Working from home has become a blessing and a curse for caregivers. Can HR help?
For years, many leaders, be it in businesses or the government, have suggested that flexible work arrangements were the prime solution to help ease the burden of working parents. Then the pandemic hit and remote work became the norm, with many assuming that flexibility was part of the deal.
It didn’t take long for people to realise that remote working isn’t for everyone, and for caregivers who had to juggle work, chores, as well as homeschooled kids, it was an absolute nightmare. The lack of clear boundaries while working from home just amplified working parents’ struggles, though it did allow families to spend more time together.
This was recognised by Gan Siow Huang, Singapore’s minister of state for manpower and education, during a virtual dialogue session organised by the Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF) and NTUC’s Women and Family Unit.
“[Flexi-work] has at the same time brought new pressure points,” Gan said. “While you work from home and have access to family support, some employees have also given feedback that it’s actually quite stressful doing two things at once.”
Read more: How to cope as a family in isolation
Who’s in charge of house chores?
Calling it ‘two things at once’ didn’t paint a clear enough picture of the lived reality. At any one time, a working parent could be prepping for a client call, thinking about the best way to reply an important work email, clearing a pile of dirty laundry, on top of homeschooling restless children. What’s more telling were studies that suggested women have been bearing a heavier burden at home since the crisis.
Anita Bhatia, deputy executive director at UN Women shared her worry that the care burden poses a “real risk of reverting to 1950s gender stereotypes”. Their global study conducted between April and November 2020 found that while their partners have been pitching in at home, women experienced at least a 30% increase in chores like cooking meals and a 45% increase in cleaning duties.
As for childcare responsibilities, including feeding, cleaning, teaching and playing with kids, women cited at least a 30% increase in duties. UN Women found the situation especially grave due to how women have been spending more time on unpaid care work and chores than men even before the pandemic. For instance, in Japan, women spent 4.8 times more than men on chores. In China, the figure was 2.6 times, while in Thailand, it was 3.2 times.
While we didn’t find any Asia-specific studies on the division of home responsibilities, Catalyst revealed its findings from a US-based survey of business leaders and working professionals. The study found a mismatch in perceptions around the division of labour. One in three men (36%) claimed to have taken on more of the household chores during the pandemic. However, only 13% of women said that their male partner had taken on more of the household chores.
Meanwhile, mothers were twice (49%) as likely to be primarily responsible for their children’s homeschooling, compared with fathers (24%). Overall, most men said they have taken on more parenting responsibilities since they began working from home.
Why some struggle with remote work
To get a better idea of the age-old struggle, we reached out to Sher-li Torrey, founder and director at Mums@Work, a social enterprise in Singapore dedicated to supporting women find balance between career and family. Torrey is highly familiar with issues faced by remote working mothers and has been helping both employers and employees navigate the tricky territory.
“We started championing work from home in 2010,” Torrey told HRD. “We do encourage [mothers] to do it, but we also do tell employers that from our observations not all jobs can be done easily remotely.
“And not all personality types can handle it. Some personality types actually prefer that demarcation – ‘this is where I live and this is where I work’. It sounds like a bit of an adrenaline rush for some [working from home]. For others it’s extremely stressful, so that’s actually how we describe work for mothers who haven’t figured out how to segment their work.”
She’s also met individuals who have “the natural instinct to compartmentalise” parts of their life, so when they’re unable to do that in a work from home setting, they will find things “impossible” and “haywire”.
Coupled with a highly stressful education system like Singapore’s, where students were expected to sit for tests and exams while being homeschooled, parents working remotely may find themselves drowning in the deep end.
How to support employees working from home
Unfortunately, with COVID-19 still in the air, remote work will remain the norm for most organisations. The good news is schools have reopened in parts of the world, including Singapore and Hong Kong, so there's some respite for parents working from home.
As a full-time mumpreneur, she understands the difficulties and has learned to thrive while juggling both work and family at home. From experience, she shared that one of the best ways to support working parents is through communication, flexibility, and empathy.
She manages a team of employees at Mums@Work and everyone has learned to verbalise a concept called ‘no-go zones’. This involves communicating with your team about your daily schedule so that they can coordinate the best timings to hold meetings or calls.
For example, if you have a daily 8am routine of getting your child ready for school, make it clear that the team should avoid setting meetings in those early hours. Then explain that 9.30am to 12pm are likely your most available and productive hours, as the kids are away at school, so the team can focus on clearing the most critical tasks then.
“All of us have our own no-go zones depending on the age of our kids and when they are back from school and how much support you have at home,” she said. “Then you realise it’s a very deliberate attempt to create some structure out of work.”
She believes working from home may be tough for some at the beginning because of a lack of structure. Over time, some companies do get better at offering structure for job roles, while managers learn to adapt to their team members’ productive ‘time zones’.
“Structuring your management style in a way to suit the personality type [of team members] to help them excel is important [as well], because otherwise the person feels like they’re lacking control, and then they can become very stressed by it," she said.