As of now, no more than half of employees can work in the same office at any one time. But what does this transition back to the workplace mean for us? More specifically, will this mean greater work-life balance? Because last we checked, many employees found working from home to be quite trying. Last year, a Workplace Resilience survey by the National University Health System’s Mind Science Centre found that 61 per cent of those working from home reported feeling stressed, compared to 53 per cent of those on the front lines of the Covid-19 pandemic.

It’s not hard to imagine why – plenty of employees found that they put more hours into work at home than in the office since there are no clear cut-off times. But the survey also found that women are more likely than men to report being stressed when working from home. So is it safe to say that, in returning to the office every other day, women will regain some semblance of work-life balance?

Uneven loads

But first, let’s start with why women feel the pressures of the Covid-19 fallout more acutely. For one, at least according to the findings, their peers and colleagues give more support to their male counterparts — women don’t perceive that they receive the same kind of help at work. They also reported not getting enough support from their families on a regular basis. So in working from home, they find themselves having to shoulder even more familial responsibilities – whether it’s parenting, caregiving or running the household.

“I believe a major factor is the unequal division of household labour,” says Dr Marlene Lee, a clinical psychologist at Solutions 4 Life and a former field psychologist with Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders). “Despite also holding full-time jobs, working women still tend to assume the bulk of familial responsibilities relative to their male counterparts. This means they have to deal with double the stress, but with little to no time or opportunity for their own self-care.”

It might also have something to do with mental resilience. In a second survey, the Mental Health Resilience survey, also by the Mind Science Centre, it was found that men were more likely to report attributes of perceived mental resilience: as compared to women: 47 per cent of men said that they were able to stay calm in difficult situations, compared to 38 per cent of women. Also, 57 per cent of men were confident that they were able to solve problems, versus 50 per cent of women.

It doesn’t help that working from home comes with its own set of challenges.

“There might be the worry that their managers or colleagues do not trust that they are doing their jobs, and this need to prove themselves becomes a source of stress for them. Even missing a call or replying to a message late can become stressful since they are unable to prove their presence all of the time,” says Lai Han Sam, a woman’s life coach at Lifework Global.

Making time

The thing is, we can find work-life balance if we’d only learn how to communicate expectations and intentionally incorporate self-care. Whether we work from home, in the office, or are in some sort of transition, it is knowing when to take a breather that makes all the difference.

Self-care goes beyond behaviours, says Dr Lee, and has to encompass a mindset of kindness and compassion towards the self. “Aim for a diverse but balanced self-care portfolio. For example, meet physical needs (like regular exercise and adequate rest) and social needs (spending time with friends). Also, be sure to include contemplative activities (such as meditation and journaling), calming activities (such as aromatherapy, mindfulness and breathing) and recreational pursuits (such as painting and baking),” she suggests.

No one can do it all, and there are only so many hours in a day. So it is important that we aren’t shy about asking for help, whatever the circumstances, says Han Sam. “Asking for help from family, friends and colleagues is a very healthy way to make sure you don’t end up overwhelmed or stressed out,” she says. Besides, taking care of ourselves will impact our ability to care for our loved ones. It’s akin to being on a flight that has encountered some trouble: Unless you put on your own oxygen mask first, you cannot help others.

Seeking help can take various forms, adds Han Sam. “It can be in the form of hiring specialists to make things easier occasionally, taking a Grab ride instead of public transport, getting food delivered instead of cooking, and having a cleaner come by once a week.”

At the end of the day, that equilibrium is what keeps us going when the going gets tough – so it is key to prioritise it.

“I see balance as the crux of sustainability. Without balance, it becomes difficult to maintain one’s lifestyle and pace of life, and the costs in terms of physical and emotional well-being will be high,” says Dr Lee.

Going back to the office? Life coach Lai Han Sam shares three tips for a smoother transition.

1. Manage expectatons

“It is important that you discuss expectations with your boss and colleagues and find out if the same rules apply whether WFH or WFO. In addition, you should manage the expectations of those at home. For example, it is unreasonable to be expected to cook regularly for the family if you go back to the office.”

2. Practise self-care

Now that you’re back in the office, it might be easier to schedule a walk, lunch with friends or even a gym session after work – these are all great ways to practise self-care. It is exactly because of the possibility of more changes in the future that a self-care practice needs to be intentional. You will, in turn, enjoy a more balanced attitude towards life and work.

3. Adopt a positive mindset

Plenty of unexpected things can happen during this transition – some of the causes include unclear company processes or even having less space in the office. Believe that this too shall pass, and you will find your transition back to work easier. Focus on what you can be grateful for in both your work and personal life, and you will achieve the resilience that can help you get through the changes ahead.

This article first appeared in the May 2021 issue of Her World.