You've probably heard this story before: A female employee is pleasantly surprised by her company’s willingness to accommodate her new role as a mom. She’s given permission to leave at 5 p.m. sharp to pick up her son from daycare, and she’s even allowed to work from home when he’s sick or the center is closed.
But then her manager’s lip curls when she actually tries to leave the office. She’s inundated with emails on her days off, and is taken to task for being “unresponsive” when she doesn’t reply at 9:30 p.m. The promotion she was promised goes to another—child-free—employee. Her career stalls.
Now, researchers have coined a new term for the phenomenon—workplace flexibility bias—to describe environments where employees believe they are unlikely to get ahead if they take leave or work flexibly. And that perception is damaging in more ways than one, according to two new studies published in Sociological Perspectives and Community, Work, & Family.
When employees believe workplace flexibility bias exists in their organization—that their career will be derailed just by taking time off or asking for small accommodations—they are less happy professionally and are more likely to say they will quit their jobs in the near future. It also increases the number of minor health problems and depressive symptoms, and leads to more absenteeism at work and worse self-rated health and sleep, say the studies’ authors, Dr. Lindsey Trimble O’Connor, Ph.D., an assistant professor of sociology at California State University, and Dr. Erin Cech, Ph.D., an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan.
The two published an article in the Harvard Business Review recapping their results, and while they note working moms are particularly impacted by flexibility bias—“mommy-tracked” into less-demanding, lower-paying positions—it’s actually harmful for everyone. So harmful, in fact, the title of one study compares the toxic side effects to second-hand smoke.
The researchers surveyed 2,700 U.S. employees from a range of occupations, industries and sectors and from different racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. They found that “even men who don’t have kids and who have never taken family leave or worked flexibly are harmed when they see flexibility bias in their workplaces.”
“We think employees generally do not like working for organizations that penalize people for having lives outside of work,” they continue. “They don’t feel supported, and they feel a lack of control over their schedules.”
Of late, more and more companies have paid lip service to the notion of encouraging work-life balance. Certainly, more have made flexible work policies officially available for their employees. Of the Working Mother 100 Best Companies, for example, 71% offered flex time in 2009; by 2017, 80% offered the benefit. In 2009, 46% offered telecommuting; in 2017, it rose to 57%.
But official policies aren’t enough, Dr. O’Connor and Dr. Cech argue. “Our research also shows that having an engaged, committed and healthy workforce does not come just from offering a generous suite of family-leave and flexible-work options. Organizations also need to pay close attention to the messages they send to employees about actually using these policies. A great set of flexible policies from HR means little when employees think their careers will be derailed by them.”
In addition to offering formal flex policies, they say, employers need to keep tabs on how many workers actually use them. If employees aren’t taking advantage of their benefits, it’s a “red flag” that probably points to a toxic work culture. Most importantly, managers should lead by example.
“When managers take full paternity and maternity leaves, head home early a few days a week to help their children off the school bus, or arrive late after a dentist appointment, those around them feel less anxiety about taking leave or working flexibly.”
In other words, don’t just talk the talk. Companies need to walk the walk by actually allowing employees—all of them, moms included—to have a life outside the office. We couldn’t agree more.