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2000 Releases

Study Finds Work Interruptions to Care for Family Endemic; Lack of Paid Leave and Parents' Night Work Linked to School Children's Lower Test Scores

For immediate release: November 15, 2000

Boston, MA--Quantifying for the first time how much family caregiving interrupts the work lives of American parents, S. Jody Heymann from the Harvard School of Public Health has found that standard work schedules and family leave policies fail working families, impede job performance, particularly by women, and impair the educational success of children. 

In her new book, "The Widening Gap: Why American Working Families are in Jeopardy and What Can be Done About It," (Basic Books) Heymann, professor of health and social behavior at HSPH, analyzed survey data to describe the "national caregiving burden" and has exposed the growing gap between demands on parents and resources provided by government and employers.

Asking employees to keep a diary of interruptions in the work week to meet family needs, Heymann found an extraordinary commitment by working parents. In the interview week, 30 percent of respondents had to cut back at least one day to meet the needs of family members, 12 percent cut back on two days and five percent three or more days. Working women were found to carry a disproportionately large load of caregiving in families while receiving less help at home and being hemmed in by far less sick leave time or work flexibility than men.

"Work schedules are based on the assumption that employees will contribute in an uninterrupted way," writes Heymann, "but the demands placed on individuals by family and friends are neither predictable nor confined to non-working periods. Until now, no one has known how common it is for working Americans to need to interrupt their work schedules to care for a child, grandchild, niece, nephew, parent, aunt or uncle. Employees have learned to keep quiet about their family needs."

Examining children's educational achievement, Heymann found that parents whose children had reading and math test scores in the bottom quartile were more likely to lack paid vacation leave, sick leave and work flexibility. Parents’night shifts posed special risks for children's poor school performance, even when statistical methods were used to control for differences in family income, parental education and marital status.

"The overwhelming majority of children in this country are raised in households in which every parent works at a wage or salary job," writes Heymann. "Leave from work to care for their children's health or to address critical educational issues is unavailable to tens of millions of Americans."

Working conditions were most inflexible for poor and middle-income employees, Heymann found, while these families were more likely to suffer sicknesses and have more chronic conditions than upper-income adults and children.

The book contains these specific findings:

  1. Employees' children, including adult children, accounted for more cutbacks in work than any other group but still only 42 percent. Fifteen percent of cutbacks were taken to care for parents, 12 percent for spouses or partners, seven percent for grandchildren and 24 percent for other family members
  2. Eight out of ten employed mothers and seven out of ten working women caring for their parents said they do far more of the household chores than their spouse or partner. Surveyed men agreed with this assessment.
  3. Lower and middle-income working adults spend substantially more time caring for elderly parents and parents-in-law: 47 and 41 percent, respectively, give one to four hours of unpaid assistance per month compared with 27 percent for workers in the top quarter of income. Yet those with lower income have considerably less paid leave and flexibility to meet these needs.
  4. Of parents who had a child scoring in the bottom quarter in math, more than half at times lacked any kind of paid leave and nearly three-fourths could not consistently rely on flexibility at work to take time to meet with teachers and learning specialists.
  5. For every hour a parent works between 6 and 9 p.m. his or her child is 16 percent more likely to score in the bottom quartile on math tests. Additionally, parents’ night work is associated with a 2.7-fold increased risk of the child being suspended from school, even when controlling for parents’ income and education.
Excerpts from the book, graphs and background on these issues are available electronically at: Jody Heymann is an associate professor of health and social behavior at Harvard School of Public Health and Director of Policy, Harvard Center for Society and Health. Heymann's research was supported by grants from The William T. Grant Foundation, The National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, The MacArthur Foundation, The Commonwealth Fund, the Carnegie Foundation and the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.

For further information, please contact:

Robin Herman
Office of Communications
Harvard School of Public Health
677 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115
Phone: 617-432-4752