With the rate of single Americans continuing to increase each year, this group now represents 51% of the population aged 18-34.  The largest percentage of the workforce is also now millennials at 35%, which in 2020 includes ages ranging from 23-38. Statistically, single employees are a significant part of the work force and will continue to be based on the data trends (Pew Research Center).  So why does this information matter to you, as a manager or leader?  Because we bring our whole selves to work and inevitably what is impacting us in our personal lives does in fact influence how we show up to do our jobs even in subtle ways, regardless of what “check it at the door” cultures may be in place. 

As a leadership coach, I am passionate about bringing more empathy and compassion into the workplace so that we can all be more effective, authentic, and purpose-driven.

In an effort to help create more connection and rapport between managers and their single employees, I interviewed and researched singles in the Bay Area on this topic.  Here were the top five concerns that came up repeatedly:

Equal pay and promotion opportunities

Single employees wonder if their salaries and opportunities for higher-paid promotions would be the same if they were “supporting a family”.  This one also effects female employees in general, but the single people I interviewed consistently mentioned that it was important to them to know that their employers were not considering their single status as a way to justify a certain pay level.  Some even said they were making trade-offs for their careers by not having a family at that time, but it was hugely important for them to be able to save and plan for a future family even though they didn’t have that in their lives currently (home, healthcare/fertility options, tuition savings, etc).

What you can do:

As a manager you can ask yourself if you have any unconscious biases in this area and what has shaped those.  Additionally, studies show that providing all employees with clarity and certainty around their salary (i.e. how it was determined, that it is equal to their counterparts in similar roles ) this builds trust in the organization, which has a major impact on quality of work and retention. Take steps to review the process of determining salaries and promotions internally and clearly communicate that to your teams so everyone is on the same page.

They do not have built in distractions at home that help them “check out” of work mode

This one may sound great to a manager and even to some employees, but what this really means is that they take work home with them a lot.  When people come home to an empty house without any connection to others, they may not properly disconnect and take breaks from their work, and so they run a high risk of burning out.  This allows work-related stress, small tasks that keep them busy, and any conflicts they may be facing at work to permeate into personal time. And with Americans spending on average 1/3 of their lifetime (90,000 hours) at work, It may also mean that some of their primary relationships are at work (Bureau of Labor and Statistics). Additionally, new data is coming out about the health effects and prevalence of loneliness among Americans.  Two in five Americans feel lonely, isolated, and without meaningful social relationships (Health Resources & Services Administration).

What you can do:

As a manager, ask your employees about their support and personal routines that create balance outside of work.  Don’t be afraid to discuss healthy boundaries that support protected time for wellness, hobbies, and relationships outside of work (this includes time to build relationships if they aren’t already there).  This will go a long way toward helping these members of the team avoid burnout and opportunities for disengagement. If you aren’t sure how to open this discussion, here are a few simple questions to explore:

-What does support outside of work look like for you right now?

-What activities make you feel fully present and in flow? How often do you get to do this?

-What do you do for yourself to disconnect from work each evening/weekend?

Vacation time may look different.

Vacation time and planning may not look like it does for your employees in couples or with families.  Specifically, the people I interviewed shared two important distinctions.  First, it may be planned a bit more last minute, as people sometimes receive less notice and aren’t able to plan as far in advance with friends or for group trips and retreats.  The group I spoke with felt it was really important for their well-being to be able to seize opportunities to travel with others when they arose, even if they had less control over the circumstances related to planning.  Secondly, they may experience some anxiety around traveling alone or around sharing with people at work that they are taking a solo vacation.  While some employees are pros at this type of trip, many single people are just trying this for the first time and may have some apprehension. 

What you can do:

As a manager, having empathy and understanding for both aspects is key.  Celebrating these vacation choices equally and encouraging adequate time to unplug from work while team members are on vacation can help all employees feel accepted and supported.  In addition, establishing clear expectations on what’s needed to request, plan for, and manage business while on vacation eliminates any ambiguity or worry.

They may be experiencing internal or external pressure about being single.

Today’s single population is a very mixed bag.  Many single people today are absolutely comfortable with their relationship status and have chosen it for good reasons.  And there are also those within the single population that would like to be married and may feel self-conscious about not having achieved this societal milestone. For this second group, largescale company meetings can feel like family reunions, where every last relative is asking “so are you seeing anyone?”.  Other situations that may be a bit more anxiety provoking are “+1” Corporate events and incentive trips, or more casual networking opportunities to meet coworkers or clients with their spouses outside of work. 

What you can do:

As a manager, you want your people to always be able to show up feeling like a valued and accepted member of the team.  Understand that this is what helps them deliver their highest quality ideas and performance.  The first and simplest step to take is to stop asking people you work with if they are seeing anyone when you catch up with them at meetings.  No exceptions.  Assume that if they want to share any updates they will.  This gives you an opportunity to ask a higher quality question about something the person enjoys, is excited about, or wants to achieve.

Additionally, there’s no need to walk on eggshells around the topic of relationships with single employees, but observe the culture of your team and organization to identify areas where single status may be seen as a failure or mark against someone.  It’s simply a different choice that can add to the diversity of your group.  Seeing and validating this as such, especially in those circumstances where having a +1 is the norm, can help set a tone of acceptance for all, beyond just single employees.

They worry their reasons for PTO aren’t good enough.

With more and more companies helping employees prioritize family and work life balance, this is definitely an area that seems to be improving.  However, many singles I asked, said that they felt worried their reasons for saying no to evening or weekend work were not as valid as having family responsibilities. They were concerned that without a family at home, the expectation from their boss or company was that they pick up the slack and say yes to work outside of normal hours when others had to take off for family reasons.  Overall, they experienced a sense of guilt and fear around saying no and requesting PTO for their own sense of wellness and balance.

What you can do:

This lack of boundaries can often lead to burnout and resentment if not addressed.  Check in with your team and look for patterns where this may be happening in subtle ways.  Are there certain team members who are taking on responsibilities outside of normal work hours more than others?  Are there certain employees who aren’t using their PTO?  Does your company culture support and provide personal wellness and volunteer days?  If not, look to some of the many socially conscious and forward-thinking organizations who have implemented these PTO programs and share with your HR and executive leadership that when implemented, many organizations have correlated these programs with improvements in profit, turnover, and culture. Creating a culture where all employees are encouraged to use their PTO and openly discuss burnout warning signs is key.

While relationship/partnership status may not have a direct influence on an employee’s ability to do their job, it certainly is one aspect of diversity that is increasing in our workforce and society today.  The concerns and needs of single employees can be slightly different than those with families and this does impact how they show up to work in very real ways.  As a manager and leader, empathy for all of the various types of people on your team not only will help you better understand and connect, but it will help you better inspire those around you.