How do we help parents through this crisis?

Balancing motherhood and full-time work has always been a challenge. 

With the cancellation of school and daycare in an attempt to flatten the curve of COVID-19, that challenge is bigger than ever. 

The Morneau-Shepell Mental Health Index Report for April 2020 released this week finds that parents of two or more kids, and women in particular, are facing the largest mental health impacts from COVID-19 related restrictions.

In my virtual knitting circle (I’ve got to look after my own mental health!) this weekend, we talked about the impact on Moms, particularly those of us who are now juggling work and family and keeping kids occupied & caught up with the school work. 

It’s a lot. 

In fairness, many Dads are splitting parenting/working duties. In my household, we split the workday in half, with my husband taking focused work time in the morning while I take on parenting. We switch places at 1 pm, and he manages to squeeze in some more work during the afternoon and after the kids go to bed.

But it’s impossible to ignore the impact that the closures of school and daycare have had on working parents. 

Working parents are being pulled in many directions, and feel like we’re falling short in each one.

No wonder it’s impacting our mental health. 

So, what do we do?

As a manager or supervisor, have an honest, no-holds barred conversation about priorities, deadlines and expectations.

Where you can, be flexible. 

Realize that your team knows what works best for them. Maybe they need to get up at 6 am to get some focused work before the kids wake up, and will be logging in after dinner to put in some more hours, but uninterrupted meetings aren’t realistic once the kids are up. 

Once you know what they’re dealing with, and what the realities are at their home, take a look at your virtual meeting schedule. 

Does it resemble your work schedule when parents are at work and kids are at school or daycare? 

It shouldn’t.

Staring at video screens for an entire day means people will be distracted, and they won’t be able to focus on the work at hand or on their other deliverables.

If it does resemble your 9-5, pre-COVID-19, everyone in the office schedule, then you need to be OK with the folks with kids being distracted roughly every 10 minutes (or maybe less frequently as kids get older). 

Can you condense some meetings? Does everyone really need to be on the call? Can you schedule the 1:1 meeting for a time that works for your team member and their family? 

Look at all of these things and really assess what’s critical and what would be nice to have.

These are not normal times. This is not what working from home usually looks like. This is not forever.

If your team member is feeling supported, they understand what the expectations and the deadlines are, and if there is genuine flexibility where there can be, then they will be more engaged at work and more productive.

Instead of being pulled in 50 directions, they can focus on work when it’s work time, and family the rest of the time.

If you need them at that 1 pm Client meeting on Tuesday, let them know as soon as possible so they can make the arrangements they need to in order to prevent Junior from wandering in on the meeting asking for a snack. 

For the parents: do your best to remember this isn’t forever. Yes, we don’t know how long it’ll last, but someday, we will have school and daycare back. 

In the meantime, work out a schedule that gives you some focused work time, and use that time for the work that really needs your attention.

This is not the time to scroll LinkedIn or answer email – you can do that during your millionth game of Barbies or after completing the Lego fortress.

Use it for the work that needs your full attention.

I’ve found that having only four hours a day for focused work has really helped clear out the clutter and help me check off my deliverables. 

It may also be helpful to talk to your manager, and work out a plan for how to manage your workload, your deliverables, the video calls, and parenting. 

If the meeting load is overwhelming, work out a plan to lessen the load. Draft a proposal to get the essentials done, and some ideas of how to make the meetings schedule more manageable. 

Odds are good that other people on your team are facing the same challenges (possibly your manager is too), and one month into the “New Normal” is a good time to take stock. 

I also recommend finding even just a little bit of time to do the things that support your mental health. I know it seems daunting when you have what feels like zero time. 

What can you do that is quick but effective? 

I’ve been hauling myself out of bed before the kids wake up to get in a quick yoga session (20-60 minutes depending on how many times I press the snooze button). 

I also take a quick (15-20) minute walk outside after lunch. 

Combining outside time and physical activity is a really effective mental health booster. 

Bring the kids along for the walk if you don’t have someone to watch them – it’s good for them too.

If it feels impossible, see what you can do for one week. If it helps your mental health, keep at it. If it doesn’t try something else.

If you’re in self-isolation, I recommend laps around the backyard. I was skeptical of this at first, but it worked like a charm a few weeks ago when I had some minor cold symptoms. I felt weird at first, but great once it was over. 

These are tough times, and looking after our mental health can seem impossible.

These are also the times when we need to take care of ourselves, so that we can keep doing our very best at work, with our families, and for ourselves.

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