Adrienne Burgess on Fathers and Work-Life Balance'
This autumn, it’s all systems go on fathers in the work-family arena, with a major European Conference in Rotterdam (‘Working Fathers, Caring Men’) at the end of September; and, in London, the inception of ‘Employers for Fathers’ – a key element in the ‘Charter for a Father Friendly Britain’, which was launched by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Patricia Hewitt, in April of this year.
The Charter, a public/private partnership co-Chaired by the EOC’s Julie Mellor, is the brain-child of Fathers Direct, the UK’s National Information Centre on fatherhood, and the stimulus comes from a social shift dubbed in a recent Guardian/ICM poll the "hidden social revolution” in public attitudes. The survey finds an astonishing 70% awareness of the DTI ‘family friendly package’, instituted 18 months ago, which not only provides for better paid maternity leave but also – for the first time in our history - paid paternity leave and, for both fathers and mothers, the right to request flexible working when children are young.
The poll also finds enthusiasm for ministers to go further, with involved fatherhood the top priority: 66% want a Scandinavian-style choice for parents to share the six months' paid leave currently available in Britain only as maternity leave; and 53% want more paternity leave. None of this emerges from a vacuum: 23% of UK dads now spend 28+ hours per week with their children (compared with only 16% in Germany and 10% in France) and this despite the fact that UK fathers work the longest hours in Europe. What’s more British fathers in dual earner households now undertake one-third of the childcare; and the most usual carers of school-age children when mothers work are no longer grandparents or professionals – but dads.
As Europe (and, in fact, the world) begins to wake up to fathers, the cry in Scandinavia is: what took you all so long? There a range of policies first to permit fathers to play a greater role in childrearing and, more recently, to encourage them to do so, have been trialed over two decades. Most newsworthy has been the ‘daddy month’, which Hewitt is talking about introducing here - a non-transferable element in parental leave, which has boosted fathers’ take up substantially. So successful has this been that the Swedes have already introduced the ‘Daddy Two-Month’. A ‘Daddy Three-Month’ is on the cards.
Why are the Scandinavians so keen to make family-friendly policies father friendly? An ambitious effort to bring about gender equality in society has been their starting point. Their second major driver has been child welfare: a serious commitment to the idea that children benefit from, and have a right to, quality relationships with both parents.
Although father-involvement was originally a government project, the trades unions have joined in - and now employers are increasingly speaking up, actively supporting fathers in their caring role. What’s in it for them? The research is stacking up. In Scandinavia, men returning from parental leave have been found to express loyalty to their companies, resulting in higher retention and productivity. Their leave-taking has also been seen as an experience that helps them develop skills and self-confidence that, in turn, have enhanced their work productivity. One HR director said: ‘the dad who has been at home is a much more mature person’. Flexibility is the most popular of the father-friendly benefits, and flexibility can benefit employers, too. Interestingly, longitudinal research in America has revealed that, a mong working fathers, highly involved dads actually do slightly better at work than less involved fathers.
It’s long been known that work stress impacts negatively on family relationships. Now there’s clear evidence of stress traveling the other way: from family to work. I n dual earner families, a key predictor of a man’s ill health (which of course has negative implications for his working life) is worries about his relationship with his children. And recent research has revealed that the less satisfied people are in their marriages, the more likely they are to find their jobs dissatisfying, and therefore to move on.
Involved fatherhood can have positive spin-offs in terms of women’s commitment to, and advancement in, the workforce. Patricia Hewitt points out that while mothers continue to find it so difficult to balance work and family that they either stop working or slip, or are pushed, down the ‘mummy track’, British Industry is punching below its weight: in effect drawing its skilled workforce from only half the population. Involved fatherhood reduces mothers’ work/family stress considerably, and enables them to take on greater work responsibilities.
It also makes separation and divorce less likely. Family breakdown, and its associated health effects, cost employers a fortune; and a major predictor of relationship-breakdown is a woman feeling that her partner is not doing his fair share at home. Conversely, high levels of father involvement are associated with both the stability and quality of couple relationships.
Adrienne Burgess is Research and Policy Officer at Fathers Direct, the National Information Centre on Fatherhood: [email protected]
To find out more about the European Conference – ‘Working Fathers, Caring Men: towards reconciliation of working & family life in Europe’ – email: [email protected]
© Work-Life balance part of The Work Foundation 2005