The season of discontent: Singles speak out

Workplace flexibility for all
I spent some time in the autumn with a mixed group of younger high-powered professionals. What they all had in common was that they were either single, or if they were in relationships, they had no children. Young and fancy free – sounds fun right? Well ..no!

Chat moved on to their plans for Christmas. There was more than a little disgruntlement about the issue of how their offices would be staffed during the holiday season. Some companies now close completely, but others expect a level of skeleton manning. There seemed to be an unwritten expectation in all their organisations (cross sector) that when it came to allocating holidays there was a pecking order: employees with children would be given (or take) priority and then the singletons, would be expected to volunteer to organise cover amongst themselves.

These guys were not happy! Not just because they wanted to go skiing or the Maldives (although a few did) but because they had their own obligations and commitments which they considered to be equally important. In recent research I carried out on the priorities of Gen Y women, I saw that they were somewhat intolerant of workplace flexibility for women only and advocated flexibility for all.

Other obligations
David, a Consultant with a major audit company fumed “My parents are divorced and I need to make 2 family visits. It’s just not possible to do that in a few days. All I want to do is take my vacation time when I want it. Last year I provided weekend cover and worked late in December, so that the parents could go to school concerts and do Christmas things with their kids. Parents assume they are entitled to take the time off between Christmas and New Year. I will be expected to work. It’s not that I begrudge them flexi-time – but I think it should be offered to all

There are also many different types of care and domestic or family responsibilities. Susan is single in her early 50s and has strong obligations to look after her widowed mother, now in her mid 80s. Peter’s wife has recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and requires additional support. They claim , that the fact that an individual has no children doesn’t mean their commitments are necessarily any less demanding. In a C.C.H. survey carried out in 2007 in relation to unscheduled absenteeism, more than 60% of unscheduled absence is related to non sickness reasons, resulting in huge costs to companies.

Responsibility to and for self
But what about the employee who has no responsibilities for others, but simply wants workplace flexibility to allow them to look after themselves? As working days and commutes become longer, technology now offers many options to facilitate that. Workplace stress also causes significant organisational and health issues, so shouldn’t employees be encouraged to give their own needs priority?

Madeleine was more direct and took a firmer view. “People with kids feel that their family status puts them into a special category. Having children is a lifestyle choice. Couples know what the issues are when they make the decision to have a family. My boss quite often asks me to cover for her when she has to leave early or work remotely to deal with childcare issues ( she has 4 kids) .I’m totally OK with that, but when I wanted to go to the gym in office hours, because fitness is a high priority for me and after a 12 hour day, I’m too tired, it was suggested that I go at lunchtime. Lunchtime is for eating! ”

Fun!
The irony might be that working Mums, the group which cries out for work place flexibility the hardest, would actually benefit if that perk became standard for all. Leanne Chase of Career Life Connection takes the matter one step further and suggests that with regard to workplace flexibility “ for it to be universal we need to place a whole lot less emphasis on “family” “women” “care-giving” and “children.”

Could it be the protests from the singletons who want to look after themselves, or simply take time off at the holidays to relax and have fun, with no obligations at all, which will make a difference?

What do you think?

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23 responses to “The season of discontent: Singles speak out

  1. Good blog which highlights a real issue but answer is simple; equal sharing of holiday breaks should of course apply as a right but people could be asked to be personally flexible /accommodating over festive season, in other words be less self centred and think of others; this could equally mean facilitating a single person and if agreement not possible you simply draw lots for the ‘unlucky’ one! My wifes office operates such a system. So Happy Christmas with the motto ‘Caring is sharing’ as told to our children from their earliest years.

    • Thanks for your comment Colmoriain. It does highlight some unspoken issues in the workplace and a certain resentment about the expectations that some employees who are parents put on either single or childless co-workers. Drawing lots does seem to be the fair solution.

  2. Dorothy – thanks for letting us singles have a voice! I’m not sure where you stand on the issue because you were very balanced (as always!). This is a conversation that goes on in the corners of lunch rooms in organisatons everywhere . The single people are always happy to take their turn in any rotation and even go the extra yard. But what gets to us , is that usually the expectation to stay late, work weekends and cover public holidays rests with us . It’s usually prefixed by ” Would you mind terribly? ”

    This isn’t about us being self centred. I work long hours and would like to take time off to do whatever I choose , when many of my friends and family are also off. Parents have to take responsibility for their own children and sort something out between themselves, or make child care arrangements. As a woman I am also guilt tripped by the insinuation that one day I will want this support service myself. If/when I decide to have children I will understand what is involved and in the meantime hopefully organisations will have become more flexible and adapted to modern life.

