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Unrealistic leave: A Q&A with Erin Kelly

Outdated work-life policies are leaving service workers and hourly workers behind, professor says

August 31, 2015

Professor Erin L. Kelly

Professor Erin L. Kelly

Erin L. Kelly, a national expert on work-life policies and programs in the workplace, joined the MIT Sloan faculty and the Institute for Work & Employment Research this fall as a professor in work and organization studies.

She comes from the University of Minnesota, where she was a professor and the director of the Life Course Center, and is continuing her affiliation with the Work, Family & Health Network, a national research organization.

How did you become interested in work-life issues in the workplace?

Early on, when I first got to graduate school, I thought I might be a sociologist of religion and study how congregations and other religious organizations dealt with issues around gender and diversity and inclusion, but I soon became more interested in workplaces, which of course affect many more people and have consequences for our lives in terms of income and security and well-being.

I’ve always been interested in how organizations can be more diverse and inclusive and really recognize the contributions of all people involved in those organizations. At first, I probably identified as a gender-and-work scholar and then the more I learned and thought about how workplaces function and how we can understand patterns of inequality and changes in those patterns, the more I became interested in what organizations were trying to do and whether they were achieving the goals they had set out for themselves in creating the kinds of workplaces we might envision.

In general, do you think employers have become more enlightened in the last 10, 15 years in taking work-life issues of employees into account?

I think if we look back a little bit longer—the last 30 years—more employers are paying attention to work-life concerns [today]. But at the same time, there have been other changes in the workforce that mean many employees are facing a kind of speed-up and less stability in their work hours. Professionals and managers are more likely to be in organizations that pay some attention to these issues, but workers in the service industry and retail and hospitality are actually being exposed to more challenges and face less predictable schedules, which create especially acute work-life problems.

Which areas of public policy regarding work-life issues in the workplace do you think need more attention?

I think the area of paid leave time is an area where we certainly need more public policies to provide some floor for employees who face their own illness, have the birth of a child, or are caring for a seriously ill relative themselves. We have a federal Family and Medical Leave Act, but it’s over 20 years old, it covers about 60 percent of U.S. workers, and it only provides unpaid leave. Obviously, the only people who can realistically take leave are those in higher-income families or those who happen to be working for slightly more generous employers. But there are so many who have no access to paid leave time.

What about day-to-day life in workplaces? Do you have thoughts about how that might be improved?

In the work-life arena, we need to think about how we can work in smart and effective ways that also benefit people’s family and personal lives. We shouldn’t be looking for solutions for particular groups of people because the long hours and crazy expectations for almost 24/7 availability affect everyone, not just parents or those caring for adult relatives. They also have real implications for health.

There are some exciting innovations looking at knowledge work and professional and managerial workers, but a lot of the most acute problems are those facing those in hourly jobs and there’s important work to be done to figure out how we can make those job sustainable and fully incorporate those workers into our organizations.