SOUTH Africa’s three week lock down is going to take its toll in ways many never expected, especially for people forced to work from home. The divorce rates have spiked in China after the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus last November, while France has seen a surge in domestic violence cases. The omens for South Africa are ominous, says Johannesburg-based relationship guru Paula Quinsee.
She was sharing a webinar panel this week with Henley Business School Africa dean and director Jon Foster-Pedley, hosted by Alec Hogg’s BizNews. Titled ‘The Relationship Lockdown’, it was the first of a four-week webinar series co-hosted by Henley Business School Africa and BizNews.
Routine and regularity will be key to surviving the unprecedented 21-day lockdown, said Henley Africa dean and director Jon Foster-Pedley.
“We have to avoid the chaos on chaos scenario, because that just leads to anarchy.”
Quinsee agreed: “Beware of blurring work and home lines, you can end up doing more and more.”
Since President Cyril Ramaphosa ordered the lockdown to begin on Friday 27 March, 2020, South Africans find themselves either having to work from homes or stay at home on enforced annual leave, while the country enforces a state of disaster to flatten the infections curve.
Quinsee’s practical tips to avoid conflict and friction at home come down to two key pillars: routine and communication.
“But it’s like being in an aeroplane that’s depressurising, you have to put your own oxygen mask on first. You can’t care for others if you aren’t taking care of yourself.”
The first step is communication: “how can you be honest with each other so that you can be there for each other?” she asked.
It’s about setting up healthy boundaries; not to speak over one other or even to one another when you’re supposed to be working, agreeing not to name, blame and shame when the going gets tough, but rather to agree to speak openly about what is creating conflict, to agree beforehand to share chores if both of you are working.
Each day has to be structured as it would be when you are working, because routines generate a sense of control. Her tip is to schedule an end-of-day catch up session between family members, to ensure that work ends and family time actually begins.
It is even more important if there are children in the house.
“Kids pick up on stress levels and act out on your insecurity,” she said. Child minding should be fairly shared and rotated to avoid creating resentment.
There’s much to be stressed about; over and above the strain of having to work at home and manage children who would normally be at school, there’s the uncertainty of what the future holds, potential pay cuts and retrenchments – even the closure of companies.
There also has to be the conversation about what happens if one of you contracts the virus, how you’ll deal with it and where you will self-isolate to protect the other, Quinsee said.
But the lockdown is not all doom and gloom and need not destroy the relationship, it could build it too.
“This could be a great time to invest in the relationship,” she said, “ask ‘what’s working for us? What isn’t?’ What can we improve?’ and then ask, ‘how can we better for each other and our kids?’”
It’s also a great time to invest in yourself, stepping off the hamster wheel and decluttering your mind as well as your house during this enforced stay at home period. Managers have a great role to play too during this time, reaching out to staff who now find themselves isolated from colleagues.
“The risk of self-isolation is the risk of loneliness,” said Quinsee, “and with that comes the risk of depression and not just lowered productivity but also lower immunity.”
Depression, she said, posed the same risk to lowering immunity as smoking 15 cigarettes a day according to medical experts.
“Life as we know it will never be the same,” said Foster-Pedley, “the old normal has gone, it’s time to say hello to the new normal. “We have to learn to cope and to adapt.”
For Hogg, whose business model has been premised on remote operations for the last two decades, working from home can be an extremely viable proposition: “Your five hours working at home are worth eight hours in an actual corporate office.”
To overcome the potential problems of isolation, Hogg appointed a ‘chief happiness officer’, whose job is to ensure that the staff are just that, motivated and focussed, despite working off site.
“Disengagement is always the biggest risk,” he said.
Foster-Pedley agreed. “It’s sometimes difficult to hold on to your purpose at times like these, which is why it is so important just to step away if you can and reflect. Mindfulness, introspection, is critical to keeping you focussed and motivated.”