"Professor Barbara Pocock found that we take home a lot more problems from the workplace than we bring to it."
Though I’m a mother, I frequently attempt to disguise this fact in the workplace. Over the winter, my children were sick with one virus after another. And there was a broken arm somewhere in all that too, resulting in multiple visits to the hospital. But I scarcely missed a day of work. The children had doctors’ appointments, excursions and meetings with teachers. Also, I’m ashamed to admit this but at least one child was pretending to be sick at times in the hope of me being home more. But, as I said, I scarcely missed a day of work.
I had a challenging new job and I desperately wanted to prove myself. My mother, all too aware of the precariousness single parenthood can present, wanted me to do well in the job too. So she took the slack. She had my sick children at her home, took them to appointments, attended school meetings, sometimes dropped the children to school, and where her casual work allowed, fed and bathed them in the evenings so I could stay back late to get reports finished.
The caring hadn’t vanished, it never does; it simply shifted from my books to hers, or at least parts of it did. But to my workplace, caring was now virtually non-existent. I sailed through the long work days largely unimpeded. For all intents and purposes, I was a success story in working motherhood. I was like a man with a wife at home. I could have it all.
The clumsiness of caring responsibilities were folded away out of sight, replaced instead with enthusiastic flexibility and occasional, awkwardly timed, hushed phone calls in an open plan office. But a silent layer of guilt and disappointment steadily built up on my skin like dust, because though sacrifices and accommodations were being done to keep my family life in check, I still could not match the availability of colleagues without dependents.
The pressure is on you, both implicitly and explicitly, to limit the overflow of home life into the workplace. Management literature is full of tips for getting the most out of employees that, collectively, begin to read like the mind of a sociopath. One manual suggests instructing staff to not share too much personal information with co-workers lest they find themselves tempted to talk about home during work hours. Don’t get close, don’t get emotional.
Another suggests managers mimic elements of intimacy with staff. It acknowledges that connection is such a primal need for humans that telling workers they’re part of a family in the workplace may encourage the kind of marriage-like devotion that has them working harder for you regardless of money and market conditions.
What you sense from these readings is that the disorder of your family life can cause havoc in the polite, industrious serenity of the workplace. But the truth is something else. Professor Barbara Pocock found that we take home a lot more problems from the workplace than we bring to it.
It is not home stress that is escaping and engulfing us like a pollutant, it is work stress. The spill-over of working life into your home is predominantly about the way your job interferes with having enough time with family and friends (around a quarter of men and women found this often or always happens to them), and in the way that your job leaves you feeling continually rushed (45.9% of men and 57.7% of women found this).
Those with the worst experiences of work life interference are those working long hours and those who are carers. And forget about picturing this group as a bunch of harried, highly-paid executives - other occupations likely to be affected include machinery operators, community and personal service workers, and drivers. Basically, all jobs associated with antisocial work hours.
This is not a parent versus non-parent problem, either. Pocock’s research also showed it doesn’t matter what your caring responsibilities involve - whether it’s caring for children, for aged parents, a spouse with depression or an adult brother with a disability, the results were the same for all combining caring roles with paid work. We experience high rates of work-life interference.
Overall, women have it consistently worse for work-life interference, if you adjust for working hours, and this stress peaks in mid-life. This makes sense: it is likely an age when women’s careers are intensifying and yet they’re also running into ‘sandwich generation’ caring responsibilities with both young children and frail parents to tend to.
The secret to happiness in terms of work-life balance is part-time work, as I found during my own years as a part-timer having babies. Pocock’s research supports this, with part-time workers consistently reporting better outcomes. But even if your family can afford the drop in income, many workplaces don’t offer such flexibility and to be perfectly honest with you, I’ve yet to see part-timers bounding up the ladder so the happiness comes with a big dose of suck-it-up career-stalling acceptance.
The myth is that capitalism is somehow coherent. But the reality is a system relying upon an invisible structure of caring work to support it, one that produces future workers, repairs damaged workers and nourishes those in circulation in order to keep the workplace ticking over.
Such caring work is unpaid work and, worse than that, obliged to apologise for itself, for dependency of any kind is maligned rather than being recognised as a necessary and normal part of human existence. Indeed, perhaps the worst, most needy dependency of all is that of the workplace on the family home.
To adapt to the needs of the workplace, everyone - but particularly women - have had to learn to compartmentalise. Pocock observes that some of this shows in recent trends like lower housekeeping standards and the emergence of ‘good enough parenting’, and conjointly, a rise in criticisms of ‘helicopter parenting’ and other signs of being overly dedicated to care.
It is why I am somewhat sceptical of liberation articles casting self-sufficiency as the end goal of feminism or breastfeeding as tyrannical for women. Certainly, there’s a case to be made for women having financial independence and motherhood being less prescriptive and uncompromising, but such arguments probably shouldn’t overlap quite so conveniently with the interests of corporations and the free market.
The compartmentalising is not without cost. Back at home with the people you love, it seems to take at least a full day to find the rhythm again of being with children. And until you find that oneness with them, you can experience their needs, even their affection, as somehow jarring and irritating. If you’re working long hours or shift work, I suspect it is possible to never recover enough from work to reach this rhythm.
Some of the fragmentation is about training yourself to be indifferent to the fate of others during your work day, but it is also about being indifferent to ourselves. Ignoring our feelings and denying their legitimacy. The outcome of this is a decline in overall empathy. If you do not know the inside of your own head, you cannot possibly understand anyone else’s. And with that is lost the capacity for intimacy, something that is fundamental to our survival and fulfillment.
We would all do better, live more honestly and with less loneliness, if we spent more time coming to terms with our dependence on those around us and less time pursuing false notions of self-reliance. Only with this realisation can we find the freedom we imagine comes with independence.