Lockdown: when family life intrudes on work

By Dima Younes, Professor of Organization Theory, and Ludivine Perray, Professor in the Economics, Finance and Control Department

knowledge @emlyon


Photo of Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels

In his statement on Thursday March 12th, 2020, regarding the Coronavirus pandemic, the French President, Emmanuel Macron announced that all schools, pre-schools and higher education institutions were to be shut down.

The statement in itself was no big surprise, given that neighbouring countries had already launched drastic measures. However, this confinement brought to light some of our society’s contradictions in the links between professional and family life.

The statement – which could have reassured parents as it aimed at protecting them – seemed to have caused quite the opposite, a widespread panic. Social media are now relaying videos, photos and comments demonstrating the anxiety to be kept confined together. A video showing a dad hiding behind a scenery as his daughter calls out to him was shared 72,000 times in three days on Facebook alone.

A poster saying “I just heard the President announcing the shutdown of all schools…please tell me that it’s actually with the kids inside?”, went viral.

True, we all agree that we love our children. So how come such reactions? What is this anxiety to end up behind closed doors with our family is telling us?

In times of epidemic, teleworking and babysitting: a compilation of people’s reactions on the web by TV5 Monde

Work’s omnipresence

In the last few years, studies underlined the increasing invasions of the professional life into our personal lives. In a study on individual autonomy in the smartphone era, fellow researchers in the USA showed how individuals willing to answer their emails outside of working hours, in turn generate reply expectations at any time, thereby intensifying their own workload. They end up unable to regain control over their personal life.

Additional reading: The right to disconnect questioning the foundations of the “ideal employee” standard?

New technologies also turned work life upside down, allowing prolonged opening hours in supermarkets for instance, now equipped with automatic checkouts, or offering the possibility of working at any given time on micro-tasking platforms while waiting for the bus, or during any other time out – as promoters of such models declare.

Reversely, work life did not make room for, nor did it become more flexible or porous to, family life. Taking care of family matters just like we do for professional matters at home – that is, in a transparent manner – is definitely not legitimized when at work. We rarely ask our colleagues to leave us alone for a moment to settle any family difficulty.

Families, and more specifically, children, must remain invisible to employers. In some cases, employers may even develop concierge services or corporate day-care centers, so that such elements do not indeed, disturb the smooth running of business.

When employees fail to render their personal lives invisible, they may be sanctioned. Unequal salaries between men and women is the most prevailing symptom – just the fact alone, that women procreate, and not men.

Corporate day-care: a solution to improve well-being at work? (France 3, 2018)

The frontier of private life

Wanting to render our families invisible to our employers is increased with professional autonomy: the more autonomous we are, the more we are striving to reassure our employer about our devotion and our availability for professional assignments, and the more we will try and make our family life disappear.

Hence the low participation rate of executive managers to corporate social events such as “the Christmas tree”, in an attempt to hide their family lives – and consequently, their unavailability for work – from their employers. Admittedly, some may mention (rarely women) the occasional pick up from school once in a while, but such discussions remain scarce. They aim more often than not, at making oneself look nice and giving a more human image so long as the professional performance is not called into question.

As long as technology allowed to answer emails without inviting your professional entourage at your doorstep, rendering your family invisible was still possible. Now that videoconferencing is home-born, this is becoming impossible, especially when curious children come barging in during our online meetings.

As proof of their devotion to work, some choose to hint that they want to “get rid” of them. Hence the distancing comments overflowing on social media this past week.

Personal reward

The second greatest mechanisms at work here is that of reward. In a sociological study on understanding why parents say that their children are their priority when they are working over-hours without even being asked to, Arlie Hochschild finds the concept of “economy of gratitude” interesting.

It shows that US employees are not always doing over-time because it was requested by their employers, nor for financial purposes, but because they take out more gratitude from it. As an example, this study quotes a father, underlining how impossible it is to talk with his adolescent son at home while his relationships with colleagues run smoothly.

The author shows that these people slowly convince themselves that they are not available, that they start imagining what they would have done if they had had more time, making up imaginary personalities. Confinement takes away that escape we had in work.

Recognition, the drive of our involvement at work (Interview of Bob Davids, documentary “Happiness at work”, Arte)

Vicious circle

If some people can still choose their working hours, in our current capitalist system where everyone is competing against one another, those who stay longer at work to avoid their family problems force others to do same.

Regarding the attempts to reconcile private and professional lives, “exhaustion” is the term that comes up quite often. The challenge being all the more important today under confinement, that in addition to our work, we have to take care of our children, teach our home-schooled children, cook all meals, clean up the house more frequently since everyone is home, and manage the whole family’s well-being and emotions.

Generally speaking, exhaustion generates overconsumption in an attempt to search for ourselves, a self which we seem unable to build in the limited time we are given. That is why we subscribe to gyms when we can no longer muster up the energy to go there, why we buy books we know we have no time to read, why we cover our kids with toys hoping to put distance between them and us etc.

As we are losing ourselves in the midst of this chaos, will we have to consume to “find” ourselves again, and will we have to work more hoping to earn more in order to maintain the infernal vicious circle?

Will this truce in capitalistic time be a way out of this vicious circle? For now, we continue to act as if everything was normal. But how long will we resist? Job instability will certainly not make things any better. The labor market is about to become more competitive.

Only time will tell if the misfortunes caused by this sanitary crisis will exacerbate this vicious circle, or if this truce will allow us to slow down and to find other ways to live our lives, to be and exist, and to restore the balance between our families and work.

Photo of Negative Space on Pexels

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Dima Younes is an Assistant Professor of Organization Theory in the department of Strategy and Organization. Her research focuses on the transformation of firms and work, a question that she examines through the study of new modes of governing research activities in large firms, their impact on researchers’ work and capabilities, and the influence of public policy in this domain.

More informations about Dima Younes:

Ludivine Perray is an Associate Professor in the Economics, Finance and Control Department. She teaches management accounting. Her main research interests deal with the New Public Management. In other research, she is also interested in the specific ways management accounting is used as a political instrument in professional competition.

More informations about Ludivine Perray: