A realistic guide for home working parents in a pandemic
Written by Suzanne Clarkson
You’ve probably read various guides and listicles focused on remote Smart Working. But most have a tendency towards the aspirational (even those with the COVID-19 pandemic in mind). Let’s face it, trying to separate work and home life right now is really tough. And those who tell you otherwise probably aren’t working parents! The reality needs to be shared for the sake of everyone’s mental health. No-one should be beating themselves up because their experience doesn’t fit somebody else’s pre-defined plan.
That’s not to say the kids-work juggle is impossible. Indeed, we’ve collated a number of ‘real-life’ top tips for the purposes of this article. These have come from the working parents amongst Generali’s wellbeing partners, based on their own practical experiences during the extraordinary times in which we currently find ourselves.
For most, the reality involves snatching time to work before the kids get up. Then, during the ‘awake’ hours, trying to flick a switch between parent mode and work mode as and when the kids, concentration and inclination allows: all the while trying not to let the social media chatter between other parents stress you out. Are they really taking this teaching thing so seriously? Some are doing morning register! They’re complaining there’s not enough work: “What on earth are we meant to do with our child/ren [on this sunny day!] if the teachers aren’t filling our days with schoolwork?”
Or maybe that’s just my experience...But I have a feeling I’m not alone!
To put it bluntly, anyone who suggests there’s a simple solution to the chaos of sharing physical and mental space with your family, all day every day, while also juggling work and home schooling is, quite frankly, living in a dream world. Of course, we’re the lucky ones. We still have a job – and our health – right now.
So, put down the essential guide to productive home working. And, instead, focus on our guide for realists:
Beverly Knops, Executive Manager & Occupational Therapist, vitality360, has collated various tips from colleagues who have children at home. “Staff are encouraging facetime and other ways of connecting with family and friends they can’t see. Grandparents have been helping out with reading over facetime too. The kids are happy to see them, grandparents are happy to help out and the parents are happy for some time – everyone’s a winner!”
Jeremy Chadwick, Managing Director EMEA, VSP, adds: “Cut the kids some extra slack, as they need to socialise in the way they are used to, but also set an example about screen use.”
Some people need structure. For others, structure that can’t be adhered to will only cause unnecessary stress. What’s important is figuring out what is going to work best for you and not being swayed by others.
For those who need structure, Career Consultant Kay White advises ‘timeboxing’.
“At home, when so many things are vying for attention right now, timeboxing the day together would be a sanity saver,” she says. “Setting out an agreed schedule for the week, which allows for parents’ working time where/when possible, play/devices time, exercise, schoolwork, lunch etc. Then everyone knows what happens when. It seems so obvious but I believe structure like this gives you freedom too. You know the gaps and when and where they are.”
Phil Briffett, Partnership Director at Wagestream, asked his wife, who said: “Scheduling something to do each hour has helped us. Even if one of them is listen to music, draw, walk, dance.”
But those where the nature of their work (or their kids!) doesn’t lend itself to structure, don’t even try. Please refer to the next point.
Dr Julie Denning, Managing Director at Working To Wellbeing, says: “Be kind to yourself and take no notice of those social media parents who seemingly have it all under control. Find your tribe who are ‘in it together’. Offload to them, laugh with them and share tips with them. Social support at this time is key. Plus, there’s plenty that younger children will gain from the freedom of being at home.”
Julie highlights a recent article in the East Anglian Daily Times where a headteacher in Suffolk states: “It is absolutely not possible to facilitate distance learning with a younger aged child and work from home at the same time. The very idea is nonsense. If you’re trying to do that, stop now. You can certainly have activities where your child learns, but your focus is your job, and survival. Stop trying to be superheroes.”
A vitality360 staff member comments: “We start with 30 minutes of exercise a day to get everyone out of their PJs and energised. Kids are choosing the last lesson of the day – this week we’ve had rugby practice, trampoline moves, den building and rock, paper, scissor relays.”
Most people highlighted Joe Wicks’ 9am daily PE class as a way for the whole family to get in the right frame of mind for the day ahead. And, considering he’s announced that all his advertising revenue during this time will be going to support the NHS, there’s even more incentive to get active.
This is really important for all of us to understand. As Phil’s wife points out: “We are not school and we are not schoolteachers, so don’t try to be that! Be their parents, helping them out with stuff.”
Again, everyone’s new favourite Suffolk headteacher, has some wise words to impart here: “This is not homeschooling. This is an unprecedented emergency situation impacting the whole world. Let’s keep perspective....This is at best distance learning. In reality, it’s everyone trying to separate their bums from their elbows, because none of us know what we’re doing and what’s right and wrong here.”
Evelyn Mackinnon, Head of People at Wagestream, suggests communicating time pressures and availability with your colleagues. “People need to know when to expect your undivided attention and when you’re going to be grilling fish fingers.
“Set expectations with your manager. Timelines are going to be pushed and so agree new deadlines as/when makes sense.”
Alex Freeman, Vocational Rehabilitation Consultant, Absence Management Solutions, adds: “Everyone is in the same boat so will be forgiving if a small voice can be heard on a conference call, or you have to break a conversation to deal with something urgent.”
Of course, this requires flexibility and understanding on the part of managers. Alison Pay, Managing Director, Mental Health at Work, says: “I’ve been very open with the team that we can’t expect to work the hours we normally would and I don’t expect them to – we all need to manage our own mental health during this time in a way that works for us and offering flexibility is part of this.”
“When you’ve finished work, finish work,” comments Alex. “don’t be tempted to ‘just check’. Put your work phone away. Stick to your hours.
“Agree something that is going to happen as a family at the end of your working day: a game, watching a film...”
Where two parents are full time working from home, consider splitting each day or the week, so that one parent is “on duty” and other is working, says Alison. “I’ve said no to meetings on a Tuesday or a Friday, but can be contacted by the team by phone and email and I prioritise what needs to be done.”
Evelyn adds: “Be strict with handover times. Calls running over by 10 minutes can be an eternity for your partner.
“Compare diaries each evening to see where/when you need flexibility from your other half.”
Jeremy says encourage the kids to make a contribution to the house. “Get the kids to focus on one thing they can make better each day. It will be a good way to distract them. It ensures they contribute. Plus, it will be good for their – and your! – mental health.”
The final word comes from Alex: “Look after yourself and don’t try to be all things to all people. Have some time for you each day. Check in with friends or family. Learn something new, read, meditate, be mindful and get good sleep.”