While work from home (WFH) has its own benefits, the stress of multi-tasking—switching identities every 15 minutes from a professional to a mother or daughter-in-law or wife—has been very hard on women.
“Please let me work from the office, even if only for a couple of hours every day.” — Sheila Murthy, a mid-ranking professional at a Mumbai-based finance firm who is now working from home, recently requested her reporting head.
“It was absolutely impossible for me to concentrate on work in my 800 square feet home with two children, in-laws, and my husband who had to return from China due to the pandemic. The stress was getting to me. I had to get dressed and get out to put ‘home’ out of my mind while at work,” she said.
Sheila is one of many mid-level female employees who’ve been hit harder by the WFH situation than senior-level professionals across sectors.
Their struggle with the lack of personal space—which they sacrificed either for children’s online studies in cramped city apartments or for demands arising from joint families in smaller hometowns— has got many of them requesting employers to let them return to office. Many others are opting for professional co-working spaces.
In the last quarter of 2020, for instance, WeWork launched an on-demand daily pass whereby members can pay for one-day access to any of the co-working company’s 35 buildings in six cities in India. “As many as 40% of the users of this pass have been women,” said Priti Shetty, head of people at WeWork India.
While women from Corporate India have in the past juggled work and personal responsibility, being at home meant their sense of work-life balance was thrown off completely, Shetty said.
Seven in 10 working women and working mothers in India felt managing family responsibilities came in the way of career development during the ongoing pandemic. They faced discrimination at work due to familial and household responsibilities, according to data from the LinkedIn Opportunity Index 2021.
Sumit Mitra, head of group HR and corporate services at Godrej Industries, told ET that some female employees have sought options to work from office for a couple of hours.
Several companies said many of their female employees have resigned due to the growing stress from the extended or permanent WFH plans, after the initial assumption that the pandemic would be short-lived.
“Unlike men, women have not been able to make the transition mentally where work from home is distinct from work at home. Years of societal conditioning, family expectations from being quasi teachers to eldercare are seen as a woman’s responsibility,” said Sangeeta Mall, writer and blogger of Living Beyond Pink. “I see WFH leading to more women dropping out of work in the medium-term until an equitable corporate structure enables her growth.”
Santrupt Misra, HR director at Aditya Birla Group Global, said sustaining WFH in the long run seemed tough.
Further, when urban working professionals moved to their hometowns during the pandemic, women faced the added expectation of doing domestic chores at their in-laws’ place, said Bhagyashree Pancholy, a remote work and law specialist.
“Since people couldn’t socialise in public places, people in small towns were found visiting neighbours’ homes. Women often found themselves burdened with looking after guests, along with their in-laws and children, if any,” she said.
Over the last few months, Pancholy has advised many companies on how to help their female employees as they deal with the daily challenges of WFH.
“I tell them to pay for childcare expenses so working women can hire childcare specialists at home now that they don’t have access to the office’s daycare centre and its facilities. I also suggest they bring in flexible hours wherever possible so that working couples can divide domestic chores between them and both don’t have to work at the same time,” she said.
More importantly, she advises companies against using employee monitoring software or time-tracking devices. “I have had to defend women’s interests when some corporates approached me with issues like their women employees were caught breast-feeding their child during working hours, something their monitoring devices captured as the women forgot to switch off their laptop.”
Lizbeth Jose, a Mumbai-based sales and marketing professional, said when the lockdown began, it allowed her to be around her four-year-old son but she couldn’t spend much time with him. “I remember this one time when I was in a serious meeting and he was breaking down for some reason and banging my door, but I had no grace period to attend to him at once.”
A year hence, her family and workplace have adapted to the changes and become far more supportive, she said.
But women who have switched jobs during this period may not have had such a smooth journey “as it takes time for people to understand and empathise with your unique challenges as a working woman”, said Jose.
While WFH has its own benefits, especially around less commute and low risk of infection, the stress of multi-tasking — switching identities every 15 minutes from a professional to a mother or daughter-in-law or wife — has been very hard on women, said Misra of the Aditya Birla Group. “And there are no easy answers to this issue.”