The Coronavirus pandemic has shocked systems far beyond the microscopic or biological level. Just as the virus hijacks cells and causes sickness, it has also made the world re-evaluate the many systems that were stunned by its rapid onset. Globally, diplomacy has been under tremendous pressure, with nations struggling to come to terms with the true extent of the virus. The pandemic has not only impacted relations at national and international level, but it has also wreaked havoc on all of our day-to-day routines. As parliamentary rapporteur for the work-life balance of parents and carers, I want to know how the pandemic has altered the dynamics of our relationship between work life and private life.
With the marked increase in the use and development of technology, the lines between work and private life have become increasingly blurred. Nothing could stop you reading your work emails by the beach on a weekend. Yet couldn’t this just as easily be seen as an advantage, that nothing could stop you reading your emails by the beach? Technology has made the workplace increasingly mobile, allowing us to work anywhere.
“If the lines between work and private life were being tested before, with the pandemic they vanished almost entirely”
These new dynamics have redefined work-life relations, and family protections needed to be enshrined in this context. Alas, no sooner did the pandemic arrive than that mobility was promptly shut down. In many situations, it became illegal to frequent the beach, let alone read emails there. But it also became illegal to read emails from the office. If the lines between work and private life were being tested before, with the pandemic they vanished almost entirely.
The result of this has been a mixed bag, and it would be unfair to dismiss it as a total disaster. After all, videoconferencing and working from home allowed business to carry on, in spite of the pandemic. Workers were able to keep their jobs by working online. Similarly, they were able to work without risking potentially fatal infections. It should be highlighted that not everyone has enjoyed this privilege. For this reason, EU Member State governments have done their utmost to prevent unemployment and install safety nets for people.
At the same time, the loss of boundaries deserves attention. I make no original observation in pointing out that getting up in the morning, having lunch, going to meetings, getting work done, helping children out with their homework, spending time with the family, doing chores, filling in paperwork, etc., are all often happening under the same roof.
When the Work-Life Balance Directive was being prepared, the pandemic was not a consideration. The Directive recognises not only the role of the father in raising children but also that women are still disproportionately affected by pay gaps and restricted access to work. This is particularly true during the pandemic.
Fortunately, the aims that it set out to achieve are more relevant than ever within our current context. Despite lockdown measures, which have made some challenges harder, the goalposts have not moved. In fact, one of the core aims of the Directive is to protect parents and carers from having to choose between their employment and their families. This was done by granting the right to negotiate working conditions to allow for more flexible arrangements and more days off work.
The reality of the pandemic delivers good and bad news. The good news is that working from home was on the whole a successful experiment, despite rough edges that need smoothing. Remote working, previously regarded as an esoteric experiment, has now proven to yield viable options for businesses.
“Remote working, previously regarded as an esoteric experiment, has now proven to yield viable options for businesses”
As many parents can attest, the bad news is that office responsibilities and caring responsibilities sit together rather uncomfortably, with people having to do both simultaneously and without clear demarcation. In this context, overworking is a more accessible temptation, but so too are the consequences that come with it.
During lockdown, when leave days may seem less desirable, their importance cannot be understated. Studies show that overworking offers no productive economic or personal benefits. On the contrary; both physical and mental health suffer with little to show for it except stress and injury.
Over the past year, it has been shown that technology can be harnessed to achieve a healthy work-life balance; it is essential that we use it wisely.
Crucially, the rights that the Work-Life Balance Directive offers can also be enjoyed during the pandemic. If the Directive’s purpose is to delegate control to workers on how they manage their work-life balance, then people should be empowered to take control of the added flexibility during these challenging times.