Public Policy Issues

Work and Family Policies and Practices

This article, which examines work and family policies and practices affecting fathers, is a chapter in FIRA's  Inventory of Policies and Policy Areas Influencing Father Involvement.


An area of increasing interest among researchers and policy makers in recent years is the changing role of fathers and the explicit desire to support father involvement as a way to enhance children's health and well-being. Although scholarly interest in fatherhood emerged in the early 1970s and 80s, the bulk of studies and policy work on fatherhood is very recent - much of it dating from the mid-1990s onwards.

This article is a chapter in the recently released Inventory of Policies and Policy Areas Influencing Father Involvement which is a collaborative document which has benefited from the ideas and suggestions of others. It is supported by funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC - CURA). For a full copy of this document see our home page.

Work and Family Policies and Practices. by. Donna S. Lero

Specific Issues and Policies

The reconciliation (or harmonization) of paid work and family responsibilities is a salient and complex matter for individuals, families, and businesses. It is also an important focus of public policy as nations are recognizing the complex ways that families and labour markets have changed, and the challenges that lie ahead as governments contemplate the effects of low fertility rates and high rates of population aging (Hunsley, 2006). While the European Union has developed a wide variety of policy initiatives including parental and paternity leave, publicly funded child care, and a number of options that provide individuals and companies with more flexible part-time and “time banking” schemes (European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, 2002), the Anglo-American countries (Canada, the U.S. Australia and New Zealand) are recent newcomers to this arena. (As described later, within Canada, Québec has adopted several of the policies that are more typical of EU countries.)

Each country’s policies reflect its history, culture, approach to state-market-family relations, commitment to gender equality, and capacities for national or sector-wide policy implementation. While promoting women’s labour force attachment has been an explicit policy goal in many industrialized countries, a more recent focus of attention is on enhancing children’s development and reducing work-family stress among parents. These goals are also compatible with initiatives designed to support greater father involvement in children’s lives — initiatives that, to date, are most often articulated in the expansion of paternity leave policies (Deven & Moss, 2002).

It should be noted that the specific ways individual fathers and mothers negotiate and resolve the challenges of “interweaving” work and parenthood reflect many factors operating on multiple levels. Individual and couple level factors (values, attitudes, gender role beliefs, resources, priorities), situational factors (the nature of jobs and changing family circumstances), and workplace factors (including work demands, workplace policies and supports, and workplace culture) all operate within the broader social and cultural context that includes public policies and social norms. An understanding of work-family integration involves considering each of these domains and appreciating how public policies, workplace practices, and the availability of community supports affect individual fathers’ and mothers’ decisions and opportunities. As Saunders and Maxwell (2003) have noted, policy initiatives in this and other areas must also reflect the realities of a changing labour market that is resulting in a growing proportion of precarious workers who lack income security, access to employment-related benefits and social protection; and in increasing competitive pressures that are resulting in an intensification of work for many — circumstances that appear to be antithetical to work-life balance.

Significance and Potential Influence on Fathers

Time use studies in Canada and the U.S. suggest that while employed mothers still perform the majority of housework and child care, fathers have become more involved in child care over time and many are increasingly interested in being more involved in their children’s lives (Russell & Hwang, 2004). American research suggests that men are more likely to be more involved with their children if they are younger, are better educated, have positive attitudes about women’s involvement in the work force, and spend fewer hours in paid work. These men, who increasingly see time with their children as precious, are often those who are acutely aware of the time pressures on both the work and family side. In fact, 1998 time use studies in Canada suggest that both mothers and fathers of young children experience considerable degrees of time stress or time crunch and that fathers are “acutely aware of their desire to spend more time with their children” (Daly, 1996). New fathers are most likely to feel pulled in both directions. They typically want to spend more time with their newborn and supporting their partner, and also feel more responsible for being a good provider, especially if their partner takes extended leave or decides not to continue in the work force (see Section G: New Fathers).

The research on how fathers’ work involvement and work experiences affect father involvement suggests several different ways to view the relationship. On the one hand, fathers’ work involvement is an important way of providing for their children. Christianson & Palkovitz (2001) underscore the fact that fathers see providing as an important means to secure their child’s immediate and long-term future and that it should not be seen as an alternative to, but as a form of father involvement. At the same time, extensive involvement in work (long hours and psychological investment) can clearly compete with time spent with children, and there is considerable research that indicates that long work hours is associated with both less time with children and with fathers’ feelings that they lack sufficient time with their children or are time squeezed.

