Can Dads be flexible too? Gendered risks and gendered opportunities to reduce work-family conflict

Women, work, and raising children is an oft-visited topic. But what about the men? In today’s post, Amanda Cooklin from LaTrobe University’s Transition to Contemporary Parenthood Program, shares recent research into how policy can better help fathers manage work-family conflict.

Contemporary Family Life

Most Australian children are raised in families where both parents are employed. Combining paid work and care is therefore a common dilemma shared by contemporary parents.

Parents’ work schedules dictate the time parents have available to spend with their children, but also affect the quality, or emotional ‘tone’ of that time. Stresses at work may make parents distracted, irritable or inconsistent in the expectations they set for their children. Work hours rarely align with school hours, generating stress about competing commitments. Long work hours are normative, particularly for men, as our labour market is increasingly insecure, demanding and competitive.

Work-Family Conflict

Cracks appear when the demands of work and care become incompatible.  These incompatibilities are referred to as ‘work-family conflicts’. There is unequivocal evidence that work-family conflict is a significant, adverse social determinant of health. Work-family conflicts deliver poorer mental health for parents, affecting their mood and overall well-being along with their physical health. It also influences parent-child interactions and ultimately, children’s mental health. Work-family conflict is common, affecting one third of all parents, and has undesirable outcomes for workplaces – contributing to burnout, stress and high turnover intentions.

The workplace and policy responses to the dilemma of work-family conflict have typically been parked with mothers. Getting mothers into the labour force; flexible policies; family-friendly work arrangements – all of these are slated towards ‘working mothers’ with the goal of improving women’s workforce participation.

But where are the ‘working fathers’? Referred to as the ‘ghosts in the organisational machine,’ working fathers remain invisible in our workplaces. In Australia, fathers are expected to provide unrivalled time to their jobs, usually over very long hours, to secure their jobs and advance their careers. International evidence suggests that fathers face stigma and measurable income and career detriments if they do request flexible working arrangements or part-time work for family reasons. In Australia, only 14% of fathers (of children aged 0-17yrs) request flexible working arrangements.

In this policy and workplace context, how do families reconcile the dilemma of work and care? What effects do these solutions have on their mental health, their opportunities to provide caregiving, and their longer-term employment prospects?

The path of least resistance is falling back on gendered norms around ‘who works’ and ‘who cares’. Men’s earnings usually outweigh women’s; families with young children respond to this by prioritising fathers’ paid work. Evidence tells us that mothers are much more likely to shape their work participation around children’s needs. Fathers remain ‘stuck’ in the breadwinner role; mothers are consequently pushed down (or out) of the labour force, into lower-skilled industries and jobs, and part-time employment. This ‘one-and-a-half’ employment solution for couple families has grave implications in the short- and longer-term.

Regaining balance - a way forward

Our recent study investigated risks and opportunities to manage or prevent work-family conflict. We used longitudinal cohort data from >2600 mothers and > 3400 fathers of children participating in the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children, from 2004-2012 (child ages 4-12). Data about parents’ work characteristics, family circumstances, work-family conflicts and their mental health were collected every 2 years. Our hypotheses were that there would be different pathways into and out of work-family conflict for mothers compared to fathers, given the persistent norms around ‘who works’ and ‘who cares’.

Gendered norms mean fathers are often not provided with the flexibility they need to participate fully in family life, creating stress for everyone. Photo by  The Honest Company  on  Unsplash

Gendered norms mean fathers are often not provided with the flexibility they need to participate fully in family life, creating stress for everyone. Photo by The Honest Company on Unsplash

We found that for fathers, working long hours, in a job that was ‘poor quality,’ tipped them into work-family conflict. ‘Poor quality’ jobs are those that have limited supports to combine work and care, including flexibility or control over workload or scheduling. Poor quality jobs are insecure (and therefore likely competitive, requiring long hours) with no access to family-related leave. Importantly, the prevention of chronic or persistent work family conflict for fathers hinges on these same characteristics. Fathers with some access to flexibility, autonomy or with job security were able to ‘escape’ work family conflict over the next two years. Those working long hours (>50 / week), with none of the favorable working conditions that allowed them to balance work with caregiving, remained trapped in work-family conflict.

We found a different pattern for mothers. One third were working ≤ 20 hours a week; and 60% working 21-40 hours / week (with the remainder working > 41 hours/week). Working more than twenty hours per week was associated with chronic work-family conflict. In the current gendered division of labour, increasing mothers’ work hours without decreasing fathers’ hours creates a ‘care gap’. Not only does this heighten mothers’ work-family conflict, it reproduces inequities in work and care, effectively ‘trapping’ mothers in part-time roles.

For mothers and fathers both, in a similar pattern, each of these pathways into or out of work-family conflict had repercussions for their mental health. Entering work-family conflict was associated with a decrease in mental health, which compounded if work-family conflict persisted. Exiting work-family conflict was associated with a concurrent improvement in mental health, providing fresh impetus for social and workplace policy to redress this important social determinant of mental health.

Persistent gendered expectations about work and care, and the roles of mothers and fathers remain. These shape our social institutions, in this case, our workplaces, constraining the opportunities parents’ have to prevent, or manage work-family conflict, with adverse consequences. For fathers, being tied to the workforce can erode their mental health and their capacity to be engaged and nurturing parents, much as they might desire to. For mothers lifetime earnings and career trajectories are constrained as they are potentially ‘left behind’ to provide care for their families, facing conflict if the balance gets ‘tipped’ in favour of paid work.

We conclude that redressing fathers’ work-family conflict and long work hours is necessary to progress for two desirable societal outcomes: first, to meet the care gap constraining mothers’ workforce participation, and secondly, to redress an important social determinant of mental health affecting mothers, fathers and their children. An immediate public health intervention, and a move towards greater gender equity, would be to ensure fathers access and utilise family-friendly workplace arrangements without stigma or negative consequences.


Cooklin AR, Dinh H, Strazdins L, Westrupp E, Leach LS, Nicholson J. Change and stability in work-family conflict and mothers' and fathers' mental health: longitudinal evidence from an Australian cohort. Soc Sci Med 2016. 155: 24-34.