Whether living alone or caring for others, navigating this pandemic while maintaining a healthy work-life balance has been particularly challenging. Overcoming these challenges means focusing on what we have in common and supporting each other to improve everyone’s working and living conditions.

Work-life balance in isolation

As I write this article, Toronto is six weeks into the second lockdown since the COVID-19 pandemic began. A health crisis at its core, the pandemic has revealed and exacerbated numerous long-standing inequities within Canadian universities (and within society more broadly). For many faculty, this has presented acutely in terms of workload—with most universities choosing to download the responsibility of managing the impacts of the crisis to individual faculty members (for example, the expectation that faculty could move our entire curriculum online with little support), while also insisting we maintain research and other kinds of productivity.

Faculty associations and others have worked hard to address these issues and challenge university administrators to act differently to protect the health and wellbeing of students, staff, and faculty. This is important work. Unfortunately, in most instances, faculty associations and other academic bodies engaged in surveys and advocacy in this area have seemed to treat issues of workload and “work-life balance” only as questions of family responsibilities (child care or elder care) and excluded opportunities for feedback from those living in isolation.

For example, my faculty association has conducted two surveys on workload during the pandemic in which “family” implied living with and directly caring for children or elders. The Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations’ recent survey did the same. In an open letter from faculty affiliated with the Dalla Lana School for Public Health to senior administration at the University of Toronto, the paragraph dedicated to “the gendered burden…of working from home” focuses solely on issues of child and elder care. Finally, a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council-funded survey on COVID-19 and faculty workload asked respondents to indicate their family obligations and provided only child care, elder care, or “other” as options.

Advocacy and knowledge production like this leave no space for those of us who live alone and are experiencing both the pandemic and the employers’ unreasonable responses to it by ourselves. No matter how you slice the data, single occupants comprise the largest household type in Canada: the 2016 Census found that 40 per cent of Canadians were single, while 28 per cent of households were “one-person” (the term used by Statistics Canada). And yet, the “care” it takes to sustain single occupant households doesn’t seem to register in the research and advocacy work being done.

This advocacy does challenge the gendered, raced, and classed distribution of child and elder care responsibilities, but it also masks other kinds of material and emotional work that a sizeable portion of faculty members shoulder. That is, instead of posing questions that can perpetuate the cisgender, heterosexual, co-habitating “family” as the norm, our advocacy and knowledge production should be framed more inclusively in ways that broaden our definitions of work-life balance and identify our common struggles. While the realities of our home lives may differ, there is much common ground on which we can advocate for safer and more reasonable working conditions for all of us.

Your family versus Ours

At one level, this erasure of singledom is nothing new. In a recent study, Dawn Culpepper, Courtney Lennartz, KerryAnn O’Meara, and Alexandra Kuvaeva reported survey data collected in the United States before COVID documenting how university policies regarding work-life balance regularly overlook faculty members living alone. Their findings confirmed that women are overrepresented among single faculty living independently. Predictably, this gendered pattern correlates with greater service and more difficult teaching loads. Consequently—and belying the myth that those of us living alone have all kinds of time on our hands for research—this segment of faculty is less productive in terms of research than partnered faculty.

This study also confirmed what many of us who live alone already know: The employer regularly pits faculty with children against those on their own. Consider the annual argument about who will teach evening courses. Faculty living alone are often expected to teach these courses, and have often internalized their responsibility to pick up this work so that their colleagues can be home with their children. This example demonstrates a dynamic that I will return to later: The employer will often seek to compensate for the accommodations promised to one set of employees by shifting the burden of that accommodation to their coworkers.

The employer regularly pits faculty with children against those on their own.

In preparing for this article, I used social media to invite faculty members living alone to share some of their experiences. One colleague reported being asked to take on an administrative role in their faculty. When she said no, preferring to focus on research, she was told the other viable candidates had declined because of family demands. As the last person standing, this colleague felt pressured to take on the role, which she ultimately did. The message this colleague received could not have been any clearer: Her personal life wasn’t as important as those of her colleagues with families.

