Parents' long work hours and the impact on family life.

Author:Fursman, Lindy


This article reports on findings from a multi-method study on long working hours and their impact on family life. It draws on data from the New Zealand 2006 Census, a review of the literature, and a small qualitative study involving in-depth interviews with 17 families with dependent children in which at least one partner was working long hours. The study found that parents' working hours were driven by the requirements of their jobs, income, and the cultures of their workplaces, as well as the satisfaction work provided. Many parents felt unable to reduce their hours, despite believing that their hours had a variety of negative impacts on family life. A number of factors mediated the impact of long hours of work, including the availability of extended family for childcare and support; having flexible work arrangements and control over hours of work (including both the number of hours and when hours were worked); and how satisfied spouses were with both the number of hours of paid work and the impact of these hours on the availability of the long-hours worker to spend time with children and to do a share of the household chores. The article concludes by noting that long hours are just one factor among many that affect family functioning and wellbeing.


Long working hours (1) are a significant issue for a number of reasons. It has been known for some time that working hours in New Zealand are among the highest in the world. Messenger (2004) compared the working hours of employees in a variety of countries, and found that only Japan topped New Zealand in the proportion of employees working 50 or more hours per week. Similarly, Callister (2004) found that New Zealand appears at the high end of the spectrum internationally when long weekly hours of work are considered, for both couples and individuals. He found that the proportion of employees working long hours has increased in the past 20 years, while the average hours worked has remained relatively stable, due to an increasing polarisation of working hours.

Long working hours affect a significant number of New Zealand families. In the 2006 Census 415,641 people reported working 50 or more hours each week, representing 23% of the workforce and 29% of full-time workers. (2) Those in agriculture, management and road/rail were the most likely to work long hours, and although workers with high incomes were the most likely to work long hours, the majority of long-hours workers were in lower income brackets (Fursman 2008).

Census data show that the largest group of long-hours workers have no qualifications, and that those who work the longest hours are lower income (Fursman 2008). As such, while there are significant proportions of long-hours workers earning high salaries in management positions, some of the parents working these hours are those least likely to be able to negotiate working arrangements conducive to family wellbeing.

Among dual-earner couples with dependent children, 29% (or 98,466) worked 80 or more hours between them, while 27,063 (or 8%) worked more than 100 combined hours. Of the couples who worked 100 or more hours between them, there were 12,963 couples with dependent children where both partners worked 50 or more hours each. The literature suggests that long hours of work can have a variety of impacts on family wellbeing, including providing greater income but also negatively affecting time available for family members.

As an advocate for families, the Families Commission was interested in not only which families worked long hours, but also in the impact such hours have on families, particularly those with dependent children. The objectives for this project were to:

* gain an understanding of the impact of long working hours on family life and family wellbeing

* gain an understanding of the factors parents consider when making decisions about working long hours, including the hours worked, who works them, and the role of income(s)

* explore the trade-offs that working long hours involve, for both the family as a whole and the individual(s) working long hours

* explore the reasons family members work long hours

* explore how external factors such as travel time affect the effects of long working hours.


In looking at the issue of long working hours and their effect on family life, it is useful to consider a framework for family wellbeing in order to examine the areas of family life where working hours might have an impact. Wellbeing can be defined as "the quality of life of an individual or other social unit" (Behnke and MacDermid 2004); however, there is no standard definition of wellbeing across disciplines or studies. Across definitions, most descriptions and measurements of wellbeing seem to contain both subjective and objective measures, which commonly include physical, material, social, psychological and health factors.

Defining and measuring family wellbeing is complicated by the fact that there is no commonly agreed definition of individual wellbeing. Weston et al. (2004) note that family wellbeing indicators include:

subjective and objective indicators or gradations. Common indicators of family wellbeing include a family's financial and material circumstances, parental employment, family members' satisfaction with relationships with each other and their reports of behaviour that provide insight into parenting styles and the quality of "family functioning". (p.4) Most studies of family wellbeing tend to assume that "the wellbeing of families is a function of the wellbeing of each family member. When one family member struggles all others are impacted" (Behnke and MacDermid 2004). As such, the impact of a variable like working hours affects both the individual worker and their family, directly and indirectly. In line with this, the project focused on the views of the long-hours worker regarding the impact of long working hours on their family life, with their partner (in most cases) also participating in the interview. The participation of the partner was important because previous research has shown that factors such as the satisfaction of the partner with their spouse's working hours mediates the impact of long hours on family life (Weston et al. 2004). Because of ethical and resource implications, data from children in the families were not gathered.

In a report on using census data to construct indicators of family wellbeing in New Zealand, Milligan et al. (2006) adapted Hird's (2003) model of individual wellbeing to provide an analytical structure for examining family wellbeing. In Milligan et al.'s model, the objective and subjective components that contribute to family wellbeing are teased out to include factors such as income, education and health, as well as the quality of relationships and family functioning. The model was used as the basis for the interview schedules for this project, and shaped the analysis of the collected data.


The project draws on a number of sources in order to obtain a more complete picture of the impact of long working hours on New Zealand families. It began with a literature review, which canvassed recent research on the impact of long working hours on the family. The results of this review are reported throughout this article.

The review highlighted the fact that while there is a reasonable body of literature examining the impact of long working hours on various aspects of family life, the bulk of previous research tended to be large quantitative studies conducted outside New Zealand. The majority of these studies focused on just one aspect of family wellbeing (e.g. on the impact of long working hours on partner relationships), and measured outcomes as discrete variables that were then analysed using a variety of statistical methods. (3) However, few studies provided a more holistic discussion of the range of impacts of long working hours on families, with even fewer including the voices of family members themselves. Other studies have examined the impact of work on family life, but have not focused in detail on long working hours (Ministry of Social Development 2006). For this reason, a mixed-method approach was selected for this project, which included both quantitative data from the most recent New Zealand Census and qualitative data from a small but diverse group of families who had at least one parent working long hours.

While the literature review was being conducted, analysis of the 2006 New Zealand Census was carried out as part of a joint project between the Families Commission and the Department of Labour. (4) This analysis examined the demographic profile of long-hours workers across a range of variables, including gender, ethnicity, education...

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