cover art for Facing the juggle: carers, work and wellbeing in a pandemic

The Acas Podcast

Facing the juggle: carers, work and wellbeing in a pandemic

Juggling childcare or looking after others alongside working from home, without burning out, is a real struggle. Mental health expert Abigail Hirshman unpacks what employers, managers and carers themselves can and should do to build and support carers' wellbeing during coronavirus. 

Plus: what happens if we ignore this, the common mistakes employers make and how to broach the topic when you think your manager might not listen to you.

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Sarah Guthrie 0:00  

Welcome to the Acas Podcast. I'm Sarah Guthrie, part of the communications team here at Acas. And today I'm joined by Abigail Hirshman, who is Head of Workplace Wellbeing and Mental Health at Acas. Thanks for joining me today. 

Abigail Hirshman 0:13  

Pleasure always to speak to you Sarah.

Sarah Guthrie 0:15  

So today we're focusing on mental health, particularly how we can support the mental health of people who are juggling caring responsibilities, and work, so, looking after children or other relatives during this period of lockdown. We've learned recently that schools are not opening fully until September. So I wondered if you could start off by saying what are the main challenges in relation to well being for people who are juggling, childcare and other caring responsibilities while working?

Abigail Hirshman 0:47  

Yeah, yes, absolutely. So that is quite a big question, though, isn't it really because I think even just hearing that message a couple of weeks ago about the fact that schools aren't opening as parents had anticipated, will have had an impact on people, would have made them think, "Oh my lord!" you know, some that expected maybe a bit of relief for a period of time, there is now a longer stretch. So it's really about how workplaces can think about how can they continue to support the employees to work, knowing that they can be continually caring for children. So the wellbeing impacts of this is not static, it will have gone up and down over the period. And it may have been at the beginning that people may have thought, "Well, actually, this is quite nice. I'm getting to spend some more time at home with my children." But as I said, as this has gone on, I think there have been further challenges for people. And, but I suppose what I was thinking about when we decided we were going to talk about this was whether it's worth just rewinding a little bit. And so if we think say back to maybe February, okay, so February of this year, so think maybe your care of two small children, and they go to school or nursery, and then someone says to you, "For the next six months, we need you to do your job from home." And you may think great "No, no more commuting, no more business suits, no more high heels. That's fantastic." But then at the same time, your manager or your employer says to you, "Well, actually, all schools and nurseries are going to close as well. So you can have to look after your small children whilst you work." And that's essentially what happened to people that this information was given to them. It wasn't the employers fault or the managers fault. But this information was suddenly given to a whole group of people in the workplace, that very quickly, they had to suddenly understand that basically, the world of work and the world of parenting became entirely combined. So I think what people had to do was to adapt really, really quickly. And I think from a positive perspective, we can say that employers have really benefited from a workforce it's met that challenge, you know, and continue to adapt. But as I said, there are going to be lots of peaks and troughs to that challenge, and it's how the employer and the manager and the individual navigate those different rises and falls as we carry on through this period.

Sarah Guthrie 3:01  

Yeah, that's really interesting. I wondered if you could maybe unpack a bit more of the impact if we - employers, line managers or individuals - do nothing about this?

Abigail Hirshman 3:16  

Right. Okay. That is an interesting question. So, as I said, you're now, you put, I always like to put myself in the heads of people who are in this experience or having experience I have got, I've got children at home, but they're a bit older, they're teenagers. And I think the challenges for parents with teenagers is different for parents of small children. So I think we have to recognize as an employer, that we have people with different, you know, family setups, so the employer that does nothing that ignores essentially that this person is doing their job was managing teenagers, young children, whatever it is, it's it's going to have massive consequences, isn't it? It's about that person is basically going to feel not recognized, and not understood, for the challenges that that's arising and lack of recognition and lack of being understood by your employer does have a massive impact on wellbeing and has an impact on motivation. So let's hope that there aren't many employers out there who are doing nothing. But I think what employers are grappling with is "What is the thing that we can do?" because those employers, again, like the parents, and the, you know, the mothers and the fathers and the carers had to adapt very quickly, employers have had to adapt very quickly, they've had to think about, "What can we do to continue to meet the business demands, given the fact that my business has moved to a totally different location and distributed location," but equally, "How can we continue to adapt? What can we do as a business to adapt?" So it's understandable that employers may not have been thinking about you know, John, and his two small kids or you know, or Sarah and her two small children, they're thinking about the business. So how can they have those conversations and understand what the challenges are for the people who are looking after small children, those conversations have to happen.

