The local playground was filled with tots and young parents on a late afternoon. David watched his five-year-old son climb and then go down the slide, while at the same time nervously eyeing work related phone messages. One of them required him to answer questions from the marketing division manager of the cellular company he works for.
But he had no answer to one question, which dealt with the draft of a contract with a large business client the firm was keen to keep happy. He barely heard the scream his son let out when he got into a fight with another child on the slide.
This scene of mothers and fathers spending time in the park with their young children after working hours, while at the same time handling work matters is quite commonplace. Even more common is the opposite scenario, in which household matters interfere with the workplace: All morning a worker receives messages from the caretakers of his or her children, or from the children themselves, concerning problems requiring parental intervention.
“This is a conflict that has worsened a great deal in the digital age,” says Prof. Liat Kulik from the School of Social Work at Bar-Ilan University. “The multiplicity of roles in life - work, parenting and household tasks - requires many resources from the individual, which are sometimes greater than they are able to provide.”
Kulik, along with Dr. Sagit Shilo Levin of the Interdisciplinary Department of Social Sciences at Bar-Ilan, recently completed research into the differences in the feelings of work- family conflicts and well-being experienced by fathers and mothers over various periods in their lives as working parents.
The research included over 600 participants, and reveals that the sense of work interfering with household functioning is even more acute than the opposite — the sense that household affairs are interfering with work.
Kulik says the explanation lies in the fact that the family situation is more flexible: It allows people to continue to be immersed in work, more or less. In comparison, work, which is a much more rigid sphere, does not allow the same level of freedom to deal with household matters.
Unsurprisingly, the conflicts are greater for parents with children in preschool and elementary school than for those with children who are adolescents or have already left home. As for gender differences, the conflict in which work invades the home is much worse for fathers than for mothers.
Why it’s worse for fathers
“The cases in which the father just came home and already receives a phone call from work on some urgent matter are much more numerous than the same occurrences for the mother,” says Kulik. In comparison, there is no difference between the sexes in the feelings of conflict in which the home invades the workspace: Both mothers and father feel the how the demands of the home interfere with work. This finding contradicts earlier research, which shows that mothers felt greater conflict than fathers in such cases.
How can this finding be explained?
Kulik: “It seems that communications technology in our time, which is expressed in the use of text messages, WhatsApp and mobile phones, allows children to reach their parents at work with much greater speed and in a relatively egalitarian way [they can reach] mothers and fathers. It is possible that this also stems from the ‘new father’ being different than in the past. The new father is more active today in raising the children. The much greater responsibility that the fathers feel for raising the children causes them to experience the home-work conflicts to the same extent as mothers do.”
The research shows that the general satisfaction from the roles working parents play is greater when children leave home than at the earlier stages of parenthood. The difficulty in filling both roles as a parent of young children and a worker at the early stage of a career, makes it hard for parents to feel satisfaction at that stage.
Equality makes it easier
One of the factors that help working parents overcome their feelings of conflict over their multiple roles is social support from the people they are in contact with. The study found that parents enjoy a higher level of social support when they are young, when they have children of preschool and elementary school age than in later periods.
The reason, according to the research, is that in the earlier stages of parenthood, when both the role of parent and the job are demanding and the investment in the career is by necessity large working parents look for support and help in raising the children more than in later stages of their lives, in which the intensity of the parental role decreases. The pressure at work also decreases at this stage, because the parents have already built their professional careers and are financially better off.
In addition, at the relatively higher ages the social support, which consisted of help from family members, is no longer readily available or strong as it was at the early stages of parenthood.
One of the more interesting conclusions of the research is that among both sexes - but in particular for men - the more egalitarian their view about the role of the sexes, the less pressured they feel, and the social support they receive is greater and their psychological well-being is greater. It is possible that a fair division of the household chores between the sexes, as well as the spreading of the burden of making a living on both partners, leads to a more comfortable atmosphere at home, and as a result the couple provide each other with more support.
Kulik’s advice? Seek a good balance, manage your time efficiently, take a vacation when you feel your batteries have expired, and schedule time for pleasurable leisure activities. When parents juggle work and the home, it can lead to both physical and mental fatigue and sometimes to a drop in performance at work because of the attempt to fulfill both demanding roles, she says.
Kulik advises employers to adopt family friendly policies, such as flexible work hours, working from home part of the time when possible, giving more paid vacation days to working parents, encouraging fathers to take paternity leave, and arranging summer day camps for employee’s children.
“Supporting the employee paid off”
Tal Benenson, an attorney specializing in contract and bankruptcy law, is an example of a parent squeezed between the demands of his profession and his family commitments.
“Last week, at a time when I tried to convince our small child to go to sleep, a telephone call from a client came and he told me that his partner, who he was in a business dispute with, is on his way to the company’s computers in order to erase files with data from them,” Benenson said. “I felt that I must leave everyone at home and rush to the my office in order to prepare an urgent request for the court to issue an interim order that would prevent the partner from touching the computers,” he said.
In another case he was forced to get up late one evening after it turned out that a company he filed a suit against was to be sold, and there was a fear that it would be impossible to collect the debts the company owed, said Benenson. “My family doesn’t like when my work invades the home, but they understand that to be available for the workplace even at unconventional hours is part of life,” he says.
Benenson employs a woman lawyer with two small girls, who tries to maneuver between the demands of work and the needs of home. “I don’t want to lose her,” he says.
“That is why I allowed her to come to the office only twice a week and the rest of the time she works from home, and that is how she can perform tasks even during nighttime hours. In addition, we have a lawyer who went through a divorce. He was not focused and his productivity fell by 50 percent, so we divided up the rest of his work between other employees. That is how he was allowed to leave the office relatively early and I didn’t cut his salary. I could have fired him, but I didn’t do it. Four months have passed since then and he is grateful for the support he received and gradually his productivity rose to the level before the crisis he went through,” said Benenson.
Firing unproductive workers
According to Israel’s labor laws, an employer is prohibited from firing an employee whose productivity drops due to an emergency situation such as the sudden death of a family member, pregnancy or fertility treatments. But these laws do not apply to other scenarios such as those involving work-home conflicts.
“For example, an employee whose mother has fallen ill or experiences a divorce crisis is not protected from dismissal if the quality of their performance at work falls,” he says. But at the same time, there are also employees who take advantage of the conflicts they face to lower their productivity. In such a case, there are no clear rules and the judgment must remain in the employer’s hands, says Beneson.