AOK Family Survey 2014
“Take Time Off”

Family | Photo (detail): © AOK-Bundesverband

In Germany there are about eight million families with underage children, 1,500 of them were took part in the third AOK Family Survey - a project commissioned by the AOK health insurance company. In this interview Ulrike Ravens-Sieberer, professor at Hamburg-Eppendorf University Clinic, explains what challenges families these days have to face and how they affect a family’s domestic bliss.

Most parents in Germany seem to be doing just fine - according to your survey 93 per cent of them are satisfied with the lives they lead with their families, 43 per cent are in fact very satisfied. Only a mere seven per cent say that they are dissatisfied with their family life. Does family life then make people happy?

Of course one should not generalise. Family life can make people happy, but it can also make them unhappy. It always depends on how people go about organising their family’s life. For me it is absolutely vital that parents manage to create, what I call, a kind of “inner home”, not only for their children, but also for themselves. What I mean is being able again and again to give their children their undivided attention, to talk to them and to build up and maintain a relationship of trust. Happiness, love and a feeling of belonging can of course be expressed by doing things together, but also by simply sitting down together regularly to have dinner.

Compared to the mothers the fathers tend to be somewhat more satisfied with their family life. Why is that so?

I am afraid that is due to the ever-prevailing role that the mothers play - they are still responsible for organising the family’s daily routine. This means that all working women are faced with the classic “double burden” - they go out to work and at the same time have to run the household. As time is always of the essence, they often feel rushed and stressed. Of course the fathers are becoming more and more involved in family life, but when it comes to organising the running of the family  - i.e. doing the cooking and cleaning - they still in fact play a  minor role.

Time pressure more and more of a problem

As was the case in the preceding survey of 2010, you asked parents what particularly stresses them out. Were there any significant changes compared to 2010?

Ulrike Ravens-Sieberer Ulrike Ravens-Sieberer | © Ulrike Ravens-Sieberer We were astounded to see so clearly that quite a lot of parents in Germany feel rushed. The parents taking part in the survey were asked which of the following factors caused them the most stress: time or lack of it, their finances, their mental and physical states and their relationship with their partner. Time was the answer most of them gave.  Almost half of the parents interviewed complained about being under strong or very strong time pressure. This is in fact the only factor that has become more of a problem since 2010, although the average number of weekly working hours has not increased.

Why is this time pressure on the up and up? Are parents taking on too much both for themselves and their children?

The number of weekly working hours has not increased, but what has increased is the number of families in which both partners go out to work. Every day this combining of family and work still poses a clear challenge for families and one thing that quite definitely plays a role here is the fact that families are having to cope with more and more demands: the children’s development has to be fostered from as early on as possible, then they have to do sport and learn to play an instrument. Coordinating all that and then still managing to find enough time to spend with the children is no mean feat - especially when both partners work.

Mealtime is family time

In many families both parents either want to go out to work or have to. This means automatically that time is tight as part-time jobs are quite rare these days. Are parents able to counteract the pressure this puts on their families?

Parents are in fact actually able to do something about this by making an effort to spend quality time with their children. Our family surveys have revealed, for example, just how beneficial it is to take at least one meal per day together with the children. This is time shared with each other, with everybody sitting at the table. without any mobile phones ringing and without any television blaring in the background. Furthermore parents should allow themselves to take some time off, to recharge their batteries - and to do this without having a bad conscience. At the same time there is of course a whole range of structural measures that we, as a society, have to provide. For example, making sure there are enough places available at child day-care centres, not to mention flexible working hours. Our survey shows quite clearly that it is good for the health of the whole family, if at least one parent’s working hours are flexible.

Nowadays everything seems to be focussed on the child, whereas the parents often have to take a back seat. Is this a good thing or is it more likely to be counterproductive?

It is important that the parents do not feel they have to gear everything to their child and in doing so forget about themselves. Instead they should occasionally go out to a restaurant in the evening or have a night at the cinema without their children. Our survey showed that it is good for children when parents take care of their health. That is why we are appealing to parents to take some time off and look after the relationship with their partner.

The parents’ stress has an effect on the children

Your survey also revealed that when parents are dissatisfied with their family life, the probability of this affecting their children’s health is twice as great as in the case of parents who are satisfied. Are dissatisfied parents making children sick?

We have learned from a lot of other surveys that the health and well-being of children suffers if the parents feel they are under stress. Children sense naturally when their mother or father is under pressure, they feel they have to do something about it or they worry about it. This is why it is also so important to take care of one’s own health, and not just that of the children.
In the large families of yesteryear bringing up children took the form of a community project that was spread over many shoulders. Are these times now gone forever and will parents have to muddle through on their own in future?

We no longer live in such large families and I fear that in retrospect a lot of things have been romanticised. Nevertheless in a large family it was certainly the case that many more resources were available, if the parents for some reason could not look after the children. These days it is often the case that not even the grandparents are there to help, because many families have to move about the country for professional reasons. This is when a local network of social contacts comes into its own. This might involve the neighbours who live in the same building or friends or the parents of other children who go to the same kindergarten or school. The important thing is for the parents to have the feeling that when time is tight or when they are in a hurry, they can call somebody who will take care of the child. It does not always have to be another family member or grandma or granddad.

For the third AOK Family Survey the Sinus Institut interviewed more than 1,503 mothers and fathers in a representative telephone poll. One of the main things the survey focused on was the way parents combine family and work. The two preceding surveys were conducted in 2007 and 2010. The survey was scientifically supported by Ulrike Ravens-Sieberer, professor for health care science, health care psychology and the welfare of children and young people at the Hamburg-Eppendorf University Clinic and Klaus Hurrelmann, professor of Public Health and Education at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin.