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.