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Childless employees say their work-life balance is overlooked

cbc.ca logo cbc.ca 2018-12-29 Brandie Weikle

a man sitting at a table using a laptop: Altitude Visual/Shutterstock© Altitude Visual/Shutterstock Altitude Visual/Shutterstock Professionals without children may get the short end of the stick when it comes to work-life balance policies, new research has found. 

The study from York University's School of Human Resources Management found that employees without children feel less welcome to attend to non-work aspects of their lives than colleagues who are parents.

As a result, they're less likely to ask for things like flextime or telecommuting privileges, or even just to feel like they can leave promptly at the end of the day, said Galina Boiarintseva, a human resources course instructor who authored the study for her PhD dissertation.

When HR departments craft policies geared to promoting work-life balance, they're usually aimed at making it easier for parents to fulfil their child-rearing obligations, she said. "You can work from home a couple days a week, telecommute, share work — but only if you have a justification," said Boiarintseva. "We don't do the same for the non-parents."

That's a miss in a low-unemployment economy where workers are inclined to leave if they get a better offer. Previous research has found that employees who look favourably on their boss's efforts to support work-life balance show greater pride in their workplace, have higher job satisfaction and are more likely to recommend the organization as a place to work, the study notes.

Boiarintseva's paper, which focuses on child-free dual career couples, points out that work-life balance policies haven't kept up with social trends, including that more couples forego parenting today. 

a person wearing glasses: Galina Boiarintseva, a human resources instructor and researcher at York University, found that childless, dual-career couples are often under-served in the workplace. Flexible arrangements and accommodations for employees' lives outside of the office tend to be geared towards parents.© Galina Boiarintseva photo Galina Boiarintseva, a human resources instructor and researcher at York University, found that childless, dual-career couples are often under-served in the workplace. Flexible arrangements and accommodations for employees' lives outside of the office tend to be geared towards parents. Removing family status from the equation

"Despite the increasing diversity in family structure and personal responsibilities of employees, most organizations' work-life balance policies cater to the needs of employees with children, while inadvertently paying less attention to the work-life balance needs of those without," the study said.

Until two years ago, Boiarintseva also acted as human resources lead for Shulman Law, the family law firm founded by her husband. Although she's a parent herself, Boiarintseva said work-life balance accommodations must offer something for everyone. 

"In my mind, the family status has to be taken out of the policy. Any policy that is offered in the workplace has to apply to everyone regardless of whether they're married or whether they have children."

Boiarintseva​ said she favours an a la carte approach to work-life balance policies that allows employees to pick and choose what's valuable to them. Childless workers who can't take advantage of a parental leave top-up may love flex hours to avoid rush-hour traffic, for example.

A common theme that came up in her research was that child-free folks had less access to preferential shifts or holiday time. One physician she interviewed had the nickname "Dr. Long Weekend," said Boiarintseva. "It seemed like a joke but he said, 'I haven't had a long weekend in the last four years.'"

Family status could even affect advancement, she found.

"Some men mentioned that their colleagues with children were promoted faster."

More common, however, was a sense that they didn't enjoy the same freedoms as their parent colleagues. 

I continuously find myself raising my hand a little bit more because I feel as though I have to. -Leviana Coccia, childless communications officer

"Most would say, 'I have to use my niece or nephews as an excuse to get time off. I have to sometimes lie about an excuse. My colleagues with kids leave at 4 because they have to get kids at 5, but I can't do so.'"

Pressure to do more

Leviana Coccia said she's experienced some of those workplace dynamics, both in her current job in communications for a financial institution in Toronto, but also in her previous role at a small event agency.

"You can definitely feel the pressure to do more and give more of yourself because you understand that other folks may not be able to do so because they are required to be with their families, which at the end of the day is most important," says Coccia.

"I continuously find myself raising my hand a little bit more because I feel as though I have to, and also because I feel that it's not only expected of me, but if I don't than people might assume that I'm not giving my all to a position."

Her current employer has a policy that allows everyone to work from home once a week, which is a welcome opportunity to subtract travel time and use it toward the things that matter to her outside of work.

Passion projects are reason enough

Coccia volunteers for the Period Purse, a non-profit that provides menstrual hygiene products to people experiencing homelessness, runs a blog for young professionals and writes poetry.

Human resources consultant Hilda Gan of Markham, Ont., said some employers fail to see that millennial staffers may want access to things like flextime and telecommuting for good reason.

Often when they want time off it's to do something that's their passion …  It's not because they want to go out and have beers after work. - HR consultant Hilda Gan on millennial workers

"They have this sense of balance and of social justice, so often when they want time off it's to do something that's their passion," said Gan. "Their passion might be being a Big Sister or Big Brother. It's not because they want to go out and have beers after work."

But when the boss asks for help on a project that's going to extend after business hours, "people look around the room and the person without kids feels they have to step up to the plate," she said.

Family responsibilities beyond caring for kids

It's also a mistake to assume that child-free employees don't have other family responsibilities.

Now manager of a conference centre in Vancouver, Rhonda McDowell said she was given less understanding while caring for her very ill mother in a previous job in the U.K. than colleagues who needed flexibility to attend to their kids.

"All of my vacation days were spent going to appointments and hospitals. If I had to occasionally take time off for my mom's appointments, or we had an emergency, I would make up time over and above that taken off because of the inconvenience caused."

Her relationship with her boss soured after she applied for a program designed to provide flextime for caregivers.

Boiarintseva said employees without kids are only going to get only more resentful if policies don't catch up to family diversity. That could lead to costly turnover, particularly while the job market is so strong. "Organizations need to wake up. People without children are amazing workers; they're very dedicated. But they also have a life outside of work."

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