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Singling Out Discrimination

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Work/life balance is constantly in the headlines. How does one balance the responsibilities of being a partner, parent, and employee without suffering one’s personal health and overall well-being? Managers tend to have more empathy on employees who have children and may tend to have provisions to make life easier for those with a family (which also includes taking care of parents).

But with so much emphasis being placed on family-friendly workplaces, single people are feeling discriminated. During a focus group, a woman expressed her experience of indirect discrimination for being a single person. She felt that her peers relied on her and somewhat expected her to ‘stay back’ to complete a last minute deadlines or troubleshoot emergencies because she did not have ‘family’ obligations.

Singles (i.e., those with no serious partner and/or children) struggle to attain the same empathy or acknowledgement that they may ‘have a life’ as well as other responsibilities which may take priority over work. Dr. Mary Young, a work/family expert in Boston, stated that singles wanted to be able to leave work on time and not feel guilty, similar to their ‘working parents’ colleagues. Many singles feel that their needs are trivialised or dismissed; they want support for their needs outside of work, and want to feel that they have legitimate personal needs, just like those with families (Bruzzese, 1999)

Though many anti-discrimination policies include marital status, singles may still subtly feel increased pressure and work demands on them for managers may assume they have less responsibility at home. In her book “The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless”, Elinor Burkett highlights the changing demographics in the workplace between the growing numbers of mothers in the workforce as well as a new growing group: childless adults. She also points out the inequalities in tax breaks, workplace and government entitlements while providing insight to solutions in catering to the childless worker.

Syndicated columnist Dr. Julianne Malveaux quoted a worker at a Fortune 500 company which had received high marks for its family focus: “My co-workers say they need to leave early to pick their children up from school, and I’m expected to work an hour or so longer to accommodate them. But none of them would work late so that I could go to the opera or to the doctor. I’m all for juggling work and family, but we all have obligations and interests, and mine should count for as much as theirs do.”

Single people do have all the obligations that family people have except they have to tackle them all without a spouse to handle half the workload. Ask any single parent about that challenge. Additionally, just because a worker is single doesn’t mean there’s no partner or significant other sharing the worker’s life.

Organisations need to identify the demographics of their workforce to cater to their needs, including their marital and ‘family’ status. This will assist in developing programs for the single person which may increase the person’s loyalty to the organisation. For example, one way to cater to singles with regards to benefits is to offer a “cafeteria” style benefits programs, which allow each worker to choose an array of benefits that best suits his or her family or personal needs. A working mom might select employer-subsidised childcare, while a single worker might choose a sabbatical or paid tuition as a benefit (Malveaux, 2000).

The composition of the workforce is changing and will continue to change, especially as our workforce ages. Just as most parents chose to have children, singles are single by choice or because of a partner’s death, and they don’t think they should have to pay for their situation by doing more in the workplace.

Dr Dion Klein is a writer and speaker on corporate health issues and is the Managing Director of Healthy Worksites, a company specialising in corporate wellness and team building programs for the public and private sector. He can be contacted at drdion@healthyworksites.com.au or http://www.healthyworksites.com.

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