For many of us balancing family and work life is an ongoing juggling act. That’s why for this weeks’ #WellnessMatters blog we spoke to Rebecca Johnson to get some tips and advice on how to better manage the juggle.
Rebecca Johnson is a psychologist and entrepreneur, with over 15 years’ experience working across consulting, development, change and education. She works with people from Leaders to parents and the inbetweeners to bring about balanced, realistic solutions to work and life.
What advice do you have for parents who are trying to balance the demand of family and work-life?
Routine is critical to everyone. Not only is it fundamental to what we do but it’s also the center of our psychology, biology and success.
A routine is so much more than a series of activities. It supports your own circadian rhythms which help temper our biological responses across everything from hunger, wind down, and sleep cycles. It also helps our minds establish windows of peak activity and performance.
A sound routine is one that encompasses approximate wake, feeding, work, and play schedules alongside rest and relaxation.
This is helpful, especially with children as it helps us predict what their needs may be and may assist circumvent possible behaviour problems. Additionally, this builds trust that their needs will be taken care of and that ‘my person’ knows me.
What are some practical things we could try to implement?
Wake at the same time each day and go to bed at the same time.
Use techniques to warm up to start the day and wind down to ease into sleep. Morning and bedtime rituals are particularly helpful.
If you are managing children, try to wake up before them. Even if it’s only 10 minutes prior. Those extra few minutes can help avoid the cortisol rush - the stress hormone – before they wake, and your day must begin. Even better if you can do your exercise or morning routine before they are awake, as it just gives you a head start, and you can be present with them.
Use your peak performance window for productive work. For example, if you know that you are in your peak work zone between 9am to 12pm then prioritise it.
Leave emails, Zoom calls and other interruptions that force you to shift your attention from one thing to the next, every few minutes until a specific point in the day.
Allocate your workday to specific tasks when you can. Block out your calendar if it’s visible to others and you find people schedule meetings with you.
If you have little children who need time and attention, plan for a series of workstations for them to utilise as they wish. For example, toys in the lounge that you rotate every few days, a small table with playdoh or some sensory play, and another station with pencils and paper. To start, set a timer for say 20 minutes and as you establish an eat play sleep routine.
It is absolutely ok to tell them 'No, Mummy or Daddy is working right now but after a set time, we can play a game of your choice’. Children do not need our undivided attention all the time. They only need a short period where you are completely focused on them, without distraction and follow their lead.
For little ones, you can do this at the end of every eat play sleep cycle. Maybe you come together for a snack and a quick play before they move to solo play. With school-aged kids your time is more about supervision of schoolwork and managing siblings.
At the start of the day, make up lunch boxes and snacks for the day so you aren't spending all your time in the kitchen making and cleaning up. Teach the kids if they want something, they can have their packed lunches and snacks. If they run out, they can go to the fruit bowl or whatever is acceptable to your family.
It is amazing how much time this can save you over the course of a day.
Try to have everyone check in at lunchtime if you can. This is good for the relationships that exist in your home and you can step out of work or school mode and engage. It may be a good time for everyone to get outside and do some activity together too.
Meal prepping dinners on a weekend can also be useful.
If your structure is rigid, and everyone responds to that, that’s great! However, other families may be much more fluid and just starting the day and ending the day together may be what works better.
Ultimately, what is best is what helps to bring your family together; makes everyone productive and is done in a way that is harmonious without too many battles along the way.
For those working from home, how can they maintain a balance when the separation of home and work has become more blurred?
Maintaining the separation between work and home can definitely be a challenge when you are physically surrounded and reminded of the other at every moment of your day.
This is where home and work hygiene comes into play. When on work time, do only work. When on home time, practice switching off every time work thoughts arise. Never underestimate the use of timers or stopwatches and alarms to keep you in work mode. When work is done, turn off phones and devices and resist the urge to be available for work.
Rituals that ease us in and out of work or home modes can be very helpful. Much the same way that you may catch a train home at the end of a normal pre-pandemic day, take a walk around the block or spend 15 minutes, feet up, listening to music. Transitions can really help you and those around you to recognise what mode is next and help you prepare for them.
