Zoe Gray is a Project Officer with the Centre For Work + Life at the University of South Australia.
Australian workers struggle to juggle paid work with unpaid care responsibilities and current legislation does little to protect the most vulnerable in the workforce.
The current generation of Australians will stay in the paid workforce for longer than any before, thanks to the rising retirement age and uncertainty around the future of the aged pension.
More women are in the paid labour market than in previous generations. Finding affordable, quality childcare is a major issue for many.
At the same time as the cost of living is rising, the Federal Government is cutting spending on social services and payments.
These economic realities and societal factors are placing many Australian workers under significant pressure, particularly when it comes to juggling paid work and unpaid care responsibilities.
The modern 21st century workforce is diverse and includes many with caring responsibilities for children, elders or people with disabilities.
New research by the University of South Australia’s Centre for Work + Life reveals that most Australian workers aged over 45 are caring for an elderly person. Around 85 percent of women and 70 percent of men aged over 45 in the paid labour market are also undertaking this unpaid, and largely unrecognised, care work.
The latest Australian Work and Life Index (AWALI) survey interviewed more than 2,600 working Australians. The findings are published by the UniSA Centre for Work + Life: The Persistent Challenge: Living, Working and Caring in Australia in 2014.
The 2014 AWALI survey shows that combining paid work with caring for others – such as an elderly person or someone with a chronic illness or disability – has an equivalent negative effect on work-life outcomes as combining paid work with caring for children.
Dr Natalie Skinner, Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Work + Life and co-author of the report, says more needs to be done to support those workers.
‘Our research shows that workers combining paid work, childcare and another type of care have the highest work-life interference,’ Dr Skinner says.
The National Employment Standards in the Fair Work Act 2009 gave working Australians, who are parents of preschoolers or children aged under 18 with a disability, a Right to Request (RTR) flexible work arrangements.
Eligibility of the RTR was broadened in 2013 to include all carers; that is all parents or guardians of a school aged or younger child, as well as carers of those with a disability or someone aged 55 years or older.
‘That was an important step. However it lacks an effective mechanism to appeal an employer’s unreasonable refusal,’ Dr Skinner said.
Australia lags behind other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries in supporting working carers.
According to the OECD 2014 Better Life Index, Australia rates poorly on work-life balance, despite performing well on other lifestyle measures. We work longer hours and spend less time on personal care and leisure.
Other OECD countries have introduced stronger employee entitlements for requesting flexible working arrangements. In the UK the right to request flexibility extends to all employees regardless of their caring responsibilities.
We need to find more ways to support working Australians so that they can participate in paid work and meet their caring responsibilities, without the high cost on work-life balance and productivity.
Policies that encourage and protect workplace flexibility and help change attitudes towards working carers are an important first step.
Strengthening the RTR to include all workers, and introducing an appeal mechanism for employees, would be significant progress.