Women’s Work, Life and Lockdown
“Let’s say you start a job because of your passion, then you start losing interest…”, says Abhijita, a Master's student in HR, from Chennai. “You get annoyed, irritable in a work setting and also develop anxiety over a period of time...”, chances are that you are experiencing a burnout. The virtual shift in economic activities during COVID- 19 Lockdown in March 2020 was initially overwhelming.
With reduced human interaction, we were forced to sit in front of our screens and work tirelessly. A work from home setting provides little personal time. As employees were expected to be available and be on call even post working hours. Moreover, initially domestic workers were barred from working due to travel restrictions. It was an immense pressure to juggle between chores and work.
The lockdown was harsher on working women as they were now expected to work for longer hours and manage their domestic duties. In a family, when the domestic labour is unproportionately divided, with traditionally women doing more than men it affects their productivity. Mothers who have children below the age of 10 find themselves in chaotic circumstances.
In IT and corporate sectors, Work From Home (WFH) settings are exhausting. In 2020, the employees were at the risk of losing jobs, they were expected to work during weekends and were given no respite. “It is a fact that women were working more than men in 2020….”, Abhijitha pointed out, “ WFH seems like a perfect scenario right ? employees are in their homes and are more comfortable hence are expected to be more productive but it adds more stress on the contrary”, she said.
In fields like education, employee workload has doubled. Teachers are required to adapt to more engaging methodologies like slides, games, quizzes. Meghna, a teacher from Chennai agreed that the first year was a challenge, “Even during our family time work was always lurking at the back of the mind..”, she added. It also required teachers to switch to a teaching module that prevents classroom interaction. “Sometimes we don’t know if there is someone behind the screen or are we just talking to ourselves...”, Meghna expresses the lack of engagement in online classes.
Students have also been adjusting to online education. Their calendars look like a series of neverending deadlines with piling assignments. There is a misconception that homes are safe spaces for learning. In circumstances where outstation students had to return to their homes, their mental health had taken a toll. Some students move out as their families are strict, controlling and abusive.
When domestic labour is classified as a gender role for women, it adds a burden on women to confirm it. Statements like “My wife cooks, cleans, takes care of the kids and works, it’s amazing !” Are sexist ways to glorify the woman’s contribution and resilience. Rather this signifies the person’s evasive attitude towards domestic duties. There should be a change in the narrative that aims at labeling women - “giving, motherly and sacrificial”. These performative characteristics also makes them guilt prone for wanting to prioritise their work. It forces them to succumb and any non normative choice is derided.
There is gender discrimination against female students as well, they are expected to perform domestic duties like cleaning, laundry, cooking and washing utensils while the same does not extend to male members of the family. The girl child is always expected to hone her “homely” skills diligently.
Furthermore, if employers are evasive of gender sensitive policies, it imposes unfair expectations on women employees. Statements like “Your work shouldn’t suffer”, “will you continue to work after marriage ?” are inconsiderate and unprofessional. Hence, these systemic ailments that cause guilt to be ambitious, coerced choices between “career or family” add to their stress and cause burnouts too.
Efforts : Institutional and personal
Witnessing women quitting their jobs in the lockdown has affected the male to female ratio in the workforce. It has also made employers mindful of the distinction between working hours and waking hours. Fixed working hours, gender sensitive policies that provide women opportunities to grow, team building activities during non-working hours, informal meetings that help employees to catch up are some structural changes being incorporated to prevent burnout trends. Also incentives like awards, creative praise and appreciation reinstills employees’ self esteem and motivation.
Pre Covid times allowed women to socialise outside their work and home lives, it helped them connect with colleagues and build some professional support. However, in isolation, the connection is lost (literally and figuratively !) and they might lose touch with reality. It is crucial to take regular breaks from screen time during the week and on weekends.
Kinnisha, a special - ed teacher from Bangalore, affirms, “ Over the last decade and a half I’ve learnt that everything else falls apart when I don’t prioritize my mental health so putting these structures in place and being consistent with them will always be a work in progress,....”. She also goes to therapy, does things like journaling, planning and organisation movement, makes time for reading, painting, watching shows and calling friends. “ I literally have a timer on my phone for 6:00 pm that says ‘stop working’ !”, Kinnisha adds. Her school also allows mental health days, to take some time off.
The awareness on social media has also helped individuals seek therapy and get better. There’s a consciousness amongst working individuals that aims at eliminating stigma attached to mental health. Cooking, reading, exercise and yoga, spending time with family and friends help in grounding the inner self.
Social media handles doing amazing job at providing support:
Shreya Sharma is currently pursuing B. A. English Literature from Stella Maris College, Chennai. She likes to engage in subaltern studies and gender ideology. She likes reading, writing, debating and public speaking. Currently, she works as an Intern at Kanyaka Foundation.