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Unformatted text preview: HAPPINESS UNDER PRESSURE: HOW DUAL-EARNER PARENTS
EXPERIENCE TIME IN AUSTRALIA
Peter Brown, Centre for Work, Organisation and Wellbeing Research, Griffith University,
Ester Cerin, Institute of Human Performance, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong,
Penny Warner-Smith, Research Centre for Gender, Health and Ageing, the University of
firstname.lastname@example.org Theme: Social transformation
Research domain: Time Use and Balance
Against a background of profound social, economic and organizational change in Australia,
workers’ ability to satisfactorily integrate paid work with personal life is essential for social
and economic well-being. If working parents are as stressed as national time use surveys
suggest, then how is time experienced by mothers and fathers who combine paid work with
caring responsibilities? Which activities are associated with the highest levels of positive and
negative affect? The empirical basis for examining these questions is provided through a
review of selected data from the ‘Work/Life Tensions’ project
Using the ‘Experience Sampling Method’, we report on data gathered via personal data
assistants (PDAs) from 173 working parents (6778 time use surveys) with a view to
providing ‘in-situ’ interpretive information on women’s and men’s activity patterns and their
subjective experience of time over a 7-day period. Data from a screening survey completed
by the same sample of working parents are also used to compare sample characteristics and
levels of ‘time crunch’. Despite high levels of time pressure the mood scores for parents
suggest they are relatively positive about their time use patterns with the highest levels of
positive affect being associated with socialising and recreation and leisure, and the highest
levels of negative affect with child care and paid work activities. By understanding better the experience and impacts of work-life tensions in time crunched
households, we aim to contribute to debates about the social and economic costs associated
with time pressure and stress and their impact on individual and organisational well-being.
Such an understanding is also crucial to understanding what makes us happy – and the need
to build more positive experiences into our lives as a way of maximising our wellbeing. Paper submitted for consideration by the program committee, 3rd International Conference
on Gross National Happiness, Bangkok, Thailand, 26 -28 November, 2007.
‘Anxiety about having too much to do and guilt about not using time according to the nagging
"shoulds" of family responsibilities are standard fare. Our everyday routines are hurried,
regimented, and largely beyond our control….Where once families were likely to spend the day
living and working together at home, the daily routine is now more akin to a ritual of dispersion:
babies to day-care, children to school, and most parents to a workplace away from home. At the
end of the day, families re-converge on the household, only to face more responsibilities: meal
preparation, homework, lessons, shopping and scheduling for the next day’.  Kerry Daly’s observations about family life in time crunched households would strike a chord
with many working parents where feelings of time pressure are exacerbated by tensions
associated with perceived work and family roles. For many there is also a sense that the pace
of life is accelerating, where there seems to be more and more things to do yet less time in
which to do them . Such private troubles are the source of a major public issue as
evidenced by increasing levels of social commentary, policy debate, academic research and
populist literature on the ‘problem’ of work/life balance and what to do about it   
      . Concerns about the relationship between working life and
private life focus inevitably on questions of time allocation.
Much of the research in this area is premised on the assumption that an individual’s ability to
balance work and life will be associated with both work and non-work demands, the
availability of time and other resources to manage such demands, and will vary across a range
of socio-demographic characteristics including gender and age or life stage. Previous studies
have also linked work/life tensions with factors such as work overload    ,
work-to-family interference   , family-to-work interference , caregiver strain
, and lack of personal leisure time   . Duxbury and Higgins  assert that an
employee’s ability to balance work and life demands is associated with a range of outcomes associated with work organisations, family units, individual wellbeing, and healthy
communities. Their and other research also suggest that work/life tensions may be moderated
by factors associated with ‘family-friendly’ workplaces, as well as strategies used by
individuals within households to juggle work and non-work demands   . Despite
such moderating forces, it has been reported in Australia (and other western countries) that
increasing numbers of people are experiencing time pressure and stress, and that time
pressure is reported most by working couples with dependent children .
If working parents are as stressed as national time use surveys suggest, then how is time
experienced by mothers and fathers who combine paid work with caring responsibilities?
What associations are there between time use, gender, life-course stage and mood state?
