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The myth of the ideal worker: new workforce, outdated workplace
At 6:30am he gets dressed for work, eats a home cooked breakfast, and says good-bye to the wife and kids. He tackles the workday with single-minded focus. He is available to stay late or take a business trip at the drop of a hat. After a long workday, he returns home to dinner and relaxation, while his wife takes care of the meal, home, and kids.
No, this scenario is not from an episode of Mad Men. While it seems to parody an outdated lifestyle, it is not far from what we expect of employees today. The “ideal” worker is perpetually available, has no outside responsibilities or interests, rarely gets sick, and prioritizes work above all else.
The lives of workers have changed, but society’s idea about what constitutes an ideal worker has not. The tension between work expectations and personal lives can put the interests of employers and employees at odds. But does it have to be this way? Professors Joan Williams and Mary Blair-Loy spoke about their research at Stanford as part of a multi-university working group organized by the Clayman Institute. Their work will be published in a forthcoming special issue, “The Flexibility Stigma,” in the Journal of Social Issues.
Today’s workforce: More than breadwinning fathers and stay-at-home mothers
In the myth of the ideal worker, employees can maintain a single-minded focus at work because they have full-time support at home. Current trends in labor statistics point to a broader array of family working arrangements. Since 1950, the sharpest workforce increase is among mothers of young children. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 48% of married couples are in dual-income households where both the man and the woman work, and there are more working mothers than there are working fathers in the U.S.
In many cases, the expectation of extreme work is at odds with the needs of the family. Workers are expected to prioritize work, yet they no longer have the backstage support at home to do so. With an uncertain economy, staying at home is a luxury most families cannot afford. Parents are expected to take care of the home and family, as well as provide income. This conflict is not only felt by working parents. With baby-boomers aging, workers are increasingly engaged in eldercare.
While our lives have changed, expectations of what we can do at and for work have not kept pace. Williams and Blair-Loy examine the tenacity of the ideal worker myth.
American work devotion
Blair-Loy’s research examines the underpinning of extreme work expectations: our all-encompassing work devotion. In her book Competing Devotions, Blair-Loy defines work devotion as a cultural ideology that “defines the career as a calling or vocation that deserves single-minded allegiance and gives meaning and purpose to life.” This ideal is embedded in our culture, organizational practices and policies, such that most of us take it for granted without noticing its presence.
Work devotion is deeply ingrained in the psychology and ideals of the “American Dream.” As a culture, we strive to be self-made and nurture the individualistic notion that if we work hard enough we will succeed. This devotion is influenced by the Protestant work ethic that hard work is the duty and the measure of worth of individuals.
In interviews with corporate executives, Blair-Loy finds that work devotion not only defines our assumptions about work, but also instills moral and emotional commitment to it. It gives the worker a sense of identity, competence, belonging and purpose. It is highly seductive—there can be a pleasure to overwork and a collegiality between over-workers. One research respondent said “The pace, getting up in the morning with a rush of adrenaline. Every day we'd be coming into work to do impossible things. The whole team would work to do it…there were no barriers to what we could accomplish to forward the mission of the organization.”
Blair-Loy’s research shows how devotion at the top can become a standard for an entire organization. Those who personify work devotion are more likely to be promoted, obtain more power, and then demand work devotion from their subordinates. High-level executives endorse work-devotion more than those at lower levels, reinforcing the cycle of extreme work expectations.
Blair-Loy illustrates that high-ranking workers, who often have backstage support at home, use work devotion to validate traditional work structures. One male CEO described his workers as “bleeding and dying” for plum jobs to explain why he would not offer-part time work. In Blair-Loy’s ongoing research, male executives felt little work-life conflict, since their wives took family responsibility. Work devotion can blind those at the top to the needs of their workforce.
Enforcing the myth
Today’s workers feel the pressure to conform to ever-increasing work demands without backstage support to manage the rest of their lives. One proposed solution to this conflict is flexible schedules. Best Buy Corporate Headquarters implemented the Results-Only Work Environment, for example, to allow workers to decide how and when work was completed. Managers focus on what is completed rather than on time in the office. This new approach increased productivity and reduced turnover rates by 46 percent. In other words, it nearly cut their recruitment, hiring and training costs in half.
If Best Buy’s novel approach produced strong work results and reduced turnover versus the “bleeding and dying” of extreme work, why haven’t more workplaces implemented similar arrangements?
Williams explains that flexibility is not widely used because workers who seek flexibility are devalued by “flexibility stigma.” Like wearing a scarlet letter, flexibility stigma can lead to social disgrace or even discrimination in the workplace. It demarcates anyone—men and women both—who draw attention to their caregiving responsibilities by requesting parental leave, reduced hours, or a flexible schedule. While American work devotion ideals generate extreme work standards, flexibility stigma threatens to punish those who violate those standards.
In her book Reshaping the Work-Family Debate, Williams explains that flexibility policies are often “shelf paper” for good public relations, but workers’ fear of repercussions fuels low usage rates. One study showed that 33% of professors did not request needed parental leave because they feared career penalties. Flexibility seekers’ fears are well founded. Those who request flexible arrangements for family care are seen as poorer organizational citizens—less committed, competent and deserving of rewards. For example, part-time lawyers are perceived to be “time-deviants” because billable hours largely measure excellence and commitment.
While Williams’ research shows the darkside of flexibility, she remains optimistic about the potential for flexible work to deliver better results for companies and workable lives for employees. She believes a win-win is possible if we alter our conception of the “ideal worker.”
Workplaces of the future
Instead of looking to past practices, both Blair-Loy and Williams praise companies willing to experiment with entirely new structures and ways of thinking about work. As with the Best Buy example, the company experimented with a new performance structure and benefitted from reduced work-family conflict and turnover rates. Perhaps the “secret sauce” has yet to be discovered. But the research conducted by Williams, Blair-Loy, and the group of academics and professionals organized by the Clayman Institute, may just deliver the smart frameworks needed for companies to succeed.
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Mary Blair-Loy is an Associate Professor and the Director of Graduate Studies & Founding Director at the Center for Research on Gender in the Professions at the University of California San Diego. She uses multiple methods to study gender, the economy, work, and family. Blair-Loy explicitly analyzes broadly shared, cultural models of a worthwhile life, such as the work devotion schema and the family devotion schema. These cultural schemas help shape workplace and family structures.
Professor Joan C. Williams is Distinguished Professor of Law, UC Hastings Foundation Chair, Founding Director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. According to The New York Times, "she has something approaching rock-star status" among work/life advocates. She has authored or co-authored seventy academic articles and chapters and five books.