Working parents are under immense pressure to achieve life balance between their career, child-care, home-schooling and the daily demands of life within a confined environment.
We recently hosted a webinar with a select panel to discuss what it means to be a working parent, how to balance responsibilities, and how best to support others. Our guests included Dr Philippa Spencer (Chartered Psychologist, Bath Psychology Clinic), Lucy Tulloch (Executive Career and Parenting Coach), Louan Mouton (group finance director, Fever-Tree) and Katy Tanner (Director of Leadership and Development, Robert Half).
Webinar: Working Families
Understanding the psychological response to lockdown
The first lockdown was accompanied by feelings of fear and uncertainty for many, not just over the future but for the safety of ourselves and our loved ones. “There was a real sense of danger and threat,” says Philippa, “it triggered the old part of our brain that is responsible for keeping us safe. And it triggered us to feel fear. And that's normal — that's its job.”
Adhering to lockdown rules provided the control and safety many of us were craving at that time. There was also a greater sense of collective effort during this initial period. Our impulse is to follow group behaviour as a means of staying safe from threat.
Over time, our brains have become desensitised to the threat of COVID and the ‘novelty’ of lockdown has worn off. Without fear as a primal motivator, many of us have been left feeling drained and demotivated. The collective effort has also weakened, leaving a fragmented group in its wake.
“There have been really big changes in our brain chemistry and it’s continuing to change — our brain chemicals are all over the place,” says Philippa. “My main advice is to be kind to yourselves and be kind to each other. Stick with your wellbeing behaviours and be realistic about what's possible. Allow yourself to be hopeful.”
Coping with parental guilt
Trying to juggle learning how to work and homeschool can add more pressure and responsibility during a time which is already stressful enough. Lucy recommends trying to be realistic and compassionate with yourself regarding what’s achievable on a daily basis.
The best way to cope with guilt around being working parents during a pandemic is to remember how resilient children are. Release unhelpful thinking patterns around guilt by recognising that everyone is simply doing the best they can.
You can also connect with your child’s school and share your concerns with them, particularly if you feel you need more support in terms of home schooling or daily structures.
“One of the techniques we've used at home with our children is to almost compartmentalise when we do talk about the things that are worrying us and challenging us,” says Lucy. “So, for my son who's eight, we talk about what’s in our worry jar each morning. Then we can put the lid on it and look forward to a more positive day.”
Striking the balance between work, family care and home schooling
Under the current circumstances, having flexible working arrangements can help you support your family. Communicating with your employer and arranging flexible working hours can help distribute the home schooling and home care workload more evenly.
“Be organised and plan ahead,” says Louan. “I book out slots in my diary a couple of weeks in advance when the kids have Zoom classes to attend.” He also recommends batch cooking, so you can freeze meals and save yourself time later in the week.
“Use the weekends wisely to properly rejuvenate and get ready for the week ahead. It's really important to try and break the work cycle. Try not to work and just focus on getting your mind and your body ready for the week that starts again.”
For Katy, the best way to cope with overwhelm is to release the idea of perfection and simply be okay with ‘good enough’. Things are tough enough without the need to strive for being the perfect parent, employee or partner.
Dealing with an uncompromising employer
Some professionals may find themselves facing the fear of being denied the flexible working arrangements they need in order to strike a manageable life balance.
“I worked for somebody quite recently who decided that in lockdown three, she just didn't think she could manage supporting her three children and working,” says Lucy. “The work we did was around building confidence about having that conversation and how she would manage it.” If your employer can’t grant that initial request, what might the compromise be? How can balance be achieved?
Louan recommends being honest and upfront with your employer and colleagues about what you can realistically deliver. “I've had to deal with these conversations myself within a team of 30 people. It’s often a case of ‘Wow, I didn't actually realise the amount of stress that individuals are under.’” You could potentially ask to be put on furlough, although this should be used as a last resort and is at your employer’s discretion.
Facing the challenges ahead
The impact of the pandemic on the public’s mental health is significant and is expected to be long-lasting. “I think we're looking at a mental health challenge beyond anything anyone on the planet has ever seen,” says Philippa.
“If we look back at SARS, and if we look back at 9/11, and Chernobyl, what did we learn from that? Well, there's one common theme from those disasters — all of them had a really significant tale of mental health needs, that continued long after the acute event had resolved.”
There’s been a spike in mental health conditions like PTSD, depression, bereavement, anxiety and disordered eating, and exacerbations for people already suffering from these. Philippa recommends vigilance regarding changes in eating, sleeping or mood, in yourself and in those around you.
“When it comes to thinking about other people, now is the time to be much more proactive than we usually might be. This is about needing to ask questions of how people are. So be bold in doing that.”
On the home front, Lucy recommends using a Blob Tree communication tool to get children talking about their feelings. “It gives you a starting point to get our young people talking and trying to find ways of helping them express what might be going on for them.”
Grit and resilience are built on two key things: how we think about the things that happen to us and how we respond to the things that happen to us. Both are skills you (and younger family members) can learn over time.
“If you display resilient behaviours and thinking processes, you are role modelling those to your children. The reverse is true, too. It's important to be mindful of that. It’s exactly the same for those of you in leadership positions,” says Philippa.
To build resilient thinking skills, Philippa recommends trying to gain perspective around what you can and can’t control. Building a tolerance to discomfort is also important, as is developing a compassionate view of the world.
It’s well-known that having positive interpersonal communications, regular exercise, enough sleep and learning to be mindful can help build resilient behaviours. Philippa also recommends working to your own circadian rhythm if you can.
“We have times in the day where we know that we've got slightly more energy and times in the day where we struggle to stay awake. If you’re able to flex your work schedule, do your detailed work at times in the day that you've got the most energy and make the most of your circadian rhythm.”
Constant doomscrolling and negative social media content can counteract any resilience work you’re doing. Be mindful of how much content you consume and, if necessary, remove it from your day. “I think you just need to be mindful of putting your mind in this constant negative space and try and avoid that where you can,” Louan says.
Finding ways to keep your personal goals in sight
Whether they’re fitness goals, career goals or personal goals, the pandemic doesn’t have to take all progression off the table. Although some goals may be unrealistic under the current circumstances, you can change them or scale them back to give yourself a sense of personal achievement.
“There’s nothing more demoralising than trying to work towards something that's just not achievable,” says Lucy. “Don't beat yourself up about it, let's just find something else that we find motivation in and keeps us driving forward.” You can also try breaking your goals down into smaller ‘bite-sized’ achievements to keep fuelling your personal sense of progress.