Russell and Hwang (2004) have also noted that the workplace can be an enabler or a barrier to father’s involvement with their children and that the issues involved in analyzing how and which features of fathers’ work affect their experiences and opportunities is a complex task. In effect, they suggest that the workplace (including all facets of work demands and work culture) has the potential to influence fathers’ physical and emotional well-being in ways that would be expected to affect not only fathers’ physical availability, but also the qualitative or affective nature of their involvement with their children. This view has been confirmed by research on how fathers respond to particularly stressful work days by Repetti (1994), who found that in such circumstances fathers tend to withdraw from their children and be psychologically absent. More recent research by Crouter, Bumpas, Head& McHale (2001) found that fathers of adolescents who report high levels of work involvement and work overload are more likely to have distant relationships with their adolescent children.

Several studies suggest that one of the major factors contributing to role overload and work-family interference is fathers’ long hours, which may be extended by paid or unpaid overtime including supplementary work at home. The view that long work hours are detrimental to father involvement is shared across a number of studies. However, at least one study suggests that it is not the number of hours per se that affects fathers’ experiences of work-family conflict, as much as the degree of decision-making latitude fathers have regarding the schedule of work and work demands. Russell and Hwang’s (2004) overview confirms that no simple formula or equation is likely to explain the impact of workplace factors on fathers’ well-being and level of involvement with their children; however, they also affirm the primacy of workplace culture as a central influence in enabling or supporting paternal involvement in their children’s lives.

Workplace culture provides “the shared assumptions, values and beliefs” that pervade the workplace and define a “correct way of thinking or acting”. Aspects of the workplace culture that are important for influencing fathers’ taking time to be with their children and the centrality of their role as involved dads include the extent to which the culture supports men using policies such as parental leave or flex hours, the reactions and views of senior management and their behaviour as models, the extent to which workgroups are flexible and supportive, and the unwritten rules, rewards and consequences that relate to performance expectations, including long hours, face time and putting work before family. These authors note that many organizations that do have “family-friendly” policies and practices actually remain fairly gendered in their expectation that such programs are mostly for mothers or for individual employees at the discretion of the manager. Lewis and Haas (2005) have also noted that fathers often feel less entitled to use parental leave and other family-friendly options, even when they are provided as a matter of public policy.

This last point underscores the relative importance of public policies, workplace culture, the availability of flexible work options, and fathers’ own views and gender expectations. Haas and Hwang (2002) and Seward et al (2002) have reviewed the extent to which fathers participate in paternity and parental leave options in Sweden, a country that provides non-transferable paternity leave at a high replacement rate, as well as “daddy days” that can be used when children are ill or there are school or social events, and has campaigned vigorously to support fathers’ involvement with their children as one component of gender equity. Seward found that Swedish fathers selectively take advantage of leave and flexibility programs. Although the majority of fathers of children born in the 1990s (approximately 51-55%) took some paternity leave after their children were born, fathers continue to use only a small proportion of the days allocated to them. They are more likely to use temporary or occasional leave than regular parental leave. In Sweden, the U.S., and Canada fathers often take some time after the birth of a child, typically a week or two, but often as vacation days or sick leave and sometimes using time set aside from overtime. This practice enables them to use fully paid days and avoid visibly declaring themselves as taking parental leave. Swedish, American and Canadian fathers report that their reluctance to take parental leave is based on their desire to avoid income loss, and in the case of Canadian and Swedish fathers, a desire not to reduce their wife’s period of leave. These conditions perpetuate mothers being primary leave takers and employers seeing “family friendly” work arrangements as being primarily for women (Singley & Hynes, 2005). Although Canadian data indicates that the number of fathers claiming parental benefits has increased from 3% to 11% of beneficiaries in recent years, the majority of fathers still do not take parental leave (Government of Canada, 2005). While promoting paternity leave or shared parental leave thus seems like an important and laudable policy objective, the research suggests that attention to the mechanics of the policy, including replacement rates, and the broader influence of gender expectations at work and at home are salient determinants of fathers’ behaviour. Indeed, Haas and Hwang concluded that individual and family factors had an even stronger impact on the leave-taking behaviour of fathers than organizational culture, although the latter was also significant in affecting fathers’ take up of leave and flex options to spend time with their young children.

