‘Juggling multiple roles in the post COVID-19 world — a psychologically informed approach’.

26.06.2020: As I write this week’s blog as the Lead for Psychologically Informed Environments (PIE) at the national youth homeless charity; Centrepoint, and lock-down restrictions are being further eased in the UK you could be excused for thinking that life is starting to return to ‘normal’ (apart from the perhaps the heatwave over past few days!). However, for many of us, life remains far from normal as we continue to try to work remotely from home and manage home schooling our children or we are continuing to travel to work to deliver support in our accommodation services on increasingly busy public transport with the continued risks of COVID-19. Consequently, this week has continued to feel like we are ‘juggling’ many tasks or roles, which impact on our attention and concentration as well upon as our mental and physical well-being, and this can make us feel ‘exhausted’ and stressed. This has been a personal theme for me as well as a professional theme amongst some of our staff within the ‘frontline’ reflective practice spaces in the organisation over recent weeks.

This can at times, feel quite overwhelming, especially if some of those ‘balls’ we are juggling carry a sense of responsibility (e.g. to earn money, provide an education for our children, meet the expectations of others to perform, provide support to vulnerable homeless young people). For example, during this lock-down period I have had to juggle many roles such as psychologist, employee, manager, mother, wife, daughter, housekeeper, friend and teacher! Many of these roles have even changed beyond normal recognition because of the situations we now find ourselves in. For example re-learning to deliver remote versus in-person psychological support on the ‘frontline’ such as in our Floating Support, Health, Helpline Services or the PIE Team in reflective practice sessions. Or perhaps these roles are more challenging or time consuming to undertake (e.g. socialising with friends and family, or getting our food shopping), or are even completely new (e.g. being a teacher)! It can therefore be easy to ‘drop the odd ball’ from time to time!

So what would a psychologically informed approach advise about this ‘juggling’? Personally, I am finding it quite exhausting and relentless at the moment, and I am certainly counting the days until the end of school term so that I can at least drop the role of ‘teacher’, which I am not ashamed to admit, I am not the best at! These negative feelings are actually quite normal, as Williams et al (1991) found that multiple role juggling had immediate negative effects on task enjoyment and mood. Even prior to the most recent COVID-19 lock-down, there is evidence that stressors linked to work-life conflict have intensified in recent years (Jun Jang & Zippay, 2018) and there is a direct increase in negative mood as responsibilities at home and work increase (e.g. Williams & Alliger, 1994). Specifically, tensions associated with managing the demands of employment and home life can have negative effects on mental (and physical) health, such as anxiety, tension, worry, frustration, guilt and distress (e.g. Frone et al, 1997; Geurts et al, 2003; Mathews et al, 2006; Livingston & Judge, 2008) as well as on family and job satisfaction.

Kushnir & Kusan (1992) view ‘stress’ as resulting from a combination of high role demands and low coping resources (e.g. material, psychological, interpersonal and organisational). The achievement of a ‘work-life balance’ (i.e. the ability to meet commitments at home and at work) or to keep ‘juggling all the balls’ is very difficult, and arguably even more so at the moment as we are all adjusting to this ‘new normal’. Indeed as each day contains a finite number of hours, the tasks can seem quite relentless and it is common to experience a ‘time bind’, when we do not have enough time to meet both the demands of work and home (Hochschild, 1997). This can particularly be a challenge for women, especially those with young children (c.f. Demerouti et al, 2012), who may have lost much of their usual childcare support such as nurseries or grandparents as these have not been available during lock-down. Of course, it will be of no surprise to 51% of the readers of the blog, that ‘working women’ often bear a disproportionate workload in terms of family, home or childcare roles (c.f. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-52808930).

Consequently, I have been thinking this week about how do we manage this ‘juggling’ of multiple demands, roles or responsibilities especially as for many of us this situation is unlikely to change for some months. How do we continue to manage, particularly when working in the homeless sector, as the work itself is often particularly challenging and emotionally exhausting? I was therefore thinking this week of some wise words of a previous clinical supervisor when reflecting on the challenges of working, studying and having a home life during my clinical psychology training. They noted that when you are juggling lots of ‘balls’, remember some are ‘plastic’ and therefore will ‘bounce’ if dropped and some are ‘glass’ and therefore may shatter. Therefore, reflecting on our current roles and working out which are the current priority is key. This can give us a sense of control, which is an important determinant of whether we feel stress (Tingey et al, 1996).

Of course, some roles may be more important than others may at different times, and the challenge is always to know which and when. For example, whilst writing this blog today I am prioritising work but yesterday I took a day off during this heat wave to prioritise family and to visit my mother with my children at her local beach for the first time since the start of lock-down. This was a rare and valuable day off from work and home schooling, which helped me recharge my batteries and reconnect with my family (and as a result helps me feel less guilty about re-focusing back on work again today). Moreover, even within our different roles, some tasks may also be more important than others are, and so as well as prioritising our roles, prioritising the tasks within each role is important. I like to have ‘To Do Lists’, and often plan my week to block out time for specific tasks (e.g. writing this blog, facilitating reflective practice spaces for our ‘frontline’ staff teams, taking my turn at home-schooling, completing household tasks). This can help reduce a sense of feeling overwhelmed, if we know when we are going to undertake different tasks or activities.

Of course, even with such an ‘action plan’, it is important to remember that we cannot manage ‘time’. We can only manage what we can do in the time available. I am often guilty of believing that I can do things in less time than it actually will take, and there are always ‘curve balls’ that can get thrown into any situation (e.g. interruptions or requests, new tasks taking priority, the challenges of remote technologies not performing). I have now learnt to add at least 20% to my estimated time to complete a task to allow for this and am still learning to say ‘no’ or acknowledge that something won’t be done as planned sometimes! Moreover, I have also had to increase my willingness to ‘ask for help’ from others (e.g. friends, family, partner, work colleagues, employer) and to ensure that I keep communicating with them. I am lucky that Centrepoint has been a flexible employer during this lock-down period, and actually working remotely has had some advantages in creating flexibility in order to keep ‘juggling’ the multiple demands of my role. For example, I have been able to facilitate a reflective practice space for one of our teams in London in the morning, and then another for a team in Manchester in the afternoon because I am delivering these remotely rather than relying on travelling on trains to deliver these sessions in person.

Of course, one of the biggest challenges right now, especially for those of us who are working from home, is the blurring of the boundaries between our work and our home roles. Although as noted above, I can be present in different places more easily, it is hard to ‘switch off’ from work in the same way. I have talked to many ‘frontline’ staff in recent weeks, who like myself are working remotely and have actually missed the ‘commute’ to and from work as it gave us space to reflect, decompress and ‘switch’ off’ from one role to another. Therefore, it is crucial that we need to create some ‘artificial boundaries’ between work and home whenever possible. This might mean being consistent in switching off a work phone at the end of the day to avoid the temptation to answer emails in the evening, taking 5 minutes to go outside for a quick break between work tasks to give ourselves space for reflection and decompression from difficult emotions, or even booking out time in our diaries to take a lunch break or have a remote catch-up with colleagues or family! Continuing to practice self-care and keeping our focus on the present, utilising mindfulness meditation practices, can also be helpful in reducing this sense of being ‘overwhelmed’ (Lutz et al, 2008).

Interestingly, whilst we might feel that we can’t juggle multiple roles, research also suggests that there can be some advantages for our mental and physical health (e.g. Menaghan, 1989; Thoits, 1992; Garaet et al, 1993; Barnett & Hyde, 2001), because having multiple role can strengthen our identity. Having multiple sources of self-validation and identity formation can actually act as a ‘buffer’ from experiencing ‘negative spill over’ from one aspect of the self to the rest of the self (Linville, 1985; 1987). Moreover, holding multiple roles may be beneficial because experiences in one role can enrich experiences in other roles because of the resources and skills we gain (Ruderman et al, 2002; Greenhaus & Powell, 2006; Wayne et al, 2007). For example, learning multitasking skills may make us more efficient at work, whilst negotiating skills developed with our children at home may also prove useful in managing challenging situations in the workplace!

Therefore, this week I have also been trying to re-frame some of the challenges of holding multiple roles as not just demanding, but also as a positive. This not only helps our motivation, but also self-confidence as we can realise that multiple roles can actually help us to do a better job in any given area because they can give us a broader perspective and allows us to develop new skills. Moreover, I have been continuing to try to remember the importance of being ‘grateful’ rather than ‘resentful’ for the multiple roles that I currently hold. For example, working allows me to have a steady income that provides for my family, having children has changed my life for the positive, and my elderly mother still being with us, despite serious health issues a few years ago is a blessing not a burden. Moreover, feeling gratitude for what we have has been reliably shown in the psychological literature to improve our well-being (Emmons & McCullough, 2003; Chancellor et al, 2014).

The importance of being ‘present’ in each of our roles and practicing savouring the positive experiences in each context, as well as reminding ourselves of the importance of our ‘values’ within each of our roles as per Acceptance & Commitment Therapy approaches (ACT; Hayes, 1982) is also helpful when managing the challenges of ‘juggling’ multiple roles. Focusing on, and spending a few moments to enjoy or savour any positive experiences we have, however small, improves our emotional well-being and life satisfaction (Quoidbach et al, 2010). For example, Chancellor et al (2014) found that employees that listed three good things that happened each day at work reported higher levels of happiness and satisfaction.

Consequently, despite getting a bit sun-burnt yesterday at the beach, the disadvantage of being ginger haired and fair skinned even with Factor 50 sun cream on (!), it was truly a joyous day to watch my children playing in the sea and building sandcastles without a care in the world. Their complete immersion in that one happy moment was something I think we can so easily forget as adults especially when we are ‘juggling’ so many balls right now, and constantly focusing on what we have to do ‘next’ without dropping any of them. However, I would argue that taking a moment to focus on the pleasure or reward of whatever we are doing, whether that’s a work or a personal task, is important for our psychological well-being, which ultimately may actually help keep us ‘juggling’ all our multiple roles or ‘balls’ in the future…