This Lent, Give Up Your Inflexible Workday

03/08/2011 06:07 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • David Gray Senior Fellow, New America Foundation

This Wednesday at noon, millions of Christians will mark the beginning of Lent with traditional Ash Wednesday midday services. Many will attend services this evening. Yet others will try to observe right from the shrine of our work desks -- mouse in hand, eyes glued to screen.

This has less to do with the role of religion in American life than it does with the lack of workplace flexibility in many parts of America. While many employers are demonstrating greater flexibility, more could provide support for employee family/life obligations, whether children, personal, religious or otherwise.

For most Christians, whose days of worship mostly fall on Sundays and a few times in evenings, Ash Wednesday is one of a few times of the year that this even comes up. But members of other religious traditions deal with work-worship conflicts on a much more regular basis. Jews who observe the Sabbath often look to find employers who will arrange schedules that let them get home before sundown. Many American Muslims seek workplaces that accommodate daily or Friday midday prayers.

Employers who seek to retain and recruit that best workers succeed in supporting the individual needs of employees. Many companies are discovering that diversity, including religious diversity, among its workforce leads to creative ideas, better outcomes and higher profits.

Study after study has shown that people are more efficient at work when there is a work-life fit. This doesn't mean they have to work less; it means they have the flexibility to make their lives fit with their jobs.

Around this time last year I moderated a panel entitled, "How Expanding Flexibility in the Workplace Supports Religious Americans," which included speakers from the American Jewish Committee, the Sikh Coalition, the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and the American Islamic Congress. They shared how increased flexibility would help America's diverse workforce meet the often conflicting demands of work and life. They all reported a deep need for work structures that would allow them to be more balanced, restful and flexible in both their at-work and away-from-work lives.

There are many ways business can address this problem, and the solutions will not be the same for every company. For example, some companies let employees opt to work on a company holiday in exchange for taking their own religious holiday. Others let employees work from home on days they need to fit in an observance. Or it can be as simple as making it possible to shift lunch hours to fit in something like Ash Wednesday services.

We all have life needs we need to fit together, whether they are raising children, caring for loved ones, observing our religion or just pursuing our own non-work interests. Most employees appreciate support for what is important to them outside of work and it shows in their job performance. When workplaces are flexible, employees and employers both win.