The COVID-19 lockdowns had a profound effect on dads role at home:
"Before the Spring 2020 lockdown mothers of young children in couple households in the UK were contributing at least twice as much childcare as fathers.
During the Spring 2020 lockdown, fathers in couple households stepped up to do much more hands-on caring of their children, and more housework. On average, the fathers almost doubled the number of hours each day during which they undertook childcare. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), fathers’ childcare time rose from just over four to eight hours per day, while mothers’ rose from almost seven to just over ten.” (Fatherhood Institute, May 2021)
Millions of dads returned home and spent more time than ever with their children. As a result, their relationships were transformed: they understood their child better; they felt closer to them; they felt more confident supporting their learning, and critically they wanted to spend more time with them in the future.
However, as the remaining COVID restrictions and regulations were lifting, a global economic crisis was gathering force. The cost of living across the UK was soaring, with the price of fuel and food increasing markedly. In April 2023 the Scottish Government announced “People all across Scotland are being affected by the most severe economic crisis in a generation. The effects of this are being seen now as households and businesses are having to make difficult choices.”
We wanted to know if the quiet childcare revolution, which started during the lockdowns, had continued to gain momentum, or if the pressure to provide forced dads back into the workplace and away from their families. Between 25 May - 30 June 2023 we put a call out to dads across the country to find out.
This survey is the fifth in a series in which, when considered collectively, charts the journey we have been on together since the start of the COVID pandemic. It provided a glimpse into the lives of ordinary Scottish dads - their personal tragedies, triumphs, struggles and moments of joy.
Dads really want to be heard.
1,054 dads took part in our Annual Dads Survey, nearly four times the number of dads who took part in 2022. Dads want to be heard and as one dad simply put it...
"Dads matter too."
Dads are putting family first, and discarding outdated social norms, as time spent caring for their children reaches a new high.
Despite many dads with dependent children struggling to balance work & family life, astonishingly almost half (49%) are spending 25 or more hours per week playing or supporting their children’s learning - the highest level we have ever recorded.
Dads with children under 3 years old, and those from the most deprived areas of Scotland (SIMD 1), are doing the most. An incredible 64% of dads from SIMD 1 are spending 25 hours or more with their children which is 17% higher than 2022 and almost twice as much as dads from the least deprived areas (SIMD 5).
“I love spending time with them both and I like that we can now play games and speak about things… I'm aware they're only this young for a short time, so I want to spend as much time with them as I can."
In the wake of the COVID lockdowns, dads are continuing to choose family-friendly flexible working in order to spend more time with their children.
For the 89% of dads who are currently working, a supportive employer can make all the difference and it is encouraging to see a quarter of dads sharing that their employer supports their childcare obligations 'almost all the time'.
When asked about their work-life balance, 27% of dads explained to us how they are prioritising their children. Many had changed their work patterns, e.g. compressing or reducing their hours, but for most, hybrid or home working was key:
“After COVID, I follow a hybrid working pattern, with 2 days in the office and 3 days at home. This arrangement works really well for me. I feel that I get more time with my children than as a parent pre-COVID.”
For those with little or no flexibility around their work hours, or whose job can’t be performed from home, predictable work patterns are important:
“I work a standard 7:00-3:30 day so I always get to spend time with my little boy straight after work/school before my wife gets home from work.”
Sadly, some employers are not keeping pace with societal changes with a quarter (25%) almost never supporting dads childcare obligations. For dads in SMID 1 that number rises to 45%.
“The company I work for doesn't care about my life outside of work. They make you feel bad if you don’t work your days off.”
And shift workers were often impacted negatively:
“I work shifts, night shifts, early, backshifts and weekends too. This has been hard on my partner (who works full time 38hrs) bringing up our 3 year old twin boys with me not being there to help in mornings, bedtimes etc.”
Dads are finding it difficult to strike a balance between being a provider and caring for their children as families face the most severe economic crisis in a generation.
A quarter of working dads are ‘almost never’ satisfied with the amount of quality time they spend with their child. Providing for their family - particularly during a cost of living crisis - means that, for some, work has to take priority:
“Sometimes it’s hard to pick my work over my children but I have to prioritise work over my family so I can provide for them."
Conflicting demands on dads time also cause difficulties. These are often coupled with feelings of guilt and regret:
“It's a tricky balance to strike, and I rarely feel I get it right. Either I feel guilty about working, or I feel guilty about spending time with my family.”
This pressure is so acute that 10% told us they work so hard they don’t have any time for themselves ‘almost all the time’:
“It feels like a conveyor belt, get up, log on, take daughter to school, log back on, work until dinner time.. eat fast try and get daughter to bed, but too tired and frustrated to enjoy the time.. daughter doesn't want to sleep, so less time to ourselves at night and then too tired to do anything except stare at the tv."