Which activities are associated with the highest levels of positive and negative affect? The
empirical basis for examining these questions will be provided through a review of selected
data from the ‘Work/Life Tensions’ project, a three-year study funded by the Australian
Research Council. The following sections describe the research aims and methods used to
gather data for the Work/Life Tensions project, and provide an overview of selected findings
from the study. THE WORK/LIFE TENSIONS PROJECT
The main aim of the Work/Life Tensions project is to examine the hypothesis that well-being
is positively related to reduced time pressure, more leisure and greater control over time
schedules. The study commenced in 2003 and the fieldwork was completed in 2006. Four
methods of data collection were used in the study: focus groups; the Experience Sampling
Method (ESM); structured interviews; and data linkage with the Australian Longitudinal
Study on Women’s Health [ALSWH]i . The initial sample for the ESM and interview phases
of the study was to comprise 100 dual-earner couples who live with their children, with 50
couples to be randomly selected via the ‘young’ (aged 26-31) and 50 couples from the ‘mid’
aged (aged 54-58) cohorts of the ALSWH study. Participants in the focus groups were
recruited via a snowball technique in selected work organisations in Queensland and New
Focus Groups: Ten focus groups were organised in urban and rural areas of NSW and
Queensland in 2003 & 2004, involving 54 working parents aged 26-55. The purpose of these focus groups was to gain a broad picture of women and men’s experience of work-life tension
and to identify specific strategies used to ‘manage’ work-life tension in dual-earner
households  .
Experience Sampling Method (ESM): The ESM was developed by Csikszentmihalyi in the
1970s to sample people's reactions to the use of their time as they are experiencing particular
events, rather than through recall afterwards . It involves a signalling device which cues
respondents to report and evaluate their activities (via a self-report questionnaire) at random
intervals (usually 7-10 times a day), over about a week . Our survey was provided to
participants via personal data assistants (PDAs) which were programmed to beep at random
times ten times a day for seven days . When prompted, the participants were asked to
enter information about what they were doing at the time, where they were, who was with
them at the time, and how they felt about what they were doing. The Experience Sampling
Method has particular strength for exploring how individuals experience time in daily
activities, thereby addressing a limitation of time diary research which measures amounts of
time spent on different types of activity  . The ESM and interview phases of the
study were completed with the ‘young’ couples in 2004 and the ‘mid-aged’ couples in 2005
Telephone interviews: Follow-up telephone interviews were conducted within one month of
participants returning their PDAs. The interview schedule was designed to allow us to
explore in more depth, the findings from the first two phases of the study related to
commonalities and differences between men and women’s subjective experience of time in
both age cohorts, the contexts in which time is experienced, as well as the strategies used to
‘manage’ time among working parents.
Linkage with ALSWA survey data: In the final phase of the project, individual data from the
ESM and interview surveys involving women only are being linked to existing data from the
ALSWA project, to explore associations between time use and a range of life circumstances,
health history, and indicators of physical and mental health and well-being.
For the purposes of this paper, we will report on ESM data gathered from the young and midaged cohorts with a view to providing 'in situ' interpretive information on women’s and men’s
activity patterns (what they do) and their subjective experience of time (experience of
positive and negative affect) over a 7-day period. Prior to commencing the ESM phase of the
study, each participant was asked to complete a self-complete questionnaire where sociodemographic information was collected alongside assessments of personal time pressure based on a ten-item ‘time crunch index’ used by Statistics Canada in their 1992 General
Social Survey on Time Use. We report on key characteristics of the sample first.
The initial sample for the ESM and interview phases of the study was to comprise 100 dualearner couples who live with their children, with 50 couples to be randomly selected via the
‘young’ and 50 couples from the ‘mid’ aged cohorts of the ALSWH study. The final sample
included 95 working parents aged 25 to 30, and 87 working parents aged 52-57. Selected
characteristics from the sample are summarised in table 1.
