(Not) taking leave

Fearing resentment from colleagues, employees are less likely to take advantage of work/family policies, says communication professor Justin Boren. The following op/ed first appeared under a different title in WSJ Marketwatch on August 9, 2013.

In the Silicon Valley where I work, and across America, employers have created policies to be more responsive to employee needs for balance between work and personal life. For instance, Facebook, Google, and Yahoo offer paid leave for new parents, and often throw in a nice “baby cash bonus.”

But my research shows that many employees might not take advantage of such perks.

Unfortunately, peer resentment often intrudes on an employee’s willingness to make use of work/family policies.

When an employee overhears colleagues say things like, “I resent my colleagues who make use of work-family policies” or “I can’t stand when other people get to use policies for leave, and I don’t,” it can have a chilling effect on an employee’s perceived ability to use those great policies created for work/family leave.

Take the case of Michael, a midlevel manager at a large banking institution on the West Coast. Both he and his wife work full time and, recently, they adopted twins. Michael met with his company’s human resources department to explore the leave benefits for new parents. In doing so, he communicated his desire to use the company’s flex-time and leave policies to care for his new family.

However, when he informed his co-workers that he would be taking some time off, some immediately complained that they would need to work longer and harder just to keep up with their daily tasks.

A few times, Michael overheard his co-workers talking about how he should be working full time while his wife uses her company’s leave policies. He also overheard his manager speaking to another colleague saying that Michael may struggle in moving up in the organization without enough face time. Ultimately, Michael made the difficult decision to attend more to his work than his family, leaving his wife to care for their new twins.

Indeed, stories like Michael’s are all too common. My colleague Shannon Johnson and I surveyed nearly 500 workers, many of whom said they heard similar messages. As a result, they said they would feel guilty for taking their full complement of benefits if it meant leaving their colleagues to “pick up the slack.”

Subtle, unstated expectations about performance and production often lead to this resentment. Such feelings emerge relatively easily in many organizations, especially if you work in a dog-eat-dog competitive work culture. So, despite the fact that employees are entitled to these legal, company-designed benefits, using them sometimes adds to the stress of trying to manage the push-and-pull of work and family life. What good is paid leave, after all, if you feel that by taking it you are letting your team down, or adding to your friend’s workload?

We also found in our study that even the most burned-out employees were less likely to make use of leave policies when they overheard resentment from their co-workers. The result can be an unhealthy cycle of exhausted workers continuing to work and being less productive. Of course, the worst-case scenario leads to the insidious effects of stress and poor health.

The good news is that within some organizations, there are groups of co-workers who support each other by stating clearly that they value making use of work/family policies and even physically help each other by picking up the work of those taking leaves. Culture counts even more than policies, and where the culture is right, work groups have lower reports of burnout and are typically more engaged employees.

Based on our research, the best solution to this problem would be to support your colleagues when they need to make use of your company’s work/family policies. Remember that socially supportive messages are reciprocal, even in the most competitive climates. The culture of an organization is greatly enhanced when co-workers come together to support each other, especially in challenging times.

Justin Boren is an assistant professor of communication at Santa Clara University.

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