We Polled Our Readers About Work-Life Balance—and Nearly All of You Prefer Working from Home

But almost half say you're less satisfied with work than pre-pandemic.

It's time to retire the phrase "business as usual"—or at least, call it into question. The saying, often used to encourage employees to keep calm and carry on during times of change, undermines just how monumentally the pandemic has changed the workplace. In 2020 alone, the pandemic caused an extra 200,000 businesses to close than in pre-pandemic years, and an estimated 9.6 million people were unemployed due to COVID-19-related business closures or struggles. The companies that stayed open largely transitioned to remote work, leading to an estimated one in four Americans working from home in 2021.

And the pressure to just carry on with business as usual—while also adapting to working from home, juggling child care, home-schooling kids, and dealing with all the other stresses of living during a global health crisis—is what has soured many employees' relationships to work.

These compounding pressures and effects of the pandemic have disproportionately impacted women. Not only have more women lost jobs than men during the pandemic, but they're also putting in extra work at home. According to a September 2021 study by McKinsey, a management consulting firm, mothers are more than three times as likely, compared with fathers, to meet the majority of the demands for housework and caregiving during the pandemic.

But it's not all bad. While remote work has made it harder for some to find separation between their work and the life around them, it's also awarded freedom to others. Without time-consuming commutes and a strictly monitored 9-to-5 schedule, some workers are finding more time for family, friends, or leisure activities. However, one thing is true for almost every worker: the pandemic has forever shaken up the way we all think about our personal time, our time on the clock, and the separation between the two.

To see how these changes might have affected the Real Simple community, we used our social media channels to ask 436 women between the ages of 18 and 74 about their work-life balance. They are teachers, accountants, nurses, social workers, lawyers, and more. Here's what we learned.

You're rethinking the future.

The vast majority (91 percent) of our respondents say that they're currently employed full time, but only half say that their employment situation has remained the same throughout the pandemic. The other half say they have changed jobs (12.6 percent), haven't changed jobs but have considered resigning (19 percent), had their hours increased (12.4 percent), were laid off (3.9 percent), resigned (2 percent), or had their hours reduced (1.6 percent).

In terms of where the respondents are working, the majority are working from home, at least part of the time. Nearly 27 percent are required to work in the office full time. More than a quarter are fully remote, while the same amount are working remotely, but have the option to work in the office as well. Another 20 percent are working remotely, but they are required to make an appearance in the office occasionally.

You're working more hours.

graph about work-life balance
Alice Morgan

Nearly half of our respondents say that they're working more hours than they did before the pandemic. This is compared to 30 percent who say that they're working the same hours, and only 10 percent who say that they're working fewer hours. The other 10 percent say they're not necessarily working more or fewer hours than pre-pandemic, but they are working at different hours during the week and/or over the weekend.

According to data from NordVPN Teams, a digital networking company, working from home has led to a 2.5-hour increase in the average working day in the U.K., Austria, Canada, and the U.S.

For some, the increased hours are a result of being short-staffed. As one respondent, who works in higher education, wrote, "Due to losing staff and budget cuts, we have had to work harder and longer hours with fewer resources. I'm burnt-out and exhausted, and my health is suffering." Another respondent, a public relations manager, shared a similar experience. "My company laid off 90 percent [of our staff]," she wrote. "I am doing the work of multiple people with more responsibilities but no increase in title or pay."

You prefer remote work.

Even with so many workers putting in extra hours at home, most still favor remote work to the idea of being in the office all the time. Amidst the respondents working from home, nearly half said that they only want to return to work in person every now and then, while 47 percent said that they don't want to return to the office at all. Only 3.9 percent said they want to return to the office full time.

work-life balance graph
Alice Morgan

While the transition to working from home came with a learning curve, nearly two years in, a lot of workers have found their groove. In fact, 47.9 percent of poll respondents working from home say that remote work has improved their work-life balance. (Nearly 39 percent said it was worse; nearly 14 percent said it's about the same.) For many respondents, these improvements can be attributed to having more flexibility in how they spend their time. One woman, who works part-time, wrote, "My work-life balance has greatly improved with no commute and working from home. I see my husband more and have bonded with my kids more."

