When roles overlap: Workers with family responsibilities

Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) Monograph No 14


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Content type
Research report

December 1993

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The nature of the Work environment is a key issue in the 19905. In the midst of dramatic changes in the workplace and vigorous public debate on its ideal form, When Roles Overlap by Audrey VandenHeuvel is extremely timely.

The book provides results from a recent study on overlap between family issues and work responsibilities in Australia. It details findings from a study of 2642 employed single parents and workers in two income families. Family issues examined encompass caring for children, parents, spouse and other relatives.

It answers questions such as the following: What percentage of employees take time off work for family responsibilities over the course of a year? Are females more likely than males to miss work for family? How do workers arrange time off to deal with family issues and how often is sick leave used for this purpose? What differences are there for workers in private or public organisations, and big or small workplaces? How satisfied are employees' with their employer's attitude and assistance regarding work and family issues?

The findings presented in this book emphasise the point that work and family issues are of significance to all workers, male and female, parents and those with no children, as well as to employers, unions and governments.

Report of the findings of the Dependent Care Study by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, commissioned by the Work and Family Unit, Department of Industrial Relations.


  • Foreword
  • List of Tables
  • List of Figures
  • Acknowledgements
  • Summary of Main Findings
  • 1 Background
    • Aims of the study
    • Terminology
    • Work and family literature
    • Australian context
    • Australia's position
  • 2 Study design
    • Sample selection
    • Data analyses
    • Sample description
    • Summary
  • 3 Child care used by working parents
    • Types of child care
    • Caring for children not yet in school
      • Multiple child care arrangements
      • Choice of child care
    • Caring for school-aged children
      • School holidays
      • Curriculum days
      • After school
      • Difficulty in arranging care
    • Summary
  • 4 Time off work for children's needs
    • Sick children
    • Medical and dental appointments
    • When the preschooler's usual caregiver is unavailable
    • Attending preschoolers' special events
    • Attending school events
    • School holidays
    • Curriculum days
    • Other child-related responsibilities
    • Children not living at home
    • All child-related reasons
      • Explanatory factors
      • Amount of time
    • Summary
  • 5 Time off work for parents, partner, and other relatives
    • Parents
    • Partner
    • Other family members
    • All family other than children
    • All family including children
    • Summary
  • 6 Combining work and care for disabled relatives
    • Special problems at work
    • Summary
  • 7 How workers arranged to take time off work
    • Permanent workers
      • Children
      • Family other than children
      • Differences by sector of employment
    • Contract and casual workers
    • Summary
  • 8 Using sick leave for family responsibilities
    • Any reason
    • Family reasons
    • Telling the employer
    • Summary
  • 9 Unpaid leave, special leave, and using other carers for family matters
    • Unpaid leave
    • Special leave
    • Other carers
    • Summary
  • 10 Job flexibility and family responsibilities
    • Working from home
    • Taking children to work
    • Leaving vvork suddenly for a family emergency
    • Arriving late or leaving early
    • Access to a telephone
    • Summary
  • 11 Employer's role as seen by employees
    • Employer attitudes and actions
    • Employer responsibilities
    • Summary
  • 12 Workplace changes and family matters
    • Managing work and family roles
    • Changes suggested by workers
      • Child care
      • Organisation of work
      • Leave policies
      • Information, attitude change and workload
    • Summary
  • 13 Conclusions
    • Not just a women's issue
    • Not just a parents' issue
    • Not just an employees' issue
    • Need for innovative thinking
  • List of References


Facts can be both comforting and disconcerting; they can be timely and ahead of current thinking. This book by Audrey VandenHeuvel on how Australian workers deal with the demands of family life offers such a challenge. Its implications are farreaching and will be seen differently by various interest groups.

The report comes at a time of great turmoil in industrial relations in Austnilian society. Greater flexibility is desirable and there has been movement towards enterprise- based bargaining, productivity agreements and individually-negotiated contracts. Yet such employer-employee relations could mean something quite different if basic award provisions are not preserved.

Enthusiasm for the 'family-friendly' workplace must be maintained, despite the fact that companies are 'down-sizing' and 'shedding' workers, and unemployment levels are predicted to settle at an apparently 'acceptable' 6 per cent. We must keep asking how arrangements such as job-sharing, reduced hours, flexible working conditions, and initiatives like the Jobs, Education and Training scheme might be family- frieridly to all those with family responsibilities.

