What is work life balance?

Work life balance refers to an individual’s ability to balance work and personal commitments. Those who find a healthy balance between work and life achieve a sense of wellbeing and feel that they not only have control over their working life (e.g. by being able to determine when and how much they work), but also have enough time to lead a rich and fulfilling personal life.

Factors relating to an individual’s workplace and working conditions (e.g. hours worked, flexibility of work arrangements) affect an individual’s ability to maintain a balance between work and life. Government policies also exert and influence. For example, government provision or subsidisation of childcare or parental leave may make it easier for parents to participate in the workforce without interrupting their work life balance.

The characteristics of an individual’s personal life are also important determinants of their ability to maintain a balance between work and life and parenting is one of the key factors influencing an individual’s ability to balance work and life commitments.

More information on work life balance.

Challenges individuals face when trying to balance work and parenting

Raising children is a time consuming activity and childrearing and working are the two major commitments of parents. While most families find it necessary for at least one parent to work in order to provide for the material needs (e.g. food, clothing, shelter) and other desires, combining work and parenting can interfere with a working parent’s ability to dedicate sufficient time to their family. Similarly bearing or raising children can interfere with an individual’s ability to fulfil their commitments to work or develop their career as desired. There are many challenges faced by men and women as they attempt to find and maintain a balance between work and parenting.

Deciding if and when to have children

Balancing work and parentingChildren and the time-demands they create mean that parents face considerably greater challenges to finding a work life balance than childless individuals. Evidence suggests that many Australian couples delay childbearing, do no have as many children as they want or have no children at all, because of concerns about maintaining a balance between work and family life (although financial aspirations and other factors also influence these decisions). This is highlighted by the increasing age of women at first childbirth in Australia, which rose from 26.5 years in 1976 to 31 years in 2007, a rise which was attributed to increased female workforce participation. Having a child often means one member of the couple (typically the woman) must reduce working hours or cease work altogether in order to provide childcare.

The Australian government has provided numerous incentives for couples to have children in recent years (e.g. baby bonus scheme for newborns, childcare rebates for working parents). Access to maternity leave has also increased. For example, since Australia ratified the International Labour Organisation Convention 156 (which guarantees workers with parenting responsibilities protection from discrimination) access to maternity leave has increased from 43% in 2002 to 53% in 2007, while 50% of men now have access to paternity leave compared to 38% in 2002. While increasing access to parental leave diminishes some of the work-life balance challenges that child-bearing and rearing raises, it should be noted that many individuals in Australia are still unable to access parental leave. Australia is one of only two countries (America being the other) in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a collective of developed nations, which do not have a universally accessible, national paid parenting leave scheme.

Dedicating sufficient time to childcare

Some parents may wish to reduce their working hours to spend more time with their children, particularly in the early years of a child’s life at which time children develop and grow very rapidly and are most dependent on care. However, employees may not always be willing or able to let their employees reduce their working hours (e.g. to work part-time for several years). For example, about 10% of Australian workers have their requests for reduced hours denied and >20% have their requests only partially fulfilled. In other cases, individuals may wish to reduce working hours or stop working in paid employment to make more time for family commitments but cannot afford to reduce working hours because it also means taking a pay cut. Reducing working hours can also negatively impact on job quality, career advancement and superannuation contributions.

Finding and affording child-care facilities

Widespread female participation in the workforce is a relatively new phenomena which has dramatically changed family life and created an increased demand for external childcare. While the Australian government now provides childcare rebates to working families, many couples still have great difficulty finding or affording day or out-of school-hours care for their children. Some are forced to reduce their working hours or give up work altogether because they cannot access suitable childcare facilities. While the Australian government dedicates relatively large sums to offer cash benefits to families (e.g. rebates for childcare fees paid), it spends relatively little on the provision of social services such as government run childcare facilities, compared to other OECD countries. Cash benefits provided by the Australia government tend to be targeted at low-income families and are usually withdrawn once the family achieves a certain income level. This means there is sometimes no financial incentive for low-income families to enter the paid workforce.

Balancing work and breastfeeding

Balancing work and parentingWorking mothers are less likely to breastfeed than those who do not work, indicating that women face considerable challenges in providing for the nutritional needs of their infant’s development and maintaining paid employment. Higher breastfeeding rates amongst women with flexible working conditions (e.g. self employment, flexible hours) and those working <15 hours per week, indicate that workplace flexibility is an important factor influencing a woman’s decision to breastfeed. In Australia, women are required to individually negotiate access to breastfeeding spaces in the workplace, limiting their ability to reconcile breastfeeding and work if their employer is not supportive.

More information on Breastfeeding in the Workplace

Changing domestic roles of men and women

Increasing female participation in the workforce demands reorganisation of domestic responsibility. However, male participation in domestic life has not kept pace with female workforce participation. This creates challenges for women, who are often expected to take on a greater share of domestic responsibilities than their male partners despite working full-time. It may also make things more difficult for men, who have traditionally had their domestic needs provided for by full-time home makers, but are now increasingly expected to fulfil domestic responsibilities.

