America's fathers juggle their jobs and their families

Sunday, June 19, 2005

On the eve of Fathers Day 2005, a new report found one in four fathers spend less than two hours a day with their kids after work, a sad reminder of just how corrosive many workplaces in America have become to family life.

While a part of the explanation, no doubt, lies with misplaced personal priorities, employers share blame in fostering work environments that are bad for married and unmarried workers alike.

In a national poll by Wirthlin Worldwide, a resounding 87 percent of all Americans agree with the statement, "Businesses should voluntarily do more to help strengthen their employees' marriages by offering flex-time/job-sharing/home-based work options."

As the place where most Americans spend the largest percentage of their waking hours, the workplace is an area of our society that has a profound impact upon the well being of both children and parents -- potentially good or bad. And fostering a healthy work-life balance for their workers avoids burnout, reduces turnover and prevents relational problems and breakdown at home.

Employers must take the lead in changing the culture of the workplace and advancing family-friendly policies, says a new report on workplace reform. This is because most American workers know all too well what one could call "the common law of the workplace": One who works harder and longer -- in the line of sight -- wins the bosses' praise, bonuses and advancement. And in a sluggish economy, one who works harder and longer keeps his job.

The truth is that "employees may genuinely wish to limit hours at work to spend more time with their families, even at the sacrifice of some monetary compensation," writes Amy L. Wax in an article in The Annals of the American Academy. "The problem is that individuals often feel impelled to work very long hours to avoid being placed at a competitive disadvantage relative to co-workers disadvantage that can have excessively costly, and even devastating, consequences. Signaling willingness to work harder and longer helps a worker gain a competitive edge over others within the same workplace setting."

So what is the solution in a fast-paced and workaholic era where the lines between work and family have become increasingly blurred?

Apart from avoiding demands to work overtime when it is not warranted, employers can help ease some of the tensions between work and family by adopting flexible work policies that make it easier for workers to meet both the demands of their job and the needs of their family.

The 2005 Annual Report on the American Workplace entitled "Not Married to the Job" offers several win-win-win family-friendly policies that are "good for employers, good for workers and good for workers' families."

One of the most promising marriage-friendly business practices is to let employees vary their work schedule. They may start work earlier in the day and leave earlier, or they may come in late and stay on after the normal quitting time. But having some flexibility in their work schedule can provide family-oriented workers -- especially households where both parents work -- the critical margin of relief necessary to juggle competing home and work schedules successfully.

Working from home can also offer over-stressed workers a way to economize their time. Especially for those with a long commute or those who routinely have family obligations close to home during business hours, home-based work can help people meet work responsibilities while relieving the stress of having to be two places at once. In addition, home-based work options encourage the adoption of performance measures based on actual work output rather than time input.

Other family-friendly policies include paid leave and financial assistance for adoption, work-based marriage education, and even marriage counseling.

The bottom line for business and workers is that in a healthy society, employment should enhance family life, not be an impediment to it. The time has come to realize that everyone is a loser when large numbers of Americans -- including a majority of American fathers -- feel married to their job.

Matt Daniels is a lawyer and political scientist. He is president of the Alliance for Marriage, a nonpartisan, multicultural organization dedicated to ensuring that more children grow up in a home with a mother and a father.

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