Sarah Guthrie 5:01  

Following on from that, what do you think are the main mistakes that employers are making when they're having those conversations with their staff?

Abigail Hirshman 5:12  

Well, I think employers and this is why I sort of went back a bit, this is why I went to this thing. Well, what would we have done differently with hindsight, and I think it's about having those conversations about what's realistic, what is realistic for that person to be able to do, given they've also got these other priorities and demands? And how is the individual going to manage those different challenges. So it's not just all on the employer, to give them a whole host of, you know, sort of reductions or changes or adaptations, it's about them working with the employee to understand how that person continue to do their job whilst managing the children at home.

Sarah Guthrie 5:50  

And you just said it's not all on the employer, there. At Acas when we're talking about mental health, generally, we talk about how it's a shared responsibility between line managers, individuals and employees. On this issue specifically of supporting people when they're juggling, could you just outline what those different responsibilities look like for each of those players involved? 

Abigail Hirshman 6:12  

Yeah, absolutely. So essentially, the employer will have made a decision and this is this happened pre pandemic, this isn't something new, an employer makes a decision, say, to take on a new project or to, you know, do something different in the workplace that is going to have people impact. So the employer has to have responsibility for thinking, well, I've got five people in my team that are going to have to do this. So ordinarily, they'd have had five people in their team who they knew worked, you know, a collective amount of hours, they may still have those five people in their team, but those collective hours are going to be different. They're not going to be maybe in the same nine to five space. So it's about the manager, the employee thinking, "Well, okay, this is the end goal that I need to get to in order to reach you know, complete that project. These are the amount of hours I'm going to need to get to finish that project." I know I'm being quite simplistic, but it's really breaking it down and thinking, what are going to be the demands on those five people to complete that. And of those demands, I know the two of them have got additional home life demands. So this is what the employer needs to achieve. The employer then needs to make sure that the manager is entirely aware of what those projects outputs are, what does the manager need on a daily transactional basis to work with the employees, their employees, their staff, to fulfill those the demands of that project. And then the manager has to have those very honest and open conversations with people in the team. And it's about a team approach. And this is where it gets quite complicated because you will have a team where you'd have people who are managing children or managing children's if you can ever manage children but you know what I mean, who are looking after their children, and people who aren't. So how do the people who aren't looking after children don't feel that they're taking the load and how to people who have got the children don't feel too guilty? So these are complex situations. But the first point is about what do we need to achieve? Who are the people that I've got in my team to achieve that? And how are we going to do it? So it's a combination of quite compassionate leadership, understanding leadership, but also quite transactional management, thinking about one of the things I need to get done.

Sarah Guthrie 8:15  

So seeing how all of those different players fit together and as an employer thinking about what are the downstream effects of the decisions that you make, as a manager working out how to support your individuals that you're working with and as an individual, being able to give feedback and show what you are actually able to do at the moment. And we've been talking about children and I just wanted to acknowledge that for a lot of people, it's not necessarily children, it's adults with health conditions or older relatives. Is there anything that's particular to that group of people that would help them have the conversation with their employers

