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In Practice

Simple Steps for Employers to Reduce Their Employees’ Stress at Home

A BRINK interview with

The lockdown has posed some unique challenges for the millions of households in which both partners work. Back in October, BRINK spoke to Jennifer Petriglieri, the author of a book called Couples that Work: How Dual-Career Couples Can Thrive in Love and Work about how couples can navigate dual-career relationships.

During the lockdown, Petriglieri spoke to dozens of working couples to see how they are coping in these times. We began by asking her what she found.

PETRIGLIERI: Couples have essentially become work colleagues. The person who sees our work all the time is now also our partner. So we’re exposed to the full force of our partner’s work stress, and work for many people is very stressful now, because of job uncertainty, the need to adapt, the exhaustion from all the Zoom meetings. 

Another issue is time and space constraints. Very few couples have one home office, almost none have two. So the home has become a contested domain for many couples. 

And then there’s the stress of if one partner loses their job. On the one hand, couples might think, OK, we’ll rebalance so that whoever’s lost their job will take up the slack with the kids and the housework, so at least the other partner can focus 100% on their work.

But that’s a real trap because then that partner doesn’t have the time to look for their next job. Do you invest the time as if you’re still working and try and get back on the wagon, or do you use it to take up the slack? So it’s stressful not just for the financial aspects, but also in terms of figuring out what to do next.

Key Moment for Talent Management

BRINK: So looking at this rather daunting landscape, what can employers do to help couples in these situations?

PETRIGLIERI: Actually there’s a lot employers can do. And it’s important to recognize that what companies do right now will be remembered. My other stream of research looks at organizations in crisis and leadership in crisis. In times like these, people are watching the leaders in organizations like hawks, and they remember what they do. 

This is the time companies are going to prove whether they are just talk or whether they are taking action. This is a key moment in that talent management life cycle. And the risk is, if they don’t get it right now, they will bleed talent later. 

Now that’s hard for organizational leaders — their organization may be in a crisis, they may be losing money — but it’s important to step back and think, “OK, what I do now has real, long-term consequences in terms of talent.” 

If this period teaches senior leaders of the benefits of flexible working and destigmatizes it, then both employees and organizations will benefit.

Checking In

BRINK: So that is the question: What can employers do? 

PETRIGLIERI: The most important, and perhaps most obvious, is to check in with people — really try to understand what the issues are that people are facing and don’t assume that each employee is facing the same issues. 

One best practice is to send out a short employee survey to understand the impact of the lock down on employees’ home and working lives — everything from technology issues, to child care and burnout. That shows genuine care and concern and also gives leaders the data they need to make decisions around the kind of support they need to offer to people.

Another thing is to rethink the working day. People working from home, especially if they have kids in the house, may need to work very different hours from the classic 9-5. Taking into consideration people’s constraints and whether those things still work is something that looks symbolic, but it makes a huge difference in the lives of working couples. It costs nothing, but it buys a lot of goodwill.

If I’ve been asked about my constraints and suddenly I see my manager has shifted a team meeting to a time that all of us can join, that means the world to me. 

When the Magic Happens

BRINK: Do you see any long-term shifts in working practices coming out of this crisis?

PETRIGLIERI: One thing that I hope shifts is that flexible working will be de-stigmatized. Up until three months ago, if you took advantage of flexible working, it was stigmatized; you were more likely to be passed over for promotions, you were less likely to get that pay increase.

And that was because the senior leaders who have the power over our careers have no experience of working flexibly, so they make a raft of false assumptions about what that means. For example, that people may be less committed if they work flexibly.

And what’s happened now, of course, is that everyone, including CEOs, have had experiences working flexibly from home. And, although it can be really tough, we also know it can be quite productive. 

In fact, the research shows there’s a sweet spot of productivity if people work from home one or two days a week. Then they’re getting the best of both worlds. They’re getting that quiet time at home where they’ve got no commute. But they’ve also got the balance with time in the office and face time with people to make those connections. 

So if this period teaches senior leaders of the benefits of flexible working and destigmatizes it, then both employees and organizations will benefit. That is my big hope.

Jennifer Petriglieri

Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at INSEAD

Jennifer Petriglieri is an associate professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD, and the author of Couples That Work, a forthcoming book on how dual-career couples can thrive in love and in work. Her award-winning research and teaching focus on identity, leadership, and career development.

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