Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Article: "Merry Christmas, you're working"

The Globe & Mail had a story earlier this week about working at Christmas… and how the burden of covering shifts always seems to fall on people without kids. The focus was mostly on singles, but does also mention childless/free people. Here's the story (since the links will likely expire soon) -- my comments are below.

*** *** ***

Holiday Survival Guide
Merry Christmas, you're working

From Monday's Globe and Mail
December 15, 2008 at 4:10 AM EST

For the third year in a row, Lyndsay Morrison won't be eating turkey dinner or gathering round the tree on Christmas Day.

Instead, she will be sitting at a desk, writing script for The Weather Network so Christmas travellers are wise to dangers such as snow squalls and freezing rain.

Since the weather doesn't halt for the holidays, somebody needs to work. And it's rarely those with kids.

"They give us some holidays and assume we'll be working them," says the 21-year-old part-time news writer.

New to the industry, Ms. Morrison says she doesn't complain about working holidays. Still, Christmas is but once a year and sometimes she would rather get time off than automatically see her name on the schedule.

"It gets to a point where you kind of feel like you've paid your dues a little bit and you would like some time," she says.

Young people, singles and employees without kids often feel an expectation to remain glued to their desk once the holidays roll around, partly because bosses think employees with kids have more important commitments, experts say.

And while many singles such as Ms. Morrison say they don't mind filling in for colleagues now and again, some think it's unjust when the boss schedules them without a second thought.

In its most extreme form, one can call it "singlism," a term coined by University of California psychologist Bella DePaulo. Family status routinely plays into some bosses' decisions for who gets a holiday and who stays at work, says Prof. DePaulo, the author of Singled Out: How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After.

"Co-workers and bosses say, 'Oh you can cover. What do you have to do on the holidays?' " she says. "I think that's totally inappropriate even if it were true. It has nothing to do with your work."

In the Winnipeg family restaurant where Joanne Evans has worked every Christmas for four years, it's often new employees who, when hired, say their schedules are wide open but then scramble to get out of holiday shifts claiming they need to be with their families.

"They do need people to take certain shifts and it elicits guilt if [you're single and] don't take the shifts," the 22-year-old says. "I think it would be more fair if it was on seniority, something you could sort of work toward or earn, not based on family status."

So if you would rather spend Boxing Day scouring the mall for sales or watching a marathon of holiday movies, you shouldn't keep quiet and work through the holiday if you think it's unjust, Prof. DePaulo says.

You can get out of it, she says, by appealing to your boss's sense of fairness and negotiating for holidays off.

Sometimes simply expressing your side is enough, but take care to acknowledge your boss's scheduling dilemma, says Laurie Barclay, an assistant professor of organizational behaviour at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont.

"I think people have to remember a lot of the times their bosses aren't trying to be mean or pick on them unfairly and they have to pick somebody to work," she says.

It also helps to be vocal about the other people you plan to spend holidays with, says Laurie Lisle, author of Without Child: Challenging the Stigma of Childlessness.

"People without children need to explain what their lives are like and have pride in them and talk about the kinds of relationships they have," she says. "They need to think they're valued and not be intimidated at Christmastime [because] it's so family focused."

But that doesn't work for everybody.

One human resources professional in Toronto, who didn't want her name used for fear of company repercussions, occasionally mentioned visits from extended members of her family in front of her bosses, but to no avail.

The until-recently single 42-year-old worked every Christmas for 15 years because, unlike her colleagues, she didn't have stockings to fill and a turkey to stuff. She finally just booked the time and offered no explanation.

"I just kind of hit a point where I said, 'I don't have kids, I don't have a husband, I barely even have a household to manage, but you know what? I'm taking three weeks at Christmas,' " she says.

And liars beware: If you tell the boss you're going to church, then skip it to get sloshed on eggnog with your buddies, your dishonesty may catch up with you, warns Blaine Donais of the Toronto-based Workplace Fairness Institute.

"Lying is something that can get you fired and keep you fired," he says.

If your boss is being really unfair, Mr. Donais suggests talking to a union representative or visiting the human resources department. Discrimination against family status is included in the Ontario Human Rights Code and codes in other provinces.

Though working through Christmas may be kind of a drag, Ms. Morrison is grateful she will get to ring in the New Year with her friends and not the weather anchor.

She also keeps things in perspective by putting herself in the shoes of those with children at home.

"I can't imagine working Christmas when I have kids," she says. "No way."

*** *** ***

You may also want to read some of the comments.

*** *** ***

Let me start by saying that I feel very fortunate: in the 22+ years I've worked for this company, I've always been able to take at least a few days off & fly home to be with my family at Christmastime. (Disclosure: our office is closed on both Christmas Day & Boxing Day, and most people are allowed to leave early on both Christmas & New Years Eves.) There were some years that I didn't get an answer to my request right away, as the higher-ups wanted to ensure there was adequate "coverage" over Christmas week (even though very little usually happens around the office then). For a long (long!) time, most of the people in my immediate work group were childless, which perhaps levelled the playing field somewhat. Also, most of them have most of their families close by and don't have to take extra time to travel, as I do. At any rate, I am thankful that my bosses have been so accommodating. I know that many others are not so lucky.

At the same time, I've often worked on the Friday before a long weekend when it seemed like everyone else had left to get an early start, or on the Monday when Canada Day fell on a Tuesday, etc., while others enjoyed an extra-long weekend at their cottage. I find that these things generally even out in the wash, so to speak, & there's generally no need to keep a scorecard, so long as people try to accommodate each other & don't totally abuse the flexibility.

Flexibility is the key word. When my company introduced a formal "flexible work arrangements" policy in the mid-1900s, I interviewed several people about it for the staff magazine. One of the women I interviewed worked a compressed week -- longer hours four days a week so that she could take the fifth day off. I asked her about her motivation to pursue such an arrangement, & what she did with her time off.

Most people mentioned spending more time with their children. She told me she didn't have children -- she liked to use her days off to go to the theatre and work on the novel she was writing -- but she didn't believe that being childless meant she shouldn't ask for a flexible arrangement. Officially, people asking for such an arrangement are not obliged to disclose WHY they want one, and it is not supposed to be a factor in evaluating the proposal. Employees only have to explain how it will benefit the company (or, at least, not be disruptive) & how the work will still get done.

Still, she noted, there was an assumption among most employees that children were the only "legitimate" reason for asking for flexibility or for time off, & she wanted to dispel that notion. "If you have an interest you would like to pursue, or you need that extra tie to yourself, why not? Your needs are important too," she pointed out to me.

I was still in the early stages of ttc (loss & infertility were still in the future), & never dreamed her words would someday apply to me, but they have stuck with me. Why not indeed? It seems fair enough.


  1. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  2. My husband & I both work in a hospital and the night of Christmas Eve is always the shift that is difficult to get covered. In the beginning, I would always work it thinking of the people who did have children. These past few years Hubby & I have both worked it thinking ~next~ Christmas we'll have a baby and it will be our turn. And here it is - Christmas 2008 and we're working again.

  3. I agree with you - regardless, your needs are important no matter your "status". I like the seniority idea. Dh has worked all night shifts at the holidays at a couple of the plants he's worked at. He says it's only fair that he pull a holiday shift now and then just like the rest of the people he works with. We adjust our activity schedule accordingly. Do you really have to open presents on Christmas day? The night before is just as nice. I can see a big gathering would be more difficult to rearrange, but I bet if people were will to look at things again, they might realize that many things are flexible.