While many of today’s organizations have adopted “family-friendly” policies for the work environment, paradoxically many employees hesitate to use them. It’s ironic that in an era of flexible work arrangements – gyms for people to use during their lunch break, opportunities for career breaks, job-sharing policies, and in many countries generous maternity and parental leaves – that relatively few employees use them. It is apparent that just having employee-friendly policies is half the equation. The other half must be a business culture that values work–life balance. Employees must feel that their managers support these policies or they won’t take advantage of them. In the US, where “employment at will” holds, employees may risk their job security if they decide to work part-time or take career breaks. Employees who work part-time may be more vulnerable in environments where companies are downsizing because they may be viewed as less committed to their jobs.
There are several ways that companies signal to employees that they are not really committed to work–life balance. If the organizational culture encourages employees to arrive early, work through their lunch hour, and stay late, the chances are that few employees will feel comfortable using policies that allow them to balance their responsibilities. A culture of “face-time,” a well-known phenomenon in which employees are judged on how much they are visibly present at work, is a powerful signal of a climate unfriendly to work–life balance. Such a culture tends to disadvantage women more than men; women with children have routine, on-going responsibilities that may make staying after business hours impossible. Women who cannot rely on caregivers, their own parents, or friends, may have to stay home to care for a sick child. If organizations have a culture that emphasizes outcomes rather than face-time, women will be more able to compete on a level playing field with men. Where employers provide senior-level employees job-sharing opportunities and allow or encourage both men and women at all levels of the organization to use flex-time arrangements to help them juggle their family responsibilities, all employees will feel it is more acceptable to utilize these policies. Individuals’ needs vary during the course of their working lives; a young mother may need an extended maternity leave, while an older worker may need a break from work to take care of an aging parent or a troubled teenager (Anxo et al., 2006).
This life course approach is gaining traction in some organizations, especially in larger firms and in some countries. In Sweden among couples without children, women 60 years or older work just over 30 hours a week (Anxo et al., 2006). As many countries in the European Union are experiencing declining birth rates, it is important for older citizens to remain in the workforce. As employees age, they may not wish to work long hours and many may want to take longer leaves to learn a new skill.
Organizations embracing a life course approach to work–life balance need to understand the circumstances of all employees, not just women. If employers give flexible work arrangements to parents, but neglect the needs of single people, they risk alienating their workforce and causing resentment among employees. Single employees may begin to feel that they subsidize working parents and continually pick up the slack for them while they attend to family responsibilities during the work day.
The issue of work–life balance is important to everyone, but especially to women. American culture encourages individualism, hard work, and achievement without providing much social support for women in comparison to other industrialized nations. Many working women in the twenty-first century do not have the resources of an extended family network or a group of neighborhood women to help with childcare and other issues of importance to women. With divorce rates high, some women will be managing their work and family obligations without the support of partners. The mobile society of the US means that many women will not have family nearby to help with childcare. In their non-working hours, single mothers will undoubtedly feel the stress of providing for their children and helping them with their school work and other activities.
Ambitious women in particular may feel that they need to do it all: be the perfect mother, the perfect volunteer, the perfect wife, and the aspiring corporate worker. There is greater and greater emphasis, especially among affluent women, on providing everything for their kids, effortlessly. They may burn themselves out trying to ensure that their children have ever possible opportunity – being on an athletic team, private music lessons, tutoring to get into the best colleges.
The solution to providing more support for workers lies both with organizations and with government. More-generous leave times and greater flexibility can be mandated by governments to help all employees through different challenges during the life course, whether they be the illness of an elderly parent or the care of a young child. Corporations will find that allowing employees more flexibility pays off in terms of increased loyalty, decreased turn-over, and increased productivity.
Anxo, D., Boulin, J.-Y., & Fagan, C. (2006). Decent working time in a life course perspective. In J.-Y. Boulin, M. Lallement, J. Messenger, & F. Michon (Eds.), Decent working time – New trends, new issues. New York, NY: Routledge.
Friedman, S.D. & Greenhaus, J.H. (2000). Work and family – allies or enemies? What happens when business professionals confront life choices. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Gambles, R., Lewis, S., & Rapoport, R. (2006). The myth of work–life balance: The challenge of our time for men, women and societies. London, UK: John Wiley & Sons.
Hochschild, A. & Machung, A. (2003). The second shift. New York, NY: Penguin.