Abigail Hirshman 9:01  

I think what one of the things that we've sort of recommended we talk about is sometimes rehearsing that conversation or writing it down during the script. So people aren't necessarily confident about having these discussions because he's a new conversation they've had to have, they may have to, their employee may have to know about stuff that they didn't actually have any awareness or before or not. That's right. But actually, these these conversations have suddenly gone on fast forward. So I always think about, it's a bit like a time lapse video. That's how it feels like with a pandemic, so things are happening very quickly at speed that maybe in the past, you know, wouldn't have ever come up would have taken a long time. But all of these things are about, ""hat are the demands and challenges that people in my workplace have? And how does that affect their ability, that opportunity in their time to be able to do the job that I need them to do?" So regardless of the demand that they have, it's how that affects their role and how they can discuss it with their managers. And as I said, Sometimes we're hurting those conversations. Thinking about how the employer or the manager might respond to some of the things you're raising is worth doing. And also sometimes writing down what you plan to do as an individual, you recognize that this, this is your job and you recognize your employer is supportive, but sometimes being able to say, well, one at some of the things I might be able to do, so one employee I was talking to recently, they negotiated with some of their staff who had additional responsibilities, about thinking about the difference between their work that was quite heavy on the brain, you know, so they will thinking work that they needed to do, and the work that was a little bit more, you know, easy to do so sort of diary entries, or answering emails or those more sort of prosaic workplace tasks that we have to do. So working with the employees at which time maybe for them, they were able to do the more heavy thinking stuff, and when they could do the more light touch stuff, and then how that then impacted back on the work outputs and the work team.

Sarah Guthrie 10:56  

So actually taking the time to think through in detail not, just the task that needs to be done, but also how you're going to do them and how that will affect your own wellbeing and wellbeing of the other people and colleagues and teams around you.

Abigail Hirshman 11:10  

Yeah, I think that's come up time and time again, and this has been in our conversations, Sarah, and lots of conversations I've had with employers is about boundaries. And boundaries are sort of, you know, a thing that employers and managers and individuals can all really really benefit from using. And I don't think I'm seeing probably quite enough of that. So what I'm, what I'm seeing is I'm seeing you've got employers who are really flexible, who do the well being stuff, you know, they would win awards in well being because they're so fantastic at it. But actually, sometimes those employers and managers find it harder to put in some lines with employees. And that may be a line as if "I need you to switch off. I understand you're really dedicated, you really want to work, but I need you to switch off at this time. And I'm going to make sure that we have conversations that enable that," or you get the employer who so flexible and wanting to be so supportive, oh, it's fine. You know, just do what you can, you know, we trust you, we really value you. And that's all great. Please don't think that I'm not saying that's not a good thing. But the employee doesn't really know where they are. Because what's happened is they feel sort of so committed and so not grateful. That's probably not the right word. But so, you know, so engaged with the employer that they think, "Oh, well, I'll just do that extra because actually, they really are trusting me." And what the employer then does, because they haven't put in clear guidelines and boundaries, as in I won't contact you after three o'clock because I know that's when you're feeding the children or whatever it is. They then put in those extra things. "Oh, actually, can you just fill out that report for me? I know you don't work those extra hours, but would you just mind doing that?" and the employee feels responsible for then going, "Oh, okay, then" and then it all starts to go horribly wrong. So putting in boundaries and expectations about what you have in reviewing. These don't need to be static and one offs is really, really important. And then the other thing on boundaries, which I just want to highlight, and I understand that a lot of people who are going to be working at home with children are going to be in combined different family groups who have single parents, you know, blended families, you know, different, different relationships. But what some research has shown recently is that we have a default parent. So we have a parent who is one that the child is most likely to come and interrupt when that child that parents doing their work. So it's not that the other parent doesn't do lots of other domestic stuff. But it's about that interrupted work time. So what I'm finding with some discussions with family, friends and people is that some of the couples are really negotiating the boundaries between them and how one parent takes time. And that's, that's protected time. This is when I'm going to be working at my computer and you mustn't interrupt me in those situations you need to go to the other parent and understand there isn't always another parent to go to But it's just trying to make those boundaries at home as well as at work.

Sarah Guthrie 14:05  

Yeah. And actually, that brings out what you were saying earlier that although as we focus on the workplace, we know that we are whole people, we don't leave ourselves when we go to work. And that has particularly come out in this pandemic, when we can't leave our homes and so we have to be our home self under works up in the same place.

