Working mothers should have better access to support services earlier in their child’s life as the pressure to juggle work and family life takes a toll on their mental health, a ground-breaking report says.
And that stress and consequent ill health is likely to affect their family dynamics, with researchers finding children’s overall wellbeing being influenced.
The report, part of the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children and released on Monday by La Trobe University researchers, states that women remain overwhelmingly responsible for child-rearing and domestic chores, which is reflected in their overall health.
Lead author Dr Elizabeth Westrupp? said one of the surprising findings was that the pressure did not ease as the child grew up, with this kind of stress-induced mental health issues in women persisting for the first eight years of their child’s life.
“To an extent, mothers are more practiced at negotiating the stresses of work-family conflict by the time they have an older child compared to an infant; nevertheless, external constraints linked to career demands, time pressures and child care still operate.
“Mothers typically increase their work hours when children enter formal education and pressures may increase at this time.”
Working mothers who were financially or socially disadvantaged, and those who worked longer hours, reported the worst mental health of the subjects studied, researchers said. Even though working mothers from affluent backgrounds worked longer hours, they reported better mental health.
The findings were based on a large sample of working mothers who were studied over the first eight years of their children’s lives.
Dr Westrupp said: “Our findings show that there are reciprocal and ongoing effects between mother’s mental health and their work-life balance. It is not a one-way street; conflict in these roles affects mental health, and mental health affects how mothers juggle work-family roles.”
The highly gendered nature of caring for children played a significant role in the problem, researchers said, because women were overwhelmingly responsible for childcare, but were also expected to participate in the workforce.
“Gendered expectations and workloads are most salient in the early stage of the family life cycle when care demands are high and the corresponding division of paid and unpaid labour between mothers and fathers is often inequitable,” the report stated.
Dr Stephen Carbone, who is BeyondBlue’s policy, research and evaluation leader, said it was often a vicious cycle, with work impacting on the family, and family impacting on work.
“It’s a chicken-and-egg scenario – the more you find yourself under the pump and that balancing act becomes tricky, the more pressure you find yourself under and the worst your mental health becomes,” he said.
Dr Westrupp said working mothers needed access to mental health support services earlier in their child’s life, and for longer as they managed the evolving challenges in their lives.
Better workplace practices and flexible working arrangements were also needed, she said.
The mental health of parents was one of the biggest influences in their parenting and their child’s wellbeing. The study found that work/family conflict “is likely to have implications for broader family functioning and child developmental outcomes”.
Figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2011 showed that 46 per cent of mothers of infants and pre-school age were in paid work, while 69 per cent of women with older children were in paid work.
While working mothers may struggle with stress and mental illness, their children have been shown to do better than those whose mothers do not work. Daughters of working mothers were better educated and earned more money and their sons spent more time on childcare and domestic chores, data from the International Social Survey Program that was analysed by academics from the Harvard Business School revealed.