by Tammy Binford
Work-life balance gets a lot of buzz in the workplace. Everyone is concerned about being productive at work while saving time for other important parts of life. Just the term work-life balance can invoke an image of employees teetering on a tightrope, with career, family, friends, hobbies, and other interests pulling from both sides and threatening their balance.
Often discussions of how to maintain balance emphasize the demands of work and family. Workers want flexibility to care for their children by leaving work for parent-teacher conferences, soccer games, music lessons, and the myriad other things on a parent’s plate.
But it’s not just employees with spouses and children who crave flexibility and other perks, and singles are speaking out about their own needs. They’re also voicing concerns that the deck sometimes seems to be stacked in favor of married workers and those with families.
Paula Santonocito, writing on the Single Minded Women website, points out that company benefits “tend to favor married employees and employees with children.” Also maternity and paternity leave and subsidized child care are common perks. In addition, “it is generally acceptable for employees with children and spouses to take time off from work to accommodate family responsibilities. This often leaves single employees, both women and men, to pick up the slack.”
Santonocito also writes that some employers are beginning “to recognize the need for policies and practices that accommodate all members of the workforce.”
In 2008, The Glass Hammer, an online community geared toward women executives in financial services, law, and business, asked single, professional women how they maintain work-life balance in a world that may not expect them to need it. “Across the board, the women who responded said it came down to personal commitment – that no matter how little time they were left with outside of the office, they had to have something else, outside of work, to be passionate about,” a report on survey states.
“Many of the women who responded said that a key thing for them was to make friends or get involved in an activity that had nothing to do with their job,” the report says. “By doing so, they end up with a clear line separating the two, making it easier to stick with outside commitments.”
Employers wanting to benefit from a diverse workforce are wise to think about work-life balance affecting more than just employees with spouses and/or children since singles present a significant numerical force.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2011 more than 59,740,000 single people – those widowed, divorced, separated, or never married – were working in nonagricultural industries. That compares to more than 72,977,000 married people at work in those kinds of jobs. Although the marrieds still outnumber the singles, the single force makes up just over 45 percent of workers.
Family responsibilities discrimination
It’s not just children and spouses that factor in to work-life balance. Workers in all stages of life – young, old, married, and single – may shoulder caregiving responsibilities. The Center for WorkLife Law issued a report on family responsibilities discrimination in 2010 that detailed trends in litigation.
The report says lawsuits filed by employees with caregiving obligations increased almost 400 percent in the past decade. Also, employees prevailed in nearly half of the cases, with verdicts and settlements averaging over $500,000.
The report warns employers to be aware of three patterns identified in the research:
- “New supervisor syndrome” in which new supervisors cancel flexible work arrangements or make other demands of caregivers.
- “Second child bias” in which employers assume an employee won’t be committed to the work after having a second child.
- “Elder care effect” in which employees are discriminated against because they take time off to care for aging parents.
Employer best practices
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is concerned about employers that discriminate against employees with caregiving responsibilities. It has come out with suggestions for best practices that employers can use to reduce the likelihood of equal employment violations against caregivers. Those best practices include:
Training managers about legal obligations that affect decisions about treatment of workers with caregiving responsibilities.
- Developing, disseminating, and enforcing a strong equal employment opportunity policy.
- Ensuring that managers comply with the organization’s work-life policies.
- Responding to complaints of caregiver discrimination efficiently and effectively.
- Protecting employees from retaliation.