Flexible Policies, Closed Minds: Flexibility Stigma and Participation in Family-Friendly Programs at Work

Dr. Jade S. Jenkins is currently the academic assessment coordinator at Texas A&M – Texarkana. She earned her Ph.D in social and industrial-organizational psychology from Northern Illinois University, and her research interests include occupational health psychology, stereotypes, and the self . Here she writes about how those who utilize family-friendly policies may face stigma from colleagues and managers.

A longer version of this article was originally published in the APA Good Company Newsletter.

As the nature of work continues to change, workers are often expected to be flexible and available to meet work demands. Yet without access to resources that may help employees manage their lives at work and at home, both domains may be compromised. As such, across many organizations various types of work-life policies have been made available to employees as a means of helping them “balance” their work and family lives.

However, even where policies are in place to provide flexibility and to help promote work-life balance, it may be that co-workers, supervisors and organizational culture at large fail to support their use. Use of these benefits and policies is associated with a trade-off in which employees are better able to manage family demands at the cost of negative work-related reactions from others.

Thus, flexibility stigma is described as “a type of discrimination triggered whenever an employee signals a need for workplace flexibility due to family responsibilities”.

One reason why flexibility stigma occurs is because employees who request or utilize family-friendly policies and benefits may not be perceived as meeting prescribed standards of the “ideal worker.” Workers who request or utilize family-friendly policies and benefits may be devalued because they are viewed as being more distracted and less committed than workers with few or no family responsibilities.

Consequences of Flexibility Stigma

Workers who perceive that their workplaces are not supportive of families tend to report low job satisfaction, low organizational commitment, high work-life conflict and low use of available work-family arrangements.

Research has also revealed that workers who do choose to participate in family-friendly programs are especially likely to suffer career consequences—despite the fact that they were typically more productive and efficient than colleagues who did not participate in such programs.

Workers may also experience negative health outcomes. Perceiving that one is not welcome to request or participate in family-friendly programs can lead to physiological stress, low employee well-being, and may encourage unhealthy behaviors (e.g., smoking) and decrease participation in healthy behaviors, such as illness management.

The interpersonal dynamics of the workplace may also be strained by flexibility stigma. In organizations that offer and advertise family-friendly programs, workers may be pressured to not take advantage of these policies because doing so may increase their colleagues’ workload.

If colleagues do receive an increase in their workload following a co-worker’s use of family-friendly policies and benefits, they may grow to resent their co-worker and perceive them as a recipient of preferential treatment. These workers may feel they are the “real” ones being discriminated against and may monitor the activities of colleagues as they fear, or are quick to suspect, abuse of family-friendly policies.

Addressing Flexibility Stigma

The consequences of flexibility stigma are significant enough to undermine the efforts of organizations and employees in a variety of ways. There are, however, multiple ways to discourage flexibility stigma in the workplace and to minimize or prevent negative outcomes.

Employees

Employees interested in taking advantage of family-friendly policies and benefits should not be afraid of asking their supervisors about the availability of these programs. Supervisors may seem unsupportive of these policies if they do not regularly discuss them; it’s possible that they simply may not be knowledgeable of these options. If that’s the case, supervisors should still know who to consult in order to find the information their subordinates are seeking.

Employees should also strive to actively contribute to a supportive work-family culture. Though it may be tempting to monitor co-workers perceived as coming in late or leaving early, chances are that supervisors and other relevant personnel have sanctioned these arrangements as it is their responsibility to determine what practices would be fair to the employee and the organization as a whole. Should any workload issues arise following a co-worker’s participation in a family-friendly arrangement, employees should be encouraged to seek out their supervisors as a means of creating more manageable plans of action.

Supervisors

Supervisors should educate themselves on the existing family-friendly policies and benefits available in their organization. In addition to educating themselves, supervisors should make it a point to increase awareness of these programs with subordinates.

Supervisors should also be aware of how any actions or behaviors indicative of their attitudes towards family-friendly programs may discourage workers from participating in programs that would benefit them and the organization. For example, supervisors who encourage participation in family-friendly programs may inadvertently be sending mixed messages to subordinates if they also reference work-centric employees as role models.

Finally, supervisors should be reminded to not overemphasize workers’ participation in family-friendly programs in comparison to their work performance within the context of performance appraisals and promotion decisions. These employees are participating in these programs because they wanted to be proactive in efficiently meeting work demands; they are not necessarily uninterested in work or advancement opportunities.

Organizations

While the direct and indirect financial costs of family-friendly policies may be most apparent to organizations,  it should be remembered that family-friendly policies may reduce overall cost in the long run. Their implementation is associated with less turnover, more effective recruitment efforts and less absenteeism. Furthermore, participation in such programs may increase productivity, reduce stress and increase employee retention rates. Thus, organizations should offer and encourage participation in family-friendly programs.

Conclusions

Workers are placing increasing value on the availability of family-friendly programs and benefits in organizations. Although workers and organizations alike can greatly benefit from these arrangements, the positive effects of these arrangements are only possible when workers do not feel discouraged from participating in them. Thus, it is important for employees, supervisors and organizations to be cognizant of the ways in which flexibility stigma may undermine the success of these programs.

Organizations should offer family-friendly programs, encourage employees to participate in these programs and remain vigilant for factors that could discourage participation in these programs. Employees and supervisors can contribute to the success of the organization’s efforts by promoting a family-friendly culture and by raising awareness of the organization’s policies and programs.

Photo by David Wall.