This is the first national study to investigate in depth how people with jobs and families manage to combine these often conflicting responsibilities. Working wives and mothers usually carry the double burden of employment and home work. Research has shown the discrepancy between men's attitudes to sharing the burden and what they actually do. But more recent work is showing less of a gap, a greater male awareness of work-family stress and a willingness to share responsibilities on the home front. This study adds significantly to that picture of emerging change.

What are we to make of findings such as the following? Some 71 per cent of mothers and 64 per cent of fathers had taken time off work to care for children in the previous 12 months. On average, nine days were taken by those who took time off for family responsibilities, and there was no significant sex difference. More men (27 per cent) than women (13 per cent) missed work to care for their partner - a significant sex difference. More mothers (half) than fathers (a third) took time off work to care for sick children, a reflection of persistent social expectations and relative competence. But fathers and mothers were equally likely to stay home to provide school holiday care, attend school events, take children to medical or dental appointments, and to provide care when a carer was suddenly unable to show up. Women and men were also equally likely to take time off for elderly parents.

Clearly something is afoot that challenges the stereotypes of men not caring or sharing, of family life being somehow separate from work life, and even of employers being harsh and unresponsive to their workers' family problems.

The last point is perhaps the most problematic of all. This study shows that days taken off work to care for family members were often on leave without pay. But use of the employee's own sick leave was widespread. Further, there was a degree of collusion (or cooperation) between employers and employees in this breach of award conditions: roughly three-fifths of employees always told their boss they had used their own sick leave; a third never did so, many because they feared an adverse reaction. Work absences affect job productivity whatever the leave taken, but cooperative employers probably receive more in return.

For many years now, the Institute has been advocating the importance of the work-family area and its impact on families and the workplace through its studies of employers, maternity leave, child care, and small business employers' attitudes. The shift in corporate culture and in deeply ingrained public attitudes is slow but inexorable, as changing family needs demand change in rigid structures of the workplace.

The Australian Institute of Family Studies is pleased to be able, once again, to stimulate thinking by offering new information about a significant issue _facing the nation. We are grateful to our co-publishers, the Work and Family Unit of the Department of Industrial Relations for commissioning the project and for its advice and funding assistance. We also thank the many people who participated in the work of this study.

Don Edgar
Australian Institute of Family Studies

Summary of Main Findings

Results from a national study on the overlap between'work and family roles of employed single parents and workers in two-income families are detailed in this book. The objectives of the study were to identify workers' use of leave to care for sick family members and to meet other family care needs, and to obtain information about who workers care for. The study also examines the characteristics of those surveyed in relation to their need to balance work and family demands. The sample of 2642 employees is diverse and includes male and female employees, parents and people with no children, private and public sector workers, and those with permanent, contract and casual jobs.

