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Your Flex Work Culture May Actually Hurt Worker Careers

When we talk about workers who need flexibility to manage their personal lives and family responsibilities, most people envision a working mother. The leading assumption is that working moms want and need flexibility at work. It’s true, of course, that many working mothers carry the load of double shifts or primary child care responsibilities on top of their full-time jobs, so they want positions that provide enough flexibility to juggle those weighty responsibilities. Yet nearly 20 years of research shows that working flexibly can be a kind of a career death sentence — or at least dead end — for many working moms. Those who go for that option are often “mommy-tracked” into less desirable, lower-wage positions. At worst, they can be pushed out of their jobs altogether.

But many researchers know that flexibility is much more than just a “woman’s issue.” All workers benefit  from flexibility at certain points in their careers, whether their cat gets ill and needs veterinary care, or they wish to attend a wedding, or need to pay their respects as a funeral. What’s more, working moms aren’t the only people who take a professional hit when unable to juggle the obstacles and curve-balls life around their jobs. So career researchers have been asking questions rarely addressed in the field: What happens to EVERYBODY when they feel that job flexibly at their place of work could derail their careers?

In a pair of recent studies published in Sociological Perspectives and Community, Work, & Family, those researchers looked at the ways “workplace flexibility bias” — employees’ assumption or belief that people are less likely to get ahead if they take leave or ask for work flexibly at their workplace — impacts their engagement at work, their plan to stay or quit their jobs, their success in balancing their work and personal lives, and even their physical health.

The data used by the HBR teams came from a nationally representative sample of about 2,700 American employees compiled by the Families & Work Institute. In the survey, employees spoke about the extent to which co-workers were likely to get ahead at work if they took time off or rescheduled their shifts or world projects for personal reasons. The analysis includes employees from across many occupations, industries, and sectors and from different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. That made it possible for HBR to factor in many variables that could affect employee attitudes toward their jobs, their experiences with work-life spillover, and their health.

Here’s the upshot: when employees perceive workplace flexibility bias in their organizations, they report higher levels of unhappiness and are more liable to say they plan to quit in the near future. Significantly, the effects of this bias aren’t just relevant to working mothers. Even guys without kids and who have never taken family leave are harmed when they perceive flexibility bias in their workplaces.

But the effects don’t just stop at the office door; they bleed over into personal life as well. As stated in the report: “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.”

This raises the question: why is flexibility bias so detrimental to all types of workers? The researchers argue that employees on the whole don’t like working for organizations that penalize people for having reals lives outside their careers. That makes them feel unsupported, and undermines the sense of control over their schedules. But the report also suggests that flexibility bias limits the extent to which employees can take care of to their personal and family responsibilities, and as a result, there is harm to worker health (for example, when an employee puts off a medical visit due to fear of taking time away from work).

Of course this doesn’t mean that workers are free from their own responsibility to show up consistently and be engaged. Worker absenteeism and disengagement are the cause of multibillion-dollar losses to businesses in the U.S. But this is a two-way street: when organizations neglect employees’ personal and family lives and create an environment that seems hostile to asking for leave— organizations run a high risk of making the problems worse, not better.

HBR research also shows that having an engaged, committed, and healthy workforce does not come just from offering a generous family leave or flex-schedule options. Organizations should also carefully watch the messages communicated to their workforce regarding use of those these options. A solid set of flexible policies from HR is fairly useless if employees don’t think they can use them without penalty to their careers.

If your workforce is apprehensive about taking leave or using other flexible options, there are steps you can take to remedy this. First, encourage the senior management to lead by example. When a company’s leadership takes full paternity and maternity leaves, or heads home early on certain weekdays to meet their kids after school, or misses a meeting to go to the dentist, others around them feel less anxiety about doing the same. Organizations that make these changes will end up with healthier, more productive, and more committed employees.

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Emery Reddy