Are you suffering from ‘presenteeism’, even at home?

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How to cope with life after lockdown

Coronavirus has led to many challenges in all aspects of life, one of which is work-life balance. And with the pre-existing issue of presenteeism at work – showing up physically, but not mentally – now invading our homes while we work from them, how can we re-focus our attention to ensure personal and professional success? Clinical psychologist Elisabeth Shaw explains.

Presenteeism is a term that means you physically show up to work, but due to worries at home, poor physical or mental health, exhaustion or burnout, your productivity levels and engagement are lower than usual. You are present in body but not in focus, energy or perhaps care factor.

And it’s not a small issue by any means: Pro Bono Australia recently noted that “it’s a phenomenon that costs the Australian economy $34 billion each year”.

What we know is that parenting and relationship worries in particular can be incredibly preoccupying, yet taking time off work can be difficult. Perhaps you have insufficient leave, perhaps it feels like it is the only thing holding you together in the face of the crisis, or your need for the job might have increased in the face of other losses (e.g. with divorce). In quality workplaces, policies and practices that support employees throughout life and through developmental crises are going to have a better chance of maintaining productivity and longevity of employee commitment and loyalty.

In the new working from home environment, what is not yet being thoroughly discussed are the ways presenteeism is playing out. Parents appear to be home and therefore technically available, but are in fact distracted by having to put in their solid 8-10 hours per day.

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The rise of e-presenteeism

Maggie Coggan, writing for Pro Bono, notes the emergence of e-presenteeism due to the significant increase in online work, where there is “cognitive distraction, driven by the uncertainty of our situation, but also there might be other people working in your house who might have kids not being able to go to school”.

This means that our ability to complete work tasks is impaired, and it is almost impossible for it to be otherwise right now. The COVID effect is also a gendered issue, with women experiencing a greater impact in stress and anxiety, unpaid work and job insecurity.

Looking at it from the cost-to-home perspective, another element involves the way in which we appear to be present to be parents, but are distracted, preoccupied, demanded, required to maintain the hours at work while also appearing to meet the demands of parenting. Children and partners could reasonably think “there’s Mum sitting there, I can ask that question…” only to hear “I’m working!” – or as one working mother told me she regularly retorts “if the house is not on fire, then don’t bother me!”

The way in which children and partners can read the signals of what is interruptible and what is not may not be at all clear. Leaving the house was one way to indicate the transition from parent to worker. In the home, perhaps removal to the study or being on a videoconference or phone call is the signal. However, when so much of our home management is online, then being on the computer may not in itself be a clear sign. Is it important work, or IMPORTANT work? If you don’t have a study with a closed door as a demarcation, then working on the dining room table also makes you a sitting duck for interruptions. Sometimes the main signal not to interrupt is the thundercloud overhead or statement through gritted teeth!

How does it affect home life?

We don’t yet know the cost to relationships in juggling home and work obligations. Maybe it too will be to the order of $34 billion in lost time and connection, or perhaps increased parental guilt, relationship conflict and even relationship breakdown.

The burden of e-presenteeism and maintaining the appearance of employee commitment through availability and responsiveness is exhausting. However it really is hard to know how to juggle responsiveness to children and partners appearing at your elbow, appearing to ask a non-urgent question – probably to get a connection more than really needing that question answered now. It is tempting to try and include children and partners in work breaks in order to give them structured time, only to find that you therefore have no break at all for yourself. Children tend to want to focus entirely on what they need to tell you, and your own need for a bit of clear head space becomes an impossible dream.

At work, it can be possible to fool some of the people, some of the time. You are at your desk, staring at the computer or a lengthy document, and no one need be any the wiser if you are moving fast or slow, especially if you are usually a good performer. But at home, our families are onto us. We can’t keep typing and pretend to be listening… not too often anyway! We will be caught out, and in fact kind family members who want the best for us should well challenge us, as the reminder to “come back to us” demonstrates our value.

How to manage e-presenteeism

Some tips to manage this challenge are:

  1. Keep working with your employer and peers to determine what constitutes a reasonable work day. Should it be defined in hours or outcomes? Challenge ways in which extended availability seems to have crept into work expectations. Double check yourself – might you be the one actually leading the charge on blurred boundaries?
  2. Explain yourself to the family. This is a chance to bring them into your world, and what your working day looks like. Usually you leave the house so this is invisible to them. “My job requires…”
  3. Set home expectations. This might be negotiated and renegotiated as circumstances change. If you do have a space with a shut door, let everyone know when you are going behind it, and for how long, so they can manage their needs as well.
  4. Make availability genuine. If you say you are meeting up for lunch, then let yourself have that time to engage. Play a game, answer questions, do a load of washing, oversee homework. If the family feels they have “had” you, then retreating again is more manageable for everyone.
  5. Factor in self-care. If you need personal time to recover, as you might have walked out for a coffee from the office, then build that in as part of the work day. Merging that with family time might be practical and at times doable, but if it means you get no quiet reflection time, then this too needs to be cordoned off.

The new normal

The new imperatives for home and work management are creating many challenges. We tend to look at what it all means for our working lives, because the political discussion is about the economy, productivity and getting people to work. We get that, it makes sense.

However we also know that having a solid and successful home life is key to being able to focus on work. Our split attention can lead to guilt and a fear of inadequacy on all fronts. Letting ourselves genuinely attend to relationships and home routines in order to get our work done, rather than fitting it around work, will be important for our personal and professional happiness and success.

If the stress of juggling, navigating, negotiating and arguing about it are getting you down, then Relationships Australia NSW is here to assist. Ring us on 1300364277.

Elisabeth Shaw is a clinical psychologist and the CEO of Relationships Australia NSW, a not-for-profit organisation that seeks to help foster personal and social well-being.


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