Working parents don’t get enough time with their families as it is

I’m a mom who has been managing work and office culture alongside my own family’s needs and schedule for the last decade. Never in my life have I thought, I’m not spending enough time with my co-workers. The idea that there needs to be a culture of “fun” at work is the absolute last thing any working parent wants.

A French high court ruled in 2022 that workers can’t be forced to have “fun” at work after a man was fired in 2015 for what his employer’s called “professional incompetence” for not participating in work-sponsored extracurricular activities. These included things like weekend excursions and happy hours. The man claimed he was once made to share a bed with a colleague during a retreat.

No, thank you.

Every company I’ve worked for has hosted regular happy hours and events that are supposed to be enjoyable, like escape room excursions. Not even the pandemic could put a stop to it: mandated fun suddenly came in the form of virtual trivia, magic shows, and—you guessed it—more happy hours. I am not anti-fun. I love fun. I just don’t need to be forced to have it at work, and I’m guessing there are a lot of people who agree with me, parents and non-parents alike.

For one, there is a basic tone-deafness to using work time for “fun.” If you have a high-output job, you essentially need all your hours during your workday to complete that job. Expectations for building culture during company time inadvertently take precious time away from employees who need to be, well, working. A parent may desperately need to leave at 5 p.m. on the dot to make it to aftercare pickup. Or they may need to dip out during the day to make it to a school event, doctor’s appointment, or teacher conference. There are already so many things a working parent is juggling; adding another thing to that pile—even one that’s meant to be a good time—is just another thing added to the pile.

Companies love to talk about “culture,” but so many misinterpret it as how much measured “fun” their employees are having while working. That’s not what culture is. “Culture is the tacit social order of an organization: it shapes attitudes and behaviors in wide-ranging and durable ways,” explains Harvard Business Review. “Cultural norms define what is encouraged, discouraged, accepted, or rejected within a group.”

Keep your happy hour and give employees a manager who puts their school pick-ups on their work calendar. Keep the escape room excursion and give employees a workplace that lets them apply sick days to taking care of sick kids. Keep your weekend retreat and create a work culture that doesn’t advertise “endless vacation time” without actually pushing employees to take it. Foster a culture that understands that individuals may not want or have the ability to spend any time outside of work with their colleagues.

We spend approximately one-third of our life at work and most of our waking weekday hours there. We don’t need more time to build relationships with our colleagues; we’re communicating all day long. Rather than leaning into things like happy hours, employers should be cognizant of the transactional nature of employment and celebrate those boundaries.

“For managers, make sure to start the trend by taking your own time away from work to recharge and spend time on hobbies or interests. Employees will see you starting this trend and will feel comfortable to do so for themselves,” explains Harvard Business Review.

There are plenty of studies focused on working parent burnout, and although employers probably aren’t keen on regarding their “fun” events as extra stressors, they can be. Parents are already operating from a space where their attention is divided; missing out on extra events, even if they’re meant to be extracurricular, can add more expectations to an already full plate. No one wants to be regarded as not as committed to their job because they didn’t show up for a cocktail.

So maybe it’s time to really unpack what company culture is and realize its foundation isn’t built in a bar—especially for parents.

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