One of the best things to happen at work in recent years is the option, at many employers, for more flexibility at work, whether it's the chance to work "flex hours," take unlimited vacation time, or other options.

"So many employers offer their employees some flexibility, whether it's maternity or paternity leave or the option for a compressed work week or telecommute options," says Lindsey Trimble O'Connor, Ph.D., assistant professor of sociology at California State University Channel Islands. However, "it's not just about having those policies, it's the cultural belief around those policies that matter."

By that Dr. O'Connor means that employees' perceptions of their workplace culture play a role in how they feel about these perks — and whether or not they will actually use them.

A study led by O'Connor at CSUCI and Erin A. Cech, Ph.D, of the University of Michigan shows that work-life balance is a concern for most employees — and not just mothers but also men and people who don't have children. All suffer when then they feel where they work isn't family-friendly — a phenomenon known as workplace flexibility bias

Employee satisfaction and engagement are all-important predictors of a business' bottom line. — DR. Lindsey Trimble O'Connor, CSU Channel Islands

For example, a company could offer plenty of options for more flexibility, but an employee may hear cautionary tales from coworkers about negative career consequences that happened to people once they came back from a paid leave. When it comes time for that worker to take time off himself, says O'Connor, he may be reticent, out of fear his career would suffer.

Toxic Culture Means Lower Performance

O'Connor and Cech argue that all types of workers are affected when they believe they work in a culture that penalizes workers who need accommodations for family caregiving or personal reasons. These feelings and fears can affect job satisfaction, engagement and performance, impacting a business's bottom line, according to the CSUCI research.

In other research, O'Connor has even likened workplace flexibility bias to the potential consequences of second-hand smoke, meaning that it could affect the health of employees. In that study, O'Connor and Cech make the case that "much like someone does not have to physically smoke a cigarette to be harmed by toxic cigarette fumes in the air, all workers are harmed when their employers foster workplace flexibility bias in their workplace."

Fears of retribution for taking time off can also encourage someone to feel disconnected from those they work with. A lack of personal connections in the workplace can hinder performance, too, according to a new study by Hakan Ozcelik, Ph.D., professor of management in the College of Business Administration at Sacramento State. Dr. Ozcelik found that employees who feel lonelier or isolated are less engaged and less committed to doing well in their work.

Both workplace loneliness and flexibility bias speak to broader organizational problems. "Satisfaction and engagement — those are all-important predictors for organizations' bottom lines," O'Connor says. "There is a real business case for rooting this toxic workplace culture out of organizations because turnover is so expensive," she says, adding that, depending on the job, it can cost up to two-and-a-half-times an employee's salary simply to replace them and more money is lost when you have to use another worker to train someone new.

"It's just a crazy cost to organizations."  

One Simple Change for Happier Workers

File this under "No surprises here": Happy and engaged employees may be more productive. But according to Gallup's 2017 "State of the American Workplace" report, which collected data from more than 195,000 workers, more than half of those surveyed weren't so engaged on the job.

In an effort to help, businesses are trying to improve flexibility. But offering perks may not be enough if an employee fears her career will suffer if she takes advantage of these options, says Dr. Lindsey Trimble O'Connor, assistant professor of sociology at CSU Channel Islands, who has studied the issue.

Dr. O'Connor recommends that organizations first take the pulse of their employees to find out how they feel about what might happen if, say, they use sick leave or need to call in because their child is sick. Do they feel that it will hurt them in the long run? she asks.

After companies get a grasp on the cultural climate toward these policies, they should "try and implement strategies that change the culture in ways that minimizes that flexibility bias," recommends O'Connor. "And that can, from what we've shown, make for a happier workforce."