It's worth working even when the juggle is a struggle

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I love my family and I love my job, but I confess that I don't always love the juggle.

I posted this on Facebook the week that school went back after a stressful morning getting my six-year-old twins to class and myself to work.

Judging by the response, I struck a nerve. My update attracted a chorus of "me too" from my contemporaries, a few cries of "it gets better" from those slightly older than me and a smattering of well-meaning comments from older friends and relatives asking why I work.

The cost of living means most people need to work if they can.
The cost of living means most people need to work if they can. Photo: iStock

Needless to say, my husband doesn't get asked why he works. Double standard aside, it's still a good question.

Everyone should think about why they work and whether their job is meeting their needs.

Of course, the ability to earn a crust is top of mind for me, as it is for most Australians.

The cost of living, particularly housing in our capital cities, means most people need to work if they can.

We bought our home when my husband was studying and I was the main breadwinner, so I already know that paying our mortgage on one income is not a whole lot of fun.

Plus, we travelled for a lot of our 20s and early 30s, before starting our family, so this phase of life is financial catch-up time. No regrets – I know how lucky we are.

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Even if we didn't need two incomes, I would still work.

That's both as a form of insurance, and because I enjoy it.

My kids are only little once, but I'll only have this time in my career once too.

I know they're well cared for, they know they're loved and I make sure I give them my time and attention most of the time when I'm not working. It's the "me time" that suffers, but that's a topic for another column.

The truth is it's hard to get your career back on track after an extended break, especially these days when so many industries are in turmoil because of technology and globalisation.

When people take time out, they are giving up not just current earnings, but also future earnings from stalled career progression and superannuation.

That may not matter if you're in a stable relationship and you and your partner are working on joint goals.

But you never know what life will bring. You can and should take out insurance for the possibility of death and disability, but one in three marriages end in divorce, and you can't insure your marriage.

In our society it's usually mothers who drop out of the workforce or work part-time to bring up children. And most single-parent households are led by women.

I believe it's wise to protect your future earning capacity by keeping your experience and networks current.

If worst came to worst, I want to be able to house and clothe and feed my children no matter what.

Best-case scenario, my husband and I continue to adore one another and our children get to see how a loving partnership of equals can work.

You might think the only reason to work is for the money. This is what Adam Smith, the father of modern economics thought and it's still a deep-rooted belief in our society.

The only problem is it's not true. Many people get enormous satisfaction from work.

Enjoyment is not the preserve of a few privileged professions, like journalism. As psychologist Barry Schwartz writes in his book Why We Work, any job can be good or bad and it doesn't take much to make a good job bad or a bad job good.

Unfortunately, many people have bad jobs. In Australia less than one in four people feel "engaged" – HR-speak for interested – in their work. Everyone else is a different shade of bored. Ouch.

But it's not a case of how cushy the job is. As Schwartz writes, it comes down to three key factors: sufficient autonomy, a sense of purpose and skills you can improve and master.

For example, US researcher Amy Wrzesniewski found hospital cleaners who reported high-levels of interest in their work because they went beyond their official job description and tried to comfort the patients and their families and cheer them up when they were down.

There were two crucial ingredients that made it a good job. One was internal: that the employees chose to find meaning and purpose in what they do.

The other was external: they didn't have micro-managing bosses who stopped them from talking to the patients.

I get why people drop out of work to raise a family. No one likes to feel stretched in a zillion different directions, especially if they don't like their job.

We often talk about flexible working practices to enable parents to manage the juggle with childcare and work, and that's well and good.

But maybe we should be thinking about how to make the work itself better too.

Caitlin Fitzsimmons is editor of Money. She writes regular columns on the psychology of money and our lives at work. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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