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Work-Family Balance Struggles in the Time of COVID-19

Kristen Shockley and Malissa Clark, University of Georgia

And you thought you had work-family struggles before?? Now you are working from home, serving as a homeschool teacher, dealing with loads of anxiety about the new unknown, all while trying not to touch your face! 

If you feel like you are burning the candle at both ends, you are not alone. We are certainly in unprecedented times and have no research that speaks to work–family struggles during a pandemic (shocking, right?), but our aim here is to provide you with a few evidence-based suggestions for maintaining your sanity  from the work–family and remote work research literature.

1.    Boundary management is key. What do we mean by boundary management? People have different preferences for how they manage their multiple life roles. Some people are integrators, meaning they easily switch back and forth between work and personal life throughout the day. (Think about that coworker who is able to successfully solve the mystery of the missing soccer shoe in the middle of a work meeting without batting an eye.) Others prefer segmentation; they keep work at work and home at home (you won’t see any photos of family on their desk!). Click here to take a quick assessment created by Ellen Kossek to find out your boundary management style. 

There is no “right” style, but if you are a strong segmentor, then you are likely struggling right now as you work from home. A few things you can do to create more of a segmented atmosphere are: 

a)    have a clear, separate workspace (more on that below),
b)    go through your typical getting ready routine in the morning before you start working, and
c)    create a transition period before and after work. For example, replace your daily commute with a walk around the block. This will provide your mind with a mental transition, which makes it easier to switch between roles. 

If you are a strong integrator, you may be thriving in this type of environment. However, even strong integrators may have a limit to how much integration is physically or mentally possible in a given day. For example, maybe you are now expected to homeschool three children in addition to all of your typical work demands. Yikes! In this case, you may also benefit from implementing some of the segmentation strategies mentioned above. 

2.    We know that one of the best forms of relief against feeling conflict between work and family is social support—both from people inside and outside the workplace. Look for a forthcoming summary article on this in Current Directions in Psychological Science (French & Shockley, in press). To get more support from friends or extended family (those who aren’t in your social distancing bubble), consider a virtual happy hour. It’s not drinking alone if you’re on Zoom! Hopefully your organization or supervisor has already reached out to offer support for employees juggling work and family responsibilities, as research shows these forms of social support can be extremely beneficial. If they have not yet reached out, then shame on them! In this case, you may need to reach out to your supervisor to let him/her know of your specific situation and how it may affect your work quality and quantity during the social distancing period. Reach out to coworkers in similar situations, and see if you can send a collective message to key organizational stakeholders.  

It’s not just about getting support—think about how you can be a source of support for others. You can offer instrumental (i.e., help out with more of the household tasks than you normally do) or emotional (i.e., lend a listening ear) support to your spouse. Pay special attention that you are being supportive of his/her work in particular. When dual-career couples are making work-related tradeoffs (like being the one to manage the virtual school day while missing out on your own work), it is important that both people feel that their job is respected/supported and gratitude from their partner for the tradeoffs being made.

3.       Identify the coping strategies that work best for you and integrate them into your daily life. Individuals cope with work and family stressors in a wide variety of ways and you may be getting conflicting advice from different sources on what are the best ones. The bottom line is, there is no one “best” way to cope and you have to figure out what works and doesn’t work for you by trial and error. A couple research-based strategies that may be helpful include: planning your daily schedule to implement greater structure, communicating to others your demands and what you can and cannot do, and work on identifying negative thought patterns and consider how stressors can be re-interpreted (therapists are great at helping with this—what better time to try out online counseling services?). 

Recent research suggests that mindfulness, the ability to be present in the moment through nonjudgmental attention and awareness, can help increase feelings of work–family balance. We know it’s easier said than done in this time of uncertainty, but try to focus on just the here and now and factors that are under your control. There are several great apps for this, such as Calm and Headspace, as well as numerous podcasts. Likewise, other work suggests that practicing self-compassion toward your work and family roles also helps with work–family management. Don’t beat yourself up if you aren’t living up to your ideal parenting or work standards during this time. Remember failure is part of the human condition, and we are all doing the best we can right now!

4.    Make working remote work for you. Generally, childcare and remote work don’t mix! If you are in a situation that allows it (i.e., family members are able to watch young children or children are old enough to be unsupervised), try and create a space that has clear “work boundaries.” This means working on your kitchen table is probably not ideal (unless you want to put some tape on the ground around the table and tell the kids everything inside the tape is hot lava). A separate office with a closed door will give you the best results. You should communicate with your family that door closed means you are working and come up with a plan if they absolutely need to interrupt. If you have a toddler, this is clearly not possible. Take advantage of nap time and clearly communicate your situation with your coworkers and supervisor. A silver lining is that many people are in this exact same situation of simultaneously balancing work and parenting right now. So don’t try to hide the situation, it will ultimately make it worse.

Research suggests that remote workers actually work longer hours than standard workers. Although this might not apply to the current situation, do keep this in mind. It is easy to just put in a few more minutes when your desk is right around the corner. In order to prevent burnout and exhaustion, draw firm boundaries with your time as well.

Want more best practice recommendations? Kristen wrote this white paper for SIOP that outlines the state of the research and numerous other evidence-based best practices for remote workers. For a deeper dive, check out this longer (but still accessible) review paper.

In this unprecedented time, the most important thing is the health and well-being of you and your loved ones. It is unreasonable to think we will be able to perfectly balance our work and family in such extreme circumstances. We will get through this, and maybe we will learn a new strategy or two that we can implement into our daily lives even after COVID-19.

From the Learning Resources for Practitioners (LRP) Committee:

Do you have expertise to share to help practitioners and the larger business community adapt during COVID-19 crisis? Feel free to contact Kimberly Adams, LRP Committee Chair, at kadams6006@gmail.com to discuss your idea and submission details. Thanks!

Find more resources for adapting to work in the age of COVID-19 on SIOP’s new Remote Work page.

Find resources and advice on topics including work–life balance, worker well-being, managing remote teams, employee motivation and engagement, and organizational agility. New resources are being added on a regular basis.

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