl Higgins, Deputy Director (Research), Australian Institute of Family Studies

Seminar held at the Institute on 21 July 2011

Report by Mary Stathopoulos

The focus of the presentation by Dr Higgins related to two concepts that measure the outcomes for children who have experienced childhood maltreatment. The first is multi-type maltreatment and the second is poly-victimisation.

The concept of multi-type maltreatment was coined by Higgins and McCabe (1998, 2000), in an attempt to understand outcomes for children. Multi-type maltreatment incorporates five different types of maltreatment: sexual abuse, physical abuse, neglect, emotional and psychological abuse, and witnessing family violence. These individual types of maltreatment come from the history of research into childhood maltreatment from the 1960s through to early 2000s.

The risk factors associated with multi-type maltreatment are low family cohesion, low family adaptability, poor-quality inter-parental relationships, poor-quality childhood relationships (with peers, teachers), traditional family values and parental sexual punitiveness.

The key message about multi-type maltreatment was that because there is often significant overlap in the occurrence of maltreatment types, examining only one maltreatment type (such as sexual abuse) does not acknowledge that multi-type maltreatment is often at the heart of a range of outcomes (sequelae). Multi-type maltreatment as a concept measures the severity and frequency of maltreatment on a continuum.

Poly-victimisation - a concept created by Finkelhor (2008) - was the second concept presented by Dr Higgins and is also used to understand outcomes for children. Rather than considering maltreatment to be on a continuum (as with multi-type maltreatment), poly-victimisation is measured through a dichotomy of yes/no responses to build up a picture of how many incidences of victimisation (such as abuse and neglect), and broader types of maltreatment (e.g., bullying) have been experienced. This leads to an understanding of the cumulative harm created by multiple instances of victimisation and the related outcomes for children and adults. It has been found that the cumulative effect of poly-victimisation is predictive of trauma symptoms.

Both concepts are used to distinguish the focus on particular threats (such as sexual abuse) and explain how the relationship between multiple forms of victimisation can lead to an array of outcomes.

These two concepts - multi-type maltreatment and poly-victimisation - have been used to look at the maltreatment data collected for the Australian Temperament Project <www.aifs.gov.au/atp>. The findings show that multi-type maltreatment is associated with greater adjustment problems than is indicated by either no maltreatment or single types of maltreatment. It was also found that high levels of poly-victimisation over an entire childhood were strongly associated with adjustment difficulties and with low levels of personal strength.

The implications of this research indicate that there is a role for both the broad measures of a variety of victimisation types, as well as the detailed measures of particular victimisation experiences. This research can also lead to integrated approaches for prevention strategies for children and families.

Understanding the rise of solo living in Australia

Professor David de Vaus, Executive Dean, Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences, University of Queensland, and Dr Lixia Qu, Senior Research Fellow, Australian Institute of Family Studies

Seminar held at the Institute on 24 August 2011

Report by Cathryn Hunter

Living alone is an increasingly common living arrangement in developed economies such as Australia. Explanations of the rise in living alone fall into three broad groups: demographic changes, cultural change and a changed capacity to live alone. The seminar considered the first two of these approaches in relation to living alone in Australia.

Utilising Census data, the researchers evaluated aspects of the demographic approach in order to examine the extent to which increases in living alone have been due to changes in the demographic profile (i.e., the growth in groups at risk of living alone) or to an increased rate at which people live alone. Dr Qu reported that there was an increased proportion of adults living alone in 2006 compared to 1971, with this increase being seen in most age and marital status groups. Further to this, the profile of people living alone has also changed, with there being an increased representation of younger people and those who are divorced or separated. Finally, Dr Qu reported that changing population characteristics, such as age and marital status, did not explain all of the changes in rates of living alone.

In the second part of the seminar, Professor de Vaus explored aspects of the cultural approach to understanding living alone. In particular, he used data from a specially designed national survey of 4,000 Australians from across the adult life course. Data from this survey were used to examine subjective components of living alone and address three specific matters:

  • To what extent do people living alone attribute their living arrangement to their own choice?
  • To what extent do people living alone feel that it is a positive experience? From their experience, what are the main benefits and costs of living alone?
  • Do people living alone hold values and attitudes (e.g., individualism, privacy, autonomy, etc.) that appear to make living alone an attractive living arrangement?

