We Need To Stop Pretending Work-Life Balance Is A Woman's Issue

05/07/2015 04:05 pm ET | Updated May 07, 2015

It’s time for everyone to come out of the closet.

Not that closet. I’m talking about the white-collar trap where those of us who wish to have lives outside of the office hide our true feelings and instead fake like we’re working all the time. Most of us have a foot in that closet, pretending to some extent that being tethered to our email 24/7 has somehow freed us up to have personal lives.

This thought hit home after reading some research about a prominent consulting firm where many men pretend to work 80-hour weeks, so that they are still regarded as star employees.

These men have the same kind of work-family balance issues that women face, but the guys' problems get a lot less attention. And that's a shame.

“Work-life balance issues aren’t just women’s issues. Even in elite jobs, men are experiencing challenges at the same rate as women, but because we expect different things from men and women, men develop different strategies,” Erin Reid, an assistant professor at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business who conducted this study, told The Huffington Post.

Reid and other researchers interviewed 82 consultants at the firm, which she's dubbed AGM (a pseudonym). She also looked at consultants’ performance reviews and talked to former employees. Reid wrote about her findings in the Harvard Business Review and in a longer paper for the journal Organization Science. They were later reported by the New York Times.

The culture at AGM, like many big consulting firms and law firms, is all about putting in the hours. Consultants are expected to commit themselves wholly to the work and be available at any time to both clients and the firm to get the job done: 60 to 80-hour workweeks are the norm.

One consultant puts it this way in Reid’s paper:

You know AGM people, we’re on our BlackBerries. We’re thinking about our work 24/7. I mean, maybe you tune out for a little while here and there, but AGM people work all the time, all the time. I mean, you wake up at night, you’re dreaming about it. The first thing you do is you pick up your BlackBerry, you’re on it through the morning. You get to the office, you’re working through the day, you sit at your desk, you know, you’re cancelling plans.

The more of a committed, extreme player you are, the bigger your rewards, the better your performance rating and the quicker you’re promoted.

Lots has been written about how this kind of culture punishes women, particularly mothers. Less attention has been paid to how it affects men.

“The main takeaway seems to be that these jobs require you to work all the time, and women have difficulty but men don’t. That didn’t resonate with people that I knew in my life,” Reid told HuffPost this week, in explaining why she did the study. “The men I know aren’t super happy working all the time.”

A majority of the male consultants Reid interviewed were miserable with the always-on mentality. Some complained “of children crying when they missed their soccer games, of poor health and substance addictions caused by how they worked, and of a general sense of feeling 'overworked and underfamilied,'” Reid writes.

The women at the firm -- mothers especially -- weren’t quite expected to work as hard as the men. The HR department had formal policies to help them -- women asked for reduced work hours, took maternity leave, etc. Those accommodations came with penalties, according to Reid's study. Women who asked for flexibility weren't considered “true ideal workers,” she writes. “They were consequently marginalized within the firm.”

The men who asked for formal help were also dinged. One asked for a three-month unpaid paternity leave, something his employer is legally bound to offer thanks to the Family Medical Leave Act. “I felt like this was the only time in my career I would be able to do this,” he told Reid. “But the original reaction I actually got inside of the firm was 'oh no, you can’t take three months off.'"

He settled for six weeks unpaid -- and worked hard the rest of the year. Didn’t help. He was passed over for a promotion because, his supervisor said, they couldn’t evaluate his performance that year with such a big gap in his employment.

Many other men at AGM -- and a few women -- figured out a new way to get the balance they wanted: faking it. They figured out how to structure their work so it looked like they were putting in 80 hours -- but really were closer to 50.

Men found local clients that required less travel. They strategically emailed at off hours so it looked like they were pulling all-nighters or working weekends -- a maneuver I’m sure many of us can relate to.

One man described taking his family on a five-day ski trip -- on work time. From Reid's study:

“I skied five days last week. I took calls in the morning and in the evening but I was able to be there for my son when he needed me to be, and I was able to ski five days in a row,” he tells Reid. He clarified that these were work days, not vacation days: “No, no one knows where I am…. Those boundaries are only practical with my local client base.… Especially because we’re mobile, there are no boundaries.”

On Facebook, one of my friends was inspired by the fakers: “Women, here's what we can learn from men, don't ask for permission but do what you need to do to be successful at work and at home," she wrote when sharing the piece.

But maybe the path to success doesn’t start with everyone pretending that a 24/7 culture is OK and trying to fit their lives into it.

Imagine if more and more workers simply rebelled against the culture of face time? Or if firms like AGM started to understand that people can have lives outside the office -- and still be devoted workers.

“Organizations need to change,” said Reid, who has been hearing from lots of people for whom AGM's culture resonated all too well. Elite firms should perhaps not have the default expectation that workers put in 60-hour weeks and be available to travel at the drop of a hat, Reid said.

Still she doesn’t expect any changes at AGM. The firm may now understand it has a problem, but Reid said that it hasn't done much about it since she presented her results to the firm back in 2011.

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