On Digital Presenteeism, the Pandemic, and Precarity

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The pressure to be “always on”

A couple of weeks ago, I was in a Microsoft Teams hangout with some colleagues at the University when someone mentioned being tied to their emails more than ever before. “It’s like a new form of presenteeism,” my colleague said, “you’re expected to be online all the time.” This immediately got me thinking about my own habits.

In my last post, I talked a little about how I’ve been signing into Teams earlier only to finish my work day later because working 8am-4pm means you often miss a flurry of emails at the end of the day. But surely these emails can wait until 8am the next day, right? I’ve also been checking my email on annual leave recently, which is something I never did when we were all working in the office. So why do I feel like I need to check in during my holiday just because I’m sitting in the spot where I normally work?

I’d never really thought about presenteeism before. Which is perhaps why, having done a little research, I realise now how guilty I am of participating in this phenomenon. When I first started this post, I would get into work 20 minutes early and then wait until the stroke of 5pm to leave. I truly felt like I had to be at my desk at all times (unless I was in a meeting or commuting between campuses) or else I would get into trouble. A few weeks later, I realised that was patently untrue. The pressure of clocking in and out at designated times was entirely my own creation. Eventually, I started leaving work whenever I’d completely my daily hours, which took me a long time to get comfortable with, having previously been employed in what I now recognise as unhealthy work environments.

So why now do I feel like I need to be online all the time?

Digital presenteeism during the pandemic

Research has shown that, since the shift to working from home, people are working an average of one hour more each day than their allotted working times. An article from Recruitment News chalks this up to several factors, the first being the financial downturn resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite the government’s furlough scheme, jobs cuts and redundancies have become widespread. “Workers no longer feel the kind of security that they had before the pandemic and therefore, they believe that being seen to be working longer makes them seem like a ‘team player,'” the article claims. I can quite believe that.

Within the higher education sector, those of us on insecure fixed-term contracts are certainly feeling the pressure. Since March, I feel like I’ve been trying to prove that my work is worth funding. Having joined professional services after working as a guaranteed hours tutor throughout my PhD, I’ve also experienced first-hand the struggle that my academic colleagues are facing, as the pandemic has simply exacerbated existing inequalities.

So, what do you get when you mix long-term precarity with a pandemic? Digital presenteeism.

People in precarious employment, such as myself, often feel we have to prove our worth by giving our all. Translate this into a remote working scenario and it’s not hard to see why we’re spending more time glued to Outlook, afraid we’ll miss an important email from senior management. The University has repeatedly communicated that it simply does not have enough money to keep paying everyone currently on payroll. As a result, it launched a voluntary severance scheme, among other cost-saving measures. In this kind of scenario, however, not even my colleagues on open-ended contracts feel like their jobs are secure. This probably goes some way towards accounting for why one of my colleagues (who is on a more secure contract) felt like she needed to work through a fever a few weeks back.

Prioritising digital wellbeing and preventing burnout

Why did I choose to blog about digital presenteeism on a blog geared towards digital safety and citizenship? Because raising awareness about this kind of phenomenon is critical to digital wellbeing, a concept that underpins everything I’ve been trying to achieve in my role as Digital Safety Support Officer at the University.

I know that I’m not the only one struggling with the pressure to be “always on.” I’m not the only one signing into Teams at 8am and then checking it again on the weekend, just for good measure. But I recognise that this pattern isn’t exactly helping anyone at work, and it’s certainly not helping me. The risk of burnout here is very real, so we all need to be taking steps to ensure a healthier work/life balance.

In my last post, I also talked a little about the importance of setting boundaries, and while I still think this is one of the best things you can do for your mental health during this trying time, it’s becoming easier to ignore my own advice as the weeks of this pandemic stretch on. Consequently, I think we need to do more than simply reminding ourselves to shut the laptop down.

Now that we’re in the sixth month of this pandemic and the UK has just announced new restrictions on socialising, many of which have impacted our incoming new student cohort, I can’t help but feel like our communities, both physical and digital, are more important than ever. In a work context, I do think it’s time we started watching out for each other a little more. There’s some good advice in this article on “combatting e-presenteeism within a digital workforce” that I think would be helpful for both managers and teaching staff engaging with their students digitally.

It’s been a trying time for everyone. I salute every single person out there who is doing their best.

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One Comment

  1. Pingback: Messages to my staff during lockdown – Melissa Highton

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