With the holidays approaching, tension is mounting in some workplaces over which employees get time off — and which remain in the office while their co-workers enjoy turkey leftovers and long weekends out of town.
On one side: parents; on the other: childless people. Productivity demands have caused increased stress for all workers who feel they’re doing their job and two others; yet it’s often the child-free employees who pick up the slack because of a co-worker's flexible schedule, holiday plans or maternity leave. In this time of tight budgets and lean staffing the left-behinds are saying “enough.” They flock to online forums like The Childfree Life and STFU Parents to vent about being taken for granted because they have no children.
"You can work all the holidays, you can take the weekend trips, you can work late when your colleagues have to run home for the soccer practice or the recital," said Laura S. Scott, Roanoke, Va.-based author of "Two Is Enough" and founder of The Childless by Choice Project. "There's an assumption that the childfree don't have lives outside of work. There needs to be an acknowledgement that all employees, whether they have children or not, need work-life balance."
"Where the person with a kid might need to take off the day after
Thanksgiving, the person without children may have a friend who is ill. None of
us are without personal responsibilities."
The work-life field was born in response to the flood of women entering the workforce in the 1970s, and in recent decades became mainstream as more employers recognized the value of flexible work benefits in attracting top talent. This summer, the Obama administration has spotlighted workplace flexibility through public statements, the first-ever White House summit on the topic and a pilot program giving federal workers greater flexibility. But as employers compete to appear family friendly to both prospective employees and the government, they risk alienating child-free candidates who worry they will become second class citizens in the workplace. "The best employers provide flexibility equitably," said Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute. "Where the person with a kid might need to take off the day after Thanksgiving, the person without children may have a friend who is ill. None of us are without personal responsibilities."
With young people delaying marriage and child-rearing, and some never having children, there are more child-free people in the workplace. Nearly one-in-five American women will never bear children, double the percent in the 1970s, according to the Pew Research Center. But everyone has parents. In the last year, 42 percent of workers the Families and Work Institute surveyed have had elder care responsibilities, and 49 percent expect to in the future, Galinsky said.
Soccer Mom Syndrome
Diana Palmer, a receptionist in New York City, may not have children performing in school plays, but many of her friends are in the theater, with early curtain times, and she does have doctor's appointments for herself and her cat. "There are times when I need to leave early, but as a single person they tend to look at you as if you killed a dog," said Palmer, 64. "They shouldn't be putting the pressure on the single person to automatically be there because so-and-so has to leave early to go to soccer."
Richard Levy, a research director in Washington D.C., says some parents feel it’s OK to leave early to pick up a child from school, but not to meet non-parental commitments, such as a book club or yoga class. "There may be some under-the-surface resentments," Levy said. "Don't assume that just because so-and-so doesn't have a partner and kids, they don't have a very full life."
"If a parent wants to leave early for a child's recital or practice, then they
need to put in the hours somewhere else."
Managers should keep tabs on the hours worked by all employees, so that everyone is shouldering a fair load regardless of their family status, Scott advised. "If a parent wants to leave early for a child's recital or practice, then they need to put in the hours somewhere else," she said.
With the economy sluggish, the job market tight and employers thinly staffed, there's more than enough work to go around even before people start leaving early. In departments or organizations where each person has a specialized function, it's more difficult for co-workers to cover for each other, whether a brief absence or a few-months' maternity leave, said Mark Kolakowski, who covers financial careers for About.com. "If someone's out for an extended period, that's going to be a major impact on everyone else's work-life balance," he said.
Supporting the Next Generation
There are serious reasons to support employees who are raising the next generation of workers and national leaders. Without a robust birth rate, societies lose tax revenue from able bodied workers while supporting their aging populations. Italy, Japan, and South Korea to name a few have become nations of caretakers.
The entire society has an interest in seeing that children are raised and educated well, said Claudia Mills, a philosophy professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who has written about workplace tension over family responsibilities. Besides any ethical considerations, children are the workers of the future and their productivity growth will fuel our economy in the future. That’s one reason the benefits packages in many workplaces are tilted in favor of families, striking many non-parents as unfair.
Take employer-provided health insurance, for instance, which will be worth more to a family of four than a single person. An on-site daycare center or emergency child care will only be useful to employees with children. But the mother of all benefits is paid family leave. Scott wants that benefit extended to the childless: "There are all kinds of reasons why a childless person would appreciate a paid leave as well. Maybe to do a mission trip with your church or to take care of an elderly parent."
Companies in the National Work & Family Roundtable offer flexible work arrangements without asking the employee's reason for seeking a schedule change — whether to tend children, care for elderly parents or another purpose, said Brad Harrington, a management professor at Boston College and director of the Center for Work & Family, which sponsors the roundtable.
"These companies have reached a level of maturity or understanding around this issue that if they looked at it as a work-family versus work-life policy, they would be going down a road that would be seen to be exclusionary," said Harrington.
Scott would like to see employers offer a menu of benefits that would add up to an equally valuable package for each employee. Where one person might choose on-site child care, the other might opt for an exercise club membership. A singles friendly corporate culture should encourage social inclusion for all employees and provide equal opportunities for advancement, regardless of their family structure, Harrington said.
As workplace flexibility becomes more ubiquitous and accepted, and more non-parents take advantage of work-life benefits, any perceived imbalance should ease. "Flexibility started as an under the table perk that you'd give to a few favored employees," Galinsky said. The popularity of work-life benefits "is the flexibility movement coming of age, where there's recognition that this is a business strategy rather than a favor."
Ultimately, each workplace — and each employee — must navigate the shoals of work relationships and workloads in its unique way. Levy encouraged doing so with an open and honest discussion of individual situations and needs. "The more we can have conversations in our society, the better," he said. "I'd like to think our diversity of lifestyle would be an excellent opportunity to reconsider and have more organizations allow flexibility."