Staying centred

bigstock--Woman multitasking 131445305

Back in January when I started the theme of #rebalancing 2020 it was very much in the context of business as usual. My plan was to write about strategies for tackling issues such as the growing #AlwaysOn workplace culture; and the challenges of getting employers to agree flexible working at senior levels. Then lockdown happened. In its wake an increasing number of online blogs are praising the rapid shift to home working and predicting that post pandemic this will become the ‘new normal’. I disagree.

For many working parents (and mothers in particular) the current situation is not a golden age of flexible working but their worst nightmare come to pass.

It’s the fear that lurked in the minds of many. What if the whole juggling act falls apart? Suddenly it came to pass; and left many women feeling exhausted as the challenges of combining work and care became intensified. The consequential risk is that they’re pushed into making poor choices. Let me explain.

I spent the first couple of weeks of lockdown reading Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez. It’s a stark and well evidenced reminder of two indisputable facts. The first is that women carry out three quarters of the world’s unpaid caring work. Invisible work they juggle with outdated workplace requirements as they attempt to build careers. The second is the under-representation of women in all walks of life; including across all workplace sectors and levels. Which has huge negative implications for both their quality of life and for the global economy.

Right now, when the world needs more women’s voices, those voices may be lost. Women themselves are becoming tired of constantly fixing those things employers continue to ignore. Such as how to balance all that unpaid caring with inflexible working hours and equally inflexible expectations. On social media mothers are talking about giving up and finding more satisfying work that fits better with family life. Typically that requires lowering their sights and downshifting. If that’s you I urge you not to give up the career you’ve worked so hard to attain.

Indeed, the current crisis could turn out to be a golden opportunity. There’s talk about the likely need for employers to reduce staffing levels. If your job is on the line, now is the time to make a counter proposal and suggest you work reduced hours. Use my free workbook to craft a reduced load role that makes best use of your skills and keeps you in the game. What have you got to lose?

If you’ve been furloughed enjoy the time with your children making memories to keep and treasure. If you have some time to yourself why not spend part of it planning for better work-life balance once the crisis is over? You’re the woman I had in mind when I started writing this blog back in 2016 and there’s plenty of content here to help your journey.

And if you’re working from home and juggling childcare just take it one day at a time. Don’t let your thoughts about the future run away with you. Breathe. Cultivate a mindfulness practice.

Whatever your circumstances, stay centred and practice self-compassion. Now is not the moment for drastic changes. We’re all doing our best to navigate our way through uncertain times. And in that uncertainty lies the potential for new ways of working that bring both better work life balance and better gender balance. I’ll be writing more about that in next week’s blog.

Just breathe

Mixed Race Woman Putting Hands Behind Head Resting Indoors

How’s your breathing?

It seems like a strange question; but what my yoga practice has taught me is that paying attention to my breathing has countless benefits.

Many of us have now spent several weeks hunched over devices in makeshift areas that were never intended to act as home offices. The chances are that our breathing is suffering as a result. And in the current circumstances it’s more than our posture that’s likely to have a negative impact on our breathing. One of my favourite breathing experts is Max Strom who talks about how emotions are stored in the lungs; and how we often breathe poorly in times of crisis. It’s possible you had already gotten into bad breathing habits before the chaos started. And right now who isn’t feeling stressed?

Breathing well has enormous benefits for our physical and emotional wellbeing as health expert Jo DiStefano explains in the first half of his TEDx talk. Good breathing that uses the diaphragm correctly benefits the internal organs, delivers more nutrition to cells and helps the body rid itself of toxins. Breathing poorly on the other hand is as bad for our body as a constant diet of fast food. The shallow breathing that’s a result of stress impacts our heartbeat and blood flow; and leads to hormonal imbalances.

When we’re breathing poorly there’s a risk the brain will respond by putting us into ‘fight or flight’ mode according to psychologist Belisa Vranich. And it seems most of us are breathing poorly; often as a result of changes that occur in our pre-teen years. At that point we begin sitting for long periods; which affects our posture and in turn our breath. Having studied the topic in depth Dr Vranich has developed and teaches her own breathing method. You’ll find a demonstration of some of her breathing exercises in the second part of her TEDx talk.

So: improving our breathing can have a massive impact on our wellbeing. A favourite breathing technique of mine is Heart Focussed breathing developed by the HeartMath Institute. It’s simple, quick and effective at moving us from negative to positive emotions. If you’re intrigued you’ll find a quick explanation by Dr Carla Stanton here.

We stumble across better breathing techniques in many ways. Perhaps we experience health problems (such as asthma) or learn them in preparation for childbirth. Or perhaps (like me) a yoga practice led you there. Even when we know better, it’s easy to overlook the importance of breathing well. But given the challenges we all currently face you owe it to yourself to take a short break from whatever device you’re using, sit comfortably and just breathe. Make good breathing a habit that will literally last you a lifetime.

ReBalancing the chaos #2

Wooden Dice With Letters In Disarray And The Word Chaos

Last week’s blog shared two key strategies to help you regain a semblance of balance as we adjust to new ways of living and working. This week I consider two more things that can support better balance: avoiding role confusion and using positive psychology to get what you need.

