What are the top two reasons people give for not pursuing work+life flexibility? Number one is, “They will say no.” And, coming in a close second is, “It will hurt my career.” These fears are so pervasive that they’ve actually kept people from seeking creative solutions to their work+life challenges. And the worst part is they aren’t true.
Here’s the Proof
When respondents to the 2006 Work+Life Fit Reality Check were asked why they didn’t improve their work-life balance, 32% said it was because they thought their boss would say no. 29% said, “Others will think I don’t work as hard,” which is another way of saying, “It will hurt my career.”
But over a decade of research and work with both individuals and organizations to develop innovative flexibility strategies has convinced me otherwise. Most of the time the answer to a well-thought out plan will be “yes,” at least for a trial period. And furthermore, effectively managing your work+life fit actually helps your career.
There is plenty of other research to support my findings. This past week, Simmons School of Management released results from a nation-wide survey of more than 400 middle and senior level professional women with an average of 20 years of experience. Barbara Rose of Chicago Tribune the reported in a story for which I was interviewed that, “An overwhelming 90 percent reported having negotiated flexible work arrangements at some point in their careers.” In other words, all of their supervisors said “yes” when they presented a request for flexibility to adjust their fit.
And guess what else? The Simmons survey also found that, “Women who said they used flexible arrangements at some point in their careers were not hit with a ‘mommy tax.’ Holding constant for age, educational level and other differences, they earned as much as women who asked for no special flexibility.” Not only did their use of flexibility allow them to effectively and creatively manage their personal responsibilities while continuing to work, it had no negative impact on their career in terms of long-term earning capacity.
This finding backs up a study that I included in my book which refutes the “it will hurt my career,” myth. The 1998 Business Work-Life Study of 1,057 companies conducted by Families and Work Institute asked corporate leaders if the use of flexible times and policies jeopardized an employee’s advancement opportunities. Only 10% of the leaders felt it did. Yet, 40% of those surveyed in a comparable employee study felt those who used flexibility or took time off did hurt their careers. Clearly, individuals perceive a negative impact that corporate representatives don’t see.
What’s the Problem?
These misperceptions are causing too many people not to pursue mutually-beneficial solutions, especially men.
Findings from the Work+Life Fit Reality Check show that men (32%) are significantly more likely than women (23%) to say the reason they don’t improve their work-life balance is that “others will think I don’t work hard.” In a Miami Herald article for which I was also interviewed, Cindy Goodman asks if this is the “Year of the Man.” The answer is yes, as more men begin to move beyond their fears and find more flexibility to manage their work and personal responsibilities. But that will require more men to stop worrying about “no,” and get beyond the myth that pursuing flexibility will hurt their careers.
Why Does it Matter?
We can’t keep working this way. I agree with Sue Shellenbarger’s analysis in her recent WSJ column. Like her, I have never seen such a high level of dissatisfaction and a lack of balance in all of my years in this field. It’s not surprising that the Work+Life Fit Reality Check found only 15% of respondents had “balance.”
But companies can’t provide the answers alone. Indeed, 70% respondents to the Work+Life Fit Reality Check believed their employer could not give them work-life balance. And yet, only 30% of these same respondents had ever discussed finding a better balance with their manager. So clearly, these fears of “no” and negative career impact are keeping us stuck even though we know we need to do something. We need to move beyond them.
What happens if we don’t? We will continue to get burned out, become unproductive, get sick or leave our jobs, none of which helps our careers. Trust me, there are no organizations that can “give” you balance. Some are more effective than others in training individuals and managers to create mutually beneficial work+life solutions. But for the most part, the grass in not greener anywhere else. We need to face the reality that part of the responsibility for a solution lies with us.
What Are the New “Stereotypes”?
I’ve decided that instead of promoting new stereotypes to replace the old ones, I going to advocate for a new mindset. It sounds more positive. Therefore, here are the new beliefs to replace work+life stereotypes #3 and #4:
1. You must take the initiative to adjust your work+life fit whenever your circumstances change and the response will be “yes” to a well-thought out plan.
Work+Life “Fit,” not balance is a personal and professional “transitions” management process. In other words, when you experience a change in circumstances—large or small—you need to initiate a comparable adjustment in the boundaries around your work. When you do that in a thoughtful, strategic manner, the answer to your request for flexibility will be “yes” (at least for a trial period.)
2. When you strategically use flexibility to manage your work+life fit, it helps your career.
Managers can not read minds. Nearly all managers I’ve worked with have said, “I wish they’d just say something” when I asked about people who had left because they needed better balance. As my research shows, and the Simmons College and Families and Work Institute studies confirm, much of the perceived career penalty is not reality. We need to see the strategic use of flexibility for what it is—a critical career and life management strategy we all need to embrace in the 24/7, high tech, global work reality we live in.
“My Baby or My Job” Why Elizabeth Vargas Stepped Down—Oprah Show Is it any wonder that the “all or nothing,” “work or no work,” stereotype gets reinforced when this week’s Oprah Show with Elizabeth Vargas carries this title? Here’s a link to a posting I did about Elizabeth Vargas’ choice to change her “fit” when her son was born. It was not an all or nothing. She didn’t choose between her baby and her job. She did step down as full-time anchor of the evening news, but she continues to anchor 20/20 and substitutes for Charlie Gibson on the news. That’s the reality. She is a successful embodiment of how to creatively and strategically manage your fit, and she should be congratulated.