Another woman, who works in public relations, has gained several hours in her days. "[Pre-pandemic], I did my job in about three to four hours, but had to stick around the office to be seen as working," she wrote. "During lockdown I was able to do the same amount of work in the same amount of time, but I used the rest of the workday to learn a language, exercise, cook healthier meals. I had control over my time and how to spend it productively, and I still finished all of my tasks, and did them well."

While some employers are pushing for a return to work over concerns with productivity, more than a third (40.9 percent) said they feel more productive in their work now than they did pre-pandemic. (About the same amount said that they felt less productive or the same.) While working at home can bring its own distractions, depending on the household, it's the lack of in-office interruptions and ability for workers to structure their own days that is contributing to these feelings of increased productivity. "I get more done at home when I can take a break to lie down for 20 minutes and finish the task refreshed, as opposed to just having to grind through in the office," a mental health clinic manager and therapist responded. She also cited the lack of a one-and-a-half-hour commute to be a plus.

You're getting more out of life.

We asked poll respondents to share whether they were spending more, less, or the same amount of time on the following: cooking at home, working on home improvements, seeing friends and family, and exercising. "More time" was the most popular answer for each of these activities, aside from exercising.

You're less satisfied with work.

graph about work-life balance
Alice Morgan

Perhaps the most telling result of the poll is that, even though most workers said their work-life balance has improved, almost half said that they are less satisfied with their work than they were before the pandemic. The reasons for this vary, but one of the most common sentiments in the write-in responses was the feeling of burnout and an overall lack of support from managers and employers.

One project manager wrote that increasing responsibilities without accompanying increases of support is "just not sustainable," she wrote. "Burn-out is closer than I have felt in many, many years. Unfortunately, I'm just too exhausted to take action on it."

Perhaps not surprisingly, 13 percent of respondents who considered quitting during the pandemic are teachers. One who responded to the poll bit the bullet and resigned after catching COVID-19, which she attributes to her school's lack of compliance with state mask guidelines and basic healthy habits. "I chose to leave in order to protect the health of myself and my family," she says. "I'm glad to not have to deal with the stress of COVID at work, but frustrated to not be working."

For her, this experience during the pandemic exposed the lack of support that exists for teachers in the workplace. "Teachers are put in the direct line of fire for our general safety, our health, and our mental well-being, and nothing seems to be changing," she says. "If anything, it's getting worse. That is unacceptable."

These responses were in line with data analyzed by The Brookings Institution earlier this year, which found that the pandemic had made many teachers less certain that they would work a full career in the classroom. The findings showed that teachers' reported probability of leaving their profession within the next five years increased from 24 percent on average in March of 2020 to 30 percent in March 2021.

For other workers, the decreased satisfaction in their work isn't as much about their employers or the job itself, but also that their allegiance to the idea of "living to work" has changed. "A pandemic gives you a new perspective on things," wrote an audit and risk management professional. "Are work 'emergencies' really important in the grand scheme of things? How is making money for investors helping me day to day? Why are we all still in this rat race?"

Employees need more from employers.

Nearly 4.5 million Americans quit their jobs in November 2021 alone. We can blame some of that on the departure from normalcy that the pandemic has caused. But beyond that, it's clear that people don't want to return to the status quo. In fact, a third of our respondents said that they would quit if their employer required them to return to the office full-time. The other two-thirds were more open to the idea, although half of that group said that they would only return if additional benefits were provided as incentive.

What kind of additional benefits are our respondents seeking? The most popular response was flexibility. For some respondents, this means more flexible work hours, and for others it's a four-day work week, or the flexibility to work remotely at times. "If I could work, like, 10 to 4 without the fear of getting in trouble, I would get just as much work done in less time, instead of sitting at my desk in a fog at 8 a.m.," one project manager wrote. The next most common response to the question: access to a gym or other health and wellness benefits. Other popular requests: professional development benefits, free food, childcare assistance, and parental or paid family leave.

But not all the requests are as tangible; simple responsiveness goes a long way. "My employer has done a great job during the pandemic—closing early and fully, communicating transparently, [creating] no pressure at all to come back, encouraging people to take their time off," a creative director wrote. Her company even shut down for a week and bought Peloton memberships for employees when they noticed a rise in burn-out. "If they keep this up, I might never leave," she wrote.

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