Dedicating sufficient time to work to enable career advancement and satisfaction

Many women decide to leave paid employment or reduce working hours following the birth of a child. For example, only 20% of Australian women with children <20 months of age are in full-time employment. Although this provides quality time for childcare, it interrupts the development of a woman’s career and contributes to the difficulties women continue to face in obtaining promotions and income consistent with that of their male counterparts. Men with children, and particularly those with children <5 years of age have more difficulty balancing their work and life commitments than men without children, indicating that their family commitments may also interfere with their ability to advance their career and be satisfied with the work.

Working enough to ensure financial stability within the family

Reducing working hours is one way in which parents might increase their time for family fun and responsibilities. However, reducing working hours almost always means reducing income, which increases the risk that the family will struggle financially or live in poverty. While reducing working hours or stopping work may increase time available for the family, it does not necessarily solve the work-family life balance as it may result in increasing financial concerns. It is known that financial stress is associated with adverse parenting.

Benefits of maintaining a work-life balance

Balancing work and parentingThere are many challenges which make it difficult for individuals to maintain a balance between work and life. However, it is in the interests of governments, communities and individuals to overcome these challenges, as maintaining a good balance between work and life can improve individual and family health.

Improved child health, development and behaviour

Evidence suggests that a parent’s failure to balance their work and family life affects the health of their children. A study conducted in Canada reported that the children of individuals working non-standard hours (i.e. night and weekends) were more likely to experience behavioural problems than the children of parents who did not work such hours. Parents who experience stress at work, or those who perceive a poor fit between their actual and preferred hours of work may also affect the health of their children by being tired or ill-tempered, when the stress from work spills over into the home environment.

Better parental health

An Australian survey reported that individuals with poor work life outcomes were more likely to report:

  • Poor mental health;
  • Using prescription drugs;
  • Stress; and
  • Dissatisfaction with personal relationships.

Being dissatisfied with various aspects of work (which increases the likelihood of dissatisfaction with work life balance) is also associated with poor health outcomes. For example, another Australian survey reported that individuals who experienced job strain and insecurity were approximately two and a half times more likely to have depression or anxiety, and were also more likely to experience poor physical health.

Another Australian survey reported an approximately 13 times increased risk of depression or anxiety amongst managers and professionals who experienced job strain, compared to those who did not. There is also evidence that long and/or atypical working hours are associated with depression and other psychological conditions such as anxiety. Highly demanding and stressful jobs have also been associated with poor emotional and physical health outcomes. Thus, finding a secure and satisfying job, with regular work hours can considerably improve psychological health amongst workers.

Women who participate in the workforce experience health benefits compared to women who do not work, such as spacing the births of their children more widely and they are more self-confident.

Better family relationships

Balancing work and parentingStress from work can spill over into family life and negatively affect relationships between parents and their children. Stress might also affect family relations by increasing individual anger and aggression which affects the quality of parenting.

Family relationships are also affected by atypical working hours, as these interfere with the time families have to spend together. Atypical working hours may lead to:

  • less emotional involvement in the family;
  • difficulty communicating, sharing feelings and defining roles within the family; and
  • child behavioural problems.

Atypical work patterns (which are presumably more challenging and more likely associated with difficulties maintaining work life balance) are also associated with higher rates of separation, divorce and marital problems as well as reduced quality parenting (e.g. less spontaneity in parenting and increased anger). Poor quality parenting is in turn associated with poor health outcomes in children, for example chaotic parenting, or parenting charaterised by demanding, power assertive and disapproving behaviours is a risk factor for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children. Parents with high levels of stress from work are also more likely to report low levels of relationship satisfaction compared to those with low levels of stress.

Improved social relationships

Individuals who are dissatisfied with their work life balance are more likely to have difficulty establishing ties in their community and positive social relationships than those with a satisfying work-life balance. Almost half of Australian workers report that work interferes with their ability to establish ties in the community. Good social relationships and networks in turn have many positive affects on parenting and child health and development, and thus finding time to improve social relationships and networks can also improve the psychological and physical health of a family.

Reduced risk of poverty

Families with at least one working parent are less likely to live in poverty than those without a “breadwinner”. Children who have no working parent are greater than three times more likely to live in poverty than those with one working parent. The risk of poverty persists intergenerationally, meaning that children who grew up in poverty in a household without a “breadwinner” are also more likely to raise their offspring in conditions of poverty. Single-parent families (usually headed by women) are particularly likely to live without a breadwinner. Less than 60% of sole parents participate in the paid workforce in Australia (compared to >80% in a number of European countries). Poverty is associated with poor childhood development and thus paid employment which raises a family above the poverty line has numerous health and social benefits for the family.