How to avoid ‘role confusion’

Let’s start with an explanation. Social scientists often talk about the multiple roles we all play and the expectations (scripts) that surround them. Two key roles for many of us are parent and employee (or worker). In the normal course of events those roles remain relatively separate. We do our work at work; or within designated work hours if we opt to work remotely. And we carry out our parenting role mostly when we our children are with us.

Of course there is some overlap. Many parents struggle during school holidays and virtually everyone has navigated working while tending to a sick child. The problem is the expectations surrounding both roles often come into conflict. It’s hard to be a model (work focused) employee if you’re also trying to sort out your child’s schooling or worrying about their health. Conversely it can be challenging to feel you’re a good parent when work expects long hours or business calls in the evening. All of this is not ideal; but in more normal circumstances it’s often possible to put boundaries around the two roles and focus on one at a time.

Keeping roles separate in the new order is much more challenging. As they bleed into each other we can end up confused and feel we’re performing both roles poorly.. Which can have a negative impact on our self-esteem. Once you understand this is happening it becomes easier to reduce the mental conflict and manage the circumstances. It’s often possible to negotiate with work colleagues: explaining there are times when you need to be in parent mode and therefore unavailable for work calls or online meetings. It’s also OK to say: “we may be interrupted if my child suddenly needs me. If that happens I’ll reschedule this call/online meeting as quickly as possible.” We need to redefine what ‘professional’ looks like.

How to use positive psychology to get what you need

Navigating the new circumstances involves adapting our own behaviour and encouraging those around us to do the same. Harnessing positive psychology improves our chances of getting what we need. A positive approach to change identifies what might be possible and encourages more of it when it occurs. As the saying goes: the behaviour that’s rewarded is the behaviour that continues.

To get what we need we must first of all have clarity on what that looks like; and how we will know when we have it. It sounds pretty obvious, but what exactly does “I need more help with the children” or “I need some quiet time to write this report” look like in practice? For instance, does help with the children mean keeping them amused for an hour? Feeding them? Getting them to bed? The more specific you are in what your needs look like, the easier it becomes for others to help. Getting help may also mean relinquishing some of the expectations you have around the role of parent.

You can use positive psychology to reinforce the behaviour you want from those around you by asking yourself:

When do I already see the behaviour I want happening and how can I encourage more of it?

Above all else be gentle with yourself and ohters. The current situation is challenging our mental models around how we expect to integrate work into our lives: which is both disorientating and tiring. We will emerge from this with a ‘new normal’ but it’s too early to say what that will look like. Personally I’m holding onto the vision that it will lead more people to put in structures for a more balanced life.

ReBalancing the chaos #1

Clock With Broken Glass On A White Background. Chaos Time. Time

The pandemic crisis has highlighted how precarious the work-life balance juggle is for so many of us. Mothers, in particular, face the triple whammy of trying to continue with paid work while looking after children and no longer able to rely on grandparents to pick up the slack. In these circumstances is any semblance of work-life balance possible?

My short answer is yes. A few simple shifts in your thinking and your working practices will enable better balance. It won’t be perfect – but then it never was. You will, however, notice an improvement.

In this week’s blog I’m focusing on two foundational strategies that will help #Rebalance the chaos.

  1. Redesign your job

Now, more than ever, it’s essential that you’re clear on the outputs expected of you and the timescales in which you must deliver these. For too long the focus, regardless of where the work was done, has been on the number of hours devoted to it rather than on the outputs produced. Time has suddenly become a scarce commodity and we need to be more mindful of how we use it.

It’s the perfect time to have that conversation with your manager. Your focus should be on how you can make the best use of those valuable skills for which you were hired. And how you can reduce the low value activities (such as endless meetings and emails) that get in the way of your productivity by eating away at your time. It’s also the moment to accept that your work routine and your availability for work are both going to deviate from the standard 9:00 to 18:00 in the office. So long as you meet agreed deadlines, when you choose to work should be irrelevant.

  1. Keep ‘multi-tasking’ to a minimum

Researchers categorise work-life balance strategies along a continuum from Separation at one end to Integration at the other. Since the turn of the century technology had been pushing more and more of us to be Integrators – leading to an #AlwaysOn working culture and the risk of burnout.

Integrators appear to be more comfortable blending their work and non-work activities; and in the current circumstances many people have little option to do otherwise. However, integration, also often referred to as multi-tasking – has its limitations.

Indeed multi-tasking has been shown to be a myth. What we’re actually doing is switching between tasks and the mental effort of doing so makes us less productive. Trying to multi-task work with caring for a young child can be almost impossible. If you’re in that position and living in a two parent household it’s better to agree boundaried periods when each of you can work while sharing childcare and household tasks. Lone parents face a much bigger challenge; and may need to lower their work-based expectations in the short term.

In the second part of this blog next week I’ll be looking at how to avoid role confusion; and how to use positive psychology to get what you need.

The internet is currently full of coaches and motivational speakers encouraging us to make use of these unusual circumstances to learn new skills and develop new habits. For many of us that can seem like adding more to the current chaos of our lives. Following my suggestions, on the other hand, will lead you (almost) effortlessly to new skills and habits that will serve you in good stead when the current crisis is over.