ANU research finds demanding jobs puts children's mental health at risk
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ANU research finds demanding jobs puts children's mental health at risk

The children of cranky parents who struggle to manage work and family life are more likely to experience mental health problems, a new study has found, prompting researchers to call for greater flexibility from employers.

The Australian National University-led research found children were at the greatest risk when both parents experienced conflict between their job and family time, which was more likely if they worked jobs with heavy workloads, long hours and job insecurity.

A recent ANU study says overly demanding jobs puts the mental health of employees' kids at risk. Bronwyn Dunn with her daughters Maleeha 7, and Amaiya 11.

A recent ANU study says overly demanding jobs puts the mental health of employees' kids at risk. Bronwyn Dunn with her daughters Maleeha 7, and Amaiya 11.

Photo: Jamila Toderas

Lead researcher Huong Dinh said six out of 10 working couples had at some point struggled to manage work and family commitments, with one in seven experiencing prolonged periods when one parent was not managing those commitments well.

"When parents struggle to juggle family and work responsibilities, they become tired, stressed, cranky and unhappy, which has an impact on family relationships and their children's wellbeing," Dr Dinh said.

"We show that when employment and family are in conflict with each other, this undermines the health of both parents and their children - and this occurs when either fathers or mothers are in very demanding or inflexible jobs."

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Co-researcher Lyndall Strazdins​ said the study was among the first to demonstrate that a parent's work-life imbalance affected their children's mental health.

"The onset and persistence of conflicts between parents' work and family life led to greater mental health problems in children, including withdrawal and anxiety, compared to children of parents with little or no work-life challenges," she said.

"The good news is that children's mental health improves when their parents' work-life balance improves."

Families ACT executive officer Will Mollison linked the study to the recently-released Rental Affordability Index, which found Canberra's lower income earners were spending up to 70 per cent of their pay on rent.

"When parents are pressured to work long hours just to afford to live in Canberra, their children lose out on quality time with their parents, which is so essential to their wellbeing," he said.

"But for those parents who make the choice to work fewer hours to give more time to their children, there is a significant financial cost.

"When the cost of living is so high, parents can't win either way."

Bruce mother Bronwyn Dunn balances raising her daughters Amaiya, 11, and Maleeha, seven, with a part-time communications job, university study and volunteering.

She said Saturdays were designated family days to ensure she maintained a strong relationship with her children. Board games, trips to the movies and family chats all helped, she said.

"I kind of just have to take it one day at a time and try and do the best I can and try to balance being there for them in time as well as financially," Ms Dunn said.

The ANU's Dr Dinh, a mother herself, said workplaces should provide more manageable hours, greater flexibility and autonomy.

"By doing so, parents can spend more time and manage all kind of family responsibility matters and matters between work and family requirements better," she said.

Dr Dinh also encouraged families to be open about any issues they had with balancing work and family responsibilities.

"The hope here does not only come from the employers, but also from the family," she said.

The study, conducted with La Trobe University and involving about 2500 working couples and their children over 10 years, was published in the international journal Social Science & Medicine.

Emily Baker is a reporter for the Sunday Canberra Times. She previously reported on education for The Canberra Times.

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