“THE suicide of Labor MP Greg Wilton has focused attention on the pressures of political life for families and MPs. Kim Beazley has asked Labor MPs to counsel colleagues who show signs of stress, saying political life “puts a premium on stress and a premium on distance”.

John Howard also commented that in politics men especially should open up more about the emotional impact of their careers. And Jeff Kennett, recently appointed inaugural head of the national depression initiative, agreed with Beazley that politicians were more likely to suffer depression, anxiety and family breakdowns.

Yet many argue that a political career is just one of many where professionals are absent from families for extended periods and where work dominates family and personal life.

This begs the question: how many such stressed professions can a society sustain, a society still built around the family unit? Particularly when there is mounting evidence that family life itself is fracturing under increasing pressures, and when party policies on both sides of the political divide profess such an interest in assisting families as important units for the development and education of future citizens.

For decades it has been left to the women’s movement to sound government out on the needs of women entering the workforce, childcare, aged care and family assistance. Such petitioning has often been seen as “sectional” or special pleading – feminists against the mainstream. But this is changing.

Dual-income families and single parenting are now common. A decreasing birth rate and growing numbers of childless couples are causing demographic and budget planning jitters. What happens to women now affects all of us.

Defending his view that politicians deserve no special treatment when stressed, Howard spoke of young couples managing children, jobs and mortgages. “I admire the juggling act that so many young parents are involved in,” he said.

A stoical reply from the Prime Minister. But studies show there is a limit to stoicism, and that pressures on young couples are taking a toll on the national good. Apart from the cost to personal health, physical and mental, the pressures imposed on the family unit of working parents and the costs of rearing children deter others from taking on parenthood.

British policy group Demos has released an in-depth study of gender, work and family change over more than a decade. Family Business, edited by Helen Wilkinson, offers 28 scenarios from leading social commentators. It begins with the proposition that “the family is our most precious business: the foundation of social cohesion and economic growth”.

The study demonstrates that notions of family and work developed in the post-industrial age (father at work, mother the homemaker) are being reshaped. Communities at work and home must tackle new allegiances – whether extended family or friends networks, publicly funded networks or a combination of both. Without that, both the workplace and the family unit suffer.

Fiona McAllister demonstrates that childlessness is growing in spite of government packages for families. Aversion to poverty, desire for egalitarian partnerships, the freedom to retreat from the workforce, as much as (for others) putting a career first, all influence that choice.

Brad Googins, in the same collection, argues that “companies and organisations need to include intimate relationship issues in business analyses of work and life initiatives, to consider the possible impact on productivity and employee retention”.

At one end there are blended families, women at work, single parenting; at the other, significant numbers of aged. Consequently, more and more employees combine work with caring responsibilities. Once happily left to a woman at home, who minded children and occasionally grandparents, the carer’s role is now increasingly shared between individuals – male and female – and the state.

Googins argues that “the interests of families and communities have been swept along with the prevailing tides of economic growth, and few effective voices or vehicles have been organised to represent their interests.”

In a 1997 MORI survey of Britain’s full-time workers, nine out of 10 respondents said that the ability to balance work and their personal life was a key factor in determining their commitment to their employer. A Harvard University study of 21,000 nurses (British Medical Journal, May 2000) has concluded that a high-stress job, which offers little independence or social support, is more damaging to health than smoking, alcohol or lack of exercise. And so it goes.

Australians are swamped daily with news of the doings of their political representatives. But our Westminster system of government, developed out of 19th-century Oxford Union debating rules, is male in its perspectives and rigid in the face of community change.

In the story of one federal MP there may be a message for all of us.”

Article published in The Australian