Juggling acts: how parents working non-standard hours arrange care for their pre-school children.

AuthorMoss, Janine


Little is known about the childcare arrangements of New Zealand parents who work non-standard hours (outside the hours of Monday to Friday 8.00 am to 5.00 pm). This research took an exploratory case study approach to understand how some parents juggle the complexity of their family and non-standard work commitments. Twenty-two parents and three grandparents, plus employers in seven workplaces, were interviewed. The study found that the nature of nonstandard work--such as very early starts, working overnight or weekends, and being on-call--meant more planning was required, and usually a mix of different types of care were used to meet parents' childcare needs.


Finding a balance between work and family commitments is a challenge faced by all working parents with dependent children. Where parents have pre-school-aged children and are working non-standard hours, the challenge is more complex.

Early childhood education (ECE) services for children before they start school can help parents and caregivers to balance their family responsibilities and paid work. Access to quality ECE enables a family to make choices about its lifestyle, workforce participation and other activities. High-quality ECE also has positive educational and social outcomes for children (Ministry of Education 2008).

The Families Commission was interested in exploring why some families face barriers to accessing and participating in ECE. The accessibility, availability and affordability of childcare are issues that have been raised in previous Families Commission consultations with families. Consequently, in 2008 the Families Commission undertook two research projects about participation in ECE. This paper describes one of those studies. The other project interviewed parents of pre-school children who had recently migrated to New Zealand and for whom English was their second language. The latter project was published in December 2008. Both these studies are part of the Families Commission's "Even Up" work programme on paid parental leave, out-of-school services and flexible work.


People who work non-standard hours tend to have a different rhythm or routine to their days and week from people who work standard hours. Their sleep patterns may be different. Their access to services may be more limited--they may be working or sleeping when banks, shops and childcare services are open. The hours they work may be antisocial--they may be working or sleeping when family and friends socialise. Their days of work may also be constantly changing, so it is more difficult to establish a routine in their household.

There are also advantages to non-standard work. Some people choose to work non-standard hours so they can be at home with their pre-school-aged children during the day, or when their children return home from school. Some couples choose to work "mirror" shifts for this reason. Pay rates can be better for jobs requiring non-standard hours. Seasonal work can provide work opportunities for people living in rural communities.

The Department of Labour's 2004 work/life balance consultation raised long working hours, multiple job-holding and working unsociable hours as key issues affecting New Zealand workers, with stress the main manifestation of imbalance. A Department of Labour survey (Fursman 2006) of 1,100 employers and 2,000 employees found that, of the workers in the survey:

* 40% had variable hours

* 18% worked shifts, with two-thirds working rotating shifts

* 22% worked at least some of their hours between 10.00 pm and 6.00 am.

This paper describes an exploratory study undertaken by the Families Commission of how parents working non-standard hours make care arrangements for their pre-school-aged children. The purpose of the research was to gain a better understanding of the issues for parents who work non-standard hours when they access ECE. Three case studies are included at the end of this paper to illustrate, in the parents' own words, how some families in the study managed their childcare and work commitments.


For the purposes of this study, "non-standard hours" were defined as paid work where either the hours are regular but outside standard working hours (8.00 am to 5.00 pm, Monday to Friday), or where hours are irregular (for example, rotational shift-work) and may be unpredictable.

We selected a range of industries, occupations and workplaces where non-standard hours are worked. Approaches were made by letter, followed up by phone calls to management and human resources staff at each workplace. Once the employer consented to participating in the study, they facilitated access to employees who were parents. Interviews were then arranged between each parent and the researchers at a time and place convenient to the parent and the employer.

We recruited parents with pre-school-aged children:

* who worked non-standard hours or days

* who needed access to ECE services outside standard hours and days of work (Monday to Friday, 8.00 am to 5.00 pm)

* whose children were cared for while they worked by someone other than a primary caregiver or parent of the child, which could include an extended family member (such as a grandparent)

* who made, or jointly made, the decision about how the child would be cared for.

Twenty-two parents (19 mothers and three fathers), three grandmothers, and employers in seven workplaces were interviewed in the following non-standard workplaces: freezing industry, recruitment centre, rest home carets, airport quarantine officers, midwives, and horticultural seasonal workers. Two semi-structured interview schedules were developed: one for parents and one for employers.

Although the primary purpose of the study was to explore what type of ECE parents working non-standard hours use, we were also aware that other types of care are likely to be used. We categorised these two types of care as "formal" (ECE) and "informal". Formal care or ECE includes: education and care centres (sometimes referred to as daycare or creche); home-based services; kindergartens; kohanga reo; licence-exempt playgroups; and parent support and development programmes. Informal care includes: care provided by a family member such as a grandparent, aunt or uncle, older sibling, or step-child; baby-sitter; neighbour; friend; or work colleague.

Ethical approval for the research was granted by the Families Commission Ethics Committee. All participants were given information sheets outlining the aims of the study, what their participation would involve, that information would be confidential, and that recordings of interviews would be destroyed at the conclusion of the research. All participants signed consent forms.

Since little is known about the childcare arrangements of New Zealand parents working nonstandard hours, an exploratory case study approach was used to allow an in-depth consideration of the parents' experiences. The small size of the study does not, however, allow for the findings to be generalised to the wider population of New Zealand...

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