7th International Community, Work and Family Conference

Dr Alexandra Beauregard, Associate Professor in Human Resource Management in the Business School, reports on recent research presented by members of the Gender and Diversity Research Cluster at the 7th International Community, Work and Family Conference in Milan.

Within the Middlesex University Business School, the Gender and Diversity Research Cluster conducts research on work-life balance, maternity and work, gender equality, and workforce diversity. Several members of the cluster recently presented work on these topics at the Community, Work and Family Conference, which took place in Italy at the end of May.

Austerity, quality of working life, and work-life balance

I took part in a symposium on contemporary work-life challenges and presented a paper co-authored with Uracha Chatrakul Na Ayudhya  and Rea Prouska (London South Bank University) that examined the impact of the global economic crisis and austerity measures on the quality of working life and work-life balance. The research focused on Greece, an extreme case of a country in economic crisis. Interviews with twenty physicians, teachers, lawyers, and managers revealed how pay reductions, hiring freezes, and budget cuts have eroded working conditions (including health and safety) and increased workloads. The resulting financial pressures and work stress have had a profoundly detrimental effect on quality of working life and work-life balance for all the participants.

Inadequate job resources and tools, reduced access to health care, job insecurity, financial hardship, decreased mental and physical health, and the deterioration of professional status and consequent loss of meaning in work represent new norms in working conditions in Greece. Greek professionals spoke of living with constant anxiety about how they would continue to make ends meet, and how they and their families would cope with further resource loss. Many expressed a desire to emigrate to other European nations to provide a better future for their families. In addition to highlighting the social cost of austerity measures, our research raises issues around the impact of the economic crisis on professional ethos, professional identity and public service provision. How can public service quality be delivered in this austerity environment?

Breastfeeding support for working mothers

Dr Bianca Stumbitz presenting her work on breastfeeding support in South Africa

Dr Bianca Stumbitz organised a symposium on hidden voices in community, work and family research and sustainable development goals. She presented her exploratory research on breastfeeding support at work in South Africa, conducted with Ameeta Jaga (University of Cape Town). Exclusive breastfeeding is not the cultural norm in South Africa, and many babies are offered other foods at an early age, which increases their risk of death from diarrhoea, pneumonia and malnutrition and contributes to high infant and child mortality rates. Nearly 38% of the participants in Bianca’s study reported wanting to breastfeed or express milk at work after returning to work from maternity leave, but being unable to do so for a variety of reasons. These included a lack of appropriate workplace facilities for breastfeeding or milk expression, no safe storage space for milk, no available flexible work practices, and a workplace culture that discouraged women from breastfeeding after their return to work.

The next step in Bianca’s research will involve a small scale exploratory study on breastfeeding support for women in low paid employment in workplaces of different sizes in South Africa, as a foundation for a larger project. At present, only 8% of mothers in South Africa are exclusively breastfeeding by the time their babies are 6 months old. This means that South Africa is unlikely to meet the 2025 global target set by the World Health Organization for all countries to have exclusive breastfeeding rates of at least 50% at 6 months. Bianca’s research is therefore well positioned to help policy makers at both state and employer level to better support mothers after their return to work, and by doing so, contribute to improved health and survival rates for infants.

Work-life balance in times of recession

Finally, Professor Suzan Lewis participated in an “Authors Meet Critics” session with Clare Lyonette (University of Warwick). They gave an overview of their recently published book, Work-Life Balance in Times of Recession, Austerity and Beyond, co-edited with Nicola Payne from the Department of Psychology, Deirdre Anderson (University of Lincoln), and Stephen Wood (University of Leicester). The book is based upon both academic research and practitioner experience, and examines the impact of austerity measures on employees’ work-life balance and related workplace and social policy.

Workplace trends, practices and employment relations are all influenced by the recent economic crisis, and these have profound impacts on the work, care, and well-being of workers across all walks of life. A guiding theme throughout the book is a “triple agenda” of supporting employees’ work-life balance, workplace effectiveness, and social justice. The book concludes by presenting case studies of innovative processes within organizations and practices for addressing the triple agenda. Playing the role of critics, Ellen Kossek (Purdue University) and Rense Nieuwenhuis (Stockholm University) discussed these and other issues raised by the book, and opened the floor to a rousing audience discussion.

The work presented by the Gender and Diversity Research Cluster in Milan exemplifies the group’s emphasis on international, context-specific research. We acknowledge that workplace experiences are influenced by individual choices, but we are particularly interested in examining how these choices are shaped by macro level factors such as regulatory and legislative environments, as well as societal norms and practices. Anyone who is interested in working with us, whether as a practitioner partner, academic collaborator, or PhD student, should contact Professor Sue Lewis at s.lewis@mdx.ac.uk, or Dr Alexandra Beauregard at a.beauregard@mdx.ac.uk.

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