by Marnie Dobson Zimmerman, Ph.D. & Pouran Faghri M.D.*
The dog barks. My husband yells at her to be quiet as he continues his Zoom call on mute. The kids can be heard arguing from the other side of our small house, playing video games on their iPads after completing their distance learning work in two hours between 7:30–9:30am. I pause my Zoom-recorded lecture and grind my teeth together. How will I possibly make it through the next several months, working like this? During this global pandemic, many of us now find ourselves working at home with insufficient physical or personal space, and limited boundaries between work and home.
Work-life balance — the dilemma of managing both work obligations and family and personal affairs — is taking on new meaning to millions of us working from home while observing the coronavirus social distancing policies. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 24% of American workers were working from home at least some of the time in 2017–2018. By some estimates, 56% of American workers are currently working from home as a result of the crisis. We are sharing office space (or the dining room table) with a spouse who is suddenly there all the time. Pets and children show up in the corner of the Zoom video while we are still trying to pass as professionals.
Before COVID-19 and the shutdown, most of us kissed our kids goodbye in the morning, dropped them off at daycare or school―and went out into the world of work. Sure, for many of us the pressures and stresses of work came home with us at the end of the day. We worked long hours, overtime shifts, or kept on working, answering emails, preparing presentations after the kids were in bed (or while they were watching TV). But now the private and public sphere of home and work has completely blurred into one and we confront managing work (if we have it), while acquiring new skills as amateur teachers.
More than ever, we recognize and appreciate the work of our teachers and daycare workers.
Work Stress at Home
With this new stay-at-home policy and work-from-home situation, work stress has new meaning. Nearly half of parents with children under 18 say their stress levels during this pandemic are high and 71% say managing distance learning for their children is a significant source of stress, according to the recent American Psychological Associations’ “Stress in the Time of COVID-19” report. Work stress is often defined by the characteristics of a job―high workload or job demands, a lack of control over the pace and timing of tasks and even a lack of social support. Work-life conflict addresses the stress related to conflicting roles or “spillover” of family or non-work stress with work stress and vice versa.
Work stress has invaded the home, blurring the boundaries between work and home life demands while potentially increasing both. Our current levels of stress (especially for those of us working at home with children and/or taking care of a sick family member), are now dominated by the challenges of managing the demands of work while being a good parent, a good teacher to our children and sharing a workspace that is also the same space where we, our spouse and children work, play and eat.
A limited number of us may be privileged (or willing to take the risk) to pay for a live-in child care worker or have a family member to care for small children while working a full-time day where bosses still expect us to be online at 7am and attend a whole day of meetings. If we don’t have help, we must try to keep our second grader on track in Lexia while making sure our 6th grader gets on her class Zoom meeting at 10am when our own morning Zoom meeting which started at 9:30am hasn’t finished! It requires a level of multi-tasking that is not always successful, and feeling like you are not successfully accomplishing any role can lead to exhaustion and burnout.
Obviously, despite the variety of heightened work-family demands/conflicts we are experiencing in the “new normal,” some of us are fortunate to get to work and stay safely at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, with sufficient hardware and bandwidth to accommodate multiple schedules. But it is much worse for those who are trapped at home with limited resources or in domestically violent or abusive relationships. Domestic violence and child abuse reports are on the rise.
Work-Life Conflict & Essential Workers
Meanwhile, millions of “essential workers” are on the frontlines of a war against an invisible foe: healthcare workers who save lives and comfort the dying, grocery workers and meatpackers who feed us, transit workers who get us where we need to go. All these workers (mostly blue-collar) are at heightened risk for exposure to the coronavirus, and are worried about exposing their families, falling ill or even dying. And too many are falling ill and dying as we see in the large outbreaks in meatpacking plants in the midwest and the thousands of health care workers testing positive.
But they continue going to work―because they know they are essential, they believe in their work, they want to do a good job, or because they have no other choice but to keep their job and pay the bills. What are frontline workers doing about children who need homeschooling? Maybe older relatives or siblings are at home to help watch the children, but these family members may also be exposed when those front-line workers come home.
Work-life conflict for these essential workers is now an existential conflict over whether a paycheck is enough of a reason to risk older or vulnerable family members’ exposure to the virus as well as their own.
The inequality between men and women, between black and white that has always existed in the United States, is now a glaring chasm under the conditions of this pandemic. Workers in many of these essential industries are more likely women from low-income communities, who are exposed to greater levels of work stressors in general, and are also more likely to be people of color or migrant workers.
In fact, the elevated mortality rate among African-Americans and Latinxs may be partly due to multiple exposures to the virus at work, as well as underlying health conditions (already compromising their immune systems) that are more prevalent in lower socioeconomic status groups. Those groups are also less likely to be able to take advantage of the benefits of telecommuting because of less access to high-speed internet and home computers sufficiently advanced to be able to run the necessary software―the “digital divide.”
