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The myth of work-life balance (and how COVID-19 exposes it)

Friday, 22 May 2020  | Cheryl McGrath

As COVID-19 turns our work lives upside-down, I’ve noticed
numerous checklists for how workers can maintain their mental health as they deal with the changes.

Common tips include:

  • Encourage each other to create boundaries between ‘home time’ and ‘work time’.
  • Take regular breaks.
  • Connect often with family and friends.
  • Recognise that productivity is not always the best measure of success.

Call me crazy, but aren’t these things we should be doing all the time?

I know – being in a global pandemic isn’t a normal situation. Our lives are complicated by things like working from home and home schooling, and many of us are feeling more vulnerable than we might usually.

But what strikes me is that this is a time when – for once – we are being encouraged not to put our work first. We are acknowledging the harm that can come from not maintaining work/life balance during COVID-19, and we are more aware than ever of the importance of creating good boundaries for the sake of our health.

And, honestly, I welcome it.

Maybe a global pandemic is what it takes to challenge our 24-hour work cycle and its harmful results on our psychological health.

Long before COVID-19, the boundaries between ‘work life’ and ‘personal life’ were already blurred for many of us.

We enable push notifications for our work emails, and we monitor inboxes while on annual leave. We answer work calls while at our child’s swimming lessons or work extra hours after bedtime.

This is nothing new, exactly. In 1990, sociologist Joan Acker wrote that organisations assume the existence of a ‘universal and disembodied worker’ who is devoted to their job 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, every year of their careers. (If you don’t believe that, ask yourself why, as a worker, we learn not to mention our families in interviews and feel guilty for needing flexible arrangements.)

But, while this ‘ideal worker’ mentality isn’t new, the rise of technology has made it even easier to be married to our job. No longer do we work on weekends by commuting into the office – just pick up your smartphone, and boom.

This blurring of boundaries is so ubiquitous that some argue it’s necessary, and even liberating. Recent articles suggest that ‘work-life balance’ is outdated, and that integrating work into life is the way forward. Hypothetically, this means greater flexibility, seeing ‘synergies’ instead of quarantining different parts of life. Your nine-year-old walking into your conference call, and all.

Increasingly, abandoning boundaries between work and life isn’t just easy – it’s rewarded by many parts of the workforce.

But did we stop to ask ourselves if it was good for us?

I’ve long had my doubts, and I’m not alone.

You can read articles debating the value of an 8-hour work-day and stories about workers struggling to do right by their career and their families. You can listen to TED Talks on the importance of taking holidays. Ironically, you can even find growing consensus that quantity of hours isn’t even that great for employers, with Deloitte concluding that,

While companies may benefit from tech-enabled increased productivity in the short term, the blurring of the line between work and life follows a law of diminishing returns.

Concepts like ‘work-life integration’ seem awfully convenient for employers, and less so for employees. If work and life are seamlessly integrated, when will family take priority over deadlines and meetings? When will your nine-year-old feel like they have your undivided attention? And what about the compelling research that suggests that deliberate psychological detachment from work is critical to our health?

So, now that our work lives and home lives are literally under one roof, the harm we are causing ourselves is exposed.

Certainly, we don’t normally have work and school in the home.

But is it really that surprising that the average American has worked three hours more per day since mid-March? Or that working from home is pushing high achievers to the brink? Or that working mothers are working the equivalent of two full-time jobs to keep their households running?

Our time-hungry work culture, now in collision with a time of serious global stress, has highlighted a problem that was previously hidden behind closed doors. As Danielle J. Lindemann writes in Quartz,

By bringing domestic life and work into radical collision, COVID-19 has destroyed the façade of our work-life balance. We have stacked up the various elements of our lives like a teetering mess in a kid’s closet. All it took was for someone to thrust open the door, and the board game tokens and jigsaw puzzle pieces came cascading down.

Being always connected and constantly working was never good for us. Only now, as workers burn out in their thousands, we are having to address the elephant in the room. As Lindemman adds,

This is the moment we were forced to admit, collectively, that we are not just employees but whole selves.

For a long time, we’ve pretended we are ‘disembodied workers’. The truth is, we’re not.

We have families, children, parents, partners, loved ones. We have personal, emotional and spiritual health to maintain.

What we’re learning about work-life balance during COVID-19 isn’t just for now, a time when many of us are feeling vulnerable. It’s a lesson we all should enact every day.

When COVID-19 is over, most of us won’t keep home schooling our children. But we will still have loved ones who need our time and undivided attention.

We won’t always be trapped in home offices. But we still need to understand that detaching from work for spans of time is essential. (Yes, even those emails you get on a Saturday.)

We won’t always have the pall of a global pandemic hanging over our heads. But more than half of Australians will go through a mental health issue in their lifetime, and no one should ever be expected to be ‘always on’, all the time, forever.

I am grateful that I work in an environment where I’m being allowed to make my health a priority. But I know not everyone is so fortunate.

If there’s one thing I hope to see after the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, it’s that we’ll abandon the harmful idea that the 24-hour work cycle is healthy for anyone.

I just wonder if this lesson will continue after COVID is gone.

Cheryl McGrath is a Melbourne-based writer and editor by training, and works in content production for an online learning provider. You can follow her work at her blog, Twenty-Six Letters.

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