From office worker to remote worker, from parent to teacher: the challenges of being locked down
Updated: Apr 15, 2020
‘There just isn’t enough time in the day to cope with all the demands that are still very real in order to function.’
It is now three weeks since the Prime Minister announced that the country was to be ‘locked down,’ whilst last Thursday’s meeting of COBRA confirmed that the lock down was to continue.
We know that we are to stay indoors, work from home where we can and home school our children. Our journeys outside the home are for exercise and essential trips for food, medicine and, if you’re in a key occupation, travel to work.
These are exceptional circumstances and new to everybody. We are all responding as best we can, some in very unique ways, as we’ve seen on the television, heard on the radio and read on-line through social media posts.
These stories are all very inspiring and we seek to emulate them in our own lives, but we should not underestimate the challenge we are faced with and the changes we must accommodate. This is especially so if the ‘lock down’ continues for months rather than weeks, as seems likely.
The speed with which the country was ‘locked down’ and children sent home from school left us with very little time to prepare and adjust to the new circumstances. Suddenly we had to set up home offices, adapt to being furloughed, close down our businesses and in some cases lose our jobs.
Simultaneously, we had to create classrooms (often ‘mixed’ age classrooms which even teachers don’t normally have to contend with) and all the while run our homes, forage for food (and toilet rolls) during the panic buying phase with staples such as milk, pasta and bread non-existent.
One approach that people have adopted in order to help them make sense of this seemingly senseless period is to turn to journaling. Maintaining a journal has many advantages. Unless we decide to share it, a journal is the most private of places where we can confide our inner most thoughts; a journal is very flexible because we can take it with us anywhere and add to it at any time; a journal provides a space that promotes calm for our troubled souls; a journal reveals patterns in our thinking over time that we are not always aware of; and through the very practice of writing, solutions to our greatest challenges emerge through our writing.
In the past few months I have been working with a variety of people, introducing them to journaling and they have confirmed the many benefits of journaling. As Terri, one of the journal writers, reported recently ‘one day I wrote lots and I had an insight that was very helpful. It just seemed to happen as I was writing, so writing and the thought occurred at the same time. I really want to keep up with the journaling as I know it will be such an asset in my life.’
Another journal writer is Jennifer (not her real name), who shared a recent journal entry with me (see below). A key theme to emerge from this journal entry is fact that everything she has to do feels as if it’s a ‘priority,’ with all of them competing for a finite amount of time.
Jennifer was sent home with literally no notice, grabbed what she could, and then headed home to set up a ‘home office’ (initially the dining table) with what she had at home and feeling very unprepared for what work expected of her.
Another theme emerging from Jennifer’s journal entry is the loss of identity – from office worker to remote worker, from parent to teacher and so on. The good thing is that through journaling Jennifer is expressing these challenges so that they are ‘out’ and on paper which will give her the headspace she needs to think about what to do and take advantage of the solutions that her writing will offer her. This is Jennifer’s journal entry from last week in full:
‘I have been in self-isolation now for over 2 weeks, only venturing out for a weekly food shop or a short bike ride. I am doing my “bit”. Who would have thought that your world could be turned upside down in the space of 24 hours?
Yes, I’d watched the news, followed the stories around the world of a pandemic, disease spreading across the globe, seeing the number of deaths rise daily but I couldn’t see it outside, it wouldn’t affect me, would it?
One day I was happily going to work, preparing for my day, kids packed off to school, all was normal. Two weeks later and any “normal” is a completely different picture. In the space of 24 hours, I was working from home, schools closed and faced with an overwhelming number of challenges that just seem impossible to adjust to and are beyond my control.
The lines are blurred. Who exactly am I – wife, mother, employee, teacher and in what order do they or should they come? It is a juggling act but the impact is huge. My work was a place for me to thrive for myself, feel respected, gain a sense of achievement, something I could claim as “mine” and at lunch time enjoy a coffee and a chat with colleagues/friends. I was a grown up in a grown-up world. I could forget about the “jobs” at home and focus entirely on work and me. Working from home and this feels very different. Yes, I am still working to the best of my ability, still achieving but that “me” time has gone, the sense of doing something for myself has changed.