    • Hi Mary – I became aware that this is a contentious issue in my conversations this October. When I worked in corporate life my ex husband and I usually offered to cover those days because the office was quiet and we could catch up on any backlog and split the time with the kids. However we both worked close to our home and could actually get back for lunch – so my personal experience is a little different to someone who has a long commute. It is tricky which is why some places close totally.

  3. Hi Dorothy as usual an incisive post, cutting to the quick, dividing asunder from left to right. I take on board the issues that singleton’s have around cultural presumptions that they don’t need as much time during the festive periods to tend to family functions-of course in a way it is a misnomer. That said all the issues a single person may have married people with children will have too I suspect. I do take issue with Madeleine who said, “Marriage (and my presumption children) is a lifestyle choice, for me the family is the building block and the fulcrum of society. Staying single well into your 30’s or 40’s is a life style choice with plenty of benefits, good luck God Bless those who do so. I do understand that people become single especially in their middle ages (apologies for anyone who is offended by the term “middle aged) in a myriad of ways. Of course it would be nice if everyone could have holidays at the same time but in certain circumstances (military, hospitals, and other emergency institutions) skeletal staffing is an obligation. When I served in the British Forces “The Blockies” (single people who lived on campus) would volunteer to stag on (do shift work) for “The Pads” (people married with accompanied families). The married personnel had ways of recompensing their single mates, not all of them financial which made for great bonding and I think the single civvies could learn a lot from the camaraderie enjoyed but the selfless services.

    Happy Christmas to you and your regular bunch of reader/contributers xx

    Kriss

    PS Married for 22 years, divorced for 7 in a relationship with a boy of 3 & a tiddler on the way

    • Hi Kriss – thanks for your impassioned contribution! From a personal perspective I’m actually neutral about this. I’m just reporting! Domestic and family life has changed enormously over the last 25 years and organisations need to adapt to that I think. As you say there are also many single people with children for a variety of reasons who need flexibility.

      The issue for the singles, without kids, seems to be the expectation that they will always be available to provide cover, which is not always recognised in many organisations. This might be ongoing throughout the year, not just at Christmas. Madeleine did say having children is a lifestyle choice (rather than marriage) . This is indeed is a choice which is no more or less valid than choosing to stay single and childless. I think flexible working should be gender and marital status neutral and be a part of work place practises for all.

      Happy Christmas to you to and congrats on new arrival!

  4. Hi D, I know you are a thoughtful measured person so what you say, you have thought about. I can’t agree that having childrens is no more or less valid than chosing to be childless so in the best of all possible worlds we will have to agree to disagree. The meaning of life has been a question that theologians, philosophers, & in the latter days scientists have tried to answer, I suspect that along with most sociologist the perpetuation of the species by replication of offspring might be high on the leader board of answers. So having children is a choice that some lucky people get to make (I know many hapless couples-my 1st child was invitro fertilised who don’t have the option) on behalf of a society that would face extinction if they did not. I suspect that there may be a logical fallacy or two in my arguement so I will stop there especially in the light that your blog post (fantastic as usual) is actually about presumption made on singleton’s through out the year in particualar on festive periods.

    Thanks once again for stimulating dendrietes

    regards

    Kriss

    • Hi Kriss – yes I do try to be measured! Behind a workforce demographic that feels it is treated unjustly at times there is perhaps a deeper underlying issue which I hadn’t expected to surface.

      I will try to respond to that briefly as I see it because it’s not my field : modern life is changing at a rapid pace. I’ve just revisited Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of a Highly Effective Family and he outlines those very succinctly with graphics on P 134/135. So to repeat your quote ” It takes a village to raise and child and 21st century biz org are that village” I agree entirely, that organisations should respond to this change. But I also believe that it shouldn’t diminish parental responsibility either. I think this is what these singles are saying that in some cases something isn’t working as it should.

  5. Hi Dorothy – your commentators are right there is some abuse of the goodwill of some childless or single people in some organisations and they are put on. But as Kriss suggests, some are also appreciative.

    One of my co workers is a single parent with 3 kids and can’t afford the level of day care that she really needs. So the rest of the team cover for her as best we can and absorb the crises, deadlines and school breaks (including Christmas ) that she is unable to meet. She is always very gratful.

    However, we do feel that this childcare should be shared equally with her ex partner, but for some reason she doesn’t tackle this issue . If we leave our jobs, she will be really stuck if our replacements are less cooperative.

  6. Hi Dorothy – in any organisation there are people who abuse good will and those that don’t. Unhappily the ones that do, seem to get away with it. Some make outrageous demands.

    If couples decide to have families they have to factor in how they are going to take care of their children within the context of their careers. That includes the holiday season. This is even more important if they decide to divorce.

    Organisations have to factor all of these issues in if they want to retain these employees and maximise their potential

    Co workers are usually happy to help family people out, but they quite often have their own responsbilities. I was asked recently to cancel a weekend trip to visit my grandmother which had been arranged for months, because my boss wanted to see his son’s soccer game. It wasn’t even my project. He could have pulled rank, but he didn’t because I had already worked late twice that week alone to cover for him.

    Who decides which obligation is more important?

    • Thanks all for your comments! I never thought when I posted this it would open up such a can of worms. The general feeling that I’m getting is that without organisations introducing some sort of flexibility for all, the single / childless people believe their good will is being taken advantage of and they filling some sort of organisational gap which it isn’t their place to fill.

      Difficult call. Other views?

  7. I used to allow myself to be a victim to this. Because I didn’t have a spouse or kids and many of my co-workers did, I would often help them out or make exceptions when I was briefly in lower-middle management. Had to work Sundays on more than a few occasions years ago because it just made sense.

    Gosh, was I brainwashed, but really didn’t mind all that much. It was unfair, I stated my case when I could and still managed to get along with the staff. Although my company did give me flex time when there was a soccer game I wanted to watch in the middle of the afternoon so there was always give and take.

    Unfortunately, too many people with children take from what I have read in the comments section.

  8. Hi Dorothy – I have worked in the medical profession for over 30 years where there are strict guidelines for rotation and cover during the holiday period even at a senior level. I already know that I will be working at Christmas in 2011. The team support each other if there are any unforseen circumstances -but as your commentators suggest there are always one of two who abuse the system and the goodwill of their peers when there is a building up of resentment until it escalates into a problem. So despite the organisation being structured, it can’t anticipate individual personalities and at that time senior managers have to step in.

    The issue that has had the greatest impact on holiday rotas (and all year round) in recent years, is the increase in single parent families which has produced some scheduling nightmares .

    • Thanks Corinne for your comment. What you’re saying that even in a structured environment there are always individuals who take advantage and unforseen circumstances arising which require compromsie/ managerial intervention. Perhaps this is just the nature of the beast.

  9. Hi Dorothy
    What a lot of nerves you seem to have touched. Christmas is always a challenging time emotionally. So many assumptions are made about it being a time for happiness – which of course we hope to make it for children! But so much value is put on this that we have a sense of failure if we or those for whom we are responsible – partners, children, parents, elderly relatives – don’t ‘enjoy’ it. The reality is that many don’t! Some people prefer to work – for those alone it avoids sitting at home and feeling left out – for some with family commitments working can be a a way to avoid feeling over-whelmed! Surely the answer really is flexibility, communication and, at the end of the day, there needs to be a sense of fairness. Might be a good idea as a manager to stop making assumptions and start asking people what is best for them but then expect every one to make some kind contribution to cover if it is realistic! Having said all that when I lived within walking distance of work, and didn’t have kids in the family, I used to volunteer to cover for people with small kids. I have such good memories of my own childhood at Christmas – I would like that for others!

    • Hi Wendy – yes interestingly the discussion does seem to have gone beyond the presenting issue. There seem to be so many aspects to factor in as work / life balance becomes a fine line for many. This is highlighted at Christmas which becomes a stressful time for many – also perhaps part of perhaps of modern life. Thanks for your comment.

  10. Wow this is an interesting discussion! Wendy made a good point. Christmas is indeed stressful – but why? For many it has lost its meaning as we all get caught up in the commercial hoopla. Much of the frenzied activity is not so much about the children but the social round that people inevitably get caught up in. The solutions that everyone seems to be offering is structure, compromise/sense of fairness and if necessary managerial intervention.

    • Thanks Rachel for your comment. That’s indeed a good point – the festive season has become highly stressful for a large number of people so perhaps they are losing sight of what it should be about. Lesson to all!

  11. Hi Dorothy – I work in a culturally diverse environment where many non-Christians are happy to work during the Christmas holiday. On the other hand I have some friends whose companies close down totally during the Christmas and New Year period and who wish they didn’t have to take a 2 week break in the middle of winter, for an event that has no cultural or religious significance for them . But there will always be some group which is not happy.

    What we need in this challenging life is to find respect for all and to achieve a way for everyone to reach their goals in a harmonious way as possible. Those who are repeatedly selfish, abusive or discriminatory will struggle to find any inner peace and should be tackled by their colleagues or organisations.

    • Thanks Malik for your comment. Wisely said. Modern life is changing in every sense including culturally diverse workplaces. Both organisations and individuals need to be aware of that and act accordingly.

  12. Hi Dorothy – yes you have certainly touched a nerve and the comments on this post are just a mini reflection of what’s going on in companies everywhere. This holiday season is something we all have to get through as most just want to do that in a stress free way as possible. I think the real spirit tends to get lost in modern commercialisation, excess in everything and now bonus envy. Work for me is a great escape – volunteer every year.

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