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Does taking advantage of family leave benefits hurt your reputation at work?
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President Obama advocated for family friendly workplace policies such as parental leave and paid sick leave in his recent State of the Union address. But often, workers who actually take advantage of these policies face stigma in the workplace. - photo by Marsha Maxwell
In his State of the Union Address Tuesday, President Barack Obama urged Congress to expand family leave and paid sick days for American workers.

Send me a bill that gives every worker in America the opportunity to earn seven days of paid sick leave, he challenged.

According to, Obama backs the proposed Healthy Families Act, which would offer an hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked. But there may be a hidden downside for workers who take advantage of sick leave, family leave and other flexible work policies.

Increasingly, workplaces offer family friendly policies, and these policies improve a companys image, according to Jade S. Jenkins of the American Psychological Association. But workers who take advantage of these policies may suffer from flexibility stigma, defined as a type of discrimination triggered whenever an employee signals a need for workplace flexibility due to family responsibilities.

Flexibility stigma occurs because employees who request or utilize family friendly policies and benefits may not be perceived as meeting prescribed standards of the ideal worker, Jenkins wrote in an APA newsletter. Characteristics of the ideal worker include consistently being committed to working long hours and preventing family matters from interfering with ones commitment to the job.

The stigma persists in spite of the fact that studies show workers who are better able to balance work and family life are more productive, healthier, happier and more committed to their employers, according to Jenkins.

Some workplaces actively encourage workers to take advantage of family friendly policies, often by asking upper management to set an example. Tom Stocky, a vice president for search at Facebook, blogged publicly about his four-month paternity leave.

Afterward, Stocky told The New York Times, a lot of guys at the company reach out to me. Ive kind of become a model or a template like, This is OK; taking four months off is totally cool.

The Times also reported that accounting firm Ernst & Young makes sure its top executives speak about taking time off to be with family.

Another way of reducing flexibility stigma is changing public policy so that work-family balance is more of a cultural norm.

Its workplace by workplace, and saying that we as a society think this is important, Christopher Ruhm, a professor of public policy and economics at the University of Virginia, told The Times. What we do in terms of the laws and the rights that we provide gradually changes cultural norms.