Other cases relate to the face-to-face teaching that continues, despite the pandemic. With schools and daycares closed for much of the pandemic, many faculty members with family care responsibilities have attempted to reduce their teaching loads. Instead of the university administration investing in additional faculty hiring to fill these gaps, they put additional pressure on faculty members without family care responsibilities to carry the extra
load. The issue is not simply one of distributing teaching loads equitably. Picking up this slack means other faculty increasing the risks to their own health by performing more in-person teaching than normal. Not only is this expectation unreasonable—during a pandemic, the employer’s expectations cannot remain the same—but it also reveals a certain callousness that some lives are simply more important than others, as Todd Gordon notes in his article “Why the Boss Is Happy to Let You Die.”

During a pandemic, the employer’s expectations cannot remain the same.

While the employer bears the ultimate responsibility for playing faculty with families against those without, those of us living alone can also internalize that division. In an email from one colleague, they wrote about consciously not asking for help because their co-workers with children “might be annoyed if I chimed in with the challenges I face.” I am part of this too. In the endless Zoom meetings that have followed the shift to remote work, we often started by checking in with each other. The only people who “chimed in” were partnered or had children. This was not a rule, but rather a culture. In other words, it has been tacitly understood that check-in’s like these are meant for quick updates about those with families. Part of the reason for the silence of those living alone stems from a feeling that what we have to say about our personal lives doesn’t really belong and might result in censure.

Narrow definitions of family also render invisible other kinds of family care for which many faculty members are responsible. In some cases, family members live far away, meaning that care work is completely mediated through a screen. One colleague detailed the stress of weighing whether it was safe to travel to visit their parent in a long-term care home. Determining that it wasn’t, they were left to negotiate telephone and FaceTime calls with care-home staff to support and advocate for their loved one.

Your family and ours

In addition to expanding our understanding of “family” as we advocate for faculty during the pandemic, we also need to consider the work of social reproduction and the challenges faced by individuals living and working through a pandemic in isolation.

Most important among these challenges has been managing an entire household alone. In isolation, these difficulties are small, but during global pandemic, anxieties around health and safety, increased workloads, greater social isolation, and the additional complexities of maintaining a household all add up.

For example, shopping for essentials has been made more difficult and time-consuming due to reduced store hours and longer lines. This has increased the reliance on delivery services, which means ensuring one is available when the doorbell rings, irrespective of work demands. This has meant many have been navigating the numerous challenges resulting from the transition to online teaching, juggling endless Zoom meetings, and struggling to hold onto research work while also finding time to stand in line for groceries and obtain additional essentials. Of course, there is also the cooking, the cleaning, the laundry, and the bills.

The struggles of living alone without being able to assume that a friend can lend a hand are compounded in other mundane tasks. No longer can we rely on a friend to pick us up when we drop off the car for repairs, to take us to a medical appointment if we don’t have a car or need support, to help us carry groceries home or move a large piece of furniture, and so on. The fact that there isn’t necessarily someone around to help not only makes these tasks more daunting, but also more stressful. It leaves one with a certain feeling of helplessness.

It leaves one with a certain feeling of helplessness.

Less mundane, but far more stressful, has been the worry about what happens if we do get sick. How does one manage a 14-day quarantine, let alone a more serious outcome, if we are exposed to COVID-19 and living alone?

“Just ask a friend,” many of us have been told. Yet, during a pandemic, this is no simple ask. Which tasks are important enough to ask a friend to risk travel and contact? How many times is too many to ask? Which tasks are safe enough to ask for outside help—especially if we are quarantining or infected?

These material dimensions of social reproduction matter greatly, but so does the emotional reality of living without the comfort of regular, in-person human interaction, conversation, touch (hugs!), and intimacy. As an example: It was months before public health agencies issued any formal guidance on what safer sex might look like during the pandemic. Some of us, like myself, came out at the peak of the HIV/AIDS crisis and have a lifetime of experience of squaring public-health messages against pandemics. In fact, the current messaging around safer sex and COVID is a direct legacy of the grassroots public-health activism among queer and other AIDS activists from the 1980s and 90s, as Alexander Chee writes in “In This Pandemic, Personal Echoes of the AIDS Crisis.” Nevertheless, it is hard to overstate the isolation many of us have experienced under COVID, and the stress of having to figure out for ourselves safer ways to overcome it.

