UI professor researches how to cope with the stress of working from home

An assistant professor from the Tippie College of Business created YouTube videos that share the results of her research on how people can cope with the managerial and organizational stress of working from home with the community.


Wyatt Dlouhy

The Old Capitol building is seen in 2018.

Riley Davis, News Reporter

When social-distancing guidelines went into effect, University of Iowa Tippie College of Business Assistant Professor Beth Livingston pulled on her headset and sat in front of her computer to advise Americans on how to face the unexpected struggle of balancing work and family life while at home.

After a decade and a half of researching spousal/partner negotiation, her words resonate with viewers who feel off-kilter due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Livingston said that her research began in graduate school, where she studied gender and the differential burden of work and family on women in the workforce. This track led her to research gender differences in regard to work and family, and she began to question how spouses and partners make decisions about their work and family lives together, Livingston said.

Livingston’s research focuses on work and family specifically because they are the two biggest domains in people’s lives, she said, but they are not the only elements that people are dealing with. People have hobbies, friends, school, and so many more aspects of their life to balance at the same time, she said, and every element needs communication and a boundary based on what people prioritize.

“I’ve studied this for years and I know that in non-crisis times, [it’s] normal for people to try to place boundaries — for people to try to negotiate with their spouses. But there are people who haven’t gone through it before [during a time of crisis], who are now experiencing it for the first time,” Livingston said. “So, it was important for me just to remind them that no, you’re not the first person to go through this, and yes, there are things we know about it. And hopefully that information will help somebody.”

Tippie Communications and Social Media Specialist Rebekah Tilley said that, while exploring faculty research within the business college, she noticed how relevant Livingston’s research was to the problems that people presently face working from home.

Tilley reached out to Livingston and the pair brainstormed what aspects of Livingston’s research could be used to create videos that would not only highlight her work but also advise people how to cope during these confusing times, Tilley said.

RELATED: UI employees directed to work remotely

Now that the videos are available on the business-college website, Tilley said she has begun to apply Livingston’s advice in her personal life.

“I have tendencies to be a bit of a workaholic, so one of the pieces of Beth’s research that really spoke to me was the great need for boundaries,” she said. “I really tried to take a lot of those practices to heart, especially because [when you’re working from home] you can really see some of the cracks in your [routines], and the challenges that you have, as a human, really become apparent. So, it’s a good opportunity to see them, name them, and then make adjustments to try to make that not be a negative in your life.”

Communication is also key throughout this time because everyone approaches their work differently, Livingston said. Some people are more flexible with their time and can switch between work and family tasks easily, while others need a stricter schedule in order to set hard boundaries between the two.

There’s a lot of people who are dealing with stress and the pandemic in different ways, Livingston said, and it’s hitting home for people in ways that they haven’t experienced before.

So, her goal is to approach people with what she calls “generous intent,” a practice that focuses on giving someone the benefit of the doubt instead of becoming defensive about something they may have said, because it’s difficult to dictate people’s tone over text and email.

This approach can be applied to any situation, even with family members, Livingston added, but is especially true for employers and their employees.

Amy Colbert, Management and Organizations department head in the business college, said that email and text correspondence in her department sometimes creates a communication hurdle that requires the generous-intent approach.

“It is very difficult to tell if the information is understood, if it is disturbing, or if it’s exactly what they expected. You don’t get that feedback, but I also am very lucky because I’ve been working with a number of these folks for a very long time, so we already have good trusting relationships developed, and we tend to give each other the benefit of the doubt,” Colbert said. “If they receive an email from me or I receive an email from them that might be interpreted as hostile, we tend to reach out and ask each other. So, I think that relationship that we’ve created up until this point is really paying off now because it allows us to communicate more effectively with each other during this time.”