Monday, October 23, 2006

Working all the live long day


My husband has been working twelve hour days, seven day weeks. He's had some big projects, with important deadlines. His employer is fortunate in him because he'll work the hours he must in order to meet deadlines, and produce quality work. His family is fortunate that he is a good worker who provides for us.

Somehow, though, each of us in the family feels unfortunate because we miss him. He misses us.

He feels compelled to work these hours---as do many American workers---because they are not just expected, but are required.

But these employees, the ones I know...they aren't terribly happy. The delight in their work is diffused by:

* guilt --- not putting enough of themselves into the rest of their life
* resentment --- not able to put enough of themselves into the rest of their lives
* stress and fatigue --- unbalanced life, too much pressure, too much work, not enough downtime, or true downtime (time without worrying about the work not getting done)

So how is this a good situation for employer or employee?

It isn't.

Then, what is it? It is a mistaken assumption about what constitutes a good, driven worker who produces well for the company...and how much the company needs to retain a well-balanced and happy employee. It is also a mistaken assumption about what makes an employee happy.

I know employees aren't disposable. I know how expensive it is to recruit professional employees, train them, get them up to speed. Therefore employers can't possibly view employees as disposable.

Still, that attitude is implied in the workplace. Workers are expected to prioritize work first, and devote the highest percentage of their time to the business. Everything else must compromise to the needs of capitalism and industry.

This doesn't generate happy employees, nor does it improve the retention rate.

In 2004, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the average US employee turnover rate had increased from 19.2% to 20.2%. That might not be significant if you simply look at the number, but it is when you consider that's practically 25 out of a 100 people leaving a company each year. And that's the average, which means some industries are higher.

Work and life balance continues to resonate as a commercial buzzword. Unfortunately, that's all it seems to be: a trendy phrase that employers feel obligated to say, but not do. Nobscot Corporation, which specializes in retention management and metrics, stated that work-life balances benefits both the employee and employer:

Many companies have implemented support programs such as flextime, childcare and personal care services. Often these programs are discontinued due to under utilization or lack of support from senior management.

Job performance and commitment is still measured in the minds of both employees and employers based on the long-work-hours culture.

In order for work life initiatives to be successful, the company leaders must set the tone and vision. Managers need to model good balanced behavior. Employees need to take responsibility for their choices regarding diet, exercise, sleep and career development.


Notice how important company leaders are to the success of any program. Consider how infrequently they actually support the program, in act, and not just word (although even that can be hard to come by). And ponder how frequently---such as in Nobscot's example---programs designed to improve morale and productivity by supporting an employee's outside obligations are abandoned because senior management gets tired of pretending to enjoy and support the Happy Dance.

The bottom line point in that is this concept: Job performance and commitment is still measured in the minds of both employees and employers based on the long-work-hours culture.

This means leaving at the door any and all outside obligations and nose to the grindstone for an unhealthy number of hours. It's one thing to focus on your job; it's another---and this is where it stops being healthy---to pretend they don't exist, especially to your boss. Who, it seems, rarely understands the pressing needs, and divided loyalties, all employees have.

Time and again, employers have asked my husband why he needs to be around to help his wife and children. The time I gave birth...they were stunned he wanted more than two days off. The time I was hospitalized with pneumonia, with a three year old and newborn...they were incredulous he needed to be home to help with the kids, and care for me (and in fact, he got little to no time off).

A boss even asked him once, as he left to do something with the kids, "Don't you have a wife for that?" My husband thought he was only half joking.

It’s not a joke. It’s all too real.

Because that sort of attitude and question isn’t even the worst. The worst---and the motivator behind why my husband works as he does---is the time he got fired for being married with a child.

My husband worked for this one company for far too long in my opinion. His bosses there had a cultish view of employment.

At one company picnic, two of the partners of that firm cornered me in the open office.

"You're ruining your husband's career," one partner said, "By putting so much pressure on him to come home, spend time with you, and the family."

"Your husband's job is crucial," the other partner told me, "And he hasn't got time for things like doctor's appointments, all those family issues. Those simply aren't priorities."

"I work too," I said, "We're 50/50 partners in our family," I explained.

"That doesn't fly," the first asserted, "We can't spare him for those trivial issues. His career might...suffer."

The second came forward with the threat, the real threat, “Your job is to support him in his work. Too much demand from you, from the family…it might lead to us re-evaluating his place here."

I've just enough bluster in me to say, "This is a completely inappropriate conversation. I think it's time for us to go."

How very John Grisham.

How very real and true. Art does, in fact, imitate life.

I refused all contact with his employers after that and spent time every single day persuading my husband to look for a new job.

It wasn't until I got pregnant, and they had to make cutbacks due to a huge loss of business after 9-11, that he got a new job. Because he was one of the cutbacks.

They fired the married men with children.

And kept the single ones.

Blatantly.

Single men cost less, they said, and work more.

Should employers be able to hire or fire based on an employee's family status? Or should an employer be expected to shoulder the burden of family workers having more obligations at home? Should single people work more simply because they haven't got family obligations?

More importantly, is any of the above true, or is it all simply an assumptive stereotype?

One research study asserts that this is an incorrect assumption.

The first part is true: married men do earn more.

However, this is because, according to research, they are more likely to be in a higher paying job grade, and are more likely to receive better performance reviews and thus receive more promotions.

(Source: Korenman, Sanders, and Newmark, David; Does Marriage Really Make Men More Productive?; Journal of Human Resources, Vol. 26, No. 2 (Spring, 1991), pp. 282-307.)

