We’re all familiar with what sociologists call “the traditional family”: a straight, married couple, with a male breadwinner who works long hours to support his family, while the woman stays home, takes care of the domestic work, and rears the children. Feminists have long campaigned against the factors which ensure that this the only option – for both men and women. Now, it appears that male breadwinners aren’t too happy with it either.
New research has shown that male breadwinners in high-status jobs, such as managerial roles, are more likely to want to cut back their working hours than other men: even if it involves a drop in their salary.
All work and no play
Here, we use the term “male breadwinners” to describe men who earn the majority of a straight couple’s income. We were unable to include same sex couples in our analysis, because limitations in the data restricted our ability to do so.
Using data on about 4,000 men from 12 western European countries, we found that male breadwinners work longer hours than single men, men who are equal earners and men whose female partner is the breadwinner. Of course, this is partly because male breadwinners have a partner who can take care of most of the domestic work, which enables them to stay at work later or start earlier.
Male breadwinners are more likely to feel overworked than other men. We found that the extra responsibilities, which come with high-status roles, contribute to these feelings.
Our study discovered that around 58% of male breadwinners with children would like to work fewer hours, even if it meant taking a pay cut. A similar proportion of male breadwinners without children (57%) felt the same way. So spending too long at work is not just a concern for fathers who want to have more time with their children. It’s possible that reducing working hours is seen as a step in the process of having a family, which starts even before there are any children.
We found that concerns about work-life balance remained significant for those who felt overworked, even when we controlled for many other factors such as whether their firm offered performance pay, and how long they had been employed there.
The full story
Of course, part of the story here is that high-status male breadwinners are more comfortable expressing feelings of overwork, because their higher incomes mean they can afford to earn less. Other working men – single men, men who earn the same as their female partner and men whose female partner is the breadwinner – were less likely than male breadwinners to want to work fewer hours. Even so, a high proportion (for example, 40% of equal earning fathers) of these other groups still said they’d like to reduce the time they spent working.
A dozen Christmas workers
A dozen Christmas workers
1/12 Ana Araujo, 27, care worker at Sunrise Care Home, Chorleywood, Hertfordshire
“I’m the team leader of a group of carers. This will be the second year in a row that I am working on Christmas Day. I’ll be working two shifts, morning and afternoon. “It’s not really a problem for me to be working. Sure, I’d like to be with my family, but for some of the residents at the care home, the staff have become their family. Some residents have family who visit them on the day, but for others who are alone the carers are their family. “We’ll have Christmas lunch with the residents at 12.30pm and play games and sing songs. It’s a nice day to be at work.”
2/12 Mary Tucker, early sixties, tour guide for London Walks
“We realised there’s nothing for visitors to do in London on Christmas Day. People don’t understand that London just shuts. We get a lot of Brits as well as tourists. We have to put on five guides with 30 people per guide. People really get into the festive spirit, they appreciate we’ve given up our day – but it’s a lot of fun. “Usually I go to my mum’s and we have Christmas dinner after. I think we’ll maybe do a few presents on Christmas morning but the majority of festive activities we’ll save until the day after. It’s much more relaxing.”
3/12 Andrew McLeish, chef, Chapter One, Locksbottom, Kent
“I try not to work because I have a young family, but I find it’s good for staff morale if I’m there on the day. Christmas Day isn’t the most taxing of services; there’s a brigade of 10 in the kitchen and we’ll be preparing a three-course Christmas lunch for just short of 200 people. The key is to take the turkey out of the fridge a few hours before putting it in the oven and covering it in tin foil for the first hour of cooking. People often complain that they have overcooked their turkey and the best way to avoid this is to buy a probe to check the heat – the pop up buttons which supermarkets provide are inaccurate. “At 10.30am we all sit down together and have a Christmas lunch, with wine and crackers. We even play Secret Santa, but it is very short. “I’ll shoot off at 3pm though the kitchen staff will be here until 9pm. “Christmas has become very commercial and restaurants have to be open as business is tough all year round. In an ideal world everything would be closed.”
4/12 Father Ian Delinger, Chester University chaplain but aboard the cruise ship Braemar
“As in the parish, Christmas Day starts with 11.30pm Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. In 2011, the auditorium seated 1,000, and between 700 and 800 came. I was on stage with a passenger choir, full theatre lights and sound, and a giant floor-to-ceiling PowerPoint display of the service. “Christmas Day starts with Mass, again. I am told it will be a full house. I am not sure of the meal arrangements, but I am not fussed. For the rest of the cruise, I will be celebrating a Eucharist on Sunday and Morning Prayer on the other two days at sea. I have four sermons to write. “There is also the holiday aspect: you might find me sitting next to the pool in my dog collar and clerical shorts. “Most cruise chaplains are retired clergy. This is my third Christmas cruise. Originally from California, I came to England in 2001 and was subsequently ordained in the Church of England. With no parish responsibilities at Christmas, I found myself with a lonely time in a quiet and empty campus. It’s very expensive to travel home to the US, so that wasn’t feasible. Thanks to the cruise director and his enthusiastic team, the Christmas spirit is not lacking!”
5/12 John Lymburn, 56, airside operations officer, Edinburgh Airport
“Edinburgh Airport always does Christmas in a big way, whether it’s inviting school choirs into the terminal, or staff dressing up as Santa. I work airside and my colleagues don’t have as much contact with passengers on a daily basis. While quieter than normal, we’re still very much business as usual. “People are travelling for work, or visiting relations in other countries, so we see unusual items going through security, such as Christmas crackers and party poppers. Passengers may be asked to open wrapped presents if the X-ray picks up liquid of more than 100ml or sharp objects. “I’m working a 12-hour night shift this year. However, if I wasn’t working I would be spending it with my wife, my four children, their partners, two grandchildren and my mother. I’ll spend the day with the family before heading to work. I’m an ex-Royal Navy chef, so I take pride in preparing Christmas dinner for my family.”
6/12 Tina Rossiter, 53, secretary, Les Croupiers Running Club, Cardiff
“My husband and I marshall at the Cardiff parkrun first thing on Christmas Day. Last year, it had 200-plus runners, lots of atmosphere, fancy dress, mince pies, tea and coffee. It’s a lovely atmosphere. Then we’ll be off with a flask of homemade soup to Ogmore-by-Sea beach for a bracing walk across the rocks and through the surf; it’s fabulous. “Events like these are lovely community occasions, with a huge cross-section of the running community. For special occasions, like our parkrun anniversary, people bring cakes and it’s the same at Christmas.”
7/12 Louise Taylor, 40, midwife, North-west England
“This isn’t my first Christmas working: three years ago I worked a night shift on Christmas Eve. I finished at 8am on Christmas Day and helped to deliver three babies. “If nobody goes into labour I don’t have to work. Hopefully it will be quiet and I can have my Christmas dinner with my family. I have four children aged 15, 17, 19 and 21. They are quite used to me working at all hours and if I’m not home to make the dinner, my parents and partner will prepare something. I really enjoy my job – it’s a way of life more than a job. Most people don’t go through childbirth many times in their life and it’s a privilege to help families.”
8/12 Chris Berrow, 25, presenter, BBC Radio Cambridgeshire
“I’m going to present the 6am-9am show. I volunteered. I’m usually on air in the afternoon but it was so much fun last year I thought I’d do it again. “Listeners always request festive songs. Last year, I presented a segment of the show from Jesus College, Cambridge, where it has become a tradition to phone the Porter’s Lodge and sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Jesus. I also have an interview with a Christmas-tree grower on how to maintain your tree – apparently the trick is to feed it lemonade. “I’m not a huge fan of Christmas music, but I try to play songs with Christmassy words. I won’t see my family on the day and so I’m having a pre-Christmas meal and present-exchange with them the day before.”
