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Understanding the Experiences of Single Workers

7/31/2013-

by Abby Welsh, SIOP Intern

Single Employees Feel Their Non-Work Lives are Less Valued than Their Married Colleagues’ Lives

There is a lot to love about being single, but according to recent research, single employees’ treatment in the workplace is not one of them.

A recent study by Wendy Casper, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, shows that many single workers feel their lives outside of work are not taken as seriously as the lives of their coworkers who are married with children, which can make them feel stigmatized or less valued by their employers and colleagues.

Casper was trying to find research on the work-life issues and workplace experiences of single employees when she discovered there wasn’t a lot available on the topic. So she decided to conduct interviews with single employees who were never married, divorced or widowed, and without dependent children to better understand their work-life experiences.

“The limited research that existed suggested that there are some negative stereotypes about single people,” Casper explained. “For instance, married employees are viewed as more reliable, sociable, happy, secure, and stable than singles. So we wanted to find out if these negative stereotypes of singles translate into singles’ negative experiences in the workplace.”

Casper interviewed a diverse group of 59 singles from age 22-70. Singles of all ages felt they were expected to work more hours than their coworkers who were married with kids, but this was a bigger concern for young, never-married singles in their 20s and early 30s. Young singles felt their personal time was not respected and that work interfered with finding time to date and find a partner. All the young, never-married singles hoped and planned to marry in the future, and most planned to have children.

Singles over the age of 35 but younger than 55 experienced some different issues, Casper explained.

“At a certain point in time, social expectations tell us ‘it’s time to get married and have a family,’” Casper said. “So when employees are at an age where it is less common to be single, it may trigger questions in others as to why they aren’t following the traditional social expectations.”

Some singles in the 35-55 group felt stigmatized because they were single. Coworkers treated them like they were not normal because they were single, and they were always asking why they were single or thought they were gay.

Singles of all ages reported family concerns, but these concerns were most prevalent among the oldest of singles – in their 50s and older – who often had elderly relatives who needed care. Casper said singles often felt child care demands were seen as more important than other family demands.

“If an employee had an issue with a sick kid and asked to go take care of him, there was a perception that the manager allows this,” she explained. “But singles felt other types of family and personal demands were not similarly accommodated.”

Since their problems weren’t considered traditional family problems, some singles felt they weren’t viewed as important, Casper said.

One 55-year-old divorced woman felt very resentful of how her supervisor treated her when her dog passed away. She requested some time off to grieve and her request was denied.

“For this participant, her family was her dog, and she felt extremely angry for not being granted time to heal over her dog’s death,” Casper said.

Another 59-year-old divorced woman was denied time off when her elderly mother was in the hospital.

Casper encourages mangers and co-workers to understand that everyone has personal needs and issues outside of work, which aren’t always traditional. Regardless of what these concerns are, it is important to be supportive of employees as they deal with work-life concerns and to treat all employees fairly and equally.

For supervisors dealing with employees with diverse non-work concerns, Casper has some advice.

“Just treat your employees as you would want to be treated,” she said. “Everyone has a different story with different chapters.”