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Photo: Rommel Demano

Traditionally, when we talk about “work-life balance”, it’s implied that the “life” we’re talking about is “family life” or “my relationship”.

Like so many things in this world, you can find a handy barometer of this by looking at stock images tagged “work-life balance”: they’re almost always women juggling computers and babies, or running to (from??) work clutching a crying bairn. (Occasionally they’re nightmare visions of secretaries with six arms, but we don’t talk about them.)

The implied message here is that for us sad singletons, there is no such thing as work-life balance: we can keep the gears of industry turning because we don’t need to worry about rushing home to juggle our babies/partners. Bring on the 19-hour work day!

Thank goodness, then, for a new study from Michigan State University, that aims to encourage employers to consider the non-work lives of all employees.

The research, which comprised two studies of nearly 5000 MSU alumni, found that respondents without families were on the same page as those with kids: they had trouble finding time to maintain friendships, hobbies and health outside of work hours. And yet, reports MSU professor of psychology and study co-author Anne Marie Ryan, it’s typically those with families whose extracurricular activities are looked upon more kindly by employers.

“Take, for example, an employee who is single and without children and wants to leave work early to train for a triathlon, Ryan said. Should that employee have any less right to leave early than the one who wants to catch her child’s soccer game at 4 p.m.? ‘Why is one more valued than the other?’ Ryan said. ‘We have to recognize that non-work roles beyond family also have value’.”

I looked back over my various stints working in offices, and could see parallels with Ryan’s findings: my co-workers with kids would regularly dash out early, or work remotely, if their children had school activities or were home sick; I’d have to bend my personal life to fit the increasing demands of the workplace because “You’re cool to stay late tonight, right Clem?”

And that mindset is easy to understand. Now that I am full-time freelance, I am in charge of organising my working day - and I am the worst boss in the world. I regularly make myself check emails at 10pm at night and take conference calls over breakfast, and the two weeks I took off at Christmas were the first proper holiday I’d taken in five years. Would I treat my work life this way if I had children or a relationship to attend to? It’s unlikely.

This shouldn’t be news to people, but perhaps a study will bring it into brighter relief for employers. A late-2012 New York Times piece on the pursuit of the fabled work-life balance indicated that single workers are often expected to pick up the slack when their attached coworkers need to see to parenting. One woman interviewed reported working upward of 70-hour weeks simply because she was the go-to singleton; “[w]hile she was covering for her former colleagues, she says, she sometimes sacrificed her own obligation to take care of her ailing grandparents.”

It’s important not to see this as a righteous burst of single tears: nobody is saying that dashing off to a pottery class is as compelling a reason to leave work early as a kid who’s run into the corner of an eye-height table at aftercare. (The lack of affordable and accessible childcare is a huge issue that needs separate coverage.)

But we need to ensure that single workers aren’t relied upon as a bottomless well of overtime simply because they mustn’t have anything else going on.