Case Study 1: A Tale of the Second Shift
Cynthia Barnes remembered the days when she woke at 6 a.m. to get her two young children, Jamie (age one) and Eileen (age three), ready for daycare. Those were tough times for her and her husband. Usually, her night’s sleep was interrupted because Jamie was still waking up periodically. And then every morning just when Cynthia was enjoying deep REM sleep, her alarm would ring. She quickly showered, dressed herself, fed Eileen her favorite cereal and Jamie his mashed bananas, and got the children ready for their day at “Little Tikes,” the daycare center located about 20 minutes from Cynthia’s office. Cynthia’s husband Greg was a graduate student at Georgetown University. Although he had a more flexible schedule than Cynthia, he was in the middle of trying to finish his dissertation in US history and was spending most of his waking hours at the national archives in downtown Washington, DC, or the university library. Understandably, Greg found it difficult to concentrate at home. He was willing to help get the children ready for daycare, but Cynthia enjoyed this time with them so she preferred to dress and feed them herself.
Cynthia had passed the CPA exams after college and now worked as an accountant in the budget office of Mercy Hospital. She liked her job and fully intended to work her way up the employment ladder to a senior accountant job. With the complexity of healthcare in the 2000s, there were budgets to keep up with, a multitude of billing forms to fill out, complex calculations to make, plenty of record-keeping, and always a different software package to learn. The hospital had a policy that allowed working parents to cut back on their hours or to work a more flexible schedule. After months of trying to work full-time, Cynthia decided she needed to take advantage of the hospital’s policy. She was exhausted from managing two shifts – her work and her family responsibilities – and she was beginning to resent Greg. She and Greg had discussed the situation and they determined that the best course of action would be for Cynthia to cut back on her hours; she asked her supervisor if she could work out a schedule in which she had three mornings a week with her children.
Cynthia’s supervisor was willing to accommodate Cynthia’s request. The other accountants working with her had agreed that they would hire a temporary worker to fill in some of the work that Cynthia would not be able to do. Everyone seemed happy with the arrangement.
Two Years Later
Cynthia’s children were now in school: Jamie attended a pre-school and Eileen was in nursery school. During the last several years when Cynthia worked part-time, she had taken continuing education credits in accounting to keep abreast of new accounting procedures and the new software packages. She had also made sure that she attended all staff meetings. Now she was ready to go back to work full-time and to apply for a more senior-level job. She filled out the application for an Accountant Level III making sure to list all of her qualifications, training on software programs, and her continuing education credits.
In less than a week, her supervisor told her that she had not been chosen for the job. Vernon Ladner had been offered the job. Vernon had joined Mercy a year after Cynthia. He had worked full-time in the same position as Cynthia held during the time she took her partial leave.
Cynthia wondered if her part-time schedule had kept her from achieving the next step. She feared that the penalty she had paid to be with her children was management’s impression of her as an uncommitted employee, or at least an employee who didn’t have the ambition and drive to be promoted. Nothing could have been further from the truth. She knew other professional women at the hospital who had also chosen to work part-time while their children were young. They too seemed to be stagnating in their careers. Although the hospital had a part-time policy for all employees, she knew of no men in the professional ranks who had taken advantage of it.
15 Years Later
Cynthia was now 47-years-old and had gradually been promoted to higher-level positions in the accounting department. She was now an Accountant Level V and had substantial responsibility for the accounts dealing with all hospital suppliers. Instituting a new accounting protocol, she had saved the hospital thousands of dollars each year either by finding errors in what suppliers had charged the hospital or mistakes in what the hospital had paid suppliers. She planned on working until she was 65, and she had aspirations of becoming head of the department, a senior-level position, and a member of the hospital board of directors.
Cynthia’s children had grown up. Jamie was now a gregarious 15-year-old, performing admirably in school and involved in after-school sports programs. Eileen had just finished her first year of college at the University of Washington in Seattle. Cynthia was very proud of her children; both were well-adjusted, independent, and happy. She and Greg had divorced three years ago, finding that their lives had moved in dramatically separate directions. Greg had long ago finished his doctorate and taken academic positions in the DC area. He liked spending his weekends either at academic conferences or playing tennis or golf. Cynthia, on the other hand, was interested in spending her free time with friends or in one of DC’s many museums. In spite of the divorce, Cynthia and Greg got along, shared custody of the children and, fortunately, Jamie and Eileen were close to both of them.
Cynthia’s newest challenge came in the form of a phone call from her only sibling, her younger brother Terry, who was an attorney living in New Jersey:
“I’m sorry to have to deliver bad news, Cindy. Mom went to the emergency room this morning. She’s had another setback. She broke her hip as she got out of her car. I’m afraid the time has come for us to sell the house and find her an assisted living arrangement. With Dad gone, she can’t really manage alone.”
Cynthia paused for a moment in disbelief and then said, “Is she going to be OK? What do the doctors say?”
“She is going to be fine, but she will be in the hospital for at least four weeks. It was quite a break – they put pins and things in to hold the bone in place. Then they want to ensure that she has proper care at home. You know I would go there, but I am in the middle of a big court case and I just can’t get away. There is no way I can get out of it,” Terry replied.
