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  • Writer's pictureSteve Watts

An overwhelming feeling of guilt: the challenge of role conflict during the lock down

‘I guess this is the main benefit I have found from journaling, the ability to see.’


As we end our fourth week of lock down we now know that it is not a temporary measure, but something that is longer term with a three week extension announced on Thursday. The lock down in Wuhan lasted 76 days and it is likely that the situation in the UK will be similar

The personal tragedy of this, as we see every night on television and read in the newspapers is incomprehensible, not to mention the impact on those who have lost their jobs with to date two million people reported as unemployed and the country’s GDP predicted to shrink by 13%

Everybody has a role to play, whether it is on the ‘front line’ in our hospitals and care homes or on the ‘home front’ by staying home. One person doing her ‘bit’ on the home front is Jennifer and last week I responded to a journal entry that she had sent me about how she is managing having been sent home, along with her sons, from work and school.

Jennifer’s writing was raw and frank because, as we saw, she was grappling with the early stages of home schooling and working from home. Jennifer has emailed me with an update and it is clear (see below) that she has taken on the guidance offered in last week’s blog and has begun to implement some of the suggestions that have been made.

I am delighted to read that Jennifer has continued to maintain her journal charting her unfolding story as she adapts to the new circumstances of her life. I’m even more delighted that she has offered to share another instalment from her journal so that we can see how things have developed since last week.

Comparing the two journal entries it is clear that Jennifer is adapting, going through a change process. There are many theories that attempt to explain the change process, but one that is well-established and referred to regularly is the Kubler-Ross Change Curve This model (see below) seeks to chart the changing emotions of the change journey taking us from shock and denial to anger, experimentation, reluctant acceptance and so on.

Kubler-Ross Change Curve

< Looking Back Looking Forward >

Reflecting back on Jennifer’s first journal entry we can see that she was in the early stages of the curve. We can feel the real sense of ‘shock’ she experienced when she was suddenly sent home and told to keep working, but without the facilities and resources necessary. The shock was compounded when her children were also sent home in the same week and she was required to home-school them overnight with even fewer resources, and no training, to carry out the role.

It was also clear from Jennifer’s first journal entry that she was experiencing frustration at the competing priorities she was faced with – we read how it was all a priority to her and her questions were (a) is this enough and if so (b) is it good enough, feeling that she was falling short on all her priorities.

To help with this some suggestions were made and key words introduced, such as routine, feasible, realistic and so on. Jennifer has taken up this guidance and reported in her second journal entry how she has moved forward. It would seem from her continuing honest and frank testimony that she is progressing through the curve and has reached at least stage five. Whilst the change process is disturbing and unsettling, it is unfortunately something we must go through as we transition. Comfort can be taken, however, from the fact that this is a well-documented and recognised phenomenon and that Jennifer is not on her own, her story is being simultaneously shared by millions of other home workers and home schoolers.

Jennifer has kindly given me permission to share the email she sent me in response to my first blog which includes further extracts from her journal. In her second paragraph below she shares the process of journaling with us:

‘Thank you, Steve, for your response to my journal entry. You certainly gave me many things to consider with some valid suggestions of possible strategies.

I must admit it isn’t until I started to write everything down in my journal that the full extent of the challenges in front of me emerged. I guess this is the main benefit I have found from journaling, the ability to see what needs to be done rather than a mind swimming full of short-term and long-term tasks. Detailing how I feel has also provided some clarity of what to tackle; an important first step before then beginning to think about “how” to tackle them. I could then begin to “compartmentalise” everything and seeing this on paper presented a clearer picture. Thank you for encouraging me to continue to journal my thoughts and feelings, this has truly helped.

At the same time, I must confess that this has been a very difficult thing to do. To take a step back from the “problem” filled me with panic and anxiety. I am the type of person who needs to see immediate results so the idea of breaking things down, arguably into smaller, more manageable “chunks”, was daunting.

Before I wrote my journal entry I was consumed by anxieties and felt completely unorganised, unable to focus on anything and often wasted time and achieved very little. This in turn led to frustrations, feelings of guilt, inadequacy, lack of accomplishment and therefore worry. The knock-on effect of this being disrupted sleep and bad temper (I am ashamed to admit).

I took heart from your blog when you mentioned more than once of the situation that “we” find ourselves in. That must mean that I am not alone.

(Extract from my Journal):

Detailing my worries and challenges in a journal has immediately highlighted to me the number of things I am dealing with. One of my biggest struggles is to determine how to “rank” each task in importance and on talking to a friend, the advice offered was simply to be realistic. What does that mean? Unfortunately, everything I am faced with is of equal importance, demands my time in equal measures. Or does it?

Reading your blog again, I realised I needed to accept that this was going to require a more trial and error approach.

(Continuation of my Journal extract):

Perhaps the amount of time I can dedicate to each will differ daily, any routines I devise need to remain fluid and that if for any reason any of this does not work today, then I haven’t failed and I re-think things the following day.

