Too busy, too stressed, no time for the kids: a modern family's story

A disturbing new report finally proves what we've long feared: Britain's adults are working longer hours, to the detriment of their children
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The Independent Online

For father of three Paul Thomas, the formative years of his three children passed in a blur. Working all hours in retail management, including weekends, bank holidays and on Boxing Day, spending time with his children was a rarity.

But the Thomas family's story is increasingly the norm as millions of parents now work hours that conflict with the time when their children are at home.

Now disturbing research being published tomorrow confirms that family life as we used to know it no longer exists. The report, by the National Centre for Social Research on behalf of the Relationships Foundation, is based on a study of 11,000 people, the largest social survey yet undertaken in the UK. It says eight out of 10 working fathers and more than half of working mothers work unsocial hours, reducing the time they can spend with their children. In nearly nine out of 10 working families, at least one parent works unsocial hours. Yet the school week had remained the same. The result is many parents are at work when their children are at home, and at home when their children are at school.

Mothers working such hours lose around eight hours a week with their children, and fathers lose 10 and a half. Just 17 per cent of working parents have a nine-to-five, Monday to Friday job, with many working weekends.

Researchers found children in such families spend less time learning. In particular, parental working at weekends is associated with 8- to 10-year-olds spending less time reading and 14- to 18-year-olds spending less time on homework. Meanwhile, 11- to 13-year-olds whose parents work on a Saturday spend significantly more time alone.

Many parentssplit the childcare but end up sacrificing time together. Michael Clark, chief executive of the Relationships Foundation, said: "In many cases parents are under pressure to work weekends when they would rather be at home. Parents of school-age children should be guaranteed one weekend day off each week."

Campaigners argue that the right to request flexible working should be extended to all parents, and say they should have the right to request a limit to the amount of unsocial working hours.

The chief executive of Working Families, Sarah Jackson, warned: "For some families the time squeeze is hurting emotional and physical well-being, and stunting family development."

The Chartered Management Institute's 2006 Quality of Life Working survey of 10,000 managers also shows that family time is a problem, with 92 per cent regularly working over their contracted hours and more than half saying it damages relationships with partners or children. More than a quarter workabove the maximum of 48 hours a week recommended by the European Union's Work Time Directive, a ruling Britain has opted out of.

Cary Cooper, professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at Lancaster University, said: "I think that what ends up happening is people don't have enough personal time to spend with each other and that damages the relationships in families."

The TUC's general secretary, Brendan Barber, said: "Firms that have a healthy work/life balance culture are still very few and far between. It's still too easy for bosses to say 'no' to requests to work flexibly, and fathers can find it very hard convincing their employers that they should put in fewer hours a week in the interests of their children."

A DTI spokeswoman said: "We are committed to creating more choice for all parents so they can balance their work and family life.

"We are introducing a package of measures to help families, which includes: extending maternity pay to 39 weeks, with a goal to extending it to 52 weeks by the end of this parliament; giving fathers a new right to an additional period of paternity leave; and extending the right to request flexible working to carers of adults from April 2007."

In a speech at a working families conference last week, Tory leader David Cameron said: "We need a revolution in attitudes and culture, so that good intentions are turned into daily reality. That should mean that flexible working and high-quality, affordable childcare becomes the basic entitlement of every working family, rather than the random good fortune of a lucky few."

But for the Thomas family, such words offer little comfort. After years of hard work, Mr Thomas, 40, was able to secure a move to head office, where he had the luxury of being able to work a regular nine-to-five week, but he was made redundant earlier this year. Mr Thomas decided to change career and set up his own business selling hot tubs at a garden centre. Now he and his wife Caroline, 39, work seven days a week as they seek to establish their new venture.

The couple, who live in Liss, Hampshire, with their three children, Molly, 11, Martha, 9, and Jonah, 7, take the children to school and spend time as a family in the evenings, but Mr Thomas said: "The family unit is never together for a whole day. Either I'm with the kids or my wife is.

"We have replaced weekend time with having dinner together in the evening instead. I feel we're missing out as a family but it's a new business and, once everything is ticking over, then maybe we'll be able to spend some time together."