Baby in one hand, laptop in the other; the superwomen face yet another challenge in their path to professional success—COVID-19

on
11 January 2021

The raucous alarm filled Rukhsana’s room at precisely 8:00 AM in the morning. As she prepared to get out of bed, Rukhsana realized that her alarm had not only woken her but had rudely stirred her two-year-old. Already panicking about her 8:30 AM webinar, Rukhsana took her baby in one hand and laptop in the other. This is the story of a working mother—Rukhsana and the story of millions of other struggling women like her during the horrendous time of the ongoing global pandemic, the coronavirus.

In early March of 2020, the coronavirus, more popularly known as Covid-19 made an appalling debut in Bangladesh affecting millions of lives and families throughout the nation. This pandemic has successfully put a halt to the plans and dreams of everyone, everywhere. However, this virus has a profound and greater impact on the lives of women compared to men. While Coronavirus is without a doubt at its heart a global health emergency, in the expansive plan of things, it is also a three-sided issue of health, economic, and social crisis which are being extensively felt especially by women.

Different examinations, including WHO and OECD, have demonstrated that women are unfairly affected by COVID-19 as it increased burden of unpaid care work, domestic violence, job loss, lack of access to sexual and reproductive health care services, restricted mobility in the public province and much more. What is most concerning however, is the fact that women throughout the globe, and also in Bangladesh have become severe victims of what is known as emotional labor.

The term emotional labor was first introduced by famous social scientist Arlie Hochschild in her 1983 book “The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling”. This term can be understood as the way towards overseeing emotions to meet the prerequisites of responsibilities. In simple terms, it refers to the practice of ignoring one’s mental wellbeing in order to physically provide for work, be that professional or personal.

Emotional labor is customarily underestimated and uncompensated. Overlooking one’s mental health for office, home or any other commitments might be lethal both for the concerned individual and for the work itself. At the same time, this issue is hard to gauge, which results in a lot of women not even realizing that they are overworking themselves—let alone their employers and families. This habit further results in a never-ending pattern of women taking on more work than they can chew and negatively harming their mental health. High level of stress, lack of down time and a greater risk of exhaustion are only few of the many effects of emotional labor on women.

Moreover, in the midst of the COVID-19 scourge, schools were moved into online learning in Bangladesh. Support from house help or extended family members also get limited during this period. For those that are lucky enough to have the option to work from home, there is still the test of sorting out how to deal with the stay-at-home children and deciding on who gets to focus more on professional work—mom or dad? The emotional burden, in these cases are unexpectedly placed on the mothers. Even if the father generously shares the weight of housework, the emotional stress remains with the mother i.e., women.

By now it can be assumed that the emotions of every individual, especially working women are running high with constant uncertainties. With organisations struggling to remain profitable and also in existence, the repercussions of uncertainty extend to the employees as well. Added to this is the fear of losing jobs that makes one work harder and not complain about long hours. While there is no perfect solution towards eliminating emotional labor completely, some of the burden can be relieved to reduce stress and allow families to move as comfortably as possible through this time. One important way that this can be done is through the organisation that the individual women works in. Workplaces should be more sensitive to the needs of women working from home. Organisation should take into account that women need both rest and respite from juggling different roles.

To cope with the unprecedented pandemic situation as well as to ease the engagement of colleagues, WaterAid Bangladesh, a UK based international NGO has been taking different wellbeing measures from the very beginning to support employees amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Besides doing the obvious such as providing increased flexibility including work from home option, physical work roster, flexible work hour, psychosocial counselling support, health and safety gear supply, broadband/internet support at home, treatment funds apart from developing several work protocol/guidelines, encouraging and hosting more virtual social events to ensure increased engagement and fostering positive coping, WaterAid Bangladesh has put a special emphasis on the female employees across the organization including its partners.

