There are single employees who have to bring their aging fathers to cancer treatments. There are childless men and women who simply prefer not to waste the time and gas money sitting in traffic. Shouldn’t those who want to work from home to take care of their health — say, by taking a yoga class during lunch and then working later at night — have the same rights as those who want to work from home to take care of their kids?
Of course they should.
Yet the work-life balance debate has become so inextricably tied to the glass ceiling and the mommy track debates (with an occasional nod to the travails of working dads) that the other voices get drowned out. We may have replaced the term “work-family” with “work-life,” but, in practice, family obligations still tend to trump everything else. The easy part is changing the labels. The hard part is figuring out how to change the long-held cultural beliefs that can leave non-parents unfairly picking up the slack at the office.
For instance, Cali Williams Yost, who advises corporations on work-life balance issues, tells the story of a young, single employee with no children who asked his company if he could come in late on Thursdays to train for a marathon, promising to make up the hours at other times. “Oh yeah,” his manager reportedly told him. “And I’d like to ride in a hot air balloon every Monday.” The sarcasm so disturbed the employee that he threatened to quit. “We have these flexible work practices in place, but what overlays them are our cultural norms about work and family,” Yost says.
Not many workers feel comfortable even making such requests. We have a media culture that obsesses over the challenges of working parents — particularly moms — to such a point that it’s almost taboo to suggest other employees should have equal flexibility. “No one wants to talk about this because they don’t want to be the jerk that doesn’t support the kids,” says Yost, who recalls another employee who burst into tears in one consulting session because of all the last-minute travel she was being asked to do. She didn’t think she could tell her company what a constant challenge and stress it was to find someone to watch her dog at a moment’s notice. “It just seems so stupid when my colleagues have kids.”
Whether it’s our pets or our parents, our health or our education, there are many facets of our lives besides children that, thanks to work, get short shrift. Recent research found that work’s interference with family obligations explained less than 15 percent of the differences in participants’ responses about their job satisfaction and mental wellbeing. “Work interferes with your ability to form romantic relationships, it interferes with friendships, it interferes with your health,” says Ann Marie Ryan, a professor at Michigan State University and one of the study’s authors. “We make a value judgment on which is more important, but in the long term, managers need to talk about caring about everyone’s work-life balance.”
That’s why Yost advocates a “reason neutral” approach to flexible schedules, a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” for the workplace. Instead of having to explain why they need the flexibility, employees should simply share how they’re going to get the work done.
Getting managers to sign on without knowing the reason is understandably tricky, though. Not only are there face-time expectations but, inevitably, there are times when they need to decide which request to honor over another. Sooner or later, a manager will have to make a call about whether the employee who has to fly to Omaha for a big, last-minute sales pitch is the one with a sick child at home or the one with a final exam for graduate school the next evening.
There are no easy answers, but everyone knows who tends to win out in that scenario — or in a case where two colleagues ask to leave early and one has a cutoff for day-care pickup while the other has a dinner date. As adults, obligations to children are a priority. It takes a village, and all that. At the same time, having children is a choice parents make, and it’s simply unfair to ask non-parents to do more than their share at the office. We all have families, they just take different forms. We all have a life outside of work.
So what can managers do? Ultimately, they have to find ways to make sure non-parents’ needs don’t always come last. And the initial step, Ryan says, is to show employees that it’s okay to have workplace flexibility for something other than picking up your kids. “They need to model that behavior for employees.” If a single thirty-something sees her boss leave early to help his elderly mother or to volunteer at a local school, she’ll feel more comfortable asking for permission to do so, too.
Here’s the thing: The more non-parents speak up about the issue — and feel like they’re getting a fair shake in the ongoing work-life balance conversation — the less it becomes marginalized as just a women’s issue or a parents-with-young-children’s issue. When that happens, things might get just a little better for all of us.
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