“I’ll be there as soon as I can and I’ll call you when I get there. I’ll have to make sure Greg can take Jamie, but I think it will work. Which hospital is she in?” Cynthia asked.
“St. Joseph’s in downtown Boston.”
“OK. I’ll call when I get there. When will you be able to come?”
“This trial has been a bear. The judge takes no prisoners and I can’t use any tactics to delay it. I really don’t know when I can get away.”
“What about one of your partners? Can’t they take the case?”
“They’re just as busy as I am and besides I just couldn’t dump the case on them. There are too many files to read and reams of depositions. They’d never be able to get on top of it.”
“Well, I’d like you to come.”
“I’ll try but I just can’t leave in the middle of the case. If you need any money for anything just call me. Thanks for doing this, Cindy. I’ll owe you one. We’ll be in touch.”
As she hung up the phone, she thought about all the things she had to arrange before leaving: flight arrangements, Jamie’s care, and work. She would have to tell Mercy Hospital that she needed a leave of absence to deal with the emergency and that she would most probably have to be in Boston on and off for several months until her mother was healed and settled in an assisted living residence. She’d have to put the house on the market, look for a suitable place for her mother, and most important, convince her mother that this was the best option.
She knew that Mercy had a policy of giving employees support while they dealt with elderly parents, but she was unsure exactly how it worked. She was also worried that this new responsibility would again take her off the track for possible promotion to the head of her department, but she could see no other alternative. Mercy would just have to understand that her mother needed her help.
1. How can working women avoid “the second shift?”
2. Does Cynthia have to take care of her mother? What other alternatives does she have? Are these alternatives acceptable in your view?
3. How does this case demonstrate that career paths and life choices for women are different from men’s? Do they have to be?
Case Study 2: A Manager’s Dilemma and Time-Off
Orion Corporation manufactures various types of glass. Its largest market is for windshields of all kinds and tempered glass for residential construction. In recent years it has had a surge in business from an upbeat housing market, especially in the so-called sunshine retirement states such as Arizona, Florida, California, and parts of New Mexico like Santa Fe.
It has a workforce of 10,000, divided between its three regional manufacturing facilities and a large head office located in Miami, Florida.
One of the hallmarks of Orion Corporation and a major tool in recruiting talent to its headquarters has been its policies contributing to work and family balance and healthier lifestyles. Orion has a state-of-the-art fitness facility with the latest weight equipment and Nautilus machines, and a running track, an on-site daycare facility, and generous maternity and paternity leaves for new parents. Parents who are interested in adopting children are given a small stipend to help defray the cost of adoption. Managers at Orion are encouraged to use their own best judgment about giving employees freedom to handle family responsibilities such as looking after a sick child, attending an important school event, or taking time out to find appropriate medical care for an elderly parent. Flexible working hours allow employees to start work early and leave early or begin later and leave later than 5 p.m. Orion also has a job-sharing policy that allows employees to split a job between themselves and another individual. These policies are at the discretion of management; if an individual wants flexible work hours the arrangement must be cleared with his or her supervisor. Employees working in the regional manufacturing facilities also have an on-site fitness facility. All of the other benefits, with the exception of the daycare center, are available to plant employees. The company simply found it impractical and too expensive to set up daycare facilities for the regional plant employees.
Orion’s CEO, Spencer Dax, believes wholeheartedly that employees should have balance in their lives. Dax is married and has three children: ages 10, 15, and 18. Although he values family time, he has made it very clear to managers that their units must produce. On more than one occasion he has said to managers, “Do what you think is right in terms of letting employees manage their work lives and their other responsibilities, but you better make sure that our profits stay high and your unit contributes.” Some managers have remarked, “He gives us enough rope to hang ourselves. We’re the ones who are held accountable if our teams don’t reach our goals.” Dax has given every employee a letter highlighting the various workplace policies and reiterating that specific work hours and time off are to be worked out with one’s direct supervisor. The manufacturing facility employees have less flexibility because the plants operate on a three-shift system. Employees are scheduled far in advance for a particular shift and there is little flexibility in work hours unless there is an emergency. Most employees doing shift work are working the shift that they prefer. It is only when a co-worker becomes ill or has to go on leave for some reason that an individual may be asked to work a shift that he or she has not requested.
Marion Clark has worked for Orion for 10 years, gradually working her way into middle management as an information-technology manager. She started her career with Orion as a junior business analyst, but with advanced computer training made her way into better and better jobs. Marion has two children who are now in college. She remembers the days that she had to juggle daycare provision with an early morning meeting or a conversion of one informational technology system to another, requiring her to be in the office almost all night. Having raised two boys while working for Orion, Marion is sympathetic to the demands placed on parents and she tries to accommodate her staff.
Marion’s staff includes Susan Lafferty, a senior system analyst; Joel Epstein, a systems analyst; Jeff Bigley, the helpline manager; Tom Wilkerson, network manager; Justin Finch, database coordinator; and Carla Wilkerson, administrative assistant.
