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Previous research has shown that economic crises lead to increased job insecurity and work pressure as a result of reduced recruitment, pay cuts and layoffs. These labour cost savings approaches are evident in the global response to COVID-19, with businesses also dependent on the government and other support packages. A silver lining could be that in the current COVID-19 crisis, working from home has enabled many employees to spend less time commuting and more time in the home.
But is this what really happens? How do crises affect work/life balance and sense of agency? Researchers Dr Uracha Chatrakul Na Ayudhya, Dr Rea Prouska and Alexandra Beauregard (from Middlesex University Business School and London Southbank University) examined the impact of the Global Financial Crisis on professional workers in Greece who were subject to austerity measures. In particular, the effect of mass unemployment and the degradation of working conditions for those able to maintain employment. As a result of the change in societal, instutional and personal conditions, the case study further explores the impact on work-life balance on the sense of entitlement workers feel they have in order to advocate for work-life balance.
The researchers found that due to changes in working conditions, workers’ sense of entitlement diminished and that this ultimately reduced their ability to achieve quality of both work and of work-life balance. Moreover, professional workers’ experienced a diminished professional identity and sense of agency.
Economists are forecasting that the economic crisis arising from COVID-19 will be the most severe and sustained global recession since the great depression. This paper suggests that these are prime conditions for workers to deprioritise work-life balance, a critical pillar in creating inclusive workplaces.
Building on the work of Hobson (2011), the authors highlight a conceptual framework to explain what happens to an individual’s capabilities during a period of crisis and austerity.
Three types of ’conversion factors’ influence the extent to which an individual can convert the resources available to them into actual capabilities – which includes their desired work-life balance. These conversion factors include:
The capabilities framework (Figure 1) helps to explain how how individuals form perceptions and expectations through comparisons with their peers. This is done on the basis of what is considered normative, socially appropriate and feasible. This sense of entitlement also shapes workers’ sense of agency over their potential life choices. In times of crisis, these normative expectations decline and so does an individual’s sense of entitlement, ultimately impacting their ability to set and experience work-life balance.
Figure 1: A modified capabilities framework (adapted from Hobson, Fahlén, and Takács, 2011)
Following the global financial crisis of 2008, Greece’s Government took on unprecedented and unexpected levels of debt, causing a large drop in confidence in the Greek economy. The ’troika’ of the International Monetary Fund, European Commission and European Central Bank financed a national bailout on condition that severe austerity measures were adopted, which prolonged the recession and delayed the return to economic growth within the country. At the height of the crisis, in 2014-15, unemployment reached a staggering 27%, with youth unemployment exceeding 50%. These effects were felt for a long time – Greece only formally exited the bailout process in 2018. It is in this context that the authors conducted their study.
Previous studies have examined the impact of the crisis and austerity measures on workers, and research on the impacts on unemployment is well known. Less researched is the impact on professional and managerial ’survivors’ – or, those who continued working throughout the crisis – to achieve quality of working life and work-life balance.
The authors identified (from existing professional contacts) a doctor, a teacher, a lawyer and a senior manager. These initial four participants identified more of their professional contacts resulting in consultations with 20 workers (five from each of the initial categories).
They found workers’ sense of entitlement was lowered as a result of the change in working conditions resulting from austerity and crisis. Working conditions deteriorated across a range of dimensions. This deterioration also impacted how others perceived these conditions. Ultimately, because of the deterioration in conditions and changed perception of others, workers felt less recognised and less appreciated. Some direct quotes from the research illustrating this include:
The lowered sense of entitlement negatively affected their perceived agency and capabilities. Participants reported increased work-life conflict, mainly as a result of negative spillover of strain from the work domain into personal and family life. Salary reduction contirbuted to decreasing quality of life, as this reduced the choices and opportunities available to workers. Participants were also less optimistic about their ability to progress and develop. The following direct quote captures elements of this sentiment:
This led to a narrative for many individuals of increased individualism and personal responsibility and, in the most extreme cases, leading to a desire to leave Greece in search of better opportunities as articulated here:
In summary, the authors found that ’economic crisis and austerity led to worsened working conditions, lower job security, and diminished workers’ sense of entitlement.
Even among the most valued and recognised workers in the economy, this diminished sense of entitlement weakened a sense of personal agency and ultimately limited workers’ capability to maintain a work-life balance. This resulted in a tendency towards increased individualism and personal responsibility – resulting in the most extreme case of a desire to leave the country (Figure 2).
Figure 2: Low sense of entitlement and the capabilities gap to achieve quality of working life and work-life balance
This study of the impact of the austerity measures in Greece demonstrates that a crisis limits workers’ capabilities to achieve a work-life balance, and also contributes to a more individualistic culture. These insights are salutary in the current COVID-19 related economic crisis with evidence emerging that jobs have been lost, salaries have been cut, working hours and unpaid over-time has increased, and productivity has stagnated.
In other words, the COVID-19 crisis has the ability to negatively impact work-life balance and erode the structures which enable it – such as flexible working arrangements and inclusive working cultures. These structures have been shown – in an increasingly vast literature – to be valuable to workers, businesses and the economy.
The research paper revealed workers responded to crisis by taking an increasingly individualised stance – limiting the well-known benefits that diversity and inclusion provide in modern workplaces.
If the crisis of today has similar effects on workers’ individualism, it may limit the opportunities for collaboration so desperately needed to develop and negotiate social, economic and policy pathways out of the crisis.
Policymakers and businesses globally have responded with force to limit the worst economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it will be important to ensure diversity and inclusion do not become unexpected victims in the process. Policymakers should consider how decisions to withdraw family and employee assistance impact diversity and work-life balance. Businesses may need to; more frequently monitor the mental health and wellbeing of their staff, actively emphasise the benefits of flexible working, and put strategies in place to continue to promote employee contact and collaboration. Most significantly, workers themselves need to take care of themselves – and others – throughout and beyond the pandemic.
Sam leads Deloitte Access Economics’ work in inclusive education and has a deep understanding of disability and relevant education policy and practice. Sam has led or contributed to some of our most impactful reports in this area. He has established a strong professional network and is increasingly called on as an expert in these matters.