Working from home became a nightmare for many of South Africa's women academics during the first six months of the Covid-19 pandemic-enforced lockdown in 2020. Increased workloads, domestic pressures, and inadequate workspaces turned the home into a more stressful place and left them feeling burnt out.
This is according to a study published recently in the peer-reviewed journal PLoS One.
The study was conducted by Dr Cyrill Walters and Prof Jonathan Jansen from Stellenbosch University, Prof Linda Ronnie from the University of Cape Town, and Dr Samantha Kriger from the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.
They surveyed more than 2 000 women academics at the country's 26 public universities and analysed their comments about how working from home during the lockdown affected them personally and professionally.
According to the researchers, the pandemic completely unsettled the meaning of “home" for women academics.
“During the lockdown, home was no longer that place of refuge from the demands and disorder of the outside world. Instead, it became a crowded and congested place in which many other functions – from home schooling to online teaching to new administrative tasks – needed to be executed, sometimes without any help from otherwise reliable partners, domestic workers, or extended family members.
“Most women academics reported an adverse impact on their academic output, productivity, or dedication. Even if they had dedicated spaces, sometimes they found themselves competing with their partners for space or resources to complete their work."
The researchers say one academic told them that “the boundaries between work and home are now blurred by my presence at home", while another explained that “it became more of a living-at-work situation than working-from-home situation".
This also had a negative impact on the health of women academics, add the researchers.
“Several respondents spoke of how increased anxiety, financial difficulties, and feelings of sadness became features of their home environment, impacting their work and their personal health. One experienced scholar described how she suffered panic attacks due to an increased workload, coupled with the pressure to step up with household chores."
Other participants in the study lamented about the negative feelings they began to develop towards the work itself. Describing her overwhelming frustration with her blurred work-home space, one established academic declared: “I simply do not experience joy in my work context at this stage."
The experience of another established academic was one of several who reported that “never leaving the house affected my motivation to work . . . I feel battered, emotionally."
The researchers point out that academics who were also mothers had a very difficult time working from home. They say those with a workspace and male partners sometimes felt pressure to give priority to their spouse's work by conceding the space or being the one to tend to children who breached the barriers, deprioritising their own needs for a quiet workspace.
“With children present, the home as workspace became seriously compromised, as young children saw the presence of their mother at home as signalling access and availability. One early-career academic and mother of a toddler and a kindergartner described how this dynamic 'reduces concentration', leading to 'insufficient time to do academic work'.
“An established academic and mother of a senior high school student reported that 'duties are supposed to be professionally performed in the domestic space, which is one of interruption and constant demand'".
Another downside of working from home was that the extended period of confinement, cohabitation, and coworking damaged relationships. An early-career academic and mother of a kindergartner reported that “it brought tension in the household and in time led to a deterioration of my relationship with my husband".
The researchers say that in a situation where the lockdown had “squeezed everything under one roof", many women academics described how they simply postponed any professional goals that were not absolutely “essential" (i.e., teaching duties), suspending their studies, research, papers, and proposals in order to take charge of household duties.
“As women deprioritised their academic work in this way, or alternatively attempted to meet every personal and professional goal, many found themselves either burnt out or stinging from a sense of failure to 'do it all'.
“While many in our study detailed the extreme lengths they went to in order to meet deadlines, please their families, maintain their homes, and objectively perform, they often internalised the chaos created within their home spaces, citing it as evidence that they had not, in fact, succeeded."
Going forward, tertiary institutions need to recognise and prioritise the gendered nature of the home as a workspace as a talent management issue, say the researchers.
“The meaning of home cannot be explained outside of the gender inequalities that divide the allocation and understanding of 'work' between women and their partners.
“Once in the home, the majority of women academics will have to deal with the inequalities in expectations and obligations in ways that they would not otherwise in a non-domesticated professional setting."
- Source: Walters C, Ronnie L, Jansen J, Kriger S (2023). “The changing meaning of 'home' in the work of South African women academics during the pandemic-enforced lockdown". PLoS ONE 18(1): DOI: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0280179.