In summary, the current literature suggests that more fathers, particularly younger, more highly educated fathers, are interested in at least partially redefining traditional roles and expectations to ensure that they have a greater direct role in their children’s lives. Gendered work cultures and societal expectations, and inertia in addressing the requirements for gender equality, however, provide formidable challenges to social change and tend to perpetuate mothers and fathers adopting a variety of private solutions (sometimes including creative time-shifting ) to cocreate more generative options for shared parenting. Public policies, organizational factors, supports for fathers, and changing social attitudes all have a role to play in influencing fathers’ motivation, opportunities, and willingness to challenge conditions that might otherwise limit greater parental involvement in children’s lives.

Gaps, Critical Questions and Concerns

It is evident that Canadian policy makers are giving serious attention to a variety of options that might address the needs of a workforce with significant caregiving demands. Current discussions; however, do not indicate that there is clear consensus on what options to choose or how to implement them. On-going research on the adequacy of current policies (parental leave, compassionate care leave) can suggest improvements that would meet various objectives, including creating conditions that would entitle fathers and mothers to more flexible leave and time banking options. Other countries’ experiences are also instructive in suggesting ways to enable employees and employers to better accommodate the needs and desires of workers with family responsibilities (Todd, 2004). However, it is also apparent that those countries that have provided the greatest leadership in facilitating work-life balance for mothers and fathers (e.g., Sweden and Norway) do so within a broader context that supports gender equality and family well-being and invests in publicly funded child care services.

In Canada there are additional challenges that relate to the difficulty of forging national social policies in a confederation in which many labour and social policies fall within the jurisdiction of provincial and territorial governments. There is also reluctance to impose regulations on business and increase labour costs. A particularly problematic issue is how to ensure social protections and income security for the growing number of individuals outside of the core labour force who have temporary or short-term employment or are self-employed. An additional critical gap that is particularly visible is the needs and concerns of employees and employers in small businesses, which play a dominant role in the Canadian landscape.

Key References

Christiansen, S.L. & Palkovitz, R. (2001). Why the “good provider” role still matters: Providing as a form of paternal involvement. Journal of Family Issues, 22, 84-106.
Crouter, A.C., Bumpas, M.E., Head, M.R. & McHale, S.M. (2001). Implications of overwork and overload for the quality of men’s family relationships. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 63, 404-417.
Daly, K. (1996). Spending time with the kids: Meanings of family time for fathers. Family Relations, 45, 4: 446-477.
Deinhart, A. & Daly, K. (1997). Men and women cocreating father involvement in a nongenerative culture. In A.J. Hawkins & D.C. Dollahite (Eds.), Generative Fathering: Beyond Deficit Perspectives. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Deven, F. & Moss, P. (2002). Leave arrangements for parents: Overview and future outlook. Community, Work and Family, 5, 237-256.
Duxbury, L. & Higgins, C. (2005) Report 4: Who is at risk? Predictors of work-life conflict. Ottawa: Public Health Agency of Canada.
European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. (2002). Reconciliation of work and family life and collective bargaining: An analysis of EIRO articles. Available at
Government of Canada. (2004). Employment Insurance Monitoring and Assessment Report 2004.
Haas, L., Allard, K. & Hwang, P. (2002). The impact of organizational culture on men’s use of parental leave in Sweden. Community, Work and Family, 5, 319-342.
Human Resources and Social Development Canada and the Labour Program. (2006). Work-life Balance in Canadian Workplaces website. Accessed on March 27, 2006 at
Hunsley, T. (2006). Work-life balance in an aging population. Horizons, 8 (3), 3-13.
Lewis, S. & Haas, L. (2005). Work-life integration and social policy: A social justice theory and gender equity approach to work and family. In E.E. Kossek & S.J. Lambert (Eds.), Work and Life Integration: Organizational, Cultural and Individual Perspectives, pp. 349-374. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.
Repetti, R.L. (1994). Short-term and long-term processes linking job stressors to father-child interaction. Social Development, 3, 1-15.
Russell, G. & Hwang, C.P. (2004). “The impact of workplace practices on father involvement.” In Michael E. Lamb (Ed.). The Role of the Father in Child Development, 4th edition. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Québec Government. Québec Parental Insurance Plan. Available at
Saunders, R. & Maxwell, J. (2003). Changing labour markets: Key challenges facing Canada. Ottawa: Canadian Policy Research Networks Inc. Available at
Seward, R.R. Yeatts, E.E. & Zottarelli, L.K. Parental leave and father involvement in child care: Sweden and the United States. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 33, 387-399.
Singley, S.G. & Hynes, K. (2005). Transitions to parenthood: work-family policies, gender, and the couple context. Gender & Society, 19, 376-397.
Todd, S. (2004). Improving work-life balance -- What are other countries doing? Ottawa: Labour Program, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada.