In the midst of some companies opting to mandate the return to offices, other organisations are initiating creative flexible working policies to try to appeal to and better support parents over the school holidays. This period can be a dreaded juggling act for working parents and their manager, but this article sets out points for both parents and their managers to ameliorate the summer.
For the working parent:
The school summer holidays are almost upon us so perhaps the anticipation of how to manage work and the kids has come into sharp focus! Aside from the prospect of keeping children entertained, there’s the inevitable guilt as we try and find ways to deliver on both work and home expectations.
The first thing to recognise is that you’re not alone in this feeling. There’s no such thing as perfect parenting, and we’re all doing our best with something that has no rule book! In this article I’ll share some key considerations for managing your own resilience through this period, as well as some practical tips for keeping on top of the work life juggle.
What is resilience?
“People and things that are resilient are able to recover easily and quickly from unpleasant or damaging events.*‘’
This doesn’t mean you necessarily bounce back from every challenging situation with a spring in your step, but rather you find a way to manage your way through. Some of the pillars of resilience include having a strong support network, knowing which coping strategies work for you and looking after your emotional wellbeing.
This ability to stay strong, focused and in control will stand you in good stead during the holiday period.
Looking after yourself
The old adage, ‘put your oxygen mask on before helping others’ has never been truer when it comes to the school holiday season. There’s often an expectation as working parents that we have to be the best parent/partner/employee all the time. So if we feel like we’re falling short of that it’s deemed as failure. Remember, good is good enough.
So give yourself a break, have realistic expectations about what you can take on and make time for yourself as well as family and friends. A morning exercise to try is to ask yourself, “what do I need to achieve for today to feel successful?” This isn’t about writing a to-do list but more about the things that really matter to your happiness and fulfilment, just one or two.
Then ask yourself, “What could stop me from getting those things done and how can I move those barriers out of the way early in the day?” Then repeat this exercise in the evening, but instead remind yourself what you achieved that day, however small. Allow yourself to celebrate your wins.
Communication is key
Communication and teamwork are key during the summer period. Understanding what each party needs in order to manage can only be achieved through open, honest conversations, whether that’s with a spouse, partner, wider family or your employer.
So firstly think about your own boundaries and non-negotiables for this period. What support are you asking for and how can you structure your conversation so that your request is clear? Also consider what the other person might need from you.
And keep the kids in the loop too. My daughters will go to a holiday camp for a few days over the summer and it’s not an idea they revel in. But explaining to them the reasons why allows them to share their feelings and feel included in the decision making process.
Understand and leverage your coping strategies
We all have default strategies for coping with certain situations. Often unconscious, our past experiences shape the way we deal with challenges in the here and now. Making these strategies more purposeful builds our resilience and helps us maintain our emotional wellbeing.
Some common strategies include: talking things through with a trusted advisor, walking away from a situation to gain some perspective, practicing mindfulness or creating a plan of action.
Once you find what works best for you then it’s a case of drawing on them when they’re needed. And when you’re faced with a new challenge, decide what your coping strategy for that is going to be and add that to your armory for the future.
Plan, plan, plan
With so many balls in the air, the school holidays could easily overwhelm even the best planners among us. Creating a plan (with some flexibility!) can help keep things in check, allowing you to focus on work and family time without guilt or anxiety. It also gives you something tangible to shape a conversation with family or your employer.
Build the plan around work commitments, booked holidays, kids activities (whether that’s with you/your partner, wider family or paid for childcare) and leave some space in between to recharge.
Going back to communication, involve the kids in the planning so they know what to expect each week. And review your plan weekly in case anything needs to change.
This too shall pass
Time flies, seemingly even faster as a working parent, so if 6 weeks of summer holidays seems like a long stretch ahead of us, before we know it they’ll be back at school and back in a routine. Hopefully with planning, honest conversations and self-care we can enjoy being present in the moment, knowing we’re doing the best we can and the kids will have a great summer break whatever they do.
For the managers of working parents:
“We judge ourselves by our intention but others by their actions” – Steven Covey
Whether it is because of the pressures of the summer period or circumstances that arise at other times of the year, what is your reaction when your team members are suddenly less available? Those periods when their responsibilities outside work have a more significant impact and their boundaries become firmer? For example, they cannot join that late evening call or do the extra prep over the weekend that you suspect would be helpful for the upcoming client meeting. You may wonder if it is unreasonable to expect out-of-hours work but rationalise that there are deadlines, and others seem to go the extra mile. Do you feel the tug of judgement or criticism and question the commitment of your less available ‘boundaried‘ team members?
You wouldn’t be alone if you did. I doubt a manager or colleague hasn’t had these moments – even those managers that are themselves parents or carers with boundaries! This response is likely because, as Steven Covey indicates, we aren’t as rational as we think and can be surprisingly hypocritical.
When you need to prioritise family over your job, and it results in dropping the ball or forgetting to do something at work, it’s natural to rationalise it to yourself. You tell yourself it doesn’t mean that you’re disengaged, or that you don’t care about the role or your team. However, hypocrisy can arise when you see others in similar circumstances and judge them for it.
The evidence indicates that about half of the gender pay gap in the UK is because of women working part-time or flexibly and the impact on their progression and pay. Even if someone in your team is full-time but working within a boundary, for example, from caring or religious beliefs, they will probably suffer in their career compared to those who can work in a ‘boundless’ way. Unfortunately, this is often because a manager interprets that a ‘boundaried’ worker is relatively less committed. The evidence backs this up.
In our best moments as managers and colleagues, we empathise with the pressures and boundaries people face. We know that for individuals to thrive and for the best team performance, people need to feel safe, appreciated and supported. The best work relationships are long; partnering to weather these ups and downs is the bedrock of trust and performance. So why, if we know this, do we sometimes move to judgement and let ourselves get reactive and critical of others?
How can we counter these potential reactions and manage them more effectively?
Firstly, start by considering your energy, resilience, and triggers as a manager. Being a manager right now takes inordinate work and focus, with demands from every direction. Unsurprisingly, with so many pressures, many managers regularly lose touch with their empathy. I recommend reading this article to understand more about some of your reactions. There are also helpful suggestions on how to make some practical changes.
Secondly, I would invite you to take the following three practical steps with your team members:
- Make sure you are communicating, and by that, I really mean listening. Perspective is an excellent precursor to empathy. Get curious about what’s happening for your team members and stay connected to their reality.
- If you have worries about performance, ask yourself if you can pinpoint specific behaviours for improvement. If so, consider timely and well- structured feedback conversations. On the other hand, if you cite vague issues of ‘engagement’, ask yourself if it may be about their boundaried work and your boundless expectations rather than performance.
- Be realistic. Certain times of the year, like the summer, are more challenging for many parents and carers. So, what? It’s somewhere between 6-8 weeks, and if you support your parents and carers through this relatively short period, you will see the long-term benefits in retention and motivation.
Most people are likely to be trying to do their best. The efficiency of a team of individuals with a uniform perspective and all operating identically may seem appealing. Yet, we all know by now the dangers of this homogeneity in today’s high-risk and fast-moving environment. And in any case, would this type of team need a manager? Would it need somebody to support them and help them to thrive? Probably not!
*Collins COBUILD Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. Copyright © HarperCollins Publishers