We live in a 24/7 working world, where smartphones and PCs act as digital leashes, making it harder than ever to strike a work/life balance. As a result, numerous companies are now instituting flexible work arrangements and paid time off, responding to numerous studies revealing that happy employees are more productive. Nevertheless, studies reveal that taking advantage of these perks could sabotage future wages, risk a promotion or — worse — chance a layoff.
This puts parents in a particularly tough spot: prioritizing time with the kids or focusing on the means of providing for them. Trying to balance kids while working or opting out of the workforce for a little while can have severe career implications in terms of hiring prospects and future wages, says Kate Weisshaar, an assistant professor in the department of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This is referred to as the "parenting penalty."
This issue extends to a variety of workers in a variety of situations: those who wish to leave the office early to see their kid's school play or attend a parent/teacher conference; new parents who desire an extended maternity/paternity leave; part-timers, attempting to sufficiently bridge their duties to both their families and their employers; and those who go so far as to leave the job market for a few years to focus on their children during their formulative years.
"In a lot of workplaces, there is an expectation from employers that employees devote themselves fully to work," said Weisshaar. "The expectation to work long hours, to be highly dedicated to work and to always be available can introduce challenges for parents, or any caregivers, who have other demands on their time besides work. So if employers are making promotion or hiring decisions based on these types of expectations and/or assumptions that parents can't or won't live up to expectations, then parents may be blocked from opportunities at work."
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Weisshaar says stay-at-home mothers and fathers face a huge disadvantage when trying to reenter the workforce — more so than job applicants that were employed and laid off. Parents who temporarily exit the workforce to spend time with their children are only half as likely to get a job interview than those who have been laid off, she said.
According to a recent study by Working Families, a U.K.-based charity that advocates for working parents, parents who work part-time have a 21% chance of being promoted within the next three years. Full-time counterparts have a 45% chance. And the average mother, the group says, waits two years longer for a promotion than the average father.
The study was focused on the U.K., says Catherine Gregory, head of marketing and communications for Working Families, but the results translate across borders.
"Eighty percent of parents we surveyed are working beyond their contracted hours," she says. "Part of that is poor job design, where employers are creating jobs that can't be completed in the time allocated. But it's also expected. Over half the people we spoke with said that's just part of their company culture. It's an expectation from their employer that they're supposed to be there and do extra work."
Although many companies are trying to promote a more family-friendly atmosphere, the U.S. still lags far behind the rest of the world when it comes to paid family leave. A 2016 Pew Study found that American workers were the only one of 41 countries that did not have a mandate for paid leave for parents. (Estonia, meanwhile, offers an astonishing 87 weeks.)
That not only affects parents of newborns but can cause problems as children get older and lead more active lives.
"It's very challenging to find childcare or arrangements when children are young, and when they are older, there is an expectation that parents are highly involved in their children's lives, planning activities and camps and helping with homework," says Weisshaar. "The combination of high workplace expectations and these intense parenting expectations lead to high levels of work-family conflict."
Unless high-level executives take the lead and prioritize family values, the odds may be against you.
"If a male CEO takes paternity leave, that's huge," says Gregory. "That shows the entire company it's acceptable. Or even if that CEO takes a few hours off to go see their kid's school play. ... You have to feel like you're able to disconnect without it having an adverse effect on your job."
Parenting penalties vary from company to company, of course. Some have generous paid leave programs, but jobs held by low-income individuals tend to be the most restrictive. That's the finding of a 2010 study by the Center for American Progress and the University of California, Hastings College of the Law.
That report also found that low-income parents have the least workplace benefits and inconsistent schedules, forcing them to handle childcare on a piecemeal basis. Professionals in higher-paying jobs might have more benefits, but they were also the ones who felt the most pressure to dedicate themselves completely to their jobs if they wanted to advance. Most affected, though, was the "missing middle," a group that has stable jobs but rigid schedules, which leads to higher levels of frustration.
"Americans in the middle have more power than the poor — particularly if they are unionized — but they, too, often face no-win work-family conflicts," say authors Joan C. Williams and Heather Boushey. "What middle-income families see is that they work hard — harder than their parents did — and have less to show for it."
So what's the solution? Many companies are offering more flexible work arrangements, including things like paternity leave or shortened work weeks, but some employees are afraid to take advantage of those benefits, thinking the lack of "face time" at the office will hurt their chances of advancement or make them more vulnerable should a company announce layoffs.
If you feel unhappy and burnt out because your equilibrium is out of whack, there are ways to approach your boss to discuss some options. Remember, your employer has a lot invested in you in training and experience, and they don't want you to quit. So try to think about improving your work/life balance as being a benefit to your employer rather than a favor they would be doing for you and head in armed with examples of some major companies — like Johnson & Johnson, Dell and Lockheed Martin — that encourage work/life balance through flexible work and work-at-home options.
Before scheduling a meeting with your boss, evaluate the responsibilities of your job and think about a plan. Then check with your HR department to see if they have a flex work or remote policy that they are not currently employing. Next, draft a proposal and set up a time to meet with your boss, preferably at a time when he or she is not stressed out.
Finally, suggest a trial period so your boss can see firsthand how it will work.