Most people create boundaries to separate the various aspects of their lives because perimeters help us determine appropriate behaviors. When I step into a classroom, I become the professor; but when I walk through the door of my home, my kids pummel me with kisses and toys — hardly the actions my students associate with my lectures.
Since work migrated from farms to factories, Americans have become accustomed to clear temporal and spatial boundaries between their work and home lives. While some industries had already started to erode these boundaries, the separation between the home and work spheres were obliterated in record time with the COVID-19 outbreak, taking with them the security imbued in years of adhering to their existence.
Conventional boundaries between work and nonwork are not the only ones that shifted after the pandemic. We also lifted figurative curtains that previously blinded us to invisible labor, defined as work, paid or unpaid, that is either undervalued in society or perhaps not recognized as work at all. An example of paid invisible labor is that of grocery store employees, shipping and delivery workers, and other essential workers whom we now hail as heroes.
Another type of invisible labor that is becoming more visible includes domestic tasks (e.g. shopping, cooking, taking care of children), which disproportionately fall on the shoulders of women. While historically women were predominantly responsible for this work, what is unique about this situation is that many of the women doing these tasks are also working full-time and juggling homeschooling for their children — and all under one roof.
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While the terms hidden work and invisible labor are often used interchangeably, there are important distinctions. In contrast to labor that is invisible because it is undervalued (e.g. grocery workers) or is unpaid and unacknowledged (e.g. domestic labor or volunteer work), hidden work involves intentionally trying to hide aspects of our work lives from our personal lives or vice versa, usually due to some kind of stigma.
For instance, some of us may be trying to hide our professional work from our children in an effort to be fully available to them during this confusing time. Or, in a reverse situation, many of us have had our children, pets or other parts of our personal lives get “seen” (or loudly heard) during our Zoom calls. Under normal circumstances, we might consider it professional etiquette to hide these intrusions. This can be particularly true for businesswomen who may hide their home lives in the pursuit of organizational legitimacy. But today, not only is it unnecessary to do so, given a shared understanding of our new reality, but it has effectively become impossible — not to mention needlessly stressful — to even try. By sheer necessity, we have all had to become more comfortable and accepting of the blurring of these boundaries in relatively no time.
My hope is that the increased acceptance of hidden work — and the greater appreciation of the aforementioned invisible labor — will not fade when the economy reopens. When it comes to recognizing the value of invisible labor, this may not take the form of raising the hourly wages of essential workers, as much as they deserve it, or paying parents for their domestic labor. Given the current and future economic crisis and how slowly deep, systemic changes occur, it would be unrealistic to anticipate a radical overhaul. But it does not have to be all or nothing. We can continue to recognize invisible labor, thereby shifting the proverbial curtain. As individuals, we can continue to thank frontline workers in meaningful ways. And at home, we can strive for more equality in the "second shift," which involves aspects of care and domestic labor.
As for continuing to be more accepting of hidden work, it may not take the form of a complete merging of our work and personal lives, nor would that even be desirable. Instead, employers can be more accommodating of the various ways their employees’ family matters may cross over into the workplace — such as by exploring options for workplace daycare or a focus on completing goals on time rather than a strict adherence to a work schedule. The answers won’t come quickly, but by acknowledging these problems and continuing to talk about them after this is over, we can begin to shift our cultural values. And that will be the first real step in the lasting institutional and societal changes many of us want.
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