Are you being singled out?

BRIDGET JONES
Last updated 05:00 14/07/2013
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RICH LEGG

CHILD FREE: Why do childless workers have to pick up more of the burden than those with children?

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It's Friday, 2.30pm and a familiar battle line has been drawn. On one side, last minute emails and paperwork as the trenches are cleared for a war zone of another sort - the after school pick up, the ferrying between ballet and soccer and Brownies, dinner and homework and baths.

On the other side, all is still until the clock strikes five. Then the biggest battle for a child-free workeris getting to the pub before happy hour ends, right? The high-wire dance of balancing work and something called 'life' isn't easy for anyone.

We have long heard about or been one of those parents juggling work which pays the bills and that which doesn't. Meanwhile, the assumption has been that the childless massesget to do whatever they want, whenever they want. But the notion that working life is easier without kids is rubbished by new research from Massey University.

"It's not about kids or no kids. Everyone has multiple roles they are trying to balance. It might be work and sports or, if you're religious, your church - and that can be just as draining and hard to juggle as someone who has young kids," says Professor Jarrod Haar, who oversaw the study at the university's Albany campuson Auckland's North Shore.

The research compared the work/life balance of more than 1300 Kiwi parents and non-parents and the results, Haar says, were unexpected: 52 percentof parents are happy with the way they balance work, kids and everything else, while only 42 percent of people without children could say the same.

But more than that: parents reported less job burnout (37 percent compared to 48 percent of non-parents), less anxiety (43 percent versus 54 percent), lower levels of depression (39 percent compared to 50 percent) and above-average levels of both job satisfaction (61 percent against 43 percent) and life satisfaction (61 percent compared to 48 percent of non-parents).

Not everyone wants to, or can, have children. But, according to the research, while parents have apparently convinced employers they need the job flexibility to adjust their hours to watch a school play, it is the child-free who are losing the fight to live a well-rounded life. They are often expected to work rather than taking time to, say, look after an elderly parent, or get home to feed their cat at a reasonable hour, or attend an evening uni course meant to be a stepping stone to a better job/career/life. Or maybe just go to a weekly dance class, because that's what makes them happy.

"If there's a working couple with a child, why are their lives more important than a single person who wants go home and play online games until midnight,if that's what makes that person happy?" asks Haar. And that's the point: if workers are happy with the balance in their world - whether they are going home to three kids or three cake recipes they want to try - they will perform better at work and probably stay with an organisation longer.The reason parents have it all figured out, Haar says, is pretty simple. They are better at getting up from their desk at the end of the day because they have to.

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"I think part of it is being funnelled and forced into thinking, 'I have to be a little more regimented... no, I can't work late sorry, I have to pick up my kids.' It's easy to flag going to the gym and stay at your desk, but you can't decide not to pick the kids up from daycare. Maybe parents are just a little more skilled at achieving that balance because they have to be."

He says this as he fields text messages and phone calls from the 14-year-old son he shares custody of. Tonight is his night, but his boy is sick, which means making sure his child isn't feeling too miserable stuck at school until Haar can wrap things up here. Every second week Haar finishes work early on a Friday to spend time with his son. He makes a conscious effort to avoid appointments or meetings on those days, working harder during the week to ensure everything gets done. He has learnt to say no, because he has to.

"Maybe it is that person - a living, breathing, sick, texting-you person - but we [parents] have this innate part of our brain saying there has to be more to life than $650,000 median house prices in Auckland, working hard to pay off the mortgages."

Without meaning to, Haar has become a pretty good example of the parents he surveyed. Getting things in balance certainly comes down to routine and structure for Auckland mum-of-three Carol Pinker. With two kids who have already left home, the general manager of Weight Watchers New Zealand and her husband navigate between home and office responsibilities when it comes to their youngest child, a six-year-old.

"We want to be a bit more hands-on because she is the last one. And you do feel terrible when you miss something because you've let work get in the way. There are certainly those times where you feel like you are just sprinting through life. Then there are those times at the end when you feel on top of it; you're organised again and the plan's working. But there are times of organised chaos."

The key to the research, and to the idea of work/life balance, is perception rather than reality. Haar says there's no magic number of things that should be on your To Do list; instead, it's how you feel about doing those things and whether you feel you're doing them well. "You could have 100 things on and think, 'Woohoo, I'm really achieving here.' Or you could have twothings on and think, 'Oh, I can't handle this.' It's about your perceived ability to cope. If you're somehow managing to do it all to your satisfaction, then go for it. One person's exhaustion is another's exhilaration."

Haar is a big supporter of flexible work hours and the ability to work remotely, but believes the rules have to be fair for everybody. "Accommodating the needs of parents is a good thing, but you can be single and childless and still lead a busy, stressful life. Policies that focus solely on parents must make single employees feel discriminated against at times."

He thinks the workplace has become a "little bit obsessed" with parents, at the exclusion of everybody else, warning the perceived work/life balance can turn into a negative comparison if the question is, "Will you pick up that parent's work?" rather than, "Can you stay late?"

"If you ask almost any single person who is dating, there's all that extra time and energy spent trying to find somebody. And yet we would say, 'Oh, you don't have anything else.' 'No I don't, because you keep bloody making me work late.'

"But maybe the onus is on those people to speak up about it. Employers might find it easier to ask you [as a non-parent] to work late than someone with kids because, 'What does it mean if I ask Jarrod to stay here past 5pm? Oh, he'll have to organise babysitting.' So I make you work. Yes, you may have been planning dinner with friends and will have to re-organisewith six people, but it's not as immediately obvious."

Twenty-six-year-old Aucklander Jason (who doesn't want his last name used) says the expectation to work longer and harder is often implied rather than spelt out. While he's paid to work a standard 40-hour week in his office job, he usually clocks in between 50 and 60 hours, including many late nights and weekends alongside both his bosses and colleagues. It's all part of getting ahead in a time when job security isn't a certainty. But between his work, a relationship and day-to-day life, he often finds himself sacrificing free time for work time.

"I'd like to have more time to go to the gym. Or play tennis. I actually wouldn't mind learning a new language but it's not going to happen any time soon," he says. He works with parents who adjust their professional lives around their kids, often leaving early then working from home, and he could see himself doing this if he ever had children, but he's not jealous of those who have a jump start on him. After all, "They have to go home and deal with kids and things, and I just go home and look after myself."

Haar's study comes on the back of a recent Statistics New Zealand survey that showed 85 percent of workers were either 'satisfied' or 'very satisfied' in their main job. In that study, only six percent of those who worked 40 hours claimed dissatisfaction with their work-life balance. (That figure rose to 22 percent for those who worked at least 60 hours.)

While extra time at the coalface might sound likea good career move when many companies need to do more with less, Professor Haar urges parents and non-parents, employees and employers, to take note of the research. "Bad is destructive and positive is good and if you can achieve some kind of perception of balance, you will feel like you're winning."

- Sunday Magazine

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