People Want Flexible Work Hours

In the November/December issue of the Washington Monthly, Judith Warner of the Center for American Progress has a piece on the importance of passing national paid family leave legislation. Parents are more involved in their children’s lives than ever but they’ve never had less time to tend to their families. The resulting stress is reducing female participation in the economy and is now reportedly becoming a big problem for men, as well.

Surveys consistently show that work-life conflict in the United States is epidemic. The problem is due not only to the presence of mothers in the workforce but also to the increase in conflicting demands placed on fathers. According to the Families and Work Institute, a New York-based research group, men now report more work-family conflict than women, and while the percentage of women reporting some or a lot of work-family conflict has remained more or less stable over the past few decades, the percentage of men with such conflicts rose from 35 percent in 1977 to 60 percent in 2008.

Dual-earner married couples are working more hours, and lower income wage earners are subject to unpredictable and erratic work schedules. Either way, the result is a diminishment in the quality of life:

In November 2012, nearly three-quarters of respondents polled by the National Partnership for Women & Families said that they, their neighbors, and their friends experienced hardship in balancing high and often inflexible work demands with the equally high yet unpredictable responsibility of caring for family members at least somewhat often, and nearly 40 percent said they experienced such conflict “all the time” or “very often.” University of Minnesota sociologist Erin L. Kelly and her co-authors found that approximately 70 percent of Americans now report “some interference between work and non-work.”

This isn’t a strictly partisan issue, although the right claims more stay-at-home moms and certainly has a tendency to hold that up as the ideal. Overall, voters from the entire political spectrum are struggling with the same problem with having too many balls to juggle. And we know what results:

Work-family conflict has been linked to mental and physical health problems, including the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, poor sleep, depression, obesity, and addictive behaviors such as smoking and excessive alcohol consumption. It has also been associated with lower satisfaction with family, marriage, work, and life, generally.

Why not, then, take this issue to the voters in the 2016 campaign? Municipalities across the country, from Paterson, New Jersey to Seattle, Washington have already passed laws guaranteeing paid leave days that can be used for anything from taking a loved one to a doctor’s appointment to meeting with a counselor at your child’s school.

Why not present this to the electorate and see if they agree?

We know now that families’ mental, physical, and economic health depends not just on the presence but on the quality of parents’ work as well—how much control they have, and how much stress they bring home at the end of the day. In addition, relieving stress at home results in more productive employees in the workplace. American parents are overloaded to a breaking point. That’s a public health and economic risk we as a nation simply cannot afford.

It seems like a no-brainer to me.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.