Another stressful aspect of this global health crisis is the high level of uncertainty about the future. We really don’t know much about what will happen next. But there are positive things about staying at home: seeing and spending time with your kids, hugging them goodnight at bedtime, being able to take a break to exercise or make a healthy lunch and eat it with your partner and kids. Having more flexibility over when and how you work. But is the blurred boundary between public and private, home and work, feasible on a permanent basis? Given the option, how many of us would want it to be permanent?
For many front-line workers, working from home will never be an option.
Companies require “work from home”
Many companies that resisted allowing employees to work from home prior to this global health crisis, have now been forced to accept working from home as a new and widespread practice. The big tech companies Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft required its white-collar employees to work from home even before Stay-at-Home orders went into effect. However, Amazon’s warehouse workers continued to work in warehouses which were not safe or healthy. Facebook provided paid leave for those caring for a sick family member and $1,000 towards the cost of setting up home offices. But this only applied to their high-income employees. Many companies had to put major effort and resources into figuring out how to use technology (e.g. Zoom) for employees to work efficiently from home.
Recently, many of these big tech companies announced that they are extending the “work from home” policy until at least the end of 2020. Twitter announced that it will allow its employees to work from home “forever.” But it’s not just tech giants on the West Coast; some executives from the biggest financial companies, Barclays, JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley, with tens of thousands of employees in office buildings in NYC prior to the pandemic, are deciding that it’s unlikely that all their employees will ever return to those offices.
As reported by the New York Times, Morgan Stanley’s CEO said the company had “proven we can operate with no footprint. That tells you an enormous amount about where people need to be physically.” Of course, it should be noted that companies may not just be interested in a more sustainable business model; they may benefit economically from this arrangement, transferring the costs of offices (in the millions of dollars), to employees who will now bear the cost of maintaining a home office (electricity, internet access, office supplies). Obviously, this will not be sustainable and cost-share policies should be initiated. While the idea of continuing remote work from home may appeal to many, the unintended consequences of thousands of office workers not returning to the high rises of NYC or other major metropolitan areas, could be devastating for the commercial real estate market, the city tax base, as well as thousands of restaurant workers, restaurant owners and other businesses that rely upon densely populated office buildings.
Telecommuting: Pros and Cons
For some white-collar/knowledge workers, though, could there be some positive outcomes from the COVID-19 crisis for employee wellbeing? Might it change the way we work in the future? For many of us telecommuting could be great, as long as the kids can safely return to school! Indeed, some recent articles report around 24% of those currently working from home would prefer to continue working from home, but 55% said they would go back to the office. While the jury is out on the relative advantages and disadvantages of telework or telecommuting (working from home), some recent reviews suggest that it has a positive effect on health.
But while there are positives to telecommuting for some, the negatives are also noteworthy. They include a lack of social support and isolation from co-workers (some people find that Zoom is a poor substitute for in-person contact). Less separation between work and home life could mean we work more hours and won’t have enough recovery time. We should look at who benefits from socially isolated workers who may have greater difficulty organizing a union when everyone is in a different location. What happens to workers without access to adequate computer equipment or the internet because of the digital divide?
We need to think about work-life balance and telecommuting in the time of COVID, through the lens of an increasingly diverse workforce. Recognizing the possibility that the benefits afforded to some may increase inequality, by limiting access to the same opportunities and creating an unequal exposure to this virus, for others.
Whatever side of the work-life balance and telecommuting debate you stand on, we will continue to debate this for some time to come.
- If you want to learn more about burnout and its costs to individuals and employers, check out our article, “The Cost of Burnout: Why We Need Healthy Work.”
- If you want to learn more about physician burnout, check out our previous article, “Burnout among Physicians―a 21st Century U.S. Epidemic.”
*This article was commissioned as part of the Healthy Work Campaign. To learn more and obtain free resources, visit https://healthywork.org.
Dr. Marnie Dobson Zimmerman is the Co-Director of the Healthy Work Campaign, as well as the Associate Director of the Center for Social Epidemiology. She is also an Assistant Adjunct Professor at the University of California, Irvine Center for Occupational and Environmental Health (COEH) where, for the last 12 years, she has been involved in work stress research, including qualitative, participatory methods, enhancing epidemiological studies and intervention development with several blue-collar working populations including firefighters and urban transit operators. She continues to teach in occupational health classes at UCI and UCLA, as well as publish academic articles and book chapters and present at scientific conferences. (LinkedIn, Twitter)
Dr. Pouran Faghri is the Principal Investigator for the HWC Dissemination and Implementation Project and a Research Associate with the Center for Social Epidemiology. She is an Emeritus Professor at the University of CT and was the Director of the Center for Environmental Health and Health Promotion at the University of Connecticut. Following her recent Visiting Professorship appointment at the University of California, Los Angeles, Professor Faghri is continuing her collaboration with UCLA Department of Environmental Health Sciences as Full Professor (adjunct) starting July 2020 and presently is collaborating with researchers at the NIOSH Southern California Education and Research Center at UCLA, as well as the UC Irvine Center for Occupational and Environmental Health. (LinkedIn)
We would like to acknowledge the contributions made to this article by our colleagues: