The UK’s working parents are struggling to cope with the strain of overwork – and deliberately stalling and downshifting their careers to reverse the negative impact it is having on family life, according to a major new study.

The 2018 Modern Families Index [1], published today by work life charity Working Families and Bright Horizons, reveals the stress of the modern workplace is pushing parents to breaking point. According to the study, many parents are obliged to work far over their contracted hours due to increasingly intense workloads or because they feel it is expected of them.

The study found that:

  • For nearly two in five parents (39 per cent), work prevents them from being able to say goodnight to their children often or all the time; and for more than two in five parents (42 per cent), work prevents them being able to help their children with their homework;
  • More than a quarter of parents (28 per cent) reported that their work leads to arguments with their partner;
  • Working overtime was also linked to eating less healthily for 38 per cent of respondents and doing limited exercise for 42 per cent.

Unsurprisingly, working parents are left feeling overwhelmed by the increasing demands of the modern workplace – a third said they feel burnt out all or most of the time, with more than half identifying work as their main cause of burnout.

The study also found that:

  • Of those parents contracted to work 35-36 hours per week, 40 per cent are putting in extra hours – of whom almost a third are putting in an extra seven hours – the equivalent to an extra working day each week;
  • Of those parents contracted to work 25 hours per week, a third (34 per cent) are working extra hours. 30 per cent of these are putting in enough hours to qualify as full-time workers, clocking up around 35 hours per week.


These extra hours at work are hours lost to families, and the price tag is high – with full time parents (on 38 hours per week) working extra unpaid hours worth £2,429 on average per year; and part time parents (on 24 hours per week) working extra unpaid hours worth £1,927 on average per year. In households with two full-time working parents, the price tag on extra unpaid hours worked could amount to £4,858 a year. [2]

The figures paint a worrying picture for parents in the UK with nearly half (47 per cent) of respondents acknowledging that work affects their ability to spend time together as a family.  Britain’s long hours culture is also having a profound impact on personal wellbeing, and is listed as a direct cause of tension at home.

However, parents are taking significant action to address this. When asked, as part of the study, what they have already changed in their working life for family reasons:

  • Nearly 1 in 5 (18 per cent) reported they have deliberately stalled their careers;
  • More than 1 in 10 (11 per cent) have refused a new job and;
  • 1 in 10 have rejected a promotion because of the limited work life balance opportunities.

These figures are similar for mothers and fathers [3]; and are evidence of a ‘parenthood penalty’, with both mothers and fathers deliberately stalling or downshifting their careers and reducing their earnings to protect time spent with family.

The right to request flexible working – introduced to enable those in work to better balance the demands of work and home life – hasn’t made the difference envisaged for many parents because they are unable to access it (46 per cent of parents, the majority of whom would like to [4], did not work flexibly; and fewer than half – 44 per cent – felt that flexible working was a genuine option for mothers and fathers in their workplace).

Even for those who do have flexibility at work, it hasn’t gone far enough to deliver the control they need to enable a better work life balance.  Over a third (37 per cent) of parents that work flexibly said they felt burnt out all or most of the time (compared to 27 per cent of those that said they don’t work flexibly).  Of those parents that work ‘flexibly’, nearly one third (31 per cent) had restricted or no control over where they work, a quarter had restricted or no control over their working hours and one fifth had restricted or no control over their start and finish times.

Sarah Jackson, Chief Executive of Working Families, said:

“For mothers and for fathers, becoming a parent looks like a bad career move.  Because the norm for people who want to get ahead is still to show up early, leave late and be on email out of hours – and parents have less time to give, putting them at a disadvantage.

“Parents are responding to the pressures on them by acting – deliberately stalling and downshifting their careers. With more than 11 million working parents in the UK, our economy can ill afford this ‘parenthood penalty’. Our findings should be a wake-up call for UK PLCs. 

“We need a more widespread, genuinely flexible approach to work. But on its own, flexible working is not enough if all it delivers is the flexibility to manage a bumper workload.  We need human-sized jobs that allow parents to fulfil their labour market potential and give families back the time together they need to thrive.  This should be central to the government’s forthcoming review of its right to request flexible working legislation.

James Tugendhat, Managing Director, International at Bright Horizons, said:

“The Index highlights that the UK’s long hours culture is putting severe strain on family life in the UK. Many parents are working unsustainable hours to make ends meet, returning home stressed and exhausted.

“There is great opportunity for families, employers and government to work collaboratively and find successful solutions which enable working parents to thrive both at home and in the workplace. We have seen fantastic examples of leading employers already addressing this important issue [5], however for those yet to do so we urge them to take action sooner rather than later. Families must see these practices embedded at all levels to feel confident in creating a work-life balance that truly works for them.”