Abigail Hirshman 14:22  

Yes, absolutely. And I think, sorry, I'm gonna get excited here because I think there's a real, there's a real benefit to this situation. And it's really humanizing people. You know, we come into the workplace as sort of like a fully formed person. Nobody saw us that morning, sort of like spooning cereal into the kids mouths, you know, also like balancing and all the things that we have to do as a parent, you know, sort of like what are the challenges, packed lunches and all those different things and then we come into the office and we sort of got our game face on and we're ready to go. But what this has shown is actually, there are skills and qualities that we bring into the workplace actually really beneficial, and I was on the too, I was on a team call with my team that I work with and then my manager, and we were on the call and once we're having the call, there was like a little knock on the door. I don't even know there's a knock Actually, this little person walked into the room and a very, very adorable looking two year old and she came to bring her daddy some crisps. And she got on her lap and I got a little bit of broody as I do, because I do like young children and we will like an eyes and she's cute. Isn't she lovely? But what it did it did two things. It sort of showed us a window into our managers world that maybe we weren't aware of before. And it also made us think as team as individuals. Oh, actually. So when I'm contacting him at eight o'clock at night, because I don't have that additional responsibility, is he actually able to respond to me? So it it humanizes the people you work with and makes you understand in a very quick way, what they've got going on for them. So please don't, to employees, to managers, to individuals, please don't you know, keep your child locked in another room when you're on workplace calls. Maybe it's not always going to be appropriate, there are going to be some professions when actually, you know, it would not work well, but actually equally it does, as I said, humanize those relationships and help you understand things from the other person's perspective and see what they've got going on.

Sarah Guthrie 16:18  

Thanks, Abigail. That's a really valuable advice. For our listeners who might be listening to this thinking, "There's no way my manager would deal with a conversation like that well, or I just don't want to admit that I'm struggling, because I want to be competent, and my manager relies on my competence," what would you say to those people who are really actually dreading having conversation about this, and so avoid it entirely?

Abigail Hirshman 16:47  

I would, I think the first point I want is to recognize that this is a reality that this is a reality for people who are in a situation where maybe they don't feel their jobs to secure they may have seen colleagues furloughed, there may be an organization that may be facing redundancy. So in that climate, it is even harder for people who to admit or to acknowledge or to express that maybe they are finding the workload too challenging or too demanding, given their other responsibilities at home. I was, I was talking to a business yesterday and they are a company that has chargeable time because of the jobs that they do. And the expectation is still on all of the employees that they still do the same amount of chargeable time that they did prior to the pandemic. Some of these will have children at home, some of them won't. And even if you haven't got responsibilities at home, we all know that we know that people are challenged, you know, from a mental capacity at the moment. So I think that is a risky strategy for business to take. So that's my sort of first point is just think about the longer term impacts of these decisions you're making at the moment. You are possibly going to be a workplace that's going to have less people, as you go forward, because you may have to do cost cutting measures, we understand that. So the people that you have in your workplace it's about keeping them as healthy and as well now for the future. So that's sort of the bigger picture answer. But in terms of the individual who doesn't feel able to disclose or to talk about something with their employer, as I said, I completely understand that, but they also have a responsibility to look after themselves and to think about what is possible, what can I actually do, and what do I need to change? What do I need that's differently given to me differently so that I can keep my work responsibilities going, whilst absolutely not making myself on? Well, it's about rehearsing it's about writing down a list. It's about thinking, what do I need to get from this conversation? Do I want just somebody to listen to understand that actually, this is a struggle. Do I want some practical changes to my workload? Is it about taking my leave differently? Is it taking half days or working slightly different adjusted hours. So there are lots of different practical routes that an employee can do. And if you have a list of options in front of you and showing that you thought about it, even the most unresponsive manager would be able to work with that because it'd be something that would be practical and tangible for them to work with.

Sarah Guthrie 19:18  

Thank you, Abigail. That's really important advice. Just to finish off, what would be your one takeaway that you wish we could remember from this podcast?

Abigail Hirshman 19:29  

Oh gosh Sarah, one takeaway? [Abigail and Sarah laugh] I know that's very challenging for me. Know the challenges that your staff are facing, understand the demands they have on them, work with them to negotiate a different way that they may be able to meet those demands, help them understand what the challenges are for the business. So be as open and as authentic and as available as you can about the challenges within the business, the challenges for managers and work together collectively in order to meet those.

Sarah Guthrie 20:08  

Thank you Abigail. That is a brilliant note to end on. You've been listening to the Acas Podcast, we've put some useful links on mental health and homeworking in the session notes for this episode, or you can visit our website at Thanks for listening. 

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