I am struggling to work out priorities. Everything is a priority to me – being at home every day and I see the housework that needs to be done – this is a priority, working from home and I know the tasks that need to be completed – these are a priority, schools are closed and there is a vast amount of home schooling to be completed – this is a priority, trying to engage in daily exercise – this is a priority and then I see my book, which I so long to sit and read – this, I am afraid, is now a luxury. There just isn’t enough time in the day to cope with all the demands that are still very real in order to function.
I can’t be the only one experiencing this, but it does feel it and the questions I ask on a daily basis are – am I doing enough, will I get through the next few months, is my son doing enough schooling and has he actually benefited from what we have done so far?’
Jennifer’s journal entry reminds us that the ‘lock down’ was done with sudden haste, literally overnight and almost in a panic in some work places. With nowhere else to turn Jennifer committed her questions to her journal and through this process she will make the challenges explicit, find calm and the answers to her questions will emerge.
In case we should under-estimate the impact of the ‘lock down’ on people’s physical and mental health a survey of 500 workers was conducted recently by the Institute of Employment Studies (IES) https://www.employment-studies.co.uk/resource/ies-working-home-wellbeing-survey
The findings, even after just a few weeks of ‘lock down’, are stark and worrying. The survey found that over half of those polled reported new aches and pains in the neck, shoulder and back. Change in diet and reduced exercise were also identified as being a concern, as was the rise in alcohol consumption. The report also identified poor sleep, due to increased anxiety and the attendant risk of exhaustion as further concerns.
Half of those polled reported that they were working long and irregular hours, whilst a third said they frequently felt isolated. Stephen Bevan, of the IES, suggested that the report’s interim findings ‘paint a picture of the new homeworking workforce that faces significant physical and mental wellbeing challenges.’
Jennifer’s journal entry certainly chimes with some of the issues identified in the report. But how can she begin to address them? Each family’s circumstances will be different, every response individual and there will be no one way to address the challenges.
Jennifer will need to respond with the resources at her disposal in accordance with the demands of her workplace, the requirements of school and accept that it will take trial and error to get into a routine.
Confiding her frustrations to her journal will result in the emergence of strategies for her to try out. These are likely to include some or all of the following:
1. Establish a work routine as if still in the office, but not expecting to maintain the full office hours associated with being in the office;
2. Create a school timetable so that over the week all of the subjects are covered, though this will be a reduced timetable compared to what would be offered at school;
3. Points 1 and 2 above will require ‘acceptance’ that they will have to adapt to the circumstances, time and resources available. One approach would be home school in the morning and office work in the afternoon, assuming there is somebody to ‘mind’ the children if they are not old enough to be responsible for themselves (2 hours of home schooling a day would be a tremendous achievement to start with, giving 14 hours over the week, with the potential to gradually increase these during the summer term);
4. If possible identify a ‘space’ that for the duration is identified as the ‘school’ space or the ‘office’ space – this might be a kitchen table or converted spare room. Ideally it should be a fixed space, but if not then something that is set up, worked in, then dismantled in readiness for a different use;
5. We need to keep an eye on what is reasonable and achievable and keep our expectations within what is possible, since we aren’t working in ideal conditions with all of the resources we would normally have at our disposal, not to mention taking on roles such as teacher, which in most cases we haven’t been trained for;
6. In all of this the watch words are routine, adaptability, flexibility, reasonable, achievable and the awareness that as we settle into these new circumstances we will need to trial and error what works and what doesn’t.
The most important thing is to remember that you are not alone, many people are now home-working and even more are home-schooling. Stay connected with family and friends, ask how they are managing and learn together. There is also a great deal of advice on the web, such as this blog from Good Housekeeping which identifies seventips for home working:
In summary, the seven tips are:
1. Keep to your routine
2. Create a work space
3. Move regularly
4. Get fresh air
5. Stay connected with colleagues
6. Resist the urge to multitask
7. Expect disruptions
I would add an eighth point to the list and encourage you to journal your daily experiences, outlining your goals, your success and your frustrations because, as Terri reminds us, ‘it just seemed to happen as I was writing.’
Stay safe, stay well, stay home, and stay connected.