Unending hustle culture in the corporate world has over time given rise to the myth of an ideal worker — someone who is available to work 24×7, ready to prioritise their professional life over their personal life and is at the beck and call of their boss, no matter what.
This absence of work-life balance is often romanticised in popular culture and encouraged in real-life situations at many workplaces. At the same time, any attempt at setting boundaries or declining certain tasks to maintain a healthy balance is seen as a sign of weakness at best and a lack of commitment to your job at worst.
We’re all familiar with Anne Hathaway’s character Andy in The Devil Wears Prada, aren’t we? The film shows her working herself to death under a ruthless and apathetic boss, and as a result, she suffers tremendously in her personal life.
While she manages to escape this situation, albeit, at the cost of quitting her job, her colleague continues to work in the same toxic environment. This kind of organisational culture compels many employees to push themselves to unhealthy limits, as seen in the film, to maintain the illusion of productivity and needless to say — it does not work.
This phenomenon by itself was damaging enough but has gotten worse with the global pandemic last year. The pandemic has fuelled questions about declining productivity levels as people had to switch to working remotely, or in other words, from the supposed comfort of their homes.
A lot of people have lost their jobs in the last year. Those who were lucky enough to escape the axe inevitably began working longer hours to keep their jobs. According to data from virtual private network service provider NordVPN (as reported on Bloomberg), teams in the U.K., Austria, Canada and the U.S. have seen a sustained 2.5-hour increase to the average working day.
In another survey conducted by Los Angeles-based staffing firm Robert Half, nearly 70% of professionals who transitioned to remote work because of the pandemic say they now work on the weekends and 45% say they regularly work more hours during the week than they did before.
The survey also found that working parents were more likely to work more than 8 hours per day and weekends than those without children.
With home and work-life inextricably fused together, the most affected are those who are expected to give their 100% at work and home. More often than not, it is the women of the household who are primary caregivers to children and the elderly. They also manage the lion’s share of domestic responsibilities.
While this proved to be a challenging task even before the pandemic, extended work calls and the unsaid expectation of being reachable at all times has affected women in the workforce disproportionately.
With office work spilling well outside of office hours, any semblance of the boundary between the two spheres that one felt while physically leaving the workspace has virtually disappeared, leaving most people with no time to manage personal errands, cook or eat on time.
Most people working for corporates that I spoke with felt that organisations have assumed that if a typical working day began at 10 a.m. and lasted till 6 p.m., they have the liberty to schedule work calls from 8:30/9 a.m. and as late as 9/10 p.m. since that would’ve been the hours their employee would otherwise spend commuting.
Naturally, this would prove to be hectic for anyone but more so for those who have additional responsibilities at home, be it household tasks or taking care of children and other family members.
While these issues are more or less faced by everyone at large, there are certain dangers that only women have had to face. Cases of domestic violence grew exponentially globally as countries began enforcing social distancing measures and imposing lockdowns.
Those who have to live with their abuser at home tend to view their workspace as a safe haven. However, physically removing oneself from such a situation became no longer possible or significantly harder than before the pandemic.
Therefore, working women facing abuse are at even more of a disadvantage due to remote working because the abuser might create a disruptive environment, further affecting their overall well-being.
Additionally, instances of sexual harassment in the online workspace have also been on the rise. While the POSH Act can be interpreted to extend the definition of “workplace” to our online workspaces, nearly 30% of women in a survey conducted by Pink Ladder said that they would hesitate to report digital harassment because they fear that it wouldn’t be taken seriously.
A great first step for all employers would be to acknowledge that members of their workforce might need support. One way to do that is by ensuring your workplace is POSH compliant and employees know how they’re being kept safe as they continue to work from home.
To combat domestic violence and abuse, companies need to develop policies to offer assistance, protect and grant relief to the survivors, like Hindustan Unilever did last year.
Creating a safe space for survivors at a time when they have limited access to family, friends and domestic violence support organisations can prove to be life-saving for many.
One of the biggest challenges that surround the conversation about domestic violence is that it’s often looked at as taboo. Given that roughly one in three women in India face domestic violence, it is imperative to talk about it openly and create an organisational culture that recognises this abuse and simultaneously affirm your organisation’s commitment to helping those in need.
Managers and other people in leadership roles must ensure that all office communication happens in clearly demarcated working hours to genuinely switch off for a specific amount of time without feeling the pressure to be continuously available.
This is especially important for women and all those in caregiving roles who have to manage meals and other chores not only for themselves but also for other family members as well. Something as simple as not scheduling a work call early in the morning and between 2–3:00 p.m. could take off a lot of pressure from someone’s mind knowing that they can plan their housework or other responsibilities accordingly.
Niharika, 31, who works as a brand manager at a leading MNC, said, “There’s no time to take a break or have a meal in peace because you don’t know when your boss will call you and assign more work because they seem to think we’re all relaxing at home when it’s actually quite the opposite.”
Another reason why setting a cut off time for the last formal communication one may receive from their office is because hyper-connectivity is known to cause elevated stress and anxiety levels amongst people. One can’t truly relax if they keep hearing about all the tasks lined up for the next day till late in the night.
In a survey conducted by Florida based firm Neuvana, 47% of the respondents said that having multiple communication platforms makes it harder to focus, while 43% of them agreed that these platforms often made them feel less productive.
Avantika, 35, a marketing coordinator, said: “I’ve come to realise that even if I’m on an off, my superiors continue to email me about the work I’m supposed to do the next day which eventually makes me work in my down-time as well.”
Certain company-wide policies need to be developed to ensure that people in caregiving roles get the appropriate aid they need and are entitled to, without being reprimanded or deemed bad employees.
For instance, as per the Maternity Act, any company employing more than 50 individuals is required to provide creche facilities to their employees or reimburse them for childcare expenses. However, due to the pandemic, single parents or even working parents who do not live with extended family have no relief in terms of their schedule even though a major form of assistance is no longer available to them.
Lastly, it is absolutely essential for workplaces to be more accommodative of their employees than ever before:
Written by: Elisha Vermani
About the author: Elisha is a student of Multi-Media and Mass Communication at Indraprastha College for Women, Delhi University. When not writing, you’ll find her complaining about the news or deconstructing badly made spy films just for laughs.