The Perils of Part-Time

Amy Dunkin

I hate to say it, but I've seen some pretty stressed out parents who work part-time. They may say they work only three or four days a week. Their diminished paychecks certainly say it. But then projects back up and deadlines loom and they find themselves staying late on workdays and stealing time from their days off when they want to be focused on their families. Before you know it, they're counting up their hours and realizing they are working full-time for a part-time salary.

A part-time job is supposed to be the great middle ground between maintaining a career and staying home to raise children. But when the above happens, no one wins. When someone cuts back their official work hours but they're under pressure--either self-imposed or from the boss--to remain as productive as before, that's not a recipe for a very happy relationship.

In a recent interview for this blog, McGraw-Hill CEO Terry McGraw had an interesting observation about why part-time jobs sometimes backfire: "People want to live up, do the very best. If they have personal factors influencing them to be a part-timer, they say, 'I don’t want you to think of me as part-time. I’m not a part-thinker or a part-doer." So they overcompensate for their employer's willingness to bend by working at 10 p.m. or 6 a.m. or during lunch.

Although I have supervised part-time staffers, I've never worked part-time on a regular basis myself. When I came back from both my maternity leaves, I chose a full-time, flexible arrangement. It allows me to work at home every Wednesday. On other days when I have family obligations, I can come in late, leave early, or even stay home, knowing that I will just make up the time to get the job done.

That said, I understand that some people simply have to feel they are not on-call to the office on their days off. So they'll chose a part-time schedule, even if it means dealing with the complexities and frustrations of making it work.

Over the years, a number of my colleagues, upon returning to the office after having a baby, have asked me whether I think they should try to go part-time. My advice to them and to you is this:

* Before you entertain the thought of cutting back your hours, consider whether a flex-time arrangement would meet your needs. Why get penalized financially if you can figure out a way to maintain your full-time status and still spend enough time at home with the kids?

* If part-time still seems like the answer, you must be secure enough to accept the limitations. That may mean saying no to some plum assignments if they will seriously cut into your non-work hours.

* Make sure you have a supportive boss. A part-time job can work only through a team effort, when both sides make accommodations for each other.

* Think ahead. If you foresee a problem completing an assignment, give plenty of advance warning so you and your supervisor can make a backup plan.

I'd love to hear from others who have ideas about how to manage a part-time job so it doesn't cause undue stress.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.