As the Covid-19 crisis deepens, the volume of advice regarding how employees can maintain a healthy work-life balance is expanding. As researchers with an interest in the work-life interface and its inequalities, we are worried that much of this advice is not only too generic for the wide variety of family profiles and characteristics, but also that it misses important segments of the working population. Drawing on insights from a recent editorial introduction to new sociological research on work and family care that we prepared just before the UK lockdown, we aim to highlight critical work-family demands amplified by the current crisis.

Our hope is that, by highlighting these aspects, we raise awareness among employers, policy makers and the general public of the specific demands experienced in various family structures and prompt more nuanced discussions, advice and measures. We also hope that such an awareness might empower employees to discuss with their organizations new forms of flexible working, as well as the longer term implications of the current situation on their work performance and careers.

The Constant Caregiver

Much of the current conversation around combining work and family responsibilities during the pandemic relates to white collar workers who are simultaneously expected to carry out their work duties from home and supervise their children’s homeschooling while schools are closed. This is undoubtedly a fraught situation and places working parents at a significant disadvantage compared to those without caregiving commitments. Less attention is being directed toward the work-family challenges of key healthcare workers from venues such as hospitals and care homes.

Pre-pandemic research on the work-family interface for health care workers highlights issues such as shift work and long hours preventing workers from providing what they perceive as adequate care for family members. This is not only a matter of time, where evening or night shifts overlap with family meals and other tasks such as children’s homework, baths and bedtime, but also of energy. Fatigue generated by physically and emotionally demanding work detracts from quality time with family members. In Cottingham and colleagues’ research on nurses, both men and women reported strain and exhaustion arising from their efforts to pay sufficient attention to their own children, spouses or other family members after a full day of caring for others at work.

In the current crisis, the emotional demands of caregiving at work continue to compound the strain of caring for family members at home, but added to this is the very real risk of health care workers endangering family members simply with their physical presence. Workers able to isolate themselves in a separate room or location have done so, but found themselves unable to provide hands-on care for family members. Others are constantly worrying over their patients and bring that worry home with them. Social media show the lengths to which health care staff go to ensure that they are not exposing family members to the virus: changing clothes immediately after entering the home, storing clothes in disposable bags, showering thoroughly, and disinfecting all surfaces touched between the front door and the shower.

Health care workers have always been constant caregivers. The current crisis means that the demands of caregiving both at work and at home are increasingly intense, however, resulting in unprecedented strain and fatigue for many and knock-on effects for their family members.

While pre-pandemic research shows a clear correlation between work-family conflict and intentions to quit, especially in organizations that lack a supportive culture for parents, the stakes now are higher than ever. When individuals are placed in the very difficult position of knowing that their caregiving at work has the potential to harm those for whom they care at home, it begs the question of career sustainability. Recruitment and retention in the health care sector, already at low levels due to work intensification and lower pay, may face exceptional challenges going forward.

The Impact of Caring for Children with Disabilities

Most of the public discourse and research on balancing work and parenting demands are focused on healthy children. In the context of the current crisis, such demands relate to making sure that children are well cared for at home, while at the same time having parents working remotely. While this is not an easy task, and a lot of the current advice is geared toward how to best manage children and the home ‘office’, the demands on parents of children with disabilities are enormous. In the UK, about 7 percent of children have a disability.

Existing research on the nexus of work and family care for children with disabilities is limited; yet, from what we know, the parents of these children are often subject to precarious work conditions. Because they have to adjust their life around that of their children, many parents – especially mothers – need to dramatically change their involvement in paid work. The main relief for parents is external care. In the current crisis, special schools and other institutions that offer such relief have mostly closed or are operating at reduced capacity, leaving parents to cope by themselves while at the same time keeping up with their jobs as best as they can. A further complication arises from the fact that many parents of children with disabilities are sole carers, with nobody else to help with child care demands.

Sociological research not only brings to the fore these difficult situations, but also suggests ways in which individuals, organizations and the public at large could act.

So what can the parents at home with their children with disabilities do? Existing evidence shows that, paradoxically, in difficult circumstances, when people would need others’ support the most, they tend to reduce their social interactions. The reasons behind this winnowing response are multiple, from lack of time and emotional burnout to shame. What parents must do though is to reach out to others in similar situations (who can empathize), and close friends and relatives (who can offer moments of comfort). They also must reach out to their organizations and request new flexible arrangements, tailored to the unique demands triggered by this crisis.

In turn, organizations should be especially responsive to accommodations required by these hard hit parents, including allowances for their reduced level of performance.

Finally, the public who is eager to volunteer and help those in need, but cannot find a good cause themselves could turn to organizations and charities specialized in supporting such families. Research on volunteering and charitable activity shows that oftentimes people who want to volunteer do not because they are not able to see where their skills could be used, but that once they engage in meaningful volunteering they continue participating in these activities. Building such support now can ensure that volunteering help will be available even after the crisis has passed.

Daniela Lup is Associate Professor of Human Resources and Organizational Behavior at ESCP Business School @ESCP_bs. She has a broad interest in sociological aspects of work, employment and organizations, with a particular focus on understanding how various characteristics of the organizational structure and culture affect employees’ attitudes and behaviors at work, and beyond the work domain (family, community). Daniela is an editor for Work, Employment and Society.

Alexandra Beauregard @xandrarama is Reader in Organizational Psychology at Birkbeck, University of London. Her research focuses on the work-life interface, flexible working arrangements and diversity management, with a particular focus on gender and gender identity. Alexandra is an editor for Work, Employment and Society.