COVID-19 and the value of care work

22 May 2020 | Story Ameeta Jaga. Photo Pexels. Voice Nash Makado. Read time 6 min.
COVID-19 has brought the value of care work under the spotlight.
COVID-19 has brought the value of care work under the spotlight.

Those working from home may find themselves catching up with paid work late at night or when their children have so-called screen time, writes Associate Professor Ameeta Jaga from the School of Management Studies at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

Covid-19 has brought the value of care work under the spotlight.

The lockdown has forced many South Africans to juggle full time paid work and unpaid care work, with home schooling added to the expansive multiple role demands.  

Historically women have taken responsibility for childcare and the domestic economy in the private sphere of the home.

No doubt, we have witnessed a significant shift in men taking on more family and household commitments, though being confined to one’s home in lockdown is revealing the persisting gender inequality in care work and just how much time and energy it demands. 

Business as usual

When the lockdown necessitates organisations to shift to a work-from-home model, providing technology support to keep employees “always connected” for “business as usual” but just online, there seems to be a limited amount of consideration as to who is picking up all the care work that simultaneously needs to happen in the home.

South African companies remain mostly headed by teams of male senior decision makers (80%), so the multifaceted nature and demands of unpaid caring may not be a priority focus when determining these alternative work strategies. 

There is increasing evidence that women are taking on the additional physical and mental loads of care work during the lockdown with resulting negative effects on their careers and personal wellbeing.

For those who can work from home, they find themselves catching up with paid work late at night or when their children have so-called screen time.

Overwhelmed and exhausted

As many women try to hold everything together using a 24-hour day to manage competing demands, more and more women are feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. 

While we could focus on proximal strategies within the home on how working parents can more fully share household, schooling and childcare responsibilities, there remains deeper concerns (and opportunities) in how paid work is designed and what organisations value. 

The duration of the lockdown being unpredictable and the likelihood of work-from-home continuing for months to come, if not remaining the norm for some, calls for organisations to rethink the unsustainable productivity of care and paid work at home, especially when work dynamics of capitalism pushing productivity is expected in the intimate space of the home.

These expectations may only deepen gender inequities.  

Instead, recreating post lockdown organisations with an explicit consideration to the important need and value for care work will sustain our society and economy. 

Transforming workplace cultures, work expectations, work from home strategies and leadership development, should be a done with a deep acknowledgement and value for employees’ unpaid caring roles in their families and communities. History shows us that pandemics are times for shifting social norms.

The consequence of neglecting these changes, is that we may see more women leaving the formal economy, a widening gender pay gap, and a heavier mental health burden on the country. 

In the short term, how can workplaces support employees with caregiving responsibilities during the lockdown and in the future, so that women are not disproportionately disadvantaged through gender inequalities at work and at home under Covid-19?

Empathy goes a long way

Managers should try to understand employees’ care giving commitments and work with them to help manage the pressures from competing work and family demands.

A bottom up approach

Business leaders can engage with employees asking for ways in which they can be best supported to help meet their work and family care commitments. Employees working from home may have different but equally important needs and challenges to essential workers.

Male role models

Encouraging male employees to share their success stories of combining unpaid care work with paid work can inspire other male employees to take on more household and family responsibilities. 

Reduce Zoom fatigue

Limit the amount of face to face online meetings and offer flexible work hours where employees can schedule their work in the best way for them to meet their care giving commitments. 

Where possible, provide support for employees’ mental wellbeing

In this unprecedented time of lockdown with multiple role demands converging into a single space, psychological conditions such as anxiety, burnout and depression are likely to be exacerbated. 

First line supervisors can be a key agent for change in raising the organisation’s value of care work because of their proximity to employees on a day to day basis to help them manage their work and family roles, but their efforts need to be supported and encouraged by senior management.

This will endorse the message that unpaid care work is important – a critical step toward improving gender equity at work.

This article was originally published by Parent24.

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