Work/life tensions project: Sample characteristics
Participants ‘Young’ cohort
95 ‘Mid-aged’ cohort
87 Gender Female 51; Male 44 Female 48; Male 39 Households Couples: 40 Couples: 39 Children living at home All households 56% of households 29.5% 54% 16.9% 17.3% 34.7% 16.1% 14.7% 6.9% 4.2% 5.7% 32.6%
43.7% Occupation categories
Tradespersons; advanced clerical &
Intermediate clerical, sales & service
workers; intermediate production &
Elementary sales & service workers;
laborers & related workers
• Severe (>7 items)
• Moderate (4-6 items)
• Minimal (<3 items) The ‘young’ cohort included 51 women and 44 men and the cohort sample included 40
couples. All of the parents had children living with them at home. In terms of occupational
categories, 29.5% of the young cohort were in managerial, administrative or professional
positions; 16.9% in trades, advanced clerical and service positions; 34.7% in intermediate clerical, sales & service worker or intermediate production & transport worker positions;
14.7% in elementary sales and service worker or laboring positions; and 4.2% in other
positions. The ‘mid-aged’ cohort included 48 women and 39 men and the sample included 39
couples. 56% of mid-aged parents had children still living with them at home, with others
having varying degrees of contact with children who had left home. In terms of occupational
categories, 54% of the young cohort were in managerial, administrative or professional
positions; 17.3% in trades, advanced clerical and service positions; 16.1% in intermediate
clerical, sales & service worker or intermediate production & transport worker positions;
6.9% in elementary sales and service worker or laboring positions; and 5.7% in other
The table also includes data on perceived time pressure among the sample using the 10-item
‘time crunch’ index which was originally developed by John Robinson (University of
Maryland) and then adapted for use by Statistics Canada in their 1992 General Social Survey
on Time Use . As we have reported elsewhere , responses to the individual items in
the ‘time crunch’ index pointed to similarities and some differences between women and men
at different stages of life. However, the main use of the index is to categorise individuals
according to levels of perceived stress. Adapting protocols used by Statistics Canada in the
1992 General Social Survey on Time Use, high levels of stress are defined as a positive
response to 7 or more of the questions on time perception, moderate levels of stress are
defined as a positive response to 4 to 6 items, and minimum levels of stress are defined as
positive response to 3 or less statements in the time crunch index (see table 1). Using these
measures, 32.6% of young parents would be classified as severely time pressured, and a
further 41.1% moderately time pressured. While a greater proportion of women (37.3%) in
the young cohort were severely time pressured when compared with 27.3% of men the
difference between gender categories is not significant statistically. When comparing data
between age cohorts, female and male parents from the mid aged cohort are significantly less
time crunched than parents from the young cohort (χ2 11.9, df 2, P < .01), although more than
56% could still be regarded as moderately to severely time pressured.
If working parents are as time-pressured as these data suggest, then it is important to
understand the context for time use in terms of what people do and how they feel about it.
How do working parents spend their time?
Data from the ESM phase of the study provide a snapshot of the daily routines of respondents
over 7 consecutive days where, on average, 34 time use reports were provided by each respondent over the course of the week. When cued, respondents opened up a survey form
on a PDA which asked them to indicate how they were feeling when they were signalled, to
indicate where they were and who they were with, as well as indicate what they were doing at
the time. Respondents had the opportunity to list up to three activities that were being
undertaken at the time of the signal. Activities were then coded manually by the research
team using categories adopted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in National Time Use
Surveys conducted in 1992 and 1997  . Individual activities were allocated to one of
nine activity categories and one of four activity types using the framework used by the
Australian Bureau of Statistics (see Table 2).
Framework used to define categories of time use
Broad types of time use Main activity categories Necessary time
Activities which are performed 1. Personal care activities
Sleeping, personal hygiene, health care, eating/drinking
for personal survival (e.g.
sleeping, eating and personal
Activities such as paid work and 2. Employment activities
regular education, where there Main job, other jobs, unpaid work in family business or farm, work breaks.
3. Education activities
are explicit contracts which
Attendance at educational courses, homework/study/research, breaks at place
control the periods of time in
which activities are performed of education.
Activities to which a person has 4. Domestic activities
committed him/herself because of Food & drink preparation and cleaning up, laundry and clothes care, other
housework, grounds/animal care, home maintenance, household management.
previous social or community
interactions, such as setting up a 5.Child care activities
Care of children, playing/reading/talking with child, visiting child care
household or performing
voluntary work (E.g. housework, establishment.
child care, shopping or provision 6. Purchasing activities
Purchasing goods and services, window shopping.
of help to others).
7. Voluntary work & care activities
Caring for adults, helping others/doing favors, unpaid voluntary work.
The amount of time left when the 8. Social & community interaction
previous three types of time have Visiting entertainment and cultural venues, attendance at sports events,
been taken out of a person’s day. religious activities and ceremonies, community participation.
9. Recreation and leisure
Sport and outdoor activities, exercise, holiday travel & driving for pleasure,
games/hobbies and arts/crafts, gambling, computer games, reading, AV
media, attendance at recreational courses. What do working parents do?
In the majority of cases (81%) respondents reported doing one main activity, with 16% of
respondents reporting two activities and 3% of respondents reporting three activities when
signalled. Table 3 summarises the proportion of respondents who reported their involvement
in different types of activity by age cohort and gender by main activity only.
