When you think about who needs flexibility at work to manage personal and family responsibilities, who comes to mind? If you are like most people, you envision a working mom. But, in truth, everybody needs flexibility at some point in their careers. So what happens to employees when they feel that working flexibly at their organizations will derail their careers? Research shows that when employees see workplace flexibility bias in their organizations, they are less happy professionally and are more likely to say they will quit their jobs in the near future. Importantly, the effects of this bias aren’t limited to working mothers. Even men who don’t have kids and who have never taken family leave or worked flexibly are harmed when they see flexibility bias in their workplace.
When you think about who needs flexibility at work to manage personal and family responsibilities, who comes to mind? If you are like most people, you envision a working mom.
The prevailing assumption is that working mothers are the ones who want and need flexibility at work. To be sure, many working mothers still shoulder the daunting double shift of full-time work and primary child care responsibilities, and many likely want jobs that give them more flexibility to juggle these important responsibilities. Nearly two decades of research shows that working flexibly is akin to a career torpedo for many working moms: Those who do it are often “mommy-tracked” into less demanding, lower-paying positions, and in the worst-case scenarios, they’re pushed out of their jobs entirely.
But we suspected that flexibility is not just a “woman’s issue.” Everyone needs flexibility at some point in their careers, whether to take a pet to the veterinarian, to serve as the best man in a brother’s wedding, or to pay last respects at a great aunt’s funeral. And working moms may not be the only ones who suffer professionally and personally when they feel unable to negotiate their work around the stuff of real life. So we asked a question that’s rarely been addressed in academic studies: What happens to all employees when they feel that working flexibly at their organization will derail their careers?
In two studies, recently published in Sociological Perspectives and Community, Work, & Family, we examined how workplace flexibility bias — employees’ belief that people at their workplace are unlikely to get ahead if they take leave or work flexibly — affects people’s engagement at work, their intentions to stay or leave their jobs, their ability to balance their work and personal lives, and even their health.
Our data comes from a nationally representative sample of about 2,700 U.S. employees collected by the Families & Work Institute. In the survey, employees were asked about the extent to which others at their workplace were likely to get ahead at work if they took time off or rearranged their schedules for family or personal reasons. Our analysis includes employees from a range of occupations, industries, and sectors and from different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Thus, we were able to account for a variety of factors that might affect employees’ attitudes toward their jobs, their experiences with work-life spillover, and their health.
We show that when employees see workplace flexibility bias in their organizations, they are less happy professionally and are more likely to say they will quit their jobs in the near future. Importantly, the effects of this bias aren’t limited to working mothers. Even men who don’t have kids and who have never taken family leave or worked flexibly are harmed when they see flexibility bias in their workplaces.
We also find that perceiving bias against people who work flexibly not only impacts work attitudes but also follows employees home. It increases their experiences with work-life spillover, minor health problems, and depressive symptoms, as well as leads to more absenteeism at work and worse self-rated health and sleep. These effects occur for working moms, dads, and childless women and men alike. The effect holds across age groups and racial and ethnic categories as well.
Why is workplace flexibility bias so harmful to all types of employees? We think employees generally do not like working for organizations that penalize people for having lives outside of work. They don’t feel supported, and they feel a lack of control over their schedules. We also speculate that flexibility bias limits the extent to which employees can attend to their personal and family responsibilities, and does so in ways that are harmful to their health (for example, when someone puts off going to the doctor because she is afraid to take time away from work).
We are not suggesting that employees have no responsibility to show up consistently and be engaged. Worker absenteeism and disengagement are undoubtedly multibillion-dollar problems in the U.S. However, when organizations ignore employees’ personal and family lives — and harbor workplace cultures that leave them afraid to ask for or use the leave and flexibility they need — organizations are likely exacerbating these problems, not solving them.
Our research also shows that having an engaged, committed, and healthy workforce does not come just from offering a generous suite of family leave and flexible work options. Organizations also need to pay close attention to the messages they send to employees about actually using these policies. A great set of flexible policies from HR means little when employees think their careers will be derailed by them.
In order to understand whether this feeling is prevalent in your organization, start by looking into how frequently your flexibility options are being used, and by whom. Previous research shows workers often avoid taking leave or working flexibly even when they need to, out of the fear of what it will do to their careers. If employees, or some subgroups of employees, are not taking advantage of flexible work options when they need them, that is a red flag.
If employees at your organization are scared to take leave or work flexibly, there are things you can do. For one, you can encourage senior management to lead by example. When managers take full paternity and maternity leaves, head home early a few days a week to help their children off the school bus, or arrive late after a dentist appointment, those around them feel less anxiety about taking leave or working flexibly. Organizations that take these steps will likely find their employees healthier, more productive, and more committed.
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