New work-life pressures took hold with the start of the new school year, as most kids are still learning from home. Parents, along with other caregivers, need employer and team support to keep from burning out and be set up for success.
This year’s back to school buzz certainly feels different. The excitement of a new year seems dulled as we settle into a fall and winter season that will be dissimilar to what we usually experience. Working from anywhere is a new muscle we are training, but there is no denying the toll it has taken on caregivers – whether it is those who have kids they are home-schooling, who have elderly parents who need support or who are parents of newborns.
Working from home has increased the number of hours employees work, with the average person working an additional 48.5 minutes compared to pre-virus days. Employees face burn out and isolation, as it is harder to unplug from work.
Traditionally, women have borne most of the caregiver burden, and they are leaving the workforce in record numbers as typical, external support systems have been closed because of the pandemic. The gender wage gap and pay inequities present pre-pandemic, which the current climate exposed even more broadly, risks erasing the small gains made in equality.
These statistics seem daunting, and this situation appears to be our new normal for the foreseeable future. There is no silver bullet to solve this crisis, and employers are hustling to figure out how to create solutions to retain employees and preserve culture. For example, Microsoft granted its employees 12 weeks of paid parental leave of school disruptions. While the spirit and the intent of such policies are designed to support caregivers, moves such as this, however, have not come without controversy. All employees in the workforce are affected by the current environment, and companies will need to think carefully and deliberately about providing equitable and accessible support to all.
For clients we work with, mitigating workforce stress and burn out is a top concern. While employee assistance program usage has skyrocketed, many clients want to enhance their entire portfolio of employee health, well-being and safety programs and adapt these for urgent near-term workforce needs.
They are also heavily focused on managing the erosion of work-life boundaries and equipping managers to think and lead differently, now that these increased non-work pressures and uncertainty are a part of employees’ lives around the clock.
So, what are employees to do? In our experience, there are a few things that can make life a bit easier during this time.
For Working Caregivers:
- Establish a team contract: Initiate a frank conversation with your entire team on what you all need to work remotely.
- What is the best mode of communication for you, personally, that you want your team to know and understand (text, instant messenger, email, call)?
- Are there hours you are unavailable?
- What is the team’s agreed-upon response time to one another?
- Are there time frames when you are at your best and can focus more?
- What constraints do you have?
- Organize your space: Carve out a nook where work happens. Don’t bring your laptop into bed, as tempting as it may be. Try and have a place dedicated to office hours and a place you can “leave work behind” at the end of the day. That can help you separate the temptation to respond to work messages on personal time.
- Prioritize time to recharge: Put this time in your calendar, whether it’s to read a book, play with your kids, call your friends, or take a walk. Whatever gives you energy, even if it is for a small amount of time, schedule it.
- Be realistic: There is something to the adage of “under-promise and over-deliver.” Be clear about what you can deliver and when, so you can support your team best.
- Split shifts: If you are fortunate to have a partner who can share in responsibilities, find ways to split the day to allow one partner to focus on work when they are “on.”
- Share the burden: If you know a family is facing a similar challenge with caregiver and work from anywhere situations, consider how you can support one another. This might mean running errands or picking up supplies for another family while you are already out, cooking family-style meals you can share so no one family needs to cook each night, or agreeing to a schedule for watching one another’s loved ones during critical work hours, as needed.
For Teammates and Managers:
- Make a capacity plan: For Managers, find ways to truly understand what is on your team’s plate and have conversations about what can realistically happen when.
- Have empathy: This is challenging for everyone. Know that background noises and distractions during video calls and team meetings are, mostly, out of someone’s control and are challenging and stressful for all parties involved. A smile, patience and time to resolve competing demands go a long way.
- Take time to connect: When asking others how they are doing, be ready for a real answer and encourage honest conversations. Create space to allow people to breathe for a moment, share a light-hearted story or personal anecdotes, and be human together. In our teams, we often talk about establishing connection before diving into content, which can mean having a simple check-in, a moment of gratitude or team recognition before a business meeting begins. This is even more important with teams operating under prolonged stress. Make it safe and comfortable for a team member to bring his or her “whole self” to work.
- Check-In: It is one thing to establish team norms and protocols. It is another to check in and see how they are working. Reach out and ask colleagues what ongoing help and support they need to keep operating at their best. Be ready to make tweaks and adjustments and view those changes as a sign of team learning, development and growth.
While this all feels overwhelming, there may be a silver lining. Companies may normalize the flexibility of working from anywhere, as well as create structures for caregivers to remain in the workforce. Time will tell how this potentially reshapes the working world. Until then, take a deep breath and give yourself some grace for navigating all this.