This pressure on work-life balance is particularly profound for dads with children between 1-2 years as 45% found balancing work and family life ‘difficult’ or ‘very difficult’ (compared to an average of 25%).
“My working hours mean I’m unable to take my son to many groups, activities etc which are available during weekdays. There are some at weekends which I take advantage of, when I can summon up enough energy at the end of the working week. I try to finish work early some days to give us more time together, I then need to make up the hours at other times which can be difficult to fit in.”
The number of dads experiencing very poor mental health has almost doubled within the last year and most are not aware of the support available.
There has been a slight improvement in the mental health of many dads. However, an alarming 11% - almost double the number of dads from last year - told us that their mental health was ‘very poor’. Two thirds (62%) talked about issues with: work, money and their ability to cope with competing demands on their time, which were often experienced simultaneously.
“Due to the pressures of my work and my other responsibilities, I often suffer from 'burn-out', fatigue and stress and anxiety. I feel that this affects my relationship with my children as I do not have the energy or 'presence' that I would like to have with them.”
“My mental health has been hit hard with trying to afford things for my kids with the cost of living crisis.”
“Burning the candle at all ends, no downtime, no time to self, workloads ever increasing, financial worries, cost of living crisis etc.
Just reaching mental and physical burnout.”
Lone parents, and those living apart from their child(ren's) other parents were particularly affected. However, dads with children under 1 and those from SIMD 1 were hardest hit:
- 25% of dads from SIMD 1 told us that their mental health was ‘very poor’ - over twice the average.
- 27% of dads with children under 1 told us that their mental health was ‘very poor’ - almost 2.5 times more than the average.
Although it is encouraging that 90% of the dads - who told us their mental health had gotten ‘slightly worse’ or ‘much worse’ in the last 6 months - had looked for or received some kind of support. Many feel isolated and unsupported:
“I do suffer from anxiety but I do not tell anyone and do my best to push through each day.”
It is disappointing that three quarters of all the services listed in the survey had not been heard of by 90% of dads which highlights the need for more effort in the promotion and signposting of support services for dads:
“Make the existence of the services listed in this survey more prominent because I didn't know anything like those were available.”
What are we calling for?
As dads become increasingly involved in their children’s lives it's crucial that both parents are treated as equal caregivers by services, to ensure the best outcomes for children.
Research clearly shows that children of positively involved fathers are more likely to be smarter, healthier and more resilient. Yet dads often don’t believe that children and family services value their input or make an effort to involve them. According to the Scottish Government, 24% of children in Scotland are living in poverty. If we want to mitigate the poverty-related attainment gap widening over a child's lifetime, it is crucial to nurture strong family relationships and supportive parenting right from the start. We urge service providers, particularly those working with the most disadvantaged families to think about how to welcome and support dads who are increasingly involved in their children's lives.
To respond to the increasing pressure on dads work-life balance, we recommend that employers develop a positive culture and family-friendly flexible workplace policies to support all those with childcare responsibilities.
Findings from a 2022 University of Lincoln study found that: “parents’ experiences of workplaces are often dependent on individualised factors such as supportive or unsupportive managers, and employees are sometimes made responsible for being aware of policies and asserting their entitlement". The benefits to both employees and employers, of adopting a family-friendly culture, are becoming more widely understood. However, a consistent positive approach for all those with childcare responsibilities should be developed and underpinned by improved clarity, knowledge and visibility of policies.
As we face the most severe economic crisis in a generation the Government must support families most in need to reduce financial stress.
Our survey shows dads with children under 2 years old being disproportionately affected by the current financial crisis. This correlates with the recent Scottish Government's findings showing that this demographic, who are paying for childcare, are experiencing difficulties with high costs. As a matter of urgency we are calling for the Government to fast-track its high-quality offer of Early Learning & Childcare (ELC) for one and two year olds. This should be part of a broader package of financial support schemes that prevents families from experiencing poverty and financial stress as a result of the cost-of-living crisis.
With financial stress continuing to rise, it is essential that more support is given to dads who are suffering from - or at risk of - poor mental health and levels of public awareness of these services increased.
Our survey revealed that dads from the most deprived areas, and those with children under two, are most profoundly affected by poor mental health. As part of the delivery of Scotland’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy, it’s crucial to build capacity within the public and third sector to better recognise and understand poor paternal mental health during the perinatal period. This should include measures that prevent issues occurring or escalating during this critical life stage. The results also show a significant lack of awareness regarding the existing men’s mental health and suicide prevention services across the board. Adequate funding and promotion of these services, particularly to dads in the most deprived areas - and those with children in the first 1,000 days - is essential.
For more information about our survey and findings, please contact Cathy Sexton at [email protected].