Decoding the paradox of increasing stress, anxiety, & work-family conflict due to WFH
As the world fights a pandemic, and organizations slowly and steadily try to get back to normalcy, a distinct and definitive change is taking place in the workplace. The physical nature of workplace is seeing a transformation from being situated out of clearly marked designated places to moving into homes, hitherto not designed for an 8-hour workday.
Recent reports indicate that work from home, earlier expounded by organizations as alleviating work family conflict is now exacerbating work family stress and work family conflict.
Is the commonly held belief of work from home mitigating work family conflict a fallacy or is this a problem with implementation and not the belief? A policy initiative initiated as a benevolent measure by organizations could be boomeranging in terms of efficacy due to individual and organizational differences in execution.
Not to mention what could be a possible panacea in one country may play out very differently in another country with a different economic and social trajectory. While homes in Singapore could have two routers for better connectivity, majority of homes in India have one router and that too with unsteady connection. Most homes even none. Disruptions in power supply may be unheard of in countries like USA, however, two continuous days of heavy rains in the Western Ghats could lead to homes in India going without power supply for half a week.
However, the focus of the article is on the increased stress, anxiety that employees are facing due to the work from home. A report in Economic Times, quite early in the pandemic trajectory in India reported that employees were facing increased stress anxiety and burnout due to increased work from home. As the pandemic shows no signs of abating and companies begin extending their work from home till the end of the year and some till about June 2021, such incidents are going to increase in numbers and intensity.
It therefore becomes necessary to understand why work from home may be having unintended effects and how could those be mitigated. The article is an attempt to delve into this and provide suggestions.
Multiple roles, multiple personalities
As individuals, we play multiple roles along with our roles as an employee. We could be a parent, a child, a friend, a spouse, a musician, an artist, a marathon enthusiast in addition to discharging our roles at work. In each of these roles, we may have different facets of our personality taking charge. For instance, as a father, one could be the happy, caring, and indulgent, however, as the boss in office, they could be the no-nonsense, stiff upper lipped boss. The demands of each of the roles are also different. The tools required to succeed in each of these roles are different. The faculties of the brain are amazing as they enable us to take on multiple roles, but what makes it all so simple is the way we organize and categorize by creating boundaries around each role.
Work from home and blurred boundaries
What needs to be noted is that our many different selves do not operate at the same time simultaneously or in quick succession.
Boundaries created between roles enable each to operate out of its own space and time.
With work from home, the boundaries between different roles start getting blurred rather than forming a clear, straight boundary.
The fact that the workplace was in a different location facilitated the transition. The spatial distance between work and home is now zero. As many Indian aren’t designed for an eight hour work week, saw dining tables doubling up as work tables, the same place where serious family discussions and funny banter took place over a meal was now seeing serious conversations of employee retrenchment.
Physical spaces are limited in some parts of the world and with three generations staying together, one would be open to more interruptions from non-work-related parts of life.
Reinforcing the Boundary as a solution
In the light of the above arguments and realities, a possible solution to stress induced due to the boundary overlaps and work family conflict (WFC) would be to reinforce the boundary between roles spatial, cognitive and temporal.
Reinforcing the spatial boundary by setting up a workstation:
This would entail finding that small private corner in the house, that does not see interruptions from others, and which may not be used for other family activities. When I work from there, I not only signal others I am working but my brain also receives a signal that I have moved into my work mode. It could be from a comfortable chair moved to one corner of my living room, or a small space that has been cleared in a room near the terrace. Yes, it would mean consciously creating my own space for a small office.
Reinforcing the cognitive boundary:
A step in this direction would be finishing my household chores, showering, getting dressed in my work wear, having my breakfast, and moving to my small workspace.
When I move out of my workspace, I would again need to close my laptop, take a small walk, freshen up and change into my lounge wear. That would cognitively transition me out of my work role.
A very important part here is the small walk or anything at all that can create space and time before I shift into my next role.
Reinforcing the temporal boundaries
This is the most difficult part as most employees complain of having to work 24/7. No doubt the employee is stressed by the increasing number of Covid19 infections outside and continuous demand for work from home inside. How does one control the call from the office which can come in unwarranted at any time? Some scheduling may be planned by the employee.
Some companies have started fixing shifts for WFH to counter the detrimental impact of disturbing the employee any time as he is available at home. Organizations need to understand and appreciate the multidimensional pressure on the employee during the pandemic time and fix time for organizational activity from home to help reduce work family conflict.
Reinforcing the three boundaries may reduce the stress level of employees increased due to continuous work from home which has been extended into early next year by many companies.