4 Ways to Adjust to the New COVID Demands on Your Daily Life

A new study suggests how you can negotiate work-family balance.

Posted Aug 04, 2020

Flexible schedules seem to have everything going for them during normal times, when you have complete freedom to adjust your workday according to your other obligations, particularly family. You can choose when to start, stop, or pause to take a child to school, prepare an early dinner, or take a much-needed screen time break. When you have to go into your physical workplace, you can catch up with your colleagues as you carry out the work duties you can only do in the office, store, or shop floor. Potentially, you don’t even have to worry about what the rush hour traffic will be like. 

COVID-19 has now given you the ultimate flexible schedule, particularly if you’re allowed to work from home. If not, perhaps your partner is in that situation. This would be great in many ways, minus the fact that if you have children, you also have the new need to educate them remotely at home, or have them negotiate a highly variable school schedule. In the pre-COVID days, there were always times when a child was sick or had an appointment that conflicted with work and school, or maybe there were snow days to worry about. Now, these exigencies are part of the new normal, at least for the foreseeable future.

According to University of Montreal’s Victor Haines and colleagues (2020), in a study carried out before the pandemic, a surprisingly high percentage of workers already have a non-standard work schedule (NWS). The estimates range from 20% in the U.S. to 28% of Canadians, and as many as 30% of Europeans, but are undoubtedly higher now.

Despite the apparent attractiveness of a NWS, Haines et al. summarize previous studies as showing that “The consequences of NWS include negative impacts on marital stability, quality, work-family conflict, day care center use, child development, family functioning and parenting,” and, even more seriously, “risk of coronary heart disease, depressive symptoms, and job burnout” (p. 1). What’s going on to cause all these deleterious outcomes?

According to the theoretical framework offered by what’s called the Conservation of Resources (COR) model (Hobfall, 1989), NWS create stress by threatening you with threat of a resource loss, actual resources losses, and loss of the potential to gain after investing your resources. The original theory focused on resources associated strictly with work, or occupational stress, and in so doing, missed the mark in the view of the Canadian authors. Haines and his colleagues maintain that understanding flexible schedules from a COR perspective requires looking outside the workplace to the larger context of home and family. Your perception that your resources are being drained comes not just from the inconsistency of a NWS but from the belief that you won’t be able to juggle all your many demands.

The stress of a NWS is not that you can adjust your schedule to meet your other obligations, the authors propose, but that you may be required to work outside of the normal confines of the 40-hour week. In this regard, as the study’s authors suggest, they become a “resource threatening environmental circumstance” (p. 2). Haines and his colleagues go on to observe that “the demands of such atypical schedules are associated with the loss of resources in the form of work-life balance policies” (p. 2).

You can very likely to relate to this observation particularly now, when there are no exact boundaries to the workday. In the past, even with your flexible schedule, you could ignore emails or texts that occurred outside your work hours. With COVID changing the rules of the game, those emails could come at any time, and you might be expected to reply.

Using a national sample based in Canada, the University of Montreal researchers administered a series of work- and family-related questionnaires to 9,150 parents of children aged 0 to 5, 29% of whom had a NWS. The sample was about equally split between males and females, most were in their 30s, and they were parents, on average, to 1.38 children in the home. The study, conducted in 2015, would obviously not have reflected the impact of COVID on work schedules, so this is important to keep in mind.

Participants completed surveys in which they responded to questions about their work schedules, work-life balance policies of their organizations (e.g. paid family leave, reduced or compressed work week), social support from family members (e.g. parents), friends, and neighbors, the perception of work-family conflict, and health. A measure of workplace strain asked participants to rate themselves on items such as feeling that they had to “run all day to get things done,” were emotionally exhausted, and did not have enough time either for themselves or their children. A behavioral measure of parenting asked participants to indicate how often they read or sang songs to their children, got angry at them, and became impatient when their children required attention.

Before reading the results, take a moment to answer those questions for yourself. In the new normal of your own COVID world, those parenting questions in particular would most likely apply not just to having fun with your children, but also serving as their teacher or tutor. When you think about your daily routines, how many times do you feel that there aren’t enough hours in the day?

Several other factors that served as control variables to take into account were wealth, lack of social support, education, and the nature of the family (single-parent, blended). The number of children also became an important variable, as you can imagine, as did the employment of the spouse, and work hours.

Taking these controls into account, and testing a model that related a NWS to health, work-family conflict, and strain to parenting quality and health, the authors found support for their study’s predictions about the problems created when work occurs at nonstandard times. The “proximal” associations, they note, are due to lack of a consistent work-life balance set of policies from their employers along with lack of outside social support. The “distal,” or more far-reaching effects, involve lower ratings of health and a lowered ability to perform their parental roles.

The study’s implications involve a set of practical suggestions that organizations might consider to offset the strain of NWS, suggestions that would be particularly appropriate when working from home has become the norm. To help their employees deal with home demands under the previous flexible schedule model, supervisors would need to listen and find out what additional supports their workers need, such as advance warning about upcoming schedule changes, and offering childcare services. In the new NWS norm, supervisors could also offer support by allowing employees to “sign off” when they have to attend to their home or other duties.

Unfortunately, however, the authors have a less optimistic approach to the future of NWS, which is that “The various detrimental unfolding consequences revealed in this study suggest that reducing the number of people in nonstandard hours may alleviate individuals and families of the many interdependent consequences of such work arrangements” (p. 9). In other words, there should be fewer, not more, NWS options provided by employers. 

If you find yourself saying “oops” to this notion, as the day when this might happen seems far in the distance, there may be other ways to reduce the strain on yourself and your family. These four suggestions can give you concrete help as you navigate your daily life demands:

1. Recall the underlying assumptions of the conservation of resources model that stress is partly in the mind of the individual. With an immovable set of work demands, you can still reduce the perceived threats to your mental resources associated with your work-from-home life. Changing the perception of stress from a threat to a challenge is the first step toward successful coping.

2. From a practical perspective, ask your employer to respect your need to turn off your email during non-work hours so you can help you feel more in control of your time. Maybe you have more control over those demands than you realize, particularly given that your employer is undoubtedly dealing with the same pressures.

3. If possible, reduce the flexibility of your work from home life by giving yourself structure. Your employer may not care when you put in your hours as long as you get the work done, so make up your own hours and stick to them.

4. Practice turning off your brain to your work demands when you need to or want to be with your family. Whether you have children or not, immerse yourself in what you’re doing just as if you were taking your lunch break during your workday. Enjoy the outdoors, your favorite hobby, or the planning of your evening’s entertainment. When evening comes, focus on that entertainment or, if you have young children, reading, playing, or telling them stories.

To sum up, there’s no doubt that the upside-down world of COVID is causing stress in every aspect of life. By tackling this one key area, you may indeed be able to find fulfillment in both your work and, importantly, non-work spheres of your daily life.

References

Haines, V. Y., III, Doray-Demers, P., Guerrero, S., & Genin, E. (2020). Nonstandard work schedules, resource shortfalls, and individual/family functioning. International Journal of Stress Management. doi: 10.1037/str0000159

Hobfoll, S. E. (1989). Conservation of resources. A new attempt at conceptualizing stress. American Psychologist, 44, 513–524. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.44.3.513