In his address on Thursday, March 12, 2020 on the coronavirus pandemic, the President of the French Republic, Emmanuel Macron, announced the closure of schools, crèches and higher education establishments.
In itself, the announcement was not all that surprising, since neighboring countries had already initiated much stricter measures. But it has brought to light certain contradictions in our society regarding the relationships between professional and family life.
The announcement – which could have reassured parents since it aimed to protect their children – seems to have caused widespread panic. Social networks relay videos, photos and comments expressing the anxiety of finding themselves confined together. A video showing a dad hiding behind a decor when his daughter called was shared 72,000 times in three days, just on Facebook.
A viral poster reports: “I just heard the President announce the closure of all the schools … Reassure me, is it with the children inside? However, our children, we love them. How to explain these reactions? What does the expression of this concern with being face to face tell us?
In recent years, studies that highlight the invasion of personal life by professional activities have multiplied. In a study on individual autonomy in the smartphone age, American colleagues show how individuals who accept to answer their emails outside working hours produce response expectations at all times, which intensify their work. They then find themselves unable to regain control of their personal lives .
New technologies have also revolutionized work insofar as they have made it possible to extend working hours as in supermarkets equipped with automatic cash registers, or have offered the possibility of working at any time on platforms offering microtasks that it is possible to do while waiting for the bus, or on any other dead time – as the promoters of these models maintain.
Conversely, workplaces have not made themselves more flexible or more permeable to family life. Taking care of your family problems as you can take care of professional problems at home – that is, transparently – is certainly not legitimate in the workplace. Colleagues are rarely told to give us a moment to deal with family concerns.
The family and, in particular, the children must remain invisible to the employer. The latter can even develop solutions such as conciergeries or company crèches so that, precisely, these elements do not interfere with the proper functioning of business.
When employees fail to make their personal lives invisible, they are subject to sanctions. Wage inequality between men and women is the most visible symptom of it – if only because women procreate and not men.
This desire to make his family invisible to his employer is accentuated with professional autonomy: the more we have autonomy, the more we will seek to reassure our employer about our dedication and our availability for our professional tasks, the more we will seek to make our invisible family.
The low participation of managers in organizational events like “the Christmas tree” testifies to this desire to hide his family life – and therefore, his unavailability for work – from his employer. Certainly, we hear some (more rarely some) mention the exit from school from time to time, but these discussions are rare. They also aim rather to be sympathetic and to give a more human image when professional performance is not called into question.
As long as technology made it possible to reply to emails without our professional entourage becoming encrusted with us, making the family invisible was still possible. Now, when videoconferencing comes to our home, it becomes impossible, even less our curious children who parade in front of our camera during our virtual meetings.
To show their devotion to their work, some would then choose to pretend that they want to “get rid of it”. Hence the distance that abound on social networks for a week.
The second major mechanism at work is that of gratification. In a sociological study which aims to understand why parents say that their children are their priority when they work overtime without even being asked to do so, Arlie Hochschild underlines the interest of focusing on the concept of “Reward”, which refers to a form of reward in French.
It shows that American workers do not always work overtime at the request of the employer, nor out of financial need, but because they gain more recognition for it. To illustrate this point, she reports the words of a father who emphasizes the impossibility of dialogue with his teenager while he has fluid relationships with his colleagues.
The author shows that these people gradually become convinced of their unavailability, and begin to imagine what they would have done if they had more time, to create imaginary personalities. Confinement removes the loophole that is work.
If there are people who can still decide their hours of work, the fact remains that in the current capitalist system where everyone is in competition with everyone, those who stay long to flee their family problems force others to to follow…
Regarding attempts to reconcile family and professional life, the term exhaustion often comes up. The challenge is only greater if we have to take care of your children in addition to our work, make class at home, cook for all meals, do the cleaning more frequently since everyone is there, and manage the well-being and emotions of the whole family.
In general, exhaustion causes overconsumption which aims at finding a self that we cannot build in the time allotted to us. This is the reason why we take out subscriptions to sports clubs when we can’t even find the energy to go there, we buy books that we know don’t have time to read, we cover our children’s toys hoping to keep them at bay, etc.
Losing our self in the midst of this chaos, will we have to consume to “find ourselves”, and therefore work more in the hope of gaining more to be able to maintain this vicious vicious circle?
Will this capital time truce allow us to get out of these vicious circles? For now, we continue to act as if nothing had happened. But how long will we resist? Precariousness will probably not help matters. The labor market will become more competitive.
The future will tell us if the misfortunes caused by the health crisis will accentuate this vicious circle, or if the truce will allow us to slow down and find other ways of life, other ways of being and existing, and to find the balance between family and work.
Author Bio: Dima Younes is Associate Professor of Organization Theory and Ludivine Perray is Associate Professor in Finance and Accounting both at EM Lyon