Susan Lafferty is currently taking the first month of a six-month maternity leave. Susan began her leave on August 1, and plans to be back to work on February 3. The company provides for a three-month paid leave and allows employees to extend their leave, without pay, with permission of their supervisor. As a senior system analyst, Susan is a very valuable member of the team. She troubleshoots computer glitches and makes sure that the company’s customer database operates flawlessly. Marion has covered Susan’s job with two others from her staff, Jeff Bigley and Joel Epstein, who continue to perform their own jobs and fill in for Susan while she is on leave. Marion’s department is constantly stretched; her five staff have to deal with all computer-related issues in the company. These issues range from providing computer training, manning a computer helpline, keeping up to date on viruses and building firewalls to prevent viruses from destroying computers, and recommending computer software programs and installing them.
Recently, Joel Epstein made an appointment to meet with Marion to discuss a pressing, personal issue.
The September Meeting
Joel began, “Hello, Marion. Thanks for meeting with me. You know that I have been a sort of amateur science fiction writer for many years now. I love writing. It keeps me energized and it is really my main interest outside of work. Well . . . I just heard that I won a national science fiction writers’ contest for a short story that I wrote. It’s called “Wayward Galaxies” and . . .”
Marion interrupted, “Well, Joel, that is absolutely wonderful! I’m sure the competition was tough. Will it be published? I would be interested to read it.”
“It’s going to be published in an anthology of science fiction short stories. I’ll give you an autographed copy when it comes out.”
“That’s great. I’m sure if it’s autographed it will be valuable one day. After all, a first edition of Joel Epstein’s ‘Wayward Galaxies’!” Marion said encouragingly.
“Well, I wanted to talk to you about the prize I got. In addition to the honorarium of $5,000, I get to attend a month-long workshop with some really well-known science fiction writers. They will work with us on any of our drafts of stories. It’s going to be held in Sedona, Arizona, in October and they pay for everything. It will be held at a nice type of retreat center. I’ll need to take a leave from work to go.”
“Wow . . . I’ll need to think this over. October is a busy month for us. We’ll be in the middle of a big conversion project. We have to convert data from our current billing system to a new customer program that integrates all customer transactions including all charges.”
“Marion, I’ve been doing two jobs here. Mine and Susan’s. I may be a single guy but I have important interests outside of work just like parents do. The writers workshop is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I can’t ask them to hold it at another time. I don’t see how you can give Susan six months off and not let me take a month off.”
“It’s just that I haven’t got any bench left. Who could I get to fill in for you while you’re gone? Our budgets are frozen and I can’t even hire a temporary employee during our crunch times.”
“I’m not asking for any pay while I am gone. I just want the time off.”
“I appreciate that you would be willing to take the time off without pay. The company really doesn’t have a provision to pay for things like this. But I still can’t see how we will get the conversion done without you,” Marion offered.
“Marion, you told us that you would try to work with us on balancing our lives with our careers. I’ve worked hard and have never taken any time off before, except, of course, my regular vacations. This is really important to me. It seems like this company gives all of the perks to parents. Well, just because I am not taking care of a kid, I have needs too.”
“Let me think about this and get back to you in a couple of days. You have to understand that there are pressing business issues facing us and we are already stretched too thin. I really will try to come up with a solution and if you have one, please give me your ideas.”
1. Do you think Joel is justified in taking a leave off work? Why, or why not?
2. Should single employees have similar rights to employees who are parents?
3. What problems are associated with the company’s policy about time off?
4. If you were going to try to accommodate Joel, what solutions could you propose?
5. Look at the information on the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (Appendix 9.1). It does not cover the needs of same-sex couples or non-medical or non-caregiver situations. Discuss.
Appendix 9.1: The US Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993
Congress passed this act to provide eligible employees with up to a 12-week, unpaid, job-protected leave. Employers with 50 or more employees within a 75-mile area must follow the law. Smaller employers with fewer than 50 employees are exempt from it.
An employee is eligible if he or she has worked for the employer for at least one year or for 1,250 hours over the previous 12 months.
Under this legislation leave may be taken for the following reasons:
• to care for the employee’s child (this includes the birth of a child, adoption, or foster care).
• to care for the employee’s spouse, parent, son, or daughter in the event of a serious health condition.
• for the employee’s own serious health condition, which makes the employee unable to perform his or her job.
Employees who take advantage of the Family Medical Leave Act are guaranteed to have their original job or an equivalent job back after their leave expires. Once they return to work, they cannot be denied the pay and employee benefits they had before their leave. Employees are entitled to continue their health benefits coverage while they are on leave.
Employees should give their employers 30 days’ notice (or as soon as is practical) of their intention to take a medical or family leave.