From Pandemic to Endemic: The Future of Work-Life Balance
The novel coronavirus has created unprecedented challenges that were unforeseeable two years ago. The University of Denver is bringing together experts from around the country to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on individuals, relationships, mental health and workplaces during the second annual Seeking Tomorrow’s Answers Together (STAT) Conference on January 26.
The DU Newsroom is also exploring many of these challenges by speaking with faculty experts about the issues that have arisen or have been exacerbated because of the pandemic. One area of interest is work-life balance. Cindi Fukami is a professor in the Department of Management in the Daniels College of Business. She shares her thoughts about work-life balance in this interview with the DU Newsroom.
We’ve talked about work-life balance for years. It seems to have taken on new urgency since the start of COVID. How did the pandemic push this to the top of employee awareness?
I started my first research project on work-life balance in 1980, so yes, it has been talked about for a long time. As more and more women entered the workforce, the traditional view that women’s work was to take care of the home and family started to shift. Families began to depend on two incomes, and U.S. workers were providing more hours to the labor market than any other developed nation on earth. COVID accelerated this trend and the conflict between work and life demands — both for two parent families and for single parent families — was front and center. With schools closing and day care less available, taking care of children had to be balanced with getting jobs done.
Employees without children are also affected by working from home. While work could be spread throughout the day making some activities more convenient and useful for those who prefer a flexible schedule, work also became a potentially 24/7 activity, leaving little time for personal needs. When you add in COVID’s impact on general life activities, most people had little opportunity for rest and rejuvenation.
What are people looking for in work-life balance?
I think the word “balance” is the key. Too much of anything, even something good, can be bad! Other developed nations provide significantly more vacation time than does the U.S., as well as more benefits for working parents. In short, people want the ability to have a productive life along with a productive work life.
How do employers benefit by supporting work-life balance for their employees?
We’ve known for a while that naps and rest breaks taken during the workday are associated with greater productivity. In the New Deal, the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act set the standard of a 40-hour work week and it has not been changed/reduced since then. It would be interesting to see if worker productivity could be the same or even greater in a 32-hour, 4-day workweek, or even in a 4-day, 40-hour work week. Again, workers in the U.S. have been working very long hours compared to other developed nations.
According to the New York Times, by April 2020, homebound working Americans were working three more hours on the job each day, replacing commutes with Zoom meetings and Slack messages. Many of those workers now report burn out. How can we create better work-life balance while working remotely?
It's hard to know whether these early reports we are receiving are reliable and valid. I assume work hours from home were self-reported and may not be accurate. On the other hand, I don’t have a hard time believing that we worked more hours as we had nothing else to do and, during lockdown, attending meetings was the only way we could interact with other people.
Still, whatever the reason, it is clear that many are burned out and physically and mentally tired. The time has come for us to review and seek out best practices for remote work. These include logistical issues like logging work hours, providing appropriate equipment for the home office, helping parents deal with day care and schooling, and helping adult children care for elderly relatives, among other issues. And they also include work issues — every job is not well suited for remote work, and every supervisor is not equipped to effectively lead remote workers. This requires rethinking of how closely we need to monitor and control work or whether employees are capable of self-control. We would not continue to use a machine that was broken — hopefully we see our human employees to be as important as a machine.