Recently, there have been a number of stories that have come out highlighting practices at companies that have or have not reinforced having both a job and a family (life). Take the recent announcement by Netflix where it began offering employees who are new parents unlimited paid leave for a year, allowing them to take off as much time as they want during the first 12 months after a child’s birth or adoption. They can return on a full- or part-time basis, and even take additional time off later in the year if needed. The company said they would keep paying them normally, eliminating the need to switch to disability leave. Of course, there has been criticism, most notably that the policy only applies to salaried employees, not hourly workers.
Then, there was the recent coverage of Amazon workers who have complained about a punishing work culture where people work nights, weekends, leaving little, if any, time for employees to even think about having families. Many wrote in to commiserate even as chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos defended his retailing juggernaut, saying the New York Times report did not reflect the company he knew.
Why is all of this important? People are struggling to figure out how to fit everything into their lives. How do they manage work, families, community, and leisure? And if they are part of the “sandwich” generation (i.e., people in their 40s and older) they are also responsible for bringing up their own children and for the care of their aging parents. They are being squeezed from every direction – from work demands to do more and more faster and faster, from families (the ones they are starting and their elders), from communities who want them to be more involved, and the list goes on. And, they want to be successful at all of these facets of their lives. If you don’t believe that, then just ask people how they want to be remembered when they die. Many don’t mention work as the No. 1 thing they want to be remembered for. Instead, they mention their families, their communities, and the impact they want to have on the lives of others. They want to be triathletes, excelling in all parts of their lives.
Yet, it seems that our workplaces are increasingly being designed so that it is harder and harder for people to manage all the parts of their lives. In fact, researchers have shown that employees continually argue that work intrudes on their personal time and has forced them to miss important life events (e.g., weddings, birthdays, children’s school events) and they be distracted when they are with their families (by the constant messaging and obligations to return messages a.s.a.p.).
In the United States, the Family and Medical Leave Act was adopted in 1993 and was intended “to balance the demands of the workplace with the needs of families.” The Act allows eligible employees to take up to 12 workweeks of unpaid leave during any 12-month period to attend to the serious health condition of the employee, parent, spouse or child, or for pregnancy or care of a newborn child, or for adoption or foster care of a child. In order to be eligible, an employee must have been worked at least 1,250 hours over the past 12 months at the firm, and work at a location where the company employs 50 or more employees within 75 miles. Of course, not everything or everyone is covered.
As a result of the many conditions attached to eligibility for leave under the FMLA, many American workers find themselves ineligible to take job-protected leave upon the birth or adoption of a child. Some researchers have indicated that only about 60 percent of private sector workers are covered. In addition, since FMLA does not come with pay, even fewer employees can afford to take the time off. Compare this to other advanced nations, which provide three or four months paid leave to parents and also offer paid sick leave, generous vacation time, and limits on how many work hours employers can demand. Currently, the FMLA is being extended by the FAMILY Act – the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act which is a federal paid leave bill introduced in March. This would allow employees to receive a portion of their pay when they need time away from their jobs for family or medical reasons, no matter where they live or work.
So, while we have some policies in place, they don’t cover everyone, and even those who are covered are often worried about actually taking leave if they have to forgo pay. Some are anxious about using a firm’s family work policies for fear of being turned down for promotions and other perks; for being seen as “not committed” to the company’s work culture. In fact, the pressure to perform at work is so intense that some millennials are simply opting out of having children – they just don’t have time. And older employees are increasingly feeling unable to meet everyone’s demands. But, is that really what we want? Sure, we want workers to be 100 percent committed. But, at what cost? At what point will we realize we are simply burning our talent out?
It’s called human capital for a reason. Maybe we should remember the “human” part as we come up with company policies that meet employers’ needs for quality and productivity and at the same time meet employees’ needs for a balanced life.
Joyce E. A. Russell is the senior associate dean of learning at the Robert H. Smith School of Business and the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.