I do not want to romanticize the realities faced by colleagues with partners, children, or roommates, but I do want to underscore the real emotional work involved in building the social circles that Ontario public health advised us to create, and then to collapse, and now to create again as the pandemic has developed. Indeed, the idea that those living alone can simply “bubble up” or “just ask friends” assumes that the intimacy and shared ethics of care required to ask for—and give—this kind of help are easy to establish and sustain.

Assumptions like these are yet more examples of downloading the responsibility to navigate the pandemic to the individual, while masking the structures that require us to ask for help in the first place. Consider a recent opinion piece in the Globe and Mail written by Stephen Liptrap, the President of human-resources firm Morneau Shepell. He opens by stating that “the group of employees I am most concerned about is those who are living alone.” Yet, each of the five tips he offers is based on individual solutions to managing one’s own mental health. None involves a concession from the employer (perhaps not surprising from an HR executive) or targeted support from the state.

From managing our household and striking that elusive work-life balance, to seeking out intimacy in the varied forms in which we need it, responsibility for performing this work is privatized and made a burden to be carried by the individual. At this stage of the game, advocacy, research, or policy-making that fails to grasp this basic point is simply not good enough.

The steps university administrations should take

Some of what I have described about daily life for faculty members living alone during COVID is, in fact, outside the control of the university. However, there are concrete policies that university administrations can use to foster greater equity for faculty members irrespective of what their household looks like.

For example, if we know that most faculty living alone are women and that this gendered pattern underwrites inequities in service and teaching, then one response would be to make the assignment of workload more transparent and accountable. It is easier to protect one’s time when the (im)balance in workload is clear for everyone to see.

A second approach would be to consider faculty benefits in what Culpepper et al. called “family neutral” ways. Some of the most powerful benefits faculty have are related to paid leave and delaying our tenure clock. Yet, these options are most often justified in terms of narrow definitions of family. What would paid leave look like that wasn’t rationalized in terms of family, but rather in terms of supporting faculty as we respond to major life events? How do we create policies that prevent the employer from burdening other coworkers when a colleague invokes these benefits? Many universities have offered pre-tenure faculty the option to delay their clock as a response to the pandemic. What measures will the employer take to ensure that pre-tenure faculty living independently are not held to a higher standard, if work-life balance to date has only been conceived as a question of child or elder care?

Finally, and perhaps most important, is the simple fact that there are too few tenure-stream faculty to carry out the work expected by our universities. The material basis for pitting faculty members with families against those who live alone is precisely the under-resourced workplace. No amount of “wellness” and “self care” tips from HR can solve this basic material problem. In fact, these tips are designed to divert our attention away from this material reality and to internalize the suggestion that it is our responsibility to overcome these challenges.

There are too few tenure-stream faculty to carry out the work expected by our universities.

As I’ve argued above, even the few policies we have that address work-life balance backfire in a certain sense. While they may temporarily aid one set of faculty, in the context of an under-resourced workplace, these policies are usually deployed in ways that increase the burden on other faculty. Our response—one that can unite all faculty, whether contract or tenure-stream, whether living alone or with others—should be: If the employer wants the work done, it is their responsibility to ensure that there are enough faculty to do it.

These policy ideas reflect the spirit in which I have written this article. The idea is not to create new hierarchies of suffering in which we duke out who has had it worse during the pandemic. Nor is the point to begrudge those colleagues whose families fit the cis-hetero norm, or to dismiss the real demands they face living and working during a pandemic. Instead, my argument is that we must pay specific attention to otherwise ignored segments of faculty—both to get a clearer sense of what the pandemic has meant for their work and lives, as well as to advocate for policies that support all faculty.

Jeff Bale is an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.