  • Chapter 1 presents the background to the study as well as a brief discussion of work and family in the Australian context.
  • The design of the study and characteristics of the sample are described in Chapter 2.
  • Child care used by working parents is detailed in Chapter 3. Care took various forms and differed greatly depending on the age of the children and the reason for which it was needed. For preschool-aged children, half of the parents used informal care while 43 per cent used formal care. For school holiday and after-school care of children under age 14, few parents used formal care, the majority managing to look after the children themselves. On curriculum days informal care arrangements and parental care were equally used.
  • The time parents take off work because of their children is discussed in Chapter 4. More than two-thirds of parents missed some work over the course ofa year for reasons related to the care of their children. This was usually to look after a sick child (52 per cent of mothers and 31 per cent of fathers). The second most common reason was to provide care during school holidays; about one in three parents took time off work to do this.
    Most past research concludes that mothers are more likely than fathers to take time off work to deal with children's needs. This study, however, finds that only when the child was sick were mothers more likely than fathers to take time off; for a child's other needs, mothers and fathers were likely to share the caring responsibilityequally.
  • Chapter 5 looks at the amount of time employees take off work to look after family other than children - parents, spouse and other relatives. Three in ten employees had missed some work in the course of a year for such family members. More specifically, about one in seven workers who had a living parent or parent-in-law had taken time off to provide help to a parent, and 17 per cent of those who had a partner had missed work to deal with his or her needs. In total, 58 per cent of respondents took some time off work over a 12-month period for a child or other family member, with males and females equally likely to do so.
  • Chapter 6 looks at the situation of workers with a disabled family member. Of those who had taken time off work to deal with family matters, 6 per cent had missed work to provide care for a disabled relative.
  • Chapter 7 examines how employees who take time off work for family responsibilities arrange to do so; the use of paid leave, unpaid leave and flexible work arrangements is described. Most parents with permanent jobs used paid leave to provide care for a sick child and during school holidays. Most contract and casual employees took unpaid leave, likely reflecting their lack of access to paid leave; three out of four used such leave to care for children durjng school holidays, and three out of five to care for sick children.
  • The use of sick leave for family responsibilities is detailed in Chapter 8. Of all eligible parents, one-quarter used some sick leave for matters related to the care of their children, and 8 per cent to deal with issues for family other than children. In total, one out of every five eligible employees used some sick leave for a family-related issue over a 12-month period. Most (87 per cent) ofthose using sick leave for family matters used it for five days or less to deal with family responsibilities. More than half of the respondents said that they always told their boss when they took sick leave for family matters; 29 per cent said that they never mentioned it, while the remaining 13 per cent reported sometimes telling their boss.
  • Chapter 9 looks at how commonly workers use a variety of strategies - taking unpaid or special leave, and asking others to provide the needed care - for family reasons. Of all of those employees who had taken some unpaid leave within the past year, more than one-half had used some of it to deal with family responsibilities. Twenty-two per cent of workers said they had access to special leave that could be used to deal with family emergencies. Of these, 28 per cent had used, it to deal with family matters.
  • Chapter 10 provides information on the relationship between the flexibility of the job and how family matters are handled. Of those employees who were able to work from home due to the nature of their job, 13 per cent had done so in the past year for family reasons. Of those parents who could take a child to work, 37 per cent had done so: One in four employees had left work suddenly because of a family emergency, and one in five had left work early or arrived late due to family matters.
  • Chapter 11 examines whether employees consider the amount of assistance with regard to work and family issues provided by employers to be adequate. About a third felt that their employer was very sympathetic and more than three-quarters said that their employer did enough on the work and family front. On the other hand, one in five employees thought that their employer did not do enough, and one in ten said that their employer was not sympathetic to workers' family responsibilities. More than half thought that their employer was somewhat sympathetic to work and family issues.
  • Chapter 12 looks at how difficult workers perceive the juggling of their work and family roles to be. Three in ten did not think it was easy to combine the two roles; six in ten did, with fewer women (55 per cent) than men (67 per cent) thinking so. Some who thought it was easy to combine roles noted that this was only because they had made special arrangements or had forgone various opportunities. Ease of combining roles was clearly related to life-cycle stage as those with young children were least likely to find the combination easy. The chapter also details what workplace changes employees think would best he~p them deal with the overlap between work and family roles. A variety of changes were suggested but the desire for more employer-supported child care topped the list with one in six employees raising the need for change in this area. The organisation of work schedules was another frequently expressed concern. Other desired changes involved altering leave policies, increasing communication at the workplace and changing the attitude of the employer towards work and familyissues.
  • Chapter 13 concludes the book by emphasising that work and family issues do not exclusively relate to women, parents or employees, but instead are of significance to all workers, male and female, parents and those with no children, as well as to employers, unions and governments.

The quality and depth of this study were such that the data give scope for analyses in addition to those presented in this book which will further inform debate and policy development in the work and family area.


As the number of two-income families and single-parent employees increases, the workplace is becoming, from necessity, more and more frequently the venue from which individuals deal with family concerns. In this book, we examined how such workers dealt with the overlap of family responsibilities and work demands. The findings lead to the following conclusions.

Not just a women's issue

In this study, we looked at several dimensions of sex differences with regard to overlapping roles of work and family. One dimension was the perceived difficulty in juggling roles. Men were more likely than women to think that the juggling of roles was easy to do; however, a considerable percentage of men also found the combining of roles to be a difficult task.

