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Singled out at work

Made to work unpopular shifts because colleagues with kids won't? Or getting stuck with extra work on their behalf? Here's help


AS WORKPLACES get more "family friendly" in Singapore, it is not unheard of for singles to end up with the shorter end of the stick.

This includes having to work the graveyard or weekend shifts because colleagues with kids refuse to. Or getting prioritised second when it comes to taking leave during school holiday periods. Probably the worst yet is to end up with the lion's share of the work while bosses go easy on co-workers due to family commitments.

It seems that no one bats an eyelid when a working parent leaves on the dot to ferry their kids. But a single woman leaving on time to go on a date? How audacious.

This inequality can still be overlooked somehow if one is remunerated more or promoted faster. But if not, that's when the single employee's burden becomes too heavy to bear.

BT Weekend treads on hyper sensitive terrain to explore how single workers can let their bosses know that they need work-life balance, too.

Talking about the elephant in the room

It is an issue that's often kicked under the rug as - surprise, surprise - single workers don't like to talk about it. Nobody wants to be thought of as whingeing or self-centred creeps.

But a recent article by Quartz with the sensational headline "Single workers aren't there to pick up the slack for their married bosses and colleagues" has been going viral on social media, suggesting that such a sentiment does exist.

In response, assistant professor Sin Harng Luh from the National University of Singapore, waded into this debate on her personal blog, criticising the above article for being one-sided.

When contacted by The Business Times Weekend, she says: "As a person who is married with three kids, no matter how stressed I was at work, I never expected a single person to pick up the slack."

While she acknowledges that there are childcare responsibilities that working parents cannot run away from, she empathises with some of the woes single workers face.

For example, she has heard of instances when childcare leave was abused, such as how a friend's colleague would use childcare leave for holidays. "But what I thought was so unbelievable was that when they actually needed childcare leave, they took time off, which defeats the purpose."

Prof Sin has also observed a growing self-entitlement among parents. She attributes this to the falling fertility rate in Singapore and the mentality that people who have children think they are doing a "national service".

This, she believes, has a part to play in the growing resentment by single workers. She states that the crux of the issue is not about singles versus married people, but rather an issue with unscrupulous employers and societal culture.

In her blog, she writes: "Why should it be right to demand anyone - single or married - to stay late at work, travel on weekends, show up on holidays, and take whatever vacation slots unclaimed?"

She adds that it is time bosses recognise that everyone has a life outside work - single people should not feel that they need to justify taking leave even if they have no kids. Their time is as valuable as everyone else's.

Dealing with the boss

No employer would deliberately try to be "family friendly" at the expense of being "employee friendly", says Vicky Chai, HR business partner - South Asia, Willis Towers Watson. It could simply boil down to a lack of awareness. "It is worth noting that singles also may have similar family responsibilities such as caring for a disabled relative or for ageing parents."

She points out that the idea of work-life balance for singles is probably hard for Singapore employers to comprehend. This is because Asian values usually revolve around the collective - such as a family unit - instead of individuals.

While those with children may need more flexibility and time off to attend to their family care needs compared to their single colleagues, it should not come from a position of entitlement.

Ms Chai says: "This can be an 'ask', rather than an unspoken and unreasonable expectation of singles to automatically sacrifice their requirements for flexibility in favour of their colleagues who have children."

People, in general, are usually quite understanding. After all, both singles and married people will need the help and support of their colleagues at some point.

However, if you find that the work ratio is skewed and that you are expected to take on more than your fair share, don't just seethe. Speak up to your direct boss instead of taking it out on the co-workers you are unhappy with.

Lay what you are expected to do on the table, the amount of time you have to finish it, and your suggestions on how to solve the issue. Sometimes, superiors may just be waiting to see if you can handle it before they take more concrete action.

Ultimately, it's not a zero-sum game pitching single people against married people. It's about employers acknowledging that all workers have the same right to their time, and all parties having empathy for one another.

Prof Sin says: "Having understanding on both sides is important, as well as the ability to appreciate what others are going through."

Single or married, leaving self-entitlement at the door and learning to walk in others' shoes is certainly the best way forward for everyone.

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