Work-life balance is important to single people too

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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.

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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.

56 comments

  • Well, and in fact not having anything else going on is good for your health. Going home to cook dinner and stare at the TV is essential to switch off and re-charge for tomorrow's work day, and it will make you a lot more productive than working into the evening, getting takeaway for dinner because you're starving, sleeping badly because you're stressed, and coming in to work resentful and exhausted the next day.
    I'm not saying this is necessarily what single people have on, it's just that whether you have kids or hobbies or nothing much on, everyone needs an adequate amount of time spent not working to ensure that when they are working, they can do it well.

    Commenter
    Alice
    Date and time
    March 06, 2013, 9:54AM
    • I totally agree with you that single people also need a work life balance. I have seen it often in offices where parents (me included) are given free reign to work from home while the single people are given the third degree for just asking.

      I do however have an issue with you making out that single people are left holding up the fort while parents skip out on their work responsibilities. Some days I need to leave work at 4.30 to pick the kids up. On those days I get into work at around 7 while my husband drops them off. If, at 4.30 there is still work to do I will take my laptop with me and continue working once the kids have been picked up. I have deadlines that I have to meet and I have never dumped work on colleagues because of childcare responsibilities.

      I think a lot of people see someone leaving the office early and automatically think that they have worked fewer hours without realising that many of them would have been working for a couple of hours before anyone else showed up, and will continue working once they are at home.

      Other than that, I do believe that we are all entitled to a work-life balance and any manager who does not allow their single colleagues the same access to that balance is just asking to lose staff.

      Commenter
      Liv
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      March 06, 2013, 10:08AM
      • I don't think it is that. In my own personal experience I often saw parents etc drop the ball on others

        Commenter
        david
        Date and time
        March 06, 2013, 2:21PM
      • I think the point is we can't paint all parents with the same brush. Some of my colleagues with kids are great and so organised and on the ball, some are not. I don't think it's fair to generalise.

        The article is not saying all working parents are not working enough, but they are given more flexibility than single people, and that's not fair. I would like to be able to come in early and leave early, but I'm not allowed. I would like to chose my hours and take work home with me instead of staying at the office but I'm not allowed. Those with kids are allowed because they have kids. It's not about who is working more or harder. It's about having the same rights to flexible work arrangements.

        Commenter
        T
        Date and time
        March 06, 2013, 3:00PM
      • OK, if you want to speak in gross generalisations.... I have seen my single colleagues roll into work still drunk from the night before and subsequently achieve next to nothing during the day leaving me (parent with exactly zero social life) to pick up the slack.

        Having experienced this on multiple occasions do I now believe that all single people are no hopers who just mooch off the parents? Of course not, I don't even believe it of the usual suspects. To do so would be an enormous diservice to their usual work ethic and the work ethic of most single people.

        Commenter
        Liv
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        March 06, 2013, 3:09PM
      • Thanks T, that was kind of my point! I just didn't like the insinuation that parents are rorting the system!

        Commenter
        Liv
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        March 06, 2013, 3:10PM
      • I agree that it's unfair to generalise...but...

        I am the only full time team member in a team of part timers, all with small kids. I have less choice on discretionary projects ("we need a full timer on this one"), support all the others on their days off ("I don't work these days, but just call XXX in my absence"), and cop attitude for taking overdue holidays ("but who will do [insert unappealing task never allocated to part timers]").

        I'd be happier to do it all if it was reciprocated, but the others "never have enough time to get everything done". So I carry on, doing all my work and covering theirs on their days off, and they come in two or three days a week, then leave early or for big chunks of the day (or both) for personal appointments...

        Single, no kids = sadly, no chance

        Commenter
        pbd
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        March 06, 2013, 10:45PM
    • Very interesting study, what neither the study nor the author explicitly pointed out though is that in the vast majority of cases it is going to be mothers who are heading off early to look after a child leaving their childless female co-workers and most men at the office to finish up the work.

      Obviously there is a penalty to be paid in that these mothers are less likely to be promoted at work, however they do at least have the flexibility to leave earlier and in many cases do part time, an option which is far less available to their colleagues of either sex without children, or even to fathers who should theoretically be in much the same situation as mothers. It is very difficult to have gender equality and equal likelihood of the father staying at home to look after the kids when the options simply aren't there for them to be able to do so.

      Commenter
      Hurrow
      Date and time
      March 06, 2013, 10:13AM
      • I don't believe that the options aren't there. They are. It's just that in most relationships the man earns significantly more than the woman so it becomes logical that the woman sacrifices her working life to look after the kids. Not much point asking the man on $200k to take time off when his wife is only earning $50k.

        I've been raked over the coals in the past when I had a regular habit of leaving work at 5:30 or 6pm. Didn't have much of a response. I did it because I felt I'd done enough work that day and I just wanted to go home (was sick of being at work and wanted to watch the telly and have dinner - couldn't say that as it would have meant automatic dismissal). Maybe if I had kids I'd have a valid excuse. Seems we're all meant to be slaves to the grindstone.

        Commenter
        Bender
        Date and time
        March 06, 2013, 12:01PM
      • @Bender - I agree with you on the economic argument, however in my personal experience any semblance of a flexible working schedule is only offered to women, and generally only mothers. I work in finance so perhaps it is different in other industries but from many of the comments on daily life I very much have the feeling it is not. Maternity leave is much longer than paternity leave, flexi time or part time work is for men not women, etc etc. I realise that these do create other problems in terms of lack of career advancement for women, lower savings etc but on the other hand at least mothers have that option, fathers do not.

        All these high minded ideas about men staying home to look after the kids are great, but until the framework is in place for that the status quo is likely to remain, fathers do full time paid work, mothers work part time or are at home full time and look after the children. And the singles, childless and fathers (in roughly that order) will continue to have to sacrifice their work life balance for mothers.

        Commenter
        Hurrow
        Date and time
        March 06, 2013, 2:53PM

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