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Work-care balance that can make you sick

Providing care for ageing parents can corrode your health more than raising your children, according to a new study. But while the state has generous welfare schemes for parents, there is little work leave to be had when it's mum or dad that needs your help

Caring for aging parents

Photo: ©

Norwegian researchers have begun to look into an area about which we have little knowledge: How is our health affected when the lives of our parents near their end? For many people this occurs when they themselves are middle-aged, when perhaps they have a back problem or their health is beginning to become less robust. Knowing that your mum or dad will soon die can be a heavy burden to bear. And it often demands that you are increasingly available, both mentally and physically.

Sociologist Elisabeth Ugreninov has researched how simultaneously caring for both children and parents affects work absenteeism for Norwegian women.

- A common research hypothesis is that full-time employment while raising children leads to increased absenteeism, but we find little support for this. If, however, we look at caring for children and ageing parents simultaneously we see a more murky picture. Evidence indicates that caring for one’s own parents can lead to long-term sick leave, says Ugreninov, postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Sociology and Human Geography.

Prioritizes arrangements for parents

Since the 1970s Norway has had generous welfare benefits for working parents. Parental leave is relatively long, and many parents can claim paid leave when the child is ill or when starting at nursery school. Documentation is not required. Every child has the right to a nursey school place and nursery schools are heavily subsidized.

Many people also want to be present for their parents or other adult relatives for medical appointments, hospitalization or when they have additional needs in the home. But in these cases there is no statutory leave for workers. Some take unpaid leave or use vacation. If they are lucky, they may have an employer who offers paid leave.

- Today we have the right to ten days of unpaid leave each year to provide essential care for parents. Paid leave is often discretionary. In principle, we should have a similar arrangement for caring for the elderly as we have for our children. The number of elderly people in our society is increasing and the labour force is decreasing. Although both public and private services are responsible for much of the care that is needed, the family and the welfare state are in reality interdependent, says Ugreninov.

Sick leave is long-term

Forsker Elisabeth Ugreninov
Elisabeth Ugreninov. Photo: UiO 

How a person’s health is affected by combining work with care work is difficult to measure. The number of children people have has often been used as a measure of care giving, so that having a second child is said to double the amount of care work undertaken. However, such data does not say anything about how tiring care work is, and it says nothing about caring for the elderly.

Ugreninov has based her data upon a survey done by Statistics Norway and NOVA Norwegian Social Research with a representative sample of over 5,000 people. She has studied absenteeism that exceeds 16 days and is therefore paid for by the National Insurance Scheme.

- Those who care for children and are in 80 per cent or more of full employment do not seem to have greater long-term absenteeism than is normal. Not even those who are caring for both children and elderly parents, in addition to work, are more likely to have long-term absence, says Ugreninov, who was surprised by this.

But when the researchers looked more closely at those who actually take sick leave, a different picture emerged.

- Women who provide care for children and the elderly have longer term sick leave than normal. These women have significantly longer sick leave periods than those who only care for children.

More distressing care?

Ugreninov emphasizes that it is difficult to say for certain about the reasons for the pattern the researchers see.

- According to previous research parents often become sick by being infected by their children. They have illnesses with a defined course and quickly become well again. Providing care for a sick parent can lead to less well defined ailments, she says.

- People are often in their fifties when they experience the extra burden of providing care for parents, in addition to acknowledging that one parent will soon die. This care is perhaps more distressing, which may affect the carer in the long term.

The findings are supported by international research that has indicated that providing care to parents in need has a negative effect on the caregiver’s mental health.

Couples who share the load equally provide less care to parents

Another question Ugreninov and Co-Researcher Katharina Herlofson investigated in the same project was who prioritizes helping ageing parents and in-laws. And the answer is somewhat surprising: Men and women in more equal relationships help parents to a lesser extent. This means that men who do a lot of work in the home provide less care for elderly parents. The same applies to women who work a lot.

The researchers cannot say for certain the reason for this, but it raises some questions. Men who do the most chores at home may have less available time? And perhaps women working fulltime relegate caring for parents because it is difficult to combine with a professional career? Or is it rather that in order to be there for the older generation men cut down on work at home while women opt for a different strategy, namely to work less?

It is most likely to do with mutually reinforcing processes, according to Ugreninov. These can be further enhanced if men and women in equal relationships have different values ​​and attitudes to those with a more traditional division of labour: In other words, traditionally oriented couples feel a stronger obligation to help aging parents.

By Silje Pileberg
Published Sep. 13, 2016 4:04 PM - Last modified Oct. 17, 2019 8:01 AM