Must we resort to pretending to work 80 hour weeks?
Why some men pretend to work 80 hour work weeks (and why this creates a social dynamic punishing those who cannot):
This Harvard Business Review article from 2015 explains a phenomenon that is likely not restricted to the business world, that is the ideal worker as someone who is visibly committed to their organization and job through time put in. While the study was done on an international consulting firm (much like the one my spouse works for), I think it is translatable to other organizations who fall into the same trap of valuing long hours, face time, and other evidence of "working hard" in spite of having other commitments outside of work. Interestingly, there is a degree of value in taking time off for the purpose of self-interested rest or leisure but NOT for family commitments (i.e., having a new baby in the family or other care-taking roles). So... men have done their best to figure out how to "pass" as a committed ideal worker while not actually putting in 80 hours.
One subject interviewed for the study recalls a week where he was able to go skiing every day. WITH HIS SON. Skiing with his son meant more to him than having clients in far away locations or other "deviations" he implemented on his own to create more time and space for that kind of activity outside work. His reward? His promising career rested not on his ability to make innovative tradeoffs to create time for both work and family but his ability to keep them secret from his colleagues and supervisors. He essentially managed to go off grid while appearing to be very much on the grid. To be clear, this is a luxury available only to workers with home offices or otherwise flexible workspace arrangements. After all, his ski lodge checkins on his email or messaging systems would go noticed if he were required to put in 100% face time at an office with colleagues.
In contrast, employees in the same organization who used, or tried to use, formal accommodations available to them did not fare as well. Sure, this study highlights interviews of those employees to make this point but their data support that this was widespread and not limited to single unique cases. Simply asking for formal accommodations, even if you did not actually take them, was enough for one subject to be overlooked for a promotion with many assuming he had taken the accommodation anyway.
So what can we learn from this? It seems that the only way for the "passing" effect to be addressed in an organization that subscribes to an overworked ideal worker is for everyone to make a bargain that they will ALL request formal accommodations. Yet... the incentive for each worker remains to try to "pass" and secretly deviate from the norm where they can. Thinking about this situation from a behavioral viewpoint (and yes, perhaps game theory) yields some interesting insights, though also highlights how difficult it can be to overcome without intervention from organizational leaders. Communication and trust are required for workers to make the best decision for everyone as a group in this situation, which is asking for formal accommodations across the board. If you applied numbers to possible outcomes of 1) asking for formal accommodations and 2) deviating on your own, the outcome of the first choice would be more beneficial for everyone in terms of actual time off but only assuming that everyone who asks would get their full accommodations (e.g., full FMLA leave). This is the case since the stigma of asking for formal accommodations would fall away only if everyone requested them. The second choice yields a less beneficial outcome for everyone, but more beneficial if you happen to fall into the category of workers that can manage to "pass" as an ideal worker while making secret deviations on their own. And who is more likely to fall into this group? Men! Because there is no way to secretly "pass" if you have a baby, for example. You can't "pass" if you are a caregiver in general as that activity requires interruptions in work that cannot, in any way, be accommodated by smaller, secret deviations. If there were full trust that everyone would do this, scheming among colleagues to request formal accommodations might work. However, that is HIGHLY unlikely given the disparity in the kind of worker who is incentivized to "pass" and secretly deviate from the ideal worker norm.
What to do? All of this fits exactly what the researcher in this study finds, too. And most striking is this: "The broader implication—that the organization itself might alter its expectations—was lost.". But due to the different incentive structures identified in the study and fleshed out a bit here, changing organizational expectations from above is the ONLY way to address the pervasiveness of the overworked ideal worker. And as the study also points out, the innovativeness of "passers" and the fact that they squeeze in work while attending to demands and interests outside the workplace suggests that a model of "all work, no play" might be replaced with an updated version of "work hard, play hard" that is less masculine and weekend warrior than just a dad taking his son skiing in the afternoon or a mom visiting her daughter's classroom.