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Soc Sci Med. 2013 Jun;87:99-107. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2013.03.030. Epub 2013 Apr 3.

Combining work and family: rewards or risks for children's mental health?

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National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, The Australian National University, Canberra, ACT 0200, Australia.


Prevailing child psychopathology paradigms focus on caregiving in isolation from market work. Yet most children's caregivers - mothers and fathers - are also employed. Although policy and academic debate has voiced concerns that employment could hamper mothers' capacity to care, less emphasis is given to the benefits generated by mothers' jobs. By contrast, theories of child mental health often view fathers' employment as beneficial, indeed necessary, for children's wellbeing, and few problematise fathers' capacity to combine work and care. This paper aims to integrate these seemingly contradictory concerns. We consider whether mothers' and fathers' rewards from combining employment with childcare may be protective for children's mental health, and whether their conflicts and dilemmas generate risks. Analyses use cross-sectional data from a representative survey of families with 4-5 year old children (Growing Up in Australia Study). We restricted our sample to employed parents (N = 2809 mothers; 3982 fathers), using data gathered in 2004. While a majority of parents reported benefits and rewards from working (work-family facilitation), more than one third also reported difficulties and conflicts (work-family conflict). When mothers or fathers experienced conflict we found elevations in young children's emotional and behavioural symptoms, with the risks compounding if both parents experienced conflict between work and family. Associations persisted after adjusting for family socioeconomic circumstances and composition, and they were not offset by work-family facilitation. We did not find evidence for heightened vulnerability to work-family conflict in families with few socioeconomic resources. However, among these disadvantaged families we observed stronger protective associations with children's mental health when parents had rewarding and supportive jobs. Our study extends current paradigms of child mental health by considering the interplay between care environments and market work. Jobs which help mothers and fathers to combine employment with caregiving could yield health benefits across generations.

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