Achieving Work-Life Balance During the Covid-19 Pandemic

May 18, 2020
By: 
Ma. Tonirose D. Mactal, PhD, RPsy
The enforcement of lockdowns resulted to the sudden shift to a work-from-home set-up. It did not take long before many realized that this did not simply mean changing the physical workspace. Reliable technology and high-speed internet connections aside, many employees found themselves managing the increasingly blurred boundaries between family and work life.
 
Working-from-home certainly has its appeal. On the one hand, we no longer have to deal with traffic and long commutes. Consequently, some are able to sleep longer and save their lunch money. Other organizations even reported increased productivity because work ‘disruptions’ (i.e., outside meetings and training programs) were a thing of the past.
 
On the other hand, there are many others who struggle with this set-up. A good number of employees live in cramped and noisy homes that make it difficult to focus. Others crave the camaraderie of office life. Many juggle parenting and/or caretaking responsibilities with the need to deliver work output. There are also those who feel that they need to be available 24/7 because colleagues, supervisors, and clients send emails and schedule online meetings at odd hours – after all, most everyone is homebound and reachable. By being on-call, it somehow serves as proof that “I am working even if no one is watching.”
 
When these challenges are left unaddressed, another problem may soon arise: highly stressed or burnt-out employees. Therefore, it may be best for organizations to revisit their policies and for employees to consider some strategies that will help maintain work-life balance. Ateneo CORD used the acronym EQUAL to summarize and describe these strategies:

ESTABLISH BOUNDARIES – Working from home does not mean being available 24/7. Observe office hours like you did before the lockdown. This means you psychologically “clock in and out.” Some employees find it helpful to continue following their routine where they wear work clothes, put on make-up, and observe office rituals. Doing so puts them into a work-mode.
 
It helps to communicate your office hours to colleagues, supervisors, and clients so that they know when to expect your response to emails, calls, or queries. Do not forget to observe lunch hours and (coffee) breaks. Most of all, make sure you keep your weekends sacred.
 
QUIET SPACE – Admittedly, finding a quiet space where one can work with minimal distractions may be impossible for those who live in small homes. However, for those who can, try your best to designate a corner (even a small table will do) which you can call your workspace that family members will not invade. Avoid working on the dining table, a bed, or in front of the TV where distractions abound. Also, solicit your family members’ help in managing environmental noise, especially when you need to participate in online meetings or webinars where unwanted sounds make listening and concentrating difficult.
 
UNPLUG – Unplugging means literally switching off computers and other gadgets. Figuratively, it means not reading work-related emails, not answering work-related calls, and not scheduling meetings beyond your designated “office hours.” As one Jesuit priest aptly said, being online all the time will drive anyone insane.
 
Remember that when you unplug, you allow your body to transition into your other roles and perform duties as a parent, spouse, sibling, or child. You also give yourself the opportunity to devote your down time to other pursuits. Reward yourself at the end of the day by relaxing. Make sure that you remain socially connected with others.
 
ALLOCATE – Mindful that not everyone can observe regular office hours while home-bound, distributing the usual 8 hours may be the solution for employees who find themselves performing other vital functions (i.e., parenting, caregiving) as they work. Devoting pockets of time to household responsibilities instead of multi-tasking may be more effective. Remember, there is no one-size-fits all formula that will guarantee a 100% efficient work-from-home arrangement. Because you know your home-life best, you may have to advocate for a schedule that will not only cater to your needs but also respond to the demands of your organization. Make it a point to communicate your concerns to your organization so that they, too, can make the necessary adjustments.
 
LISTEN TO & LOVE YOURSELF – Do you find yourself worrying if a family member will contract the virus? Are you feeling anxious? Does the lockdown intensify feelings of isolation? Does the news make you feel angry and stressed? Are you sleeping less? Is your body experiencing aches and pains?
 
Knowing that immunocompromised individuals are particularly susceptible to contracting the virus, boosting our health is one of the best ways we can protect ourselves and our loved ones. This means finding ways to exercise, getting the right amount (plus good quality) of sleep, and eating properly whenever possible. If there are opportunities to develop new and enjoyable hobbies, go for it. Educate yourself by reading interesting books or articles from reputable sources. Finally, take note of hotlines and email addresses that will allow you to seek professional (doctors, psychologists, therapists) help should the need arise.
 
The prevailing uncertainty felt globally need not upend our lives completely. The pandemic and resulting lockdowns are teaching us to be more proactive, responsible, and compassionate. When external help is hard to come by, it is ultimately up to us to take care of ourselves and problem-solve when difficulties arise. We need to take time to reflect and ask ourselves these questions -- where are our challenges coming from and what are we doing about them? While our organizations may provide allowances and extend assistance in varying forms, we are now, more than ever, tasked to be self-propelling and self-reliant.
 
Working from home requires a certain mind-and-skill set. It may be initially difficult but not entirely impossible. Given the high likelihood that this will be a long-term arrangement, employees need to find ways to embrace it and not suffer through it. Work-life balance promotes good mental health. At the end of the day, we do not want productivity gains to come at the cost of our well-being.

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Dr. Toni Mactal is a licensed psychologist and Ateneo CORD’s Customized Services Unit Director. She is also a full-time faculty member of the Ateneo de Manila’s Department of Psychology. For inquiries or comments, you may email cord.soss@ateneo.edu