While many people prepare to take time off for the December holidays, workers in certain fields get assigned to stay on the clock on typical days off.
But who gets stuck with those shifts? Too often, companies assign holiday workdays to people who are single and/or don’t have children under the assumption that they need the time off less than their peers who are married and/or parents.
Take it from Sophie, a hospital social worker. She said the idea that single women need or deserve that time off less isn’t pervasive at her current salaried job, but “came up all the time” when she worked retail and gig jobs.
“So much so that I internalized it by offering to work major holidays, stating, ‘Well, I don’t have a family, I don’t need to be home for “insert holiday here,”’” she said. ”‘I don’t have a family?!’ What … Kool-Aid was I drinking to completely disregard my parents, sibling and chosen family that I was volunteering for busy shifts?“
Managers should be careful not to assume that single and/or childfree people don’t need holiday time as much as others do.
What Sophie and many other single, childfree employees experience is known as “singlism,” according to social scientist Bella DePaulo, a term she defines as the stigmatizing of and discrimination against people who are single.
DePaulo finds that single people are often stereotyped as not having a life outside of work.
“Of course, that is totally untrue,” she has previously told HuffPost. “Single people have people who matter to them, and commitments and interests and passions that matter to them. All that should be irrelevant, anyway: [The] workplace should be about work. Everything should even out ― how often you get to leave early, come in on the holidays, get your choice of vacation times, etc. ― such that over time, every worker is treated the same, and marital status or parental status do not matter at all.“
If you don’t have children to support or a married partner to spend time with, do you not deserve to have a restful holiday break? Too many employers seem to think not. In response to a HuffPost callout about single discrimination, a reader named Emily shared that she was always the one who had to sacrifice time with her family and loved ones at her job in college development.
“It wasn’t even a question,” she said. “It did so much damage to my relationships — family upset I could never join them for gatherings, significant other frustrated that I allowed work to become a priority over our relationship and home. It nearly broke us up.”
“I loved my job and the perks of business and pleasure. But sometimes, you just hate it and ask, ‘Why me? Again?’”
– Patricia, former military staffer
A HuffPost reader named Patricia said not being married was the reason she was assigned long deployments that would often fall on holidays at her military job.
“My boss’ reason was simply because I was single,” she said. “Doesn’t my kid count as family? … I loved my job and the perks of business and pleasure. But sometimes, you just hate it and ask, ‘Why me? Again?’”
There’s a fairer way to assign holiday shifts.
So what would be a better system? There isn’t just one answer. Some organizations organize holiday schedules based on seniority, but managers should keep in mind that that system leaves people out, too.
“Seniority usually means it will favor people who have families, who are going to be older,” said Mary Abbajay, president of the leadership development consultancy Careerstone Group. She noted she’s seen single, childfree people pushed to work holiday days, especially in industries like health care and retail that are reliant on shift work.
Whatever organizations do, they shouldn’t wing it. Instead, they could try involving employees impacted by the process and see what they would recommend to make the process more fair, Abbajay said.
“Maybe make an equation out of it. Seniority gets you one point; maybe you lose a point if you took it off last year. Something that automatically doesn’t give it to the people who have been there the longest or who have the kids. Maybe you have a lottery for some people,” Abbajay said. “The bottom line is get creative about how you could make this feel more fair and inclusive.”
Organizations should also consider rewarding employees who work the holidays with money or a small gift, she added. “Something that says, ’You know what, I really appreciate that you fell on the sword for this one.’ You want your people always to feel valued and appreciated, especially if they have to work the holidays.”
Extra paid time off would also do the trick.
Sophie said her advice would be for companies to first put holiday shifts up for grabs, “because there are definitely folks who prefer to work those shifts for a variety of reasons,” she noted. “Then, whatever remaining gaps there are, look at whoever worked the previous year/years and ask if they want to work it again this year. If they don’t, then establish a type of rotating schedule or pull from a hat.”
If you are a single, unmarried employee who keeps getting assigned holiday shifts, you can try broaching the topic as a request to your boss, Abbajay said, but make sure it’s not phrased as a complaint. In the meantime, get those holiday requests in early.
“It’s hard to say no when you’re early,” she said.
As for Sophie, she said she knows better now than to volunteer for holiday shifts. Older peers who were retired and her colleagues with adult children helped her realize that she deserved time off for the holidays, just like anyone else.
Last year she worked all the major holidays she celebrates — Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Day, New Year’s Eve and Day — because of COVID. “Now, this year when I was asked to work those same holidays, I smiled and said I had already put in my time and that this year I was taking all of them off,” she said.