The Relationships Foundation’s Pressure Gauge compared the pressures on families in the UK with those on other European countries. Drawing on official EU data the gauge looked at 25 indicators from 27 countries in the following areas: Financial Pressures, Work Pressures, Care Responsibilities and Living Environment. We published this first version in order to promote a broad-based national discussion on what it should mean to be a family-friendly society, how the UK is doing and how we might improve. (The complete text of the Relationships Foundation Family Pressure Gauge can be downloaded here. See also the accompanying press release here.)
Combining all the indicators, UK families come out as very highly pressured, with only families in Romania and Bulgaria having a worse time of it. The greatest pressures are financial, with debt, childcare costs and living costs pushing us to the top of the table. We do better overall on work pressures, but at one end of the spectrum we have long working hours and high numbers working unsocial hours, and at the other we have high numbers of people living in workless households. Many European countries put greater caring burdens on their citizens than we have in the UK, although we have the second worst maternity and paternity provisions (as well as an imbalance between the two highlighted in other reports). Finally, the extent of unhealthy influences on children makes the living environment for families in the UK among the worst in Europe, coming third, behind Bulgaria and Estonia.
Behind those powerful headlines, the bigger story of the report is a lack of focus, clarity, and strategy from a system of government which does not have an adequate definition of pressure on families. Despite family and child friendliness being part of the political conversation for some years, the government has not published, and perhaps not even developed, a clear understanding of where the pressure on families comes from. Without this understanding, the government cannot hope understand how and where to intervene most efficiently to reduce pressure on families.
Much of our work on the stress on British families began from a report written for us by Clare Lyonette and Michael Clark. This was an international literature survey, focusing on the impact of long and atypical hours working on family life, but particularly on the effects on couple relationships and the wellbeing of children. It concentrated mainly on Europe and the UK, but quoted other sources where little relevant European work is available. The Relationships Foundation has had a strong research interest in this area for a number of years and has previously commissioned two studies with the National Centre for Social Research; firstly, the evidence for the extent of weekend working and, secondly, on its impact on family life. The Foundation’s sister body in Australia, Relationships Forum, undertook a similar exercise two years ago looking at Australian and Canadian research and found an emerging body of evidence showing that long and atypical working patterns are associated with dysfunctional family environments. This project seeks to examine the European and US evidence for similar associative patterns.