Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews
Covid life-courses – Parents’ Home Office Challenges During the Corona Pandemic
Lena Hipp, WZB Berlin Social Science Center and University of Potsdam, Germany, Stefan Munnes WZB Berlin Social Science Center, Germany, and Mareike Bünning WZB Berlin Social Science Center, Germany
The joy of being a researcher is closely related to our discussions and collaborations with others. Most of us do, nonetheless, enjoy working from home every now and then. Having uninterrupted time to concentrate on writing, the freedom to go for a run, or to take a nap so that we can return to some unfinished piece of writing with fresh eyes, the taste of an espresso instead of some mediocre machine coffee – all of these are what typically make working from home enjoyable. Many of us were therefore secretly thrilled when we were asked to stay away from our research institutions in order to “flatten the curve” – at least as long as schools and childcare facilities were still open.
Having children at home makes working from home challenging, if not impossible. Toddlers require undivided attention and have no tolerance for parents sitting in front of a laptop; school children need to be taught and have many questions about the tasks they are asked to do (and parents have these very same questions, but no one to ask). We hence work late at night and in the early morning hours when the kids are asleep, which is tiring and frustrating. We jealously think of our childless colleagues, who, we imagine, are enjoying ideal working conditions at home with no meetings and no one to disturb them. We envisage how these additional, unrestricted hours will allow them to further increase their competitive advantage by finalising another paper and writing another grant application and hence further aggravate our misery.
However, we should not complain too much – that is what we tell others during phone calls and virtual meetings marred by poor internet connections, malfunctioning equipment, and countless interruptions by hungry and bored children. As academics, we do not face pay cuts when “working” from home. Our employers do not run out of work. Many of us do not (yet) have to worry about tenure clocks, about contracts that expire or will not be renewed (at least not more than usual). And, in fact, spending more time with our children is also enjoyable – and would be even more enjoyable if we were not feeling so pressured by work.
How generalisable is this ambivalence? Are others having similar experiences when working from home? Are they going through the same plethora of feelings as we are?
To see how others are coping with work-family challenges when working from home due to the Corona pandemic, we launched a rapid online survey one week after schools and childcare facilities in Germany had closed, and many organisations had begun offering home office options and started to reduce their staff’s working hours (the government facilitated access to “Kurzarbeitergeld”, the short-term work allowance, which partially compensates employees for earning losses).
The survey was advertised via newspaper announcements, various social media channels, and personal networks. Out of the 8,613 participants who filled out the survey between March 23, 2020 and April 5, 2020, and who provided information about their current employment situation, around 29 percent learned about the survey through instant messages, around 24 percent through emails from colleagues and friends, around 22 percent through email lists, around 16 percent through microblogs and social networking cites, and a little less than 7 percent through newspaper announcements. Given the non-random recruitment of participants, our survey is strongly biased towards individuals who had a tertiary degree and resided in Berlin, where our institute is physically located. While our data can therefore not be used to describe how the German population in general feels about their work, their family, and their lives overall, we can use the data to compare different groups to each other. Additional information about the data, the sample composition, and its deviations from Germany’s general population, as well as the replication materials with some sensitivity analyses, are available on our website.
In the following, we compare changes in satisfaction with work, family, and life in general, among approximately 4000 individuals between 18 and 65 years in Germany who were working from home due to the Corona pandemic and who participated in the first two weeks after we launched our survey (23 March to 5 April 2020).
Overall, we find a decrease in satisfaction with work, family, and life in general, among the study participants who were working from home within the first couple of weeks of the Corona crisis, although there was quite some variation. Figure 1 displays the average changes in satisfaction between the time before the closure of schools and childcare facilities, and two weeks into the closure (most of the federal states in Germany closed schools around March 14 – our Survey went online on March 23, 2020) by socio-demographic characteristics based on OLS regressions (see also our website). Women were experiencing greater declines in all three satisfaction dimensions than men (around minus three percentage points). Likewise, parents were experiencing a greater decline in satisfaction with work and life in general than their childless counterparts (minus six and minus 1.5 percentage points). At the same time, however, parents reported lower declines in their satisfaction with family life than non-parents (around a plus of almost five percentage points). In all of the three satisfaction dimensions, the differences between those with and without tertiary education are small and not statistically significant. Our personal experiences of how the crisis has affected our well-being hence do not seem to be singular but ones that we share with others.
Not surprisingly, however, our analyses show that those who may experience the worst economic effects of the Corona crisis suffer the most severe reductions in satisfaction. This applies, in particular, to the self-employed and those with low incomes, who reported the largest declines in satisfaction with work (minus 10 and minus 5.6 percentage points). The figure, moreover, shows that those who were working considerably fewer hours than usual also reported higher reductions in work satisfaction than those who were working regular or longer hours (around minus ten percentage points). The difference in the decline in family satisfaction and in satisfaction with life in general between those who were working considerably fewer hours and those who tended to work the same hours was less severe (minus four percentage points). The graph also shows, however, that those who increased their hours also reported higher decreases in overall life satisfaction (minus three percentage points). Subgroup analyses for parents show that parents reported higher satisfaction with work when they were sharing childcare with their partners, or when their partners were taking care of their children, than when they were responsible for childcare (around plus three percentage points; though the confidence intervals for these variables include zero). Taken together, this suggests that working from home is particularly challenging when either work or time for work is scarce.
Figure 1: Average changes in satisfaction with work, family and life in general (point estimates and 95% confidence intervals) between the start of the corona pandemic and before among those who have been working from home due to the corona pandemic
Note: The dependent variable is the change in satisfaction with work, family life, and life in general in percentage points at time of interview compared to before the pandemic. All satisfaction items were originally measured on a seven-point scale. Respondents were first asked how satisfied they currently were with the following area of their lives: work, family, and, life in general. Afterwards, respondents were asked how satisfied they were with each of these areas before the corona crisis. Respondents’ age, a dummy variable for those who also work from home in “normal days”, the current living situation (number of rooms per person in household), and the day of the survey are included as additional covariates in the analyses. Stata’s coefplot command was used to generate the figure .
Should we thus feel lucky – despite the sleep deprivation, pale, sun-starved skin, and increasing relationship tensions? These data help us to put our struggles in context, while simultaneously providing some consolation. Working from home is a challenge for many of us. Given that many of us (still) enjoy job security and financial security, we seem to be less severely affected by the crisis than those who were already in precarious situations before the lockdowns took place. We all should bear in mind, however, that the unequal experiences that we have in our working lives due to the pandemic may exacerbate inequalities – both within and outside academia.
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