9/12 Alex Pryor, 39, taxi driver, Barnet, north London
“This will be my second Christmas on the job. I volunteered to work because I am going away on Boxing Day to the Cotswolds with my family. “I’ll start at 5am and will be on the airport run, since there are quite a few people who travel. If I’m not driving to and from the airport it’ll be A-to-B runs for people who are going to restaurants for Christmas lunch. The roads tend to be quite busy. I’ve been working as a taxi driver for 18 years and it’s a hassle-free job, though I do get sick of traffic. “I’ll happily play Christmas music for customers, but I won’t be listening to anything Christmassy myself. I’ll finish work at noon and have Christmas lunch with my parents.”
10/12 Andy Davies, 48, security guard at Cardiff University and Samaritan volunteer
“To people of my generation, the Samaritans are synonymous with volunteering. I found they were very inclusive, accepting of all and very flexible and convenient. Over a six-week period I do five day shifts (each three hours) and one six-hour overnight shift. “I’ve never worked with the Samaritans before on Christmas Day. But I was in the Army for 22 years so I have worked over Christmas before. On operations in Bosnia or Northern Ireland you really had to work throughout the day, but if you were back in the UK it was a bit more relaxed and you could enjoy yourself. “The reason I’ve never worked on Christmas Day before is because the shifts have always been booked up. Every shift can be challenging, but over Christmas certain issues can be highlighted. “A lot of the people we talk to feel very alone. Every time the phone rings you feel tension. You don’t know who’s going to be on the other end of the line. I just take a deep breath and relax. “My usual routine is a good breakfast, definitely a nice fry-up, then later in the day I’ll head to the pub before dinner at a friend’s and then partying. This year my day will start much the same but I’ll go to bed at 4pm, get up at 10pm and head to the centre for 11.30pm to start my shift. “To anyone who’s feeling the stress at Christmas: you don’t have to struggle alone. We’re always there to listen and we’re available 24/7.” Samaritans: 08457 909090; www.samaritans.org
11/12 Stephen Perry, 38, Zookeeper, ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, Bedfordshire
“I mainly look after chimpanzees as well as the Northern Section which includes moose, bison, wolves and reindeers. I live on site and I’ll be working the afternoon shift on Christmas Day. I might treat the chimps to a mince pie as well as their usual fruit and vegetables seeing as it is Christmas after all. I’ve worked most Christmases since I’ve been here; I’m very lucky to do what I do. Whipsnade is a rather isolated and beautiful place and it’s even more peaceful on Christmas Day. If I wasn’t working on Christmas Day I’d be with my family who are three hours away in Chester but I love what I do, chimps are cracking animals and great fun.”
12/12 Claire Cotton, 44, Paramedic, Whitley Bay, Tyne & Wear
“This Christmas I’ll be working a 12 hour night shift on Christmas Day covering a large part of the North East. Over Christmas a lot of people are at home, enjoying eating and drinking, perhaps sometimes to excess. However many people do not get the opportunity for fun and games at Christmas. Most of what we deal with is genuinely ill patients and people overwhelmed by the festive season. In the past I’ve worked during Christmas Day and I would hardly see the family at all, this year should be better as I’ll get to have lunch with the family before my shift. My three children have been really understanding but it can be hard for them if they have to wait for presents.”
It’s understandable that male breadwinners are more keen than most to reduce their time at work. We know that both working long hours, and working longer than desired, are bad for your health and well being. It also means that you can feel that the job is preventing you from participating in family life and that you are too tired after work to enjoy things.
It’s also worth noting that male breadwinners do not hold more conservative attitudes to women’s participation in the workforce than other men in Europe. This stands in contrast to the findings of previous research in the USA.
Searching for solutions
Many firms tacitly endorse the status quo, by requiring long hours from their employees, without providing any options to reduce working hours for their higher status employees.
Some remedies to long working hours have been put forward, such as giving employees more autonomy at work. But many people who are managers, and responsible for other workers, already have the ability to decide on a daily basis how their work is controlled. The paradox is that when you have more control, you actually end up working longer hours. So having more autonomy at work does not necessarily prevent it from interfering with family life.
And although many companies pay lip-service to the principle of helping women, particularly mothers, to achieve a good work-life balance, many mothers leave work precisely because they are not given adequate support to continue. So, our findings support the case for businesses to recognise the importance of work-life balance as an issue which affects all of their employees; men and women alike.Reuse content