Another dimension was taking time off work for family reasons. Men were less likely than women to .take time off work to deal with the needs of sick children; however they were as likely as women to take time off for all other reasons related to the concerns of family members, including elder care, and they were more likely than women to take time off for their partner. In all, men and women took the same average number of days off work because of their family responsibilities. These findings suggest that the issue of the overlap of family roles with work is relevant not only to female workers, but also to male workers.

Googins (1991) wrote: 'Por all practical purposes, the primary conflicts surrounding work-family issues are perceived as first belonging to women and then to the family system. They are seen as women's issues because the primary concerns of dependent care have traditionally been relegated to and provided by women' (p.12). But our results suggest that many males in dual-earner couples and many single fathers are taking some of the burden of the overlap of roles. This finding would suggest a rewrite of Googins' statement as follows: 'The primary conflicts surrounding work and family issues are moving towards being first and foremost a family issue - with both the male and the female partner taking equal responsibility.'

Not just a parents' issue

Often the matter of equity is raised as a reason for not implementing family policies at the workplace, the argument being that all employees should be able to take. equal advantage of all policies and programs. Since the generaJ issue of child care and the specific issue of care of sick children are the ones most often raised with regard to work and family issues, many feel that providing child care assistance to parents would be unfair to the other workers.

The findings of this research suggest that this is a limited view. First, parents of dependent children were not the only workers to find dealing with work and family matters a difficult task - many other workers were dealing with the overlap of work and family roles, be it for the care of an elderly relative, a spouse, grandchildren or other relatives. Thus work and family policies that are initiated at any workplace, if made broad enough, can be applicable to many workers with a wide range of needs. Second, in many of the analyses, a clear result was that the juggling of work and family demands varied according to the life-cycle stage of the worker. Taking this viewpoint, programs and policies to serve most workers over time, if not ~l workers all the time, can be established in the workplace.

Third, often the absence or lowering of productivity of one worker affects other workers. Thus if the combination of work and family roles for workers with conflict in this area were simplified, other workers at the worksite might also benefit indirectly. In the light of these three points, the 'equity argument' is not convincing enough to warrant pushing aside the idea of implementing work and family benefits.

Not just an employees' issue

When the roles of work and family conflict, the wellbeing of workers and their families may be affected. On the other hand, the workplace feels the effect when employees are absent from work or when their work is disrupted in other ways due to family matters. Access to paid leave and the availability of other arrangements that may assist workers to deal with family matters are issues that governments, unions and employers must deal with. Thus the overlap of work and family roles is an issue that goes beyond the realm of the employee.

This research shows that considerable numbers of workers feel that employers should take account of and show more consideration for the family responsibilities workers have. A number of employees thought that the best way to make their workplace more compatible with family roles was to change the attitude of their employers.

Many workers noted the need for formal rules and policies, especially in the use of sick leave and in the flexibility of their working hours, to help them manage their dual roles. An argument against formalisation is that by not having formal policy, supervisors can be more flexible and use their own discretion when making decisions regarding work and family issues. However, as Raabe and Gessner (1988) state: 'While unwritten policies may enable organisational flexibility in accommodating family needs, they heighten policy ambiguity in relation to supervisor interpretations and actual work practices' (p.199).

Need for innovative thinking

In summary, there is a vital need to look at the issue of the overlap of work and family in a new light. Recognition needs to be given to the fit between the new shape of the family and the workplace as change continues in both of these arenas, for only with this recognition can movement be made towards making the various roles that individuals hold more compatible. The issue of the overlap of work and family roles must be viewed as an issue applicable to male and female workers, parents and non-parents, as well as employees, employers, governments and unions. The original International Labour Organisation document regarding work and family responsibilities referred only to women and their special work and family problems. It was rightly altered to recognise the fact that: 'The issues ... donot concern women alone; they concern all people, all workers, all national governments, all employers, all trade unions' (ILO 1985: 3).

There needs to be greater recognition of the fact that the roles of both worker and family member are legitimate roles at all hours of the day; a worker cannot stop being a family member during work hours. What is needed are innovative ways to allow the individual to hold both roles simultaneously so that the roles supporteach other rather than produce negative interference.

It is the intent and hope of those involved in this study that its findings might aid understanding of the current situation and the issues involved, and thereby encourage progr~ss towards the goal of equality of employment to all workers, regardless of family responsibilities.