Navigating Work–Life Imbalance During the COVID-19 Pandemic
As the pandemic spread in early 2020, many U.S. states instituted shelter-in-place measures that limited when people could leave their homes and closed schools and other public gathering places. For many Americans, this meant working from home, educating children at home, and confronting additional stress. In a new article published in NCA’s Journal of Applied Communication Research, Kevin B. Wright, Wendy B. Riemann, and Carla L. Fisher explore work–life imbalance, the blurring of boundaries between work life and home life that results from communication technology (such as email), and the accompanying stress and social support experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Email and other communication technologies can blur boundaries between work life and home life. For example, because people can be reached via email on their smartphones, they may feel pressure to respond to work emails outside of traditional work hours, which can cause stress and interfere with leisure time. These communication technologies are one potential cause of work-life imbalance, a term which refers to when “(1) work obligations interfere with family responsibilities; and (2) family responsibilities interfere with work obligations.” This imbalance can lead to stress, absenteeism, reduced job satisfaction, and health problems. However, some remote workers may feel that communication technologies afford them more freedom to attend to family time, such as by reducing commuting time, which could support a healthy work-life balance.
The COVID-19 Pandemic and Social Support
Research related to the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on physical and mental health is still ongoing. However, the authors note that early results suggest that the heightened state of stress during the pandemic could be having a negative impact on people’s health. Social support, or the support that a person receives from their social network, can help people cope with stress. This support may come from weak ties, or people who are not interpersonally close to one another. For example, someone might offer support to an acquaintance via Facebook, even though the two people otherwise rarely interact.
The authors surveyed 396 individuals between March 2020 and June 2020, when many states had instituted COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders or other travel restrictions. The survey assessed the respondents’ work-life imbalance, whether they preferred support from weak or strong ties, the social support they felt they were receiving, their perceived stress, and how depressed they felt.
The results showed that work-life imbalance was correlated with both stress and depression. However, Wright, Riemann, and Fisher note that the results do not show whether the imbalance was “related to work obligations interfering with family responsibilities or family responsibilities interfering with work obligations.” They argue that the imbalance was likely influenced by a variety of factors related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including the threat of illness from the pandemic, possible job loss, and working from home.
The results also showed that some living conditions could influence stress and depression. People who lived with a partner and children reported lower stress, compared to people who lived with a partner only. People who lived with a partner and children also reported fewer signs of depression than those who lived alone. Wright, Riemann, and Fisher argue that the presence of both a partner and children may have increased opportunities for social support within the household, despite the challenges that parents may have faced during the pandemic.
In addition, Wright, Riemann, and Fisher found that if people had less time available to themselves outside of work, they were more likely to seek support from weak ties. The results also showed that high work-life imbalance and lower perceived social support were both associated with a preference for seeking support from weak ties. They note that there are a variety of reasons that people may have sought support from weak ties. One reason is that people may have sought support online because of the shelter-in-place measures and that weak ties may have offered a different, and potentially less judgmental perspective, from that provided by friends and family. In addition, because of the strain that the stay-at-home order and COVID-19 pandemic may have placed on close relationships, people may have sought out weak ties to broaden their interactions outside of their household and reduce the support obligations of family members.
Finally, the study identified some differences based on gender and race. Women were more likely to report higher perceived social support, and men were more likely to report a preference for weak ties. White respondents reported lower levels of stress, while Black respondents reported higher stress. Although Black respondents also reported higher perceived social support, this did not have the same effect on stress as with other racial and ethnic groups. The authors argue that this may be due to the disparate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Black community.