Professor de Vaus reported that living alone was quite a common experience across the life course, with 13.3% of participants currently living alone, and 41.2% having ever lived alone for three or more months. Further to this, Professor de Vaus noted that most of those living alone generally chose to do so and enjoyed the experience. Autonomy and freedom were given as the main reasons for commencing living alone, while saving money and loneliness were given as reasons for discontinuing solo living. The study also found that those living alone tended to hold more individualistic values than those living in multi-person households, but that the overall picture was quite complex.

Professor de Vaus suggested that living alone is part of a complex and varied life course that may involve mainly short-term stints of living alone, such as when young people are transitioning from the parental home to family living, or during middle age following relationship breakdown. He noted that the increase in people living alone does not necessarily indicate a rejection of family formation, but may rather indicate delays in family formation, as well as a greater instability in modern relationships. Stints of living alone may represent the tension people feel between their desire for autonomy and their desire for belonging and connection.

Early parenting support for vulnerable families: Why, what and how?

Professor Jan M. Nicholson, Director of Research, Parenting Research Centre

Seminar held at the Institute on 18 October 2011

Report by Ken Knight

The science shows the ingredients of a healthy childhood are consistent. The most important magic ingredient is the quality and stability of the relationships that children have with the adults in their lives. (Jack Shonkoff, The Age, 3 March 2006)

Supporting families to provide their children with the best opportunities in early life is strongly emphasised in Australian Government policy. With increasing services and resources being directed to this area, it is timely to review what is being achieved.

In this engaging and well-attended presentation at the Institute, Professor Jan Nicholson drew upon data from a variety of sources to examine the case for early intervention and the limitations of traditional parenting programs from a population health perspective. Using two examples of large-scale implementation trials - Sing & Grow (a nationwide program) and the Early Home Learning Study (Victoria) - Professor Nicholson discussed some new directions in early intervention parenting programs.

The health and wellbeing of Australians has improved exponentially in the last fifty years. Infant mortality has dropped, and Australian life expectancy is internationally renowned. Despite these achievements, however, several indicators appear to show deterioration in children's health in Australia: most notably in the areas of mental health, obesity, literacy and risky behaviours. Alarmingly, the health of Australia's Indigenous population resembles that of third world nations.

A vast array of research indicates that positive parenting strategies and parental wellbeing are pivotal for ensuring good health and developmental outcomes in children.

The use of music therapy has been shown to provide a unique, fun, non-threatening and accessible means to engage all families, irrespective of their familial, financial, cultural or linguistic circumstances. Sing and Grow is a 10-week early intervention music therapy program for families with children aged 0-3, and is delivered by Registered Music Therapists in local community settings. The families who participate in the program have experienced one or more of a range of child, parent or community characteristics that are known to be associated with poorer behavioural, educational and health outcomes. Sing and Grow provides a learning and therapeutic opportunity for families through structured music-based activities that aim to support positive family relationships and build effective parenting skills.

The Early Home Learning Study aims to improve early learning and development foundations for children in over 2,000 families living in vulnerable circumstances. It positions participating parents as active contributors to the program in order to tailor its products to meet participating parents' needs. The program schedules regular "small talk" sessions where parents can voice concerns and express themselves in a supportive, collaborative environment. Although the program is still in its infancy, participant surveys indicate a very strong satisfaction rate, and the retention rate of the program is unprecedentedly high.

Professor Nicholson's presentation stressed the importance of having early intervention programs that are engaging, informative and non-threatening, and that eschew a didactic approach that leaves participants feeling as though they are having their bad parenting skills "corrected". Sing and Grow and the Early Home Learning Study are two such programs that empower struggling parents, and mark a critical investment in Australia's social and economic future.

Professor Nicholson is the Director of Research at the Parenting Research Centre, Honorary Principal Research Fellow at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, and Adjunct Professor in the Centre for Learning Innovation at the Queensland University of Technology. Her research examines the influence of contemporary family, social and organisational environments on children's healthy development, with a particular focus on vulnerable families.