Proportion of sample who undertook different types of activity (%) by age cohort
and gender (main activity)
Recreation & leisure Female
20.4 The data show variations in time use patterns between age cohorts and genders. For example,
in addition to personal care (17.1%) the greatest proportions of time spent by ‘young’ parents
were on ‘paid’ (22%) and ‘unpaid’ work including domestic (18.1%) and childcare (15.5%)
activities, as well as 20% of time in ‘free’ time activities including socialising, recreation and
leisure. In contrast, ‘mid-aged’ parents spent more of their time in paid work (29.1%) and
‘free time’ activities (24.8%) and less time in child care (1.1%). The difference here is
largely due to ‘mid-aged’ women spending considerably less time on ‘unpaid’ work activities
including domestic, childcare, purchasing and voluntary work (26% from 46.2%) and more
time in paid employment (28.4% from 14.7%) when compared to their counterparts in the
‘young’ cohort. This difference is consistent with broader trends where working mothers tend
to return to the labour market as children get older and become more independent. The pattern for fathers is less distinct, with ‘mid-aged’ men spending more time in domestic work
and ‘free’ time activities (increases of 8.4% and 3.1% respectively) and proportionally less
time in paid employment (a decrease of 4.6%) when compared with males in the ‘young’
How do parents feel about time?
Having explored temporals contexts for time use activities, a section of the time survey form
asked respondents to indicate how they were feeling when they were beeped. 15 affective
states were listed on the survey form and respondents were asked to indicate how they were
feeling in relation to each item on a 5-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (not at all) to 5 (very
much). Six items related to positive affective states including feeling ‘interested’, ‘incontrol’, ‘enthusiastic’, ‘excited’, ‘happy’ and ‘calm’. Nine items related to negative
affective states including feeling ‘worried’, ‘sad’, ‘irritated’, ‘frustrated’, ‘bored’, ‘angry’,
‘guilty’, ‘stressed’ and ‘tired’.
Table 6 provides a summary of mean scores on positive and negative affect items, by age
cohort and gender.
Mean affective states during the study
2.10*** All responses on a scale from 1 (not at all) to 5 (very much)
*** P < .001; ** P < .01; * P < .05 Mean scores for all positive affect items were higher for mid aged parents (irrespective of
gender) and lower for all negative affect items compared with parents in the young cohort.
The between-cohort differences in average ratings on the items ‘interest’, ‘in control’,
‘enthusiastic’, ‘irritated’, ‘frustrated’, ‘bored’, ‘angry’, ‘stressed’ and ‘tired’ were statistically
significant. Items relating to degrees of ‘happiness’, ‘control’ and ‘calmness’ were relatively
high for women and men in both age cohorts. Conversely mean scores for items relating to
feelings of ‘sadness’, ‘anger ’ and ‘guilt’ were relatively low for all respondents. While
parents in both age cohorts may be time pressured, their mood scores suggest that they are
relatively positive about their time use patterns, and this is particularly the case for mid-aged
parents. As we have reported elsewhere, this association could be due, in part, to differences
in the occupational profile of young and mid aged parents where a greater proportion of midaged parents (54%) work in managerial and professional positions compared to 29.5% of
young parents, and the tendency for professionals to have more autonomy and control in their
jobs as well as more disposable income than workers employed in other occupational
categories . Greater levels of control and income may also enable workers to better cope
with time pressures .
In terms of gender, although men scored higher on all positive affect items except one, these
differences were not statistically significant. Surprisingly, mid aged men also scored higher
than mid-aged women on all negative affect items except the item relating to tiredness.
However, only differences on the items ‘irritated’ and ‘frustrated’ were statistically
significant. While men from the young cohort scored higher on five negative affect items
(‘worried’, ‘sad’, ‘irritated’, ‘bored’ and ‘angry’) women scored higher on the other four
items. Differences in sadness and boredom were statistically significant.
While the analysis thus far has reported on mean affective states and their association with
gender and life-course stage, to what extent is mood associated with different types of
activity? The 6 items relating to positive affectivity were recoded to reflect a single score for
positive affect (PA). The 9 items relating to negative affectivity were also recoded to reflect
one score for negative affect (NA). Mean scores for PA and NA were then calculated for each
of the nine types of activity and are shown in figures 1 and 2. The data indicate that the
activities associated with the highest levels of positive affect were socialising and community
interaction, voluntary work and care activities, education, and recreation and leisure.
However, it should be noted that there was considerable variation in PA ratings for voluntary work and care activities and education as indicated by the confidence intervals (CI). This
could be due to the different types of activity included in each activity category as well as the
nature of demands within activity categories. For example, it is likely that a person who is
doing voluntary work because they want to, will feel more positive about what they are doing
than a person who feels compelled to help an elderly parent with dementia. It is also likely
that a person who is under pressure to complete an assignment or to complete a training
course because they feel they have to in order to progress in their career, may feel less
positive than a person who is undertaking an educational program for self development
purposes and under no pressure. Such variations point to a potential limitation in time use
research based on fixed categories of time use, and also highlights the complexities of mood
states as being linked to motivation and perceived freedom of choice, among other things.