Schedule your day so that you avoid switching attention too frequently. This may mean negotiating this with managers and teams you manage. For example, if you are helping your child with schoolwork in the afternoon, tell people you will be unavailable between 1 and 4 pm but back online from 6 to 9pm.
If you are feeling pressure to be on all the time, start questioning whether these are truly the expectations of others or if they are your fear or guilt. Nobody needs to be available 24/7 unless it is stipulated as part of your role that you are on call.
Realistically, if you don't make yourself have time away, your performance will suffer, and resentment will build towards your work and also your family.
So, what are some activities that can help us feel recharged and reenergised?
Exercise, meditation, calling a hard stop to work and minimising the impact of work encroaching on family time are all great ways to recharge.
Also, activities where you are centered with the ground are helpful. Research suggests that any outdoor activity, even just standing at the park or beach, paying attention to the sights and sounds, and feeling the sensations within your body can have a meditative effect and reduce stress levels.
Take up a new hobby you always wanted to do!
Are there any behaviours or mindsets that might be helpful or unhelpful?
A general level of anxiety is going to be present for everyone even if you are not overly impacted by the pandemic. This should be acknowledged.
It’s when these feelings become an everyday experience that this anxious mindset can be problematic.
Focusing on what you can control, is important. How you react to extra work pressures, how you structure your days, what you prioritise, can all help to alleviate anxiety.
Mentally parking your concerns on a shelf, and not allowing yourself to consider them until a certain date can also help.
Equally, taking the approach of tomorrow is a new day, can be helpful. It allows you to wipe the slate and improve upon your actions from the day before, whether that be with work, with your partner, or with managing your child.
For those that are really struggling right now, it can mean they need to do something different. In that instance, spending an extra 20 minutes refining your CV, revisiting your LinkedIn profile, or reaching out to one new connection to explore possibilities could help.
You mentioned guilt earlier. What would you say to parents who are feeling guilty that they are not doing well enough at home or work?
Saying 'don't feel that way’ doesn't help and most parents know guilt can be part and parcel of parenting. We will feel that way at some point or another! Acknowledgment and empathy are important.
It’s also important to remember guilt is an emotion that doesn't bring about action. It only brings feelings of inadequacy and fear. Accept the feelings, sit with them, and let them happen. Then consider one action that you can take to alleviate the issue causing the feelings of guilt.
Consider all the things you are doing well. Then cut yourself some slack! Tomorrow is a new day. Take action tomorrow.
What recommendations do you have for our Melbourne parents who are trying to manage work and remote learning?
Have an overarching perspective, regardless of how old your children are, that the ultimate goal of education is for them to be independent learners.
This means that at every opportunity, encourage them to do the work independently of you. Some things that could help include setting expectations by saying ‘I will be back in 10 minutes to see how you are going’. Extend the amount of school time before you check in with them. Be clear with the expectations, for example ‘I will read this to you, and you will need to do that part. Ask the child to have a go before asking for help and if possible, leave the part needing help with, for a dedicated ‘parent-help’ period of time.
It's also important to not try to assume the role of the teacher. The student-teacher relationship still exists with remote learning. For example, if your child refuses to do work, talk to the teacher about consequences or how they typically respond? Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
What suggestions do you have for those interested to learn more about these topics?
There are a lot of great resources available online. If really depends what you are interested in. For those looking for more ideas on managing remote learning, they could look here. If managing emotions such as anxiety or stressful thoughts is a topic of interest, grounding exercises is something that could be explored.
Rebecca Johnson is a Registered Psychologist and entrepreneur, with post graduate qualifications in business and education. She has over 15 years working across consulting, development, change and education. Rebecca is an unwavering pragmatist who believes in the power of human determination to bring about change. She considers how we think, behave, and communicate with ourselves and others, to be the foundation for optimal futures. Rebecca works with people from Leaders to parents and the inbetweeners to bring about balanced, realistic solutions to work and life