Commentary: What happens when women have to juggle ‘worry work’ with paid work
COVID-19 has wrought a cost on workers, families and most pressingly, on women who shoulder the invisible labour of caregiving in addition to their careers, say researchers from SUTD.
SINGAPORE: The dramatic rise in remote work over the last two years may have imposed on women, especially working mothers, what we call a “COVID cost”.
Working from home has put many women in a multi-tasking role all day, every day.
Like many employees working remotely, the biggest challenge faced by working mothers was from blurred boundaries between work and home due to digitalisation.
More than a third of the mothers we studied experienced a decline in work-life balance due to longer working hours, overwork and difficulties in switching off from work. Our data was based on our research at the Singapore University of Technology and Design on 41 mothers, who are mostly working full-time with children below the age of 18.
In Singapore, where almost 60 per cent of married women were employed in 2020, this sentiment could be far-reaching in the population.
INCREASE IN DOMESTIC RESPONSIBILITIES
The majority of the mothers we spoke to said their caregiving duties increased during the pandemic, such as supervising their children’s schooling, having to fit work commitments around their children’s schedules, or caring for ageing parents. And they were expected to be available and responsive to requests throughout the day.
While fathers working from home were physically more involved in household tasks, the mothers continued to do most of the thinking, planning and delegating.
It’s not just about who does the task, it’s identifying and remembering that these tasks need doing. Things like managing the children’s needs and overseeing household chores tend to fall on mothers.
Worse, some spouses or other family members forgot the “work” aspect in “work-from-home” and made unrealistic expectations by assuming that household or childminding tasks were somehow easier for women because they were at home.
One mother, for example, recounted how she quarrelled with her essential worker husband who came home late expecting not to take on household tasks or help supervise the children, as he assumed that since she was home, she would have handled it all.
THE INVISIBLE YOKE OF 'WORRY WORK'
“Worry work” isn’t new and mothers tend to wear this invisible yoke. The term has been expanded from earlier sociological work by Arlie Hochschild describing a “second shift” of labour performed at home in addition to paid work.
Gender scholars such as Andrea O’Reilly have argued that such emotional and cognitive labour has increased due to the pandemic.
It’s a running mental checklist of tasks to manage the well-being and needs of our children. We need to order more diapers, decide what to prepare for dinner and not forget to schedule a doctor’s appointment next month.
This can be essential to support the smooth functioning of families, but it can become anxiety-inducing when one parent assumes the bulk of worry work.
One parent may fret about an upcoming mathematics test or deal with the child throwing tantrums at home, but which the other spouse isn’t aware of or didn’t think about.
The pandemic has increased the invisible labour of worry work, leading to stress, exhaustion and burnout.
Our research showed that women experienced heightened anxiety, especially with rising work expectations, disruptions from on-and-off closures of schools and childcare facilities.
They are concerned over the impact of unprecedented circumstances on their children’s development, such as walking the fine line between supervising home-based learning and regulating screen time.
One recent study in the United Kingdom also found that more than 80 per cent of parents struggled with at least one symptom of burnout due to the COVID-19 pandemic, while more than half of mothers experienced anxiety.
Depleted of their time and energy, some mothers could barely take the time to think about training, which would then limit their career development.
Incessantly switching between worry work and paid work during the day also made some mothers feel compelled to work beyond official working hours. And the relentless connectivity meant emails, meetings and work chats easily bled into nights and weekends, and employers and clients expected attention at any time of the day.
Working mothers pay some form of work-related penalty compared to men and women who were not mothers, according to research. It is not uncommon to hear horror stories of employers questioning the competency or commitment of mothers.
And because they’re already struggling with limited personal bandwidth, it’s challenging to take on extra training or projects, affecting their opportunities for promotion or pay increases.
HELPING WORKING MOTHERS CAN BENEFIT ALL WORKERS
But if there’s any silver lining, it is that the pandemic has made employees re-examine their relationship with work and forced employers to adapt and improve their value proposition.
Sure, working mothers may hesitate to participate in the Great Resignation Wave given the financial considerations, but the challenges they face have been laid bare and it would be shame to miss this opportunity to address them.
The fact that they can work remotely should mean greater flexibility to perform their multiple duties. Yet, they pay a cost because there is an invisible, unpaid care work they do that is unaccounted for.
The question is, how do we value this unpaid care work? What can employers do to consider this and ensure working mothers are not left behind in their careers?
Key measures could include more subsidised childcare, increased paid parental leave and flexible work practices. And this need not be a zero-sum game and make workers without children begrudge soaking up more of the work.
It benefits all workers when bosses pay greater attention to work-life balance, micromanage less and allow workers to disconnect when they have to. And this can give working mothers more space to be productive when they are at work.
The challenge is for employers and employees alike to find the right balance in managing boundaries between work and home life – and this is not a one-size-fits-all situation.
For example, some women may prefer working full-time in the office to maintain clearer boundaries between work and caregiving commitments while another group may instead favour a hybrid work arrangement, allowing them greater flexibility to alternate between remote work and returning to office within the same week.
OVERSEAS EXPERIENCE WITH PARENTAL LEAVE AND FLEXIBLE WORK PRACTICES
Lessons can be learnt from countries such as Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland and Germany. These countries have subsidised childcare and generous paid leave policies that encourage both parents to take extended time off work to help with caregiving.
In Finland, for example, both parents are eligible for 26 weeks each, paid at 70 per cent of the employee’s wage. One parent can also transfer days from their own leave allowance to the other parent.
By comparison, Singaporean mothers are eligible for 16 weeks of government paid maternity leave, while fathers are entitled to only 2 weeks of paid paternity leave.
The experience of these countries show that it can be done and mothers need not have to struggle if the infrastructure is in place to help them along.
Studies of OECD countries have found that paid parental leave and subsidised childcare can support women entering and staying in the workforce, while also contributing to economic benefits, alongside improved child health and cognitive outcomes.
There is also growing momentum around a four-day work week in countries such as Belgium, Iceland and Spain, and emerging legislation in countries such as France and Germany for employees’ “right to disconnect” after office hours.
As many countries, including Singapore, grapple with an ageing population and declining fertility rates, governments and employers must do more to factor in the inequalities in unpaid work and build a more inclusive future of work through concrete measures and robust support structures.
Suhaila Zainal Shah is a PhD scholar who is conducting research on mothers’ lived work-life experiences in times of digitalisation and COVID-19. Lim Sun Sun is Professor of Communication and Technology and Head of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences. Brigid Trenerry is a Research Fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities who conducts research on workplace diversity and the future of work. They are all at the Singapore University of Technology and Design.