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How to Create a Single-Friendly Work Environment

How to take care of your single employees.

Key points

  • Most organizations focus on the needs of married employees to balance work with family life.
  • Single employees are regarded as having more flexibility and fewer obligations, even though research has shown this is not usually the case.
  • Offering additional work benefits tailored to the needs of single employees could result in greater engagement and productivity.
 Fox/Pexels
Developing a single-friendly work environment.
Source: Fox/Pexels

It is easy to forget that single people can have rich and full lives. Sometimes it comes down to being given extra demands at work, unequal treatment for the same position, and lower paychecks every month. I set out to study this and found some quite remarkable findings. While everyone tends to focus on work-family conflict, it is actually work-life conflict that deserves our attention. Maybe it’s time to say it out loud: Single people have lives they deserve to live. Is that too much to ask?

The history of work-life balance

When the idea of work-life conflict came into being, it was all about families. In times when the traditional family was dominant, researchers mostly saw the problem as being related to married individuals. Other researchers followed suit, and even today often use the term work-family conflict. Comparatively little attention has been paid to the unmarried population and the work-life conflicts they face. In fact, reporters and policymakers commonly translate “life” into “family” without even noticing the slippage.

However, society has come to embrace the single life. The change in cultural and societal norms, and especially women’s ability to achieve more education and pursue a greater variety of careers, has encouraged many to delay marriage or forgo marital life altogether. Reports show that more than 50 percent of addresses in major cities such as Munich, Frankfurt, and Paris are single-occupant homes, and even more single people live in shared accommodations. In the U.S., the Pew Research Center predicts that one in four young adults will never get married; while 22 percent of American adults were single in 1950, today, that number now stands at more than 50 percent.

Despite these drastic shifts, the transition from talking about work-family tensions to considering work-life conflicts has been slow. This has been especially true for women. Many organizations believe that unmarried women face no serious work-life conflicts in comparison to their married peers. Instead, such organizations mainly focus on creating programs and policies for married women with children.

Yet while unmarried women do not have the responsibilities traditionally associated with family, they may still experience work-life conflict between their professional roles and personal activities such as dating, exercising, meeting friends, or taking care of their parents. In fact, research shows that single people interact more with friends and invest more in their parents.

How are employers reacting to this change?

Employers are generally still indifferent. A recent study found that solo-living employees without children felt their organizations assumed they could spend more hours at work because of their lack of family duties. Analyzing the German Family Panel database, I measured how satisfied people are with their work-life balance. I found that the group with the highest mean satisfaction is the married group, with a mean score of 6.16. The groups with the lowest scores are the never-married with a mean score of 5.7. The married and the divorced groups work the least hours per week, while the never-married and LAT work the highest number of hours per week.

An important factor is how well-paid one is in his or her job, where significant differences can be observed between the groups. On average, married individuals feel better paid than all other groups, while the never-married group shows the lowest score in this regard.

The most striking finding was that when work conditions are equal, it does not matter whether the worker is married. Indeed, organizations perceive unmarried individuals to be freer from other obligations. Therefore, they are prime candidates for extra projects, working late, or working on weekends without sufficient reward. Such pressure at work only adds to the social pressure faced by singles, which is still pervasive in many societies.

In addition, a number of organizations offer some work-family benefits. Consequently, single employees may feel that there is an inequality in how rewards are allocated. This sense of inequality could eventually lead these employees to change their attitudes toward their organizations and cause a further decline in their satisfaction as well as in their input levels and their general organizational performance.

No wonder, then, that a phenomenon of “family-friendly backlash” has been observed as a new form of counterproductive work behavior. This backlash has been described as a retaliation against the organization or expressing the strain that results from unfair work practices that discriminate against singles in favor of partnered and parent workers.

The expression of such dissatisfaction may be carried out in several ways, including making formal complaints to the human resources department, changing attitudes towards the company, and sub-performing in organizational behavior. There can also be forms of “coworker backlash,” such as making it harder for married employees to use work-life benefits such as flexible working arrangements. Indirect responses may include reducing the quality of interpersonal relationships at work with married employees and managers.

Recommendations for a single-friendly work environment

In order to effectively deal with the consequences of work-life conflict among unmarried employees, it is recommended for employers to take several steps. First, keeping the workload and stress at work low has been found to be useful to most unmarried employees. For example, one research paper published in the Harvard Business Research Journal found that many professional, unmarried women face a great challenge in getting involved in new or existing relationships when they are consistently asked to work late.

Second, employers might be interested in formulating and implementing single-friendly policies, such as part-time work arrangements and simplified work hours, to combat unintended discrimination against the unmarried resulting in time-based work-life conflict. For instance, work assignments should be given with no regard to family or marital status, using only job-relevant criteria, such as past performance.

Unmarried employees would also benefit from policies that allow for part-time and contingent work arrangements that permit them to care for their parents and siblings and the freedom to take brief leaves to attend to friends’ matters. These policies would simply mirror those that are already available to their married peers. It is indeed evident in some countries that workplace policies can improve the work environment to help employees manage work and non-work responsibilities.

Finally, the results of my study show that developing a good social working climate for single workers is effective at improving work-life balance for most unmarried groups. This is especially important for unmarried workers in companies where marriage is still considered the norm, and single workers are treated as weird, anti-social, or immature. Of course, social support can enable all employees to solve work-life conflicts effectively, but the unmarried often face extra social pressure and exclusion.

Having a singles-friendly organizational culture can reduce work-life conflict for the unmarried, increase single employees’ sense of attachment and engagement, and benefit both the company and the employees. Implementing training to help supervisors understand how to manage their teams will allow all members to feel connected and supported.

In addition, while companies can still offer a variety of work perks such as on-site daycare and health coverage for spouses and children, they should also offer programs that benefit single employees with no children, such as health coverage for unmarried partners or even close friends, subsidies for fitness centers, education and training opportunities, help with household maintenance, and even pet care for singles who travel abroad.

Elyakim Kislev is the author of the books Happy Singlehood and Relationships 5.0.

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