Educational benefits of early-childhood education

Balancing work and parentingEarly childhood education or care outside the home is associated with improved childhood development such as better cognitive development and better school performance later in life.

Working parents are more likely than non-working parents to enrol their children in childcare, and many childcare facilities have explicit educational goals.They also provide additional environments in which children can explore new social relationships.

Improved child development and wellbeing

Evidence shows that children who receive fulltime parental care for the first 6-12 months of life achieve better development outcomes. Thus finding a balance between work and life which enables fulltime parental care (by either the mother or father) can improve the wellbeing and development of children.

Employer benefits of employees maintaining a healthy work life balance

In addition to reduced absenteeism stemming from improved health of employees who maintain a healthy work life balance, there are numerous other benefits that employers may experience when their workers successfully balance work and life. These include:

  • Improved employee productivity and performance;
  • Improved attraction and retention of skilled staff;
  • Improved morale amongst employees; and
  • Increased workforce diversity.


Australian employers are required under the Federal Fair Work Act 2009 to provide equal opportunities to parents with care giving responsibilities and not discriminate against them because they are parents. Parents have the right to request flexible work arrangements. However, in some instances where state and territory laws provide better working conditions, these laws should be followed rather than the Federal legislation. For example, in Victoria workers who are also parents or carers are provided specific protection from discrimination under the Equal Opportunity Amendment (Family Responsibility) Act 2008. According to the act, employers are obliged to consider all employee requests for flexible working arrangements (e.g. job sharing, part time work, flexible working hours) and not unnecessarily refuse parents or carers flexible working hours.In NSW, the NSW Anti Discrimination Act also specifically details the rights of carers.

Techniques for maintaining a work-life balance

Be familiar with workplace legislation protecting parents from discrimination

Balancing work and parentingParents should familiarise themselves with Australian legislation giving parents rights to flexible working arrangements and employer responsibilities to workers with parental responsibilities (e.g. that employers must consider all requests for flexible working arrangements).Being familiar with such legislation may help ensure that they are not discriminated against in the workplace because they are parents.

Be willing to negotiate work arrangements with the employer

While Australian legislation mandates that employers must consider all requests for flexible working arrangements and workplace facilities (e.g. for breastfeeding), it is up to individual employees to negotiate their conditions with their employers. This may be difficult for some individuals. However, flexible work arrangements also have benefits for employers (e.g. reduced recruitment costs). Employees negotiating flexible work arrangements should also bear in mind that there are many different types of flexible working arrangements (e.g. work from home, job-sharing, flexible start and finish times) and some may be more or less suitable depending on the individual’s employment type.

Be familiar with and consider accessing government assistance

The Australian government provides a number of assistance schemes to working and non-working families, including the baby bonus scheme (a one off payment to the parents of newborn infants) and childcare rebates for low income families. Being familiar with the types of assistance available can help patients improve their work life balance, either by increasing their options for childcare, or providing additional income which may reduce their need to work.

Reduce stress

As stress from the workplace can exert an effect in the home and affect the family relationships, individuals may also benefit from making a conscious attempt to reduce stress, for example by identifying stressors in the workplace or by talking to someone about the things that are causing them stress.

Attempt to spend more quality time with family

Working parents should also consider the ways in which they can dedicate quality time to spending with family, for example by planning routines or rituals. Family routines may be as simple as eating dinner or washing the dishes together and are associated with better family relationships and increased marital satisfaction.

Job-seeking considerations

Characteristics of a job influence the likelihood of an individual being satisfied with their work-life balance. Job-seeking individuals should attempt to avoid jobs with poor working conditions including those which:

  • Have low job security;
  • Offer little flexibility;
  • Do not offer parenting leave;
  • Involve long working hours;
  • Involve long commuting;
  • Involve work at unusual hours, for example in the evening or on weekends;
  • Do not provide breastfeeding facilities at work (for women who plan to give birth).

Who to contact for help

Balancing work and parentingIndividuals who are having difficulty balancing work and life may benefit from talking to a health professional. General practitioners are able to assist patients by providing appropriate referrals, for example to support groups or health professionals including psychologists or psychotherapists.

Individuals who are having difficulty balancing work and life and feel they need to negotiate changes to their work environment with their employer may find assistance from one of the following organisations or individuals:

  • Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission: http://www.hreoc.gov.au/;
  • Fair Work Obudsman: http://www.fwo.gov.au/ or another relevant  government department;
  • Their union, if they are a member of a union;
  • The human resources manage or equal opportunity officer in their workplace;
  • A solicitor.

More information

Workplace health
For more information on health in the workplace, including office ergonomics, the effect of work on health, and maintaining a good work–life balance, see Workplace Health.
Parenting For more information on parenting, including child development milestones, work-life balance and tips for spending more time with family, see Parenting.




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