This past February, my furnace went kaput. One day, it was a nice 68 degrees—downright tropical during the winter's Polar Vortex. The next day, I could have sworn I saw my breath. After a few moments of panic and mentally preparing myself to freeze to death in my sleep—alone, childless, forever single—I was able to do the adult thing and schedule a repair. Someone would be headed to my home the following afternoon. I paused briefly upon realizing that I'd need to be home in the middle of the workday … but this was an emergency. I needed heat, the pipes can't freeze, blah blah blah adulthood.
Fast forward to the following morning, when I approached my boss with a laugh and a "You will never guess what just happened to me during the coldest winter in history," quickly followed by a request to take a few hours out of the office to ensure that things were done. Oh, God. The look on his face. He just stared at me as if I had requested a kidney. And then he said,""Ehhhh."
"Are you sure that you HAVE to be there? Does this HAVE to be done today…?"
I just looked back at him. A picture is worth a thousand words, and the look on my face was a huge WTF. Long story short, eventually I was freed from my super-important duties and allowed to get my furnace fixed, but not after several conversations about how big an emergency this really was.
A few days later, my colleague's son had some sort of flu. She came into work that morning, and when it came time to bring her boy to the doctor, she was shooed off. "Why are you still here? Go take care of Jackson!" I heard my boss tell her. "Worry about this stuff later!" She rushed off, yelling good-byes, and stopping at my door to ask, "Do you mind taking care of this? I have to take Jackson to the pediatrician!"
I was happy to help, because that is what colleagues do, but I had to wonder about the difference in response. Why is it that I, a single, childless woman with an emergency situation, was given the third degree when asking to leave the office, but my colleague, a mother with a young son, was practically airlifted home?
The powers that be at this job made an exceedingly family-friendly workplace (yay!), which manifested in an unfair treatment toward those without spouses, partners, and children (boo!). Of course, it was never a blatant "You don't have children, so you're stuck." Instead, it was looks and whispers from bosses when I attempted to deal with a car situation or decided to take a vacation. My coworkers were given the ol' "attaboy" for making time for their families. Rushing out at five to make dinner or attend a soccer game elicited a thumbs-up. Rushing out at five to get to yoga was frowned upon. Working from home was forbidden … unless there was a child to care for.
I was never one to mind staying. What I did mind was working in a very progressive organization that focused on being family-oriented, but gave little consideration to those without children. My company prided itself on looking past traditional gender roles in order to make sure that all with families—both men and women—were given the utmost priority to make time for little ones. But meanwhile, those without children were left picking up what was left behind.
I'm not the only person who's experienced this balance imbalance.
"A growing number of single workers are asking the same thing: An August 2011 survey by the Center for Talent Innovation found that 61 percent of women ages 33 to 47 without kids believe that their parent colleagues receive more flexibility at work. While businesses are increasingly sensitive to helping parents manage their time, they still assume, says DePaulo, that "single people don't have lives. No life means no need for balance—when, of course, everyone has important obligations, whether it's a class, exercise, caring for an elderly family member, or taking a vacation." —Marie Claire magazine
Balance, whether work/family or work/life, is imperative for happy and healthy employees, which leads to a happy and healthy workplace:
"Research tells us there is a positive connection between workplace flexibility and an individual's work-life balance. For instance, employees who work in environments that provide flexible work hours also tend to experience fewer conflicts within their work, family and personal lives. However, when a workplace does not provide adequate flexibility, women are more likely than men to experience work-family conflicts and health-related distress, some studies show."—Annie Toro of the American Psychological Association, in the Huffington Post
Workplace flexibility is necessary, and it is past time for new standards to come into fruition. Perfect balance may be impossible, but the opportunity for employees to better manage their work and their lives can produces healthier, more joyful families—whatever those families look like—which in turn leads to a more productive society.
Life isn't fair, but when making moves to address work/life balance, there should be balance between employees as well. Despite not having children, I, too, crave stability between my work life and home life. And despite great improvements to my work situation, I must continue to remind others that I have a life and priorities apart from my career. I'm an uber-progressive who is constantly cheering on my fellow women and men who are able to reconcile parenting with their work lives. But how can a workplace—how can anyone—determine that one person's vision of happiness is more important than another's?
I think we can all agree that a culture shift and policy shift in workplace standards should be a priority, but not if that means widening the gap between those with traditional families and those without. As we work to make changes to ensure the happiness of employees, we need to ensure that ALL employees are considered.
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