This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
I have three kids, 4, 6, and 10. During the pandemic, my partner and I are working from home with them around. Yesterday during an important work meeting I was frying bacon for the kids. Should I feel guilty that I am not working as much as my colleagues without kids or with older children? Is it OK to expect them to work more? - Jane
Parents who are working from home right now are doing double, or maybe even triple, duty. They have to take care of and entertain their kids and help them with remote school work, all while doing their jobs.
It’s even more stressful for single parents, or if one parent is still working outside of the home.
But it’s not fair to assume people without kids can pick up the slack.
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Brandon Smith, an Atlanta-based executive coach who hosts a Facebook Live show called The Workplace Therapist, said single parents with small kids at home and single folks who live alone without pets are the two groups he’s most concerned about during the pandemic.
“This is not just about working virtually. We are at home during a crisis trying to get work done. Everybody’s got their stuff,” he said.
It’s understandable that parents might be feeling less productive than usual. But, Smith said they shouldn’t feel guilty because they didn’t create this situation. They’re simply dealing with the ramifications of it as best as they can.
“They didn’t have any options,” he said. “It’s not like parents said ‘I decided to take this on and inconvenience my coworkers.’”
On the other hand, while people without kids may not be juggling as much on a day-to-day basis, “they’re not getting an opportunity to see people, touch people. That is a deadly combination that can really create anxiety and depression.”
He said we have an opportunity to build trust with our coworkers by sharing our challenges and checking in on each other.
Bosses should also take the initiative to find out their employees’ preferred work schedules. For parents, that might mean starting work earlier than others and taking breaks in the afternoon, switching off with their partners throughout the day, or catching up on work in the evenings.
Natalie Johnson, coordinator of workplace training at The Neighbourhood Group, a Toronto-based non-profit organization, said while people may be nervous to broach the topic with their supervisors, they may find that their bosses are dealing with similar issues.
It's also a chance to set up clear expectations so that an employee isn’t jumping to the conclusion that they’re letting their colleagues down, when that isn’t the case.
“You might be putting a lot more pressure on yourself than your employer expects of you at this time.”
Peter Bruer, senior manager of conflict resolution and training at The Neighbourhood House, said parents who feel they aren’t being productive enough should try to drill down on what, specifically, they’re worried about.
He said fixating on the number of hours worked per day isn’t necessarily helpful, nor is it an indicator of how productive someone is being.
“It’s more complicated than that. How effective are people? What kind of jobs are they doing? How much of their jobs are connected to other people?”
Scheduling activities for kids so that you can free up time for your job is also part of working, he said.
Smith said checking items off a to-do list is a better way of tracking productivity than focusing on hours worked.
If targets aren’t being met, Bruer said the onus should be on the manager to bring up the issue.
“Don’t make the person who is in the disempowered position, the employee, do the work of having to raise the topic and create a process for resolution,” he said.
He said employers should focus on the problem, as opposed to making it about the person, and ask their workers what they need in order to meet targets. That could mean bringing more people on, or simply letting work pile up because targets set before COVID-19 are no longer feasible.
As for letting coworkers without kids take on more work, Bruer said ideally that’s not something that’s mandated, though it could happen on a voluntary basis. But it’s best to avoid a situation where someone is consistently working long hours and burns out.
However, Smith said some people may want to take on more work—in some cases, it can help with anxiety.
“What you don’t want to do is create a system of inequity that can breed resentfulness,” he said.
To make this transition easier, Smith said employers should ease up on decorum in video meetings. It’s OK if you’re just wearing jeans and a T-shirt or if your video is off because you’re making lunch for your kids.
But try to get out of your pajamas, he said.
“You just have to signal that (you) actually went through the effort to put on some clothes for the day.”
Verdict: Parents shouldn’t feel guilty about being less productive at work, because they didn’t choose this situation. But they shouldn’t necessarily expect colleagues without kids to pick up the slack. Bosses can ease the pressure by being flexible about expectations and workflow.
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