Jonathan Jones, Civil Service Health and Wellbeing Champion hears from parents balancing personal and professional circumstances during the coronavirus pandemic.
Colleagues across the Civil Service are dealing with incredibly challenging personal and professional circumstances in impressive ways to support the government and maintain corporate and public services during the coronavirus pandemic.
Among those are many working parents. I am not a parent myself and I wanted to understand more about the experiences parents with children at home have faced during this period. So I invited a GLD colleague, Jane Hill, DfE legal director, to offer her perspective. Jane’s five children have all been at home during lockdown and her post has been very busy. In turn she shared with me a collection of reflections from herself and her colleagues. I found these very insightful and moving. I am grateful to all those who generously shared their experiences and am impressed by the dedication that shines through them all.
These parents have said what a difference it has made to have a supportive and caring line manager and employer. I am really proud of that as it’s critically important that everyone feels empowered to get the support and flexibility they need to look after their health and wellbeing while juggling work and personal responsibilities. We need to recognise different needs, ensure that workloads are manageable and reach out to help those who may be struggling. And our efforts over the past three years in breaking down the mental health stigma have helped create a more open culture where we can have conversations about the emotional impact of the pandemic, speak about any difficulties we are facing, and support one another, whatever our personal circumstances.
Jonathan Jones, Civil Service Health and Wellbeing Champion
Jane Hill, DfE Legal Director
The challenges for parents have been huge. One colleague with a severely disabled child described to me how for three weeks she found herself without her usual full-time carer for her daughter, sick with COVID herself, with two other children to care for and a husband caught up in a busy hospital environment working all hours to fight the disease. I know how strong and resilient this colleague is at work but can only imagine how hard those weeks were.
Another colleague reflects on the isolation many have experienced: “as a single parent of a five year old it’s a tough gig working from home, looking after her whilst juggling domestic chores, worrying about food shopping with her in tow and managing my own COVID-19 fears. And I’m not just a single parent, I’m also what’s known as a lone parent, and that’s how I feel in all this – very alone.”
Another single mum writes movingly “Everyone else seemed to be managing. Why was it not working for us? We were told that these were unprecedented times and we should not to be hard on ourselves, but I think that is human nature. How were other colleagues managing? Why was I not being as productive? It was stressful, tiring and demotivating.”
And very young children bring their own challenges….one dad comments: “As a father of two small ones (two and a half and five months), lockdown has certainly been a challenge. The sleepless nights of a new baby, coupled with a toddler bouncing off the (same four) walls has meant finding the headspace to do the day job pretty difficult. We have lost the help of nursery and shielding grandparents.”
It is sobering to listen to the massive challenges these colleagues have faced and met and I have great respect and admiration for their determination and courage.
My own five children are older now, the youngest aged 13, and the oldest 22, all at home for lockdown, and schooling has been a big challenge. One of my children is a deaf child who has really fought hard to keep up with her peers at school and it has been heart-breaking to see her struggling on alone, working as hard as she can but getting behind and anxious about her work without the specialist unit support she normally has. While at the other end of the scale my 17 year old boy has managed to slip all the nets parents and teachers have set for him and is far too relaxed about being way behind with his A-levels. Like many I feel guilty I have been unable to do as much for Harry and Grace and my other children during lockdown as I should have done, but we have been incredibly busy at work and my job share partner and I have also been putting a lot of energy into leading our team as best as we can. Like so many I have been pulled very hard in different directions.
But amidst the gritty toughness of all of that, there are also real moments of light and joy and inspiration in the reflections my colleagues shared.
For example, one Mum comments: “That aside, the pace of home-life slowed dramatically. I realised how stressful it had been juggling…..There were heartfelt moments where I caught my children buried in a book or sharing secrets with each other. I realised that our needs were simpler than I had thought”.
We have all struggled through and found our own ways of coping somehow through the lockdown and the support of colleagues has been invaluable. There has been lots of excellent practical advice circulating including the importance of really trying to take care of ourselves (as well as the work and the children…) and also about asking for help and accepting it. But I still end most days feeling exhausted and dissatisfied with what I have managed to achieve, so I was encouraged by the wise words of one dad who wrote in his contribution:
"Getting through the day/week, with everyone fed and watered, is an achievement. Be aware of Instagram vs reality, and try to ignore those who may have had more spare time than you to make sourdough or learn the ukulele. Everyone’s lockdown circumstances/experience has been different so there’s no point in comparing yourself with others!"
A wide range of staff networks, information and guidance are available to civil servants to support their health and wellbeing, including specific assistance and advice for during the coronavirus pandemic.