Inga Laß

Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research at the University of Melbourne

Many countries have seen profound changes in both the labour market and the home sphere over the past decades. Among them are rising female employment rates, increased involvement of fathers in parenting, and a greater blurring of the boundaries between work and leisure through electronic communication. These shifts have resulted in researchers paying increased attention to how workers balance the demands of the work sphere and other areas, especially the family sphere.

Through numerous previous studies we know that how people’s work and family lives fit together depends on both one’s job and family situation, as well as one’s personal characteristics. For example, in a recent report based on the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey – a nationally representative study of 17.000 Australians – I have shown that work-family conflict is higher for those who work long hours, for employees (compared to the self-employed) and for those who work outside the regular daytime schedule. Once we account for working hours, it is also higher for mothers than for fathers, reflecting women’s greater involvement in housework and care. Additionally, work-family conflict is higher for single parents and for those with several or with young children.

Yet, despite considerable research attention, some questions regarding the determinants of work-family conflict have so far remained unanswered. In particular, the role that the type of employment contract plays has received little attention.

Australia stands out in OECD comparisons as a country that has a very high share of temporary workers. In 2017, roughly one in three employees were employed either on a casual or fixed-term contract or through a temporary employment agency. Within the group of temporary workers, casual employees are by far the most frequent – accounting for around 22% of all employees.

Despite its pervasiveness, there is no clear unambiguous definition of casual work in Australia. However, the most prominent characteristic is the lack of any advance commitment – both by the employer and the worker – regarding the duration of employment and the number of days or hours to be worked. In other words, casual employees can be dismissed or have their hours varied at any time. But they also can, at least in theory, choose the shifts that suit them. Additionally, casual workers are usually not entitled to any form of paid leave (e.g., sick leave, annual leave or paid public holidays). In compensation, they are usually entitled to a pay loading, which today is 25% of the wage of a comparable permanent worker.

Theoretically, we would expect that the flexibility connected to casual jobs – workers can choose or cancel shifts according to their needs – reduces workers’ work-family conflict because it enables them to wrap work around housework, childcare and elder care. Similarly, the fact that most casual jobs are part-time frees up time for other commitments.

On the downside, casual jobs often come with high job insecurity – because workers can be sacked anytime, and their hours can be cut or their days varied. Job insecurity is a major stressor for workers, which can impair their role performance in the family. Also, the reduced access to paid leave means that casual workers lose earnings when they take time off for personal or family matters. And despite the pay loading, overall pay is usually relatively low in casual jobs. So it is not clear, theoretically, how casual jobs affect people’s levels of work-family conflict.

That is why I, together with my colleague Mark Wooden, am currently investigating this question empirically. We are using longitudinal data from the HILDA Survey for the period 2001 to 2017. The main advantage of the HILDA Survey is that it has been re-interviewing the same group of Australians every year since 2001, asking them about their employment and family situation. Thus, we can now investigate how people’s work-family conflict changes when they change their employment type.

Work-family conflict is measured on a scale from 1 (no conflict) to 7 (highest conflict), which is based on the average agreement with four different statements:
1) Because of the requirements of my job, I miss out on home or family activities that I would prefer to participate in;
2) Because of the requirements of my job, my family time is less enjoyable and more pressured;
3) Working leaves me with too little time or energy to be the kind of parent I want to be;
4) Working causes me to miss out on some of the rewarding aspects of being a parent.

Our sample is restricted to parents with children aged 17 or younger.

When we just look at the unconditional mean values, we see that parents, and especially mothers, on casual contracts report lower work-family conflict than parents on permanent contracts. Pooled across the 2001-2017 period, mothers in casual jobs have an average work-family conflict score of 3.2, compared to mothers on permanent contracts scoring 3.8. For fathers, average work-family conflict is 3.9 points if they are on casual contracts and 4.0 points if they are on permanent contracts.

But the picture changes when we move to multivariate panel regression analysis and account for worker, family and job characteristics (most importantly, working hours). Holding other characteristics constant, fathers on casual contracts have similar levels of work-family conflict than those on permanent contracts. For mothers, the negative association between casual work and work-family conflict persists in the regression analysis, but the remaining advantage is very small. This result tells us that it is often not the casual contract per se that reduces work-family conflict, but the greater likelihood that casual jobs involve part-time hours.
If, as our results suggest, not much is to be gained from casual work in terms of fit between work and family life, we may ask whether workers may not be better off overall in permanent part-time work. These positions offer both reduced working hours, providing extra time for family commitments, and the protections and benefits of a permanent contract. Policy approaches attempting to support workers with family responsibilities may therefore include fostering transitions from casual to permanent part-time positions. The 2018 decision of the Fair Work Commission – Australia’s national workplace relations tribunal – to allow some casual workers to request conversion to permanent employment is one step in this direction.
See full report based on the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey here