A Quarter of Working Parents Say Their Boss Expects Them to be ‘Always On’

As more and more companies tout perks like short workweeks and flexible schedules, a new study by Bright Horizons suggests that, for many working parents, the struggle of juggling a career and a family persists.

For many parents, the ability to unplug from work simply doesn’t exist. A quarter (25%) of working parents say their boss expects them to be “always on,” i.e. available outside of normal work hours, according to the results of the sixth-annual Bright Horizons Modern Family Index (MFI), published on Feb. 6, 2020. Furthermore, a whopping 27 percent of parents surveyed have missed out on vacations due to work responsibilities, and 53 percent of working parents admitted that their child had been upset that their job caused them to miss a school or extracurricular event.

And parents don’t feel like the workplace is getting any more family-friendly. Many of the survey’s results remain identical to findings from six years ago. Nearly one-third (32 percent) of working parents worry about getting fired, 28 percent worry they’ll be denied a raise and 26 percent feel they won’t receive a promotion, all because of family responsibilities.

The findings seem to conflict with the fact that more companies have made flexible work policies officially available for their employees in recent years. 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%.

One explanation might be “workplace flexibility bias,” a phrase coined by researchers to describe when employees believe taking off early or working with flexible hours will prevent them from moving up in the company. Not only does the bias make employees less happy professionally and more likely to say they’ll quit in the near future, it’s especially bad for moms, who are often shunted into less-demanding, lower-paying positions. However, the bias is harmful to all employees, and “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,” according to an article in the Harvard Business Review.

The compounding studies show that the stigma against being a parent in the workplace is alive and well. No wonder that a quarter of parents say they’ve faked a sick day to tend to family responsibilities, according to the MFI.

It’s important to note that it doesn’t just hurt employees when they feel like they can never step back from work. A 2019 Harvard Business Report states that “by not offering benefits that employees actually want—and by not encouraging employees to use the benefits they do offer—companies incur millions of dollars of hidden costs due to employee turnover, loss of institutional knowledge, and temporary hiring, in addition to substantial productivity costs such as absenteeism and presenteeism [working while sick].”

In other words, if companies want to retain their talented employees and boost their bottom line, they should do more than just pay lip service to flexible work benefits and family-friendly hours. In addition to offering formal policies, they 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, researchers say. Most importantly, managers should lead by example and take time off themselves.

Or, as the Bright Horizons survey concludes, “Employers need to bring workplaces in line with modern priorities. They need to meaningfully acknowledge—with policy and benefits—the challenges that come with working and raising children. And they need to address their cultures so that parents can deal with responsibilities out in the open, and no longer have to pretend their children don’t exist.”