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As the virus closed everything down, my workload increased by 10-fold and I started to feel like a 1950’s housewife with a career on top! The volume of work sky rocketed, the pressure to home school was there which I have never experienced before, in addition to the need to entertain and care for, feed my child with no available outside support allowed. In addition, I was also burdened with the household tasks that I had outsourced before (cleaning, gardening, online shopping). I cannot deny the lockdown left me feeling frustrated and approaching burn out.
The virus was driving different behaviours and it was clear to me there were several groups of people experiencing the lockdown in completely different ways:
- Those who were furloughed
- Employees without dependents
- Employees with small children
Whilst everyone experienced their own level of stress in each of those groups, I noticed that the second group was influencing the third and not in the best way! There was a dramatic increase in volume of email traffic, strategic approach and projects which had been parked being kicked off again all of which required attention from me in the form of participation, support, conference calls and additional volume of work on top of my already existing busy workload. I found myself feeling Zoom & Teams fatigue whilst the to do list continued to get longer and the demands at home got higher. My stress levels went through the roof whilst my wine stash was exhausted!
I felt like I was failing at work and more importantly failing as a mother. On conference calls none stop and with an increasing workload whilst my child was alone downstairs watching TV (and probably stealing snacks!). The home schooling was piling up and every spare waking minute was dedicated to my son or to work – no time for me. Burnout was coming and I could feel it. I started to think about what my options were which included quitting my job or my husband quitting his.
A solution orientated person, I realised something had to give to retain my mental sanity and to put my family first. So, I set about creating a new structure, working pattern and timetable at home in order to ensure survival (avoiding killing someone and divorce!)
- Prioritisation: Getting super clear on immediate work priorities and communicating this with my key stakeholders. Then learning to politely say no to anything which is not aligned with these priorities
- Creating a schedule: Blocking out the diary for home schooling, exercise and play with my son shared equally with my husband. I also shared this plan with my employer to manage expectations and sticking to this. I also shared this schedule with my son to help him structure the day and to feel like he wasn’t alone all day stuck on screens (huge source of Mum guilt!)
- Taking regular breaks: to become more productive and less stressed, regular breaks were key. Although it might be obvious to work longer and harder to get the work out of the way, the more breaks I took the more productive I got as I get super clear on ticking off the next priority tackling work more refreshed and being super productive
- Making time for me: Defining time for me in the family schedule with a self-care plan which included time for exercise & personal reflection (being alone became somewhat a novelty!), time for meditation, hot baths, TV shows & hobbies so that there was some enjoyment in my life. More importantly – not feeling guilty about it!
- Healthy Habits: Focussing on my own health and prioritising sleep, exercise, dedicating time to sit and eat as a family, stress management exercises which do not include alcohol (using meditation, breathing work, journaling, visualisation)
- Connection with Nature: To be told you can’t go out is the worst, so the appreciation of our great outdoors has been a welcome benefit and something we will all keep up. The best thing about nature is it means exercise as well! Win Win!
- Booking holidays: Taking regular time out where holiday allowance permits, although I did get to a point where the holiday I needed to stay sane was going take me over my annual leave allowance, so I negotiated special new holidays with my employer to enable me to continue to work at the same pace.
Key for my survival was an understanding employer and line manager. Whilst this is not a company wide policy and most of my colleagues did not have dependents there was a deep level of understanding and support which I felt purely down to the quality and personality of my leader. I was able to not only negotiate more holidays but to have complete flexibility on working patterns including 2 x days a week where I spent the afternoons home-schooling to try to keep on top of it. Knowing I had that support was really valuable to me and I am very grateful this. Knowing he understood and that there was open dialogue where I was struggling or could ask him to support with a particular task really meant I could cope. Unfortunately, this is not how every employer or line manager has approached this situation. I do think that there should have been some framework announced by the employer or the government to support working parents. I felt like we were forgotten about during all of this and employers were not obligated to offer any specific support – the law dictates that some support should be given where there is a crisis for dependents however it is very loose and certainly wasn’t built with a pandemic in mind therefore is open to interpretation and is completely discretionary.
With every challenge comes the opportunity to learn. This has been a unique situation for all of us and a time to reflect on what’s important and how we want to do things differently in the future. Key learnings and observations of living through this are as follows:
- Work isn’t everything and things can change in an instant! ;0) – taking breaks and time with my son did not make me any less effective and work was still there at the end of the day
- Time with my son is precious – although stressful, having him at home has increased our bond (if that was possible) and he has really thrived having the attention of his parents at home, whilst also learning new experiences and skills including helping with the cooking and the housework!
- Change is as good as a rest – when a crisis happens it’s a good time for reset and reflection and to review the path that you’re on and to make new habits created a permanent feature in your life
- Opportunity always exists in the face of adversity
- Home schooling is not my thing – and that’s OK! I appreciate teachers more than ever
- The NHS is amazing! We have abused it for too long
- Luxuries are not to be underestimated – the day my cleaner came back in a socially distanced capacity, I almost cried!
- Never take everything for granted – gratitude goes a long way to adapt to your mental health and happiness
- Mindset is everything!
By Kathy Heath