This falls in line with your watch words of “adaptability, flexibility, reasonable and achievable”.

This was a huge concept for me to grasp and was easier said than done. The thought of not having a structure to work solidly with and the idea of not achieving what I would like led me to have thoughts of failing and brought me back to the anxious place I found myself in at the beginning of this lockdown. Not to mention of course that my job carries deadlines which I have no option but to abide by.

But then I noticed that I have already been restructuring without realising it. I’ve changed the day I do my weekly shop. Quite a simple measure and my thinking behind this was to allow a full traditional working week to be dedicated to schooling and work. I did this without real thought but I can now see that what I was doing was putting a measure in place to allow me to cope better with the demands around me.

Recognising this gave me a sense of having already achieved something which in turn gave me the confidence to keep going on my quest to establish a workable routine. One of the biggest problem areas for me was the fact that all of my roles have blurred into one and I found myself asking what happens when, in practice, you have more than one routine to establish – one for work and one for schooling, but both have to function within one day?

So, before I thought about any sort of routine, I took on board the point you made of creating “spaces” for each different role. Being organised in a “physical” sense, i.e. actually “seeing” a structure helped me to separate the roles of work and school.

I recognise that creating our “spaces” has been a good step forward in helping us feel organised but our routine can be very up and down. Some days we manage a lot, other days we do very little. It is all very much still a work in progress.'

From the email and journal extracts above it is clear that Jennifer has responded to guidance and is beginning to adapt, identify work and school spaces, introduce structures and create routine into her daily approach. She has acknowledged that she needs to trial and error her systems and over time will find out what works best. In the Kubler-Ross Change Curve we can see that she has moved on beyond the initial ‘shock’ of being sent home and is now ‘experimenting’ with ideas.

It is clear from Jennifer’s email and journal entries that whilst she is doing really well at implementing routine and structure into her home-schooling approach, she still worries about whether it is sufficient and at the right level … and all the while worrying about whether her productivity at work has dropped as she juggles both roles. Stephen Bevan, Head of HR Development at the Institute of Employment Studies, blogged about these very issues last week, identifying several key issues that employers need to address

The key issues include:

1. Parenting is not a discretionary task - despite valiant attempts to timetable the day and to erect boundaries between working time and schooling/parenting time, some children are no respecters of such boundaries;

2. One of the overwhelming emotions felt by working parents right now is guilt - being a working parent in ‘lockdown’ is almost a textbook example of role conflict. The guilt associated with not feeling that you are doing either job well could lead to serious difficulties if the lock down continues much further HSE Stress Management Standards ;

3. An analysis by the IES suggests that there are 7.2 million working parents who are not key workers with 5.3 working families who have children under the age of 11. As Jennifer pointed out in her email it is reassuring to know that you aren’t alone, but even with that knowledge you still have to juggle the competing demands.

Charting Jennifer’s progress across time with her two journal entries it is clear that she has made considerable progress during this lock down to the point where she has now created spaces for work and schooling and is now experimenting with approaches, routines and structures. She is still questioning whether it is enough and still trying to ensure that all parties get ‘equal’ access to her as a wife, parent, teacher and employee.

For me the key watch words are still valid. Having created structures, routines and designated spaces for home working and schooling the next stages are:

Acceptance – arriving at the point where we accept the current situation which is here to stay for at least three more weeks and that we cannot live our lives the way we used to. Those who can accept will move on the quickest – the Kubler-Ross Change Curve has a time line on the x axis that begins with looking back and hanging on to the old ways, but over time this changes to accepting change and looking ahead to the new reality. Where are you on that time line?

Adaptation – having accepted the current situation and moved along the Kubler-Ross timeline we have to adapt to the new circumstances and make the necessary changes to our routines.

Realistic – in our adaptation we need to be realistic about what is humanly possible in the time we have been given and adjust our sights accordingly – this inevitably leads to frustration, disappointment, feelings of failure and guilt because we can’t always sustain the productivity levels we were used to when we were working in the office and our children were studying a full timetable at school.

Achievable – when we set goals using a system such as SMART (specific; measurable; achievable; realistic; timely) two of the key words are achievable and realistic for a reason and so it is with setting our own daily and weekly goals, we must be realistic otherwise we will always fall short of our targets.

Flexible – at work we have set routines and at school children have rigid timetables, but when we are ‘locked down’ together and school work is competing with home working in the same space then we may need to be flexible in the way we apply the routines and if there is a non-negotiable deadline for work that will need to take precedence, when on a quieter day in the office more home-schooling will get done.

As Jennifer commented in her email ‘perhaps the amount of time I can dedicate to each will differ daily, any routines I devise need to remain fluid and that if for any reason any of this does not work today, then I haven’t failed and I re-think things the following day.’

Stay safe, stay well, stay home, and stay connected.

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