WaterAid Bangladesh has organized a unique virtual session on the mental well-being and psychological grooming for all the female employees focusing on coping and balancing the work-home crisis in the time of COVID-19. This session titled, “Pandemic challenges: coping with stress and uncertainties" took place virtually on 2 November 2020 with more than 60 women participants from WaterAid Bangladesh and its partners conducted  by a qualified psycho-social counsellor Ms. Rubina Jahan. She is also working as the Senior Manager - Mental Health Program (SMHP) with SAJIDA Foundation, one of the partners of WaterAid Bangladesh.

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The half day- long session was extremely interactive where a number of participants extemporaneously shared their own experiences and coping mechanisms which ultimately enabled others to connect with each other. It also gave them the confidence and platform to share their own stories, as well as gave them a chance to adapt with the critical and unusual context. Ms. Rubina Jahan empathetically listened to the struggles of these working WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) women throughout the session and provided them with necessary counselling support. Furthermore, she shared tips regarding certain measures on how to control stress and suggested the following to practice for contributing towards making the lives of these hardworking women colleagues a little easier.

She suggested:

1. Share responsibilities: If you share your home with a partner, discuss how to share the tasks you are taking in light of COVID-19. Work on identifying tasks your partner could do to help equalize the burden together. While this action in itself falls under emotional labor, verbalizing these needs can help understand the undervalued and unnoticed labor performed on a daily basis.

2. Be kind with yourself: It is okay to not be your most productive self for every single moment especially for those with young children. Over perfection may lead to creating stress. Meeting standards is essential especially for critical deliverables but being too peaky for all the time may not add value to work much. Sometimes, you can leave your bed or wardrobe untidy and that should not make you feel guilty!  

3. Take breaks: Give yourself frequent breaks from work and from the family when needed. This might mean stepping outside for a few deep breaths, a cup of coffee alone in the bedroom or a virtual yoga class in the living room.

4. Set and hold boundaries: Avoid burnout and other negative effects of emotional labor by setting and holding boundaries during times of crisis.

5. Be physically active: Be that working out, meditating, or practicing breathing exercises; it is crucial to keep one’s mind at peace, especially during this hour. Being active will help the brain relax and focus well.

6. Dedicate a room / a corner to be your home office: A wide desk, an ergonomic chair, and a little silence will increase your productivity and help you feel that you are working in a professional environment.

7. Spare some time for self: At the very end of her session, Ms. Jahan emphasized on taking proper care of own self, she mentioned that everyone should spare some time for their own self and think about doing something recreational for own mental wellbeing which will ultimately insulate each and every one with mental strength and energy.

The psychosocial counselling session by WaterAid Bangladesh has been highly appreciated by the participants. They felt relieved by sharing their experiences and thoughts with others and by receiving counselling support from an expert. This has been termed as the demonstration of ‘SHE FOR SHE’ by the participants at end of the session. As the female colleagues seem to be more vulnerable in this pandemic situation, for upholding their courage and motivation, WaterAid Bangladesh will continue to take relevant initiatives to boost up their mental health and wellbeing at regular interval.

Lastly, lockdowns and self-quarantine measures across the world have increased women’s workload as more people are home-bound for a continued period of time and caregiving tasks have increased. The super women around the globe had to face yet another challenge in their lives that directly had the ability to hamper both personal and professional settings for them. The biggest fallout of working from home, most participants say, is there are no boundaries when it comes to the hours of work. Working 9-5 is a concept of the past life, in the ‘new normal’ one is expected to be on call late into the night even on weekends. Individuals, especially women are expected to work regardless of their health or the deterioration of their family’s health. If we are moving towards a ‘new normal’ then we have to set acceptable protocol of working hours during work from home, required break, professional etiquettes and so on. Organisations need to normalize all employees’ lives and needs to understand the day to day practical situation of the employees in particular, the female employees. Only then an organization can expect to earn the trust, loyalty, and maximum productivity from its employees.

Writer: Arusa Iqbal Rahim, Hasin Jahan & Razia Sultana Luna