That said, the high levels of PA (and relatively low levels of variation) associated with time
spent in socialising and community interaction as well as recreation and leisure – sheds some
light on the activities that are most closely linked to positive mood states.
Mean positive affect by type of activity Figure 2, depicts mean scores for negative affect by type of activity. Consistent with figure 1,
socialising and community interaction and recreation and leisure are associated with the
lowest mean scores for negative affect when compared with other activity categories. In
contrast, child care and employment are associated with the highest mean scores for negative
affect although the average scores here are relatively low.
Mean negative affect by type of activity On balance then it would appear that activities associated with socialising and recreation and
leisure are linked to higher levels of positive affect and lower levels of negative affect when
compared to other types of time use. These findings support research conducted in the UK
which links leisure activities with life satisfaction and argues for government intervention to boost life satisfaction by encouraging a more leisured work/life balance . The data also
support the need for policy interventions that seek to regulate hours and enhance conditions
of work as well as promote access to affordable and quality childcare arrangements. Such
assistance might help to reduce work/family tensions that are evident in how working parents
feel about paid and family ‘work’. WORK/LIFE BALANCE – QUO VADIS?
In summary, while the average amount of free time may have increased in Australia, life for
many Australians is characterised by high levels of time pressure and stress. This is
particularly the case for young working couples with dependent children, where the bulk of
time is either spent in ‘contracted’ activities (e.g. paid work) or in ‘committed’ activities such
as childminding and domestic work. These pressures seem to recede for mid-aged parents
who have fewer children to care for and increased amounts of leisure time at their disposal. It
is also likely that older parents are employed in positions where they have more autonomy
and control in their jobs, as well as higher levels of disposable income to better ‘manage’
different domains of life. The struggle for work/life balance can be conceptualized as the
desire to balance work, family and leisure in ways that provide reasonable opportunities for
individuals to participate in each of these life domains. In turn, wellbeing is increasingly
conceptualized in terms of the satisfactory integration of work and family life .
A key issue of the new millennium is how to give individuals greater control of their time.
This issue poses challenges to households, workplaces, and government, and is important
given the reported associations between balanced lifestyles, leisure and wellbeing. Work/life
balance is also important to unions and employers in terms of outcomes associated with
employee welfare, job satisfaction and increased productivity. If a goal of public policy is to
improve quality of life in Australia, then research is needed to understand variations in time
use across different life domains, and how the time use mix changes over the life-course.
Such research is necessary as a basis for determining what policy responses are needed to
allow individuals greater freedom of choice in how time is used across different life domains,
while at the same time ensuring that arrangements are in place to support particular lifestyle
choices at different stages of family formation. By understanding better the experience and
impacts of work-life tensions in time crunched households, we aim to contribute to national
and international debates about the social and economic costs associated with time pressure
and stress and their impact on individual and organisational well-being, as well as help
formulate personal and public responses to social change. Such an understanding is also crucial to understanding what makes us happy – and the need to build more positive
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We wish to thank:
♦ The busy parents who provided the data for the study.
♦ The Australian Research Council for funding the ‘Work/Life Tensions’ project.
♦ The Australian Commonwealth Government Department of Health and Ageing for funding the Australian
Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health.
♦ Leanne Fray, Robyn Synnott and Jenny Helman who provided research assistance to the project.
i The Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health was established with the broad aim to examine factors
influencing the health of women in Australia and their use of health services. The study commenced in 1996
with 3 cohorts of women of young (18-23), mid (45-50) and older (70-75) age – and involved around 40,000
Australians. The sample was randomly selected and is broadly representative of the national population in these
same age groups. Data on the main study were planned every 3 years for 20 years – following the baseline
survey that was undertaken in 1996. The main study has 5 key themes, including a thematic area focused on
examining issues relating to time use and social roles . Within this theme, the baseline and subsequent
surveys have included questions about occupation, hours in paid and unpaid work, satisfaction with time spent
in various activities (including leisure), the extent to which women feel time pressured or have time on their
hands, as well as questions providing measures of physical and mental health. For example, ALSWH survey
data of relevance to time use, time tensions and health have been explored in terms of paid work , family
care-giving , social roles , and leisure   and paint a picture of young and mid-aged women who,
as a result of their busy, crowded lives report high levels of time pressure and stress .
While the ALSWH data set provides a rich source of quantitative data on women’s time use and wellbeing
across the life-course, such data are limited in their capacity to examine how women and men experience time.
These limitations were addressed in the Work/Life Tension study which seeks to achieve a broad but detailed
perspective on women’s and men’s experience of work-life tension in dual-earner families. ...
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- Fall '08
- The Land