This isn't unique to the United States. In fact, marital status of married and higher paying job grade is a relationship that exists in all of the major developed countries. The marital effect is a true positive factor for employers and employees:

This effect is central to this study, which contributes to the understanding of this statistical association in two ways. First, it shows that the relationship exists in almost all of the fourteen developed countries examined and across several different time periods. Controlling for age, and, when available, education, race/ethnicity, hours worked, and location, marriage differences in annual earnings in favor of currently married males range from 0% to 30%. Second, it finds that there are important differences between those who are separated, divorced, widowed, and never married.


(Source: Springer, Berlin, and Heidelberg; Marital status and earnings in developed countries; Journal of Population Economics; Business and Economics Issue Volume 8, Number 4 / November, 1995, pages 351-359; Online Date Tuesday, November 16, 2004.)

Anthropologically speaking, the older a man gets the more likely he is to be married, and the more likely he is to have children.

I assert that most men feel a huge sense of responsibility to be wage-earners and providers for their families, and thus married men feel a tremendous loyalty and obligation---and a higher fear factor---towards maintaining a livelihood.

Additionally, married men are more likely to be healthy, and live longer. Dr. Linda J. Waite, a professor of sociology, presented the findings of her study in 1998:

Marriage changes people's behavior in ways that make them better off. Married partners monitor each other's health, for example. They also drink less alcohol and use less marijuana and cocaine.

From detailed reports on 50,000 men and women followed from their senior year in high school to the age of 32 by University of Michigan researchers, Dr. Waite discerned a steep increase in "bad behaviors" among those who stayed single, but a "precipitous drop" in bad behaviors like the use of alcohol or illegal drugs among those who married.

Drawing heavily on a study of 13,000 adults assessed in 1987 and 1988 and again in 1992 and 1993, Dr. Waite demonstrated the positive impact that marriage has on mental health. The study, conducted by two psychologists at the University of Wisconsin, Nadine F. Marks and James D. Lambert, will be published in November in The Journal of Family Issues.

Committed gay couples are likely to enjoy many of the same benefits, Dr. Waite said, as long as they promise to stay together and receive social support from others for staying together.

All told, marriage seems to be "an unmitigated good" for men, Dr. Waite added.


Therefore, I think companies get their moneys worth out of married men. In my opinion, companies ought to foster a balanced life, and support marriage and family.

However, in some professions and experience, all too often, this isn't the case.

I've had bosses look at two equal candidates and overtly select the single one, assuming this was going to be the better long-term employee. And then there is my husband's experience.

I think, simply put, that married men's outside obligations are less transparent than single peoples' obligations and responsibilities. Therefore, as the more open and obvious, they are more a known factor. It is harder to assume the outside obligations a single person will have. But to assume they won't have any or will have less is an error.

In fact, once again, I think it is a matter of perception and bias. Married workers' outside obligations are more understood and more likely to be accepted than a single person's outside obligations. Imagine the case of a married worker saying, "My child is sick," versus a single person saying, "My dog is sick." In which case is an employer more likely to understand and grant time off?

It's hard enough to ask for, and get, time off for a sick family member. Imagine asking for something more allegedly frivolous. I wonder how many times married/parent workers plead family need while single workers skate under the radar with different reasons, all the while both are taking care of personal business (which a married/parent worker might very well have more of, since there are more people he/she is responsible for). Nevertheless, both married/parent and single workers have lives and obligations outside of the office. I simply believe one is more obvious, less transparent. Regardless, there is almost a cardinal rule against mentioning personal need in today's business world.

I have heard many, many employees indicate reluctance to share any personal need with an employer. I understand anecdote isn't data, however, look at the assumptions employers operate under when hiring and firing employees: single people will work more and harder.

Look at my husband, though: burning the midnight oil, going into the office at 5 a.m., working long days, and all days of the week.

Where's that assumption now?

The caveat, of course, to all of this is that unhappy, unbalanced and overstressed people aren’t going to succeed, or achieve their personal best, at work or at home.

In the end, the company can opt to view employees as disposable, and work them until they burn out of the job there, or they can realize the long-term and higher end results of supporting a balanced outside life for both married and single workers.

By Julie Pippert
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© 2006. All images and text exclusive property of Julie Pippert. Not to be used or reproduced.

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2 comments:

Anonymous said...

When my husband was looking for an articling position last year (along with all the other students over age 30 who hadn't been snapped up early by the big firms), we were told that there are certain companies that will not hire anyone who (a) is over 35 or (b) has a dog - because someone with a dog has to go home every so often to fill the kibble bowl and go for a walk. This makes me see red every time I think about it.

I understand the principles of capitalism, and I realize that moral bankruptcy is not an argument against any business practice, but like you I feel that there must be a huge cost (to the employer) to this practice of squeezing every last drop out of people until they burn out.

Anonymous said...

Good post. Seems to me that single people are more likely to up and leave, to study, to change careers, teach English in another country or otherwise live it up.

I really really believe that unless there is some unusual unexpected crazy deadline, people who work 8 hours and 8 hours only, with a lunch break, are more productive during those 8 hours than people working 12 hours. But the person working 12 hours probably ends up getting more done during the longer hours, so it is encouraged and perpetuated. Despite all the stress and sick leaves that invariably follow.

I seriously can't do long hours anyways... my brain goes into meltdown mode and just stops processing at some point.