How to work from home with children without losing your mind

To all of you now thrust in to the world of juggling video calls with the needs of the tiny generals that reside in your new workplace – welcome to a hellscape situation that I occupied calmly and rationally for the past few years.

Spoiler. There was nothing calm or rationale about it. There were moments of complete and utter chaos. Massive tantrums, too much screen-time, unrealistic demands and constant snacking. That was just me. Don’t even get me started on what my kids were like.

Somewhat miraculously last year I completed a long-winded PhD working from home. I did this while juggling work for a number of employers on different small projects, and contracting myself out to write tenders and applications for small companies. I did do a few nursing shifts amongst all of that, but the bulk of the past four years for me have been working from home. I was even allowed to work from home for a government department with fabled remote access. That is right – I am special.

Its ok, I know I’m not.

This year I got a real job in a real office with real colleagues that have real conversations, which was a great change from me talking to my rescue dog. I was actually really excited to have a 9 to 5 job, but the COVID-10 situation has seen me return to working from home and video calling everyone. It is familiar turf. This familiarity for both myself and my family is something I have taken a bit for granted. Working from home is different. You need to change the way you work or you are going to go insane, start screaming at your kids and completely drop your bundle. This is hard work, but don’t make it harder on yourself by trying to achieve the unachievable.

The past few weeks I’ve witnessed the challenges people new to this are facing. I’ve also heard some of the questionable advice handed out on how to work from home with small children from people who have clearly never done it before. Working from home is a different beast.

I had a great mentor school me on how to get stuff done done and it worked. My PhD was completed entirely working remotely from home. My two main supervisors living in 400km away. We would meet up in person once or twice a year, but I was very much left to get on with it with two small children as my research associates. So now, I pontificate to you from my ivory tower of successful mastery of working from home and wish to bestow my five best tips for working from home with small children. Gather around the fire:

1. Consider how much actual work you do when in your regular office and ensure you do that. Don’t kid yourself that you are steaming away in productivity for eight hours every day. You never chat with your colleagues? Share a story from home? Check your phone? Stare blankly at the screen wishing the day would end?

Focus on the work you have to do, the meetings you have to be in and the time you have to be available – and nail it. Consider using Pomodoro technique to really focus. Don’t kid yourself. If you’re surfing the internet, get back to work or focus on your kids. Don’t waste time in between. Be productive.

2. You can’t work your regular hours so give up trying to. Don’t listen to your HR department when they advise you not to log on “before work time”. With small children around – you need to make hay while the sun shines, or in this case, when it doesn’t. If you can squeeze a couple of hours of administration before they really want your attention – get it done.

This links really closely to point 1. Be available for calls during your hours and regularly check your emails, but get your work done at the times of the day you can. Not necessarily between 9 and 5. Be flexible.

I recommend fingerless gloves in winter.

3. Don’t get worried if your kids wander in to your video conferencing meeting. Or start screaming. Or break something. Because you’re already video-conferencing like a pro, your microphone isn’t on, so no-one else knows that Jane just smashed a vase over Henry’s head. You have time to calmly let everyone know you you just need to check on something before sneaking off to assess the bleeding.

Everyone is doing this together. Everyone has kids wandering around doing things they shouldn’t after they’ve got bored of Netflix. Everyone is going to have a child wander in to shot mid-meeting. Just acknowledge it and move on. It is not unprofessional. This is not how things were. Stop trying to make it like the way it was. Be adaptive.

This family blazed a trail for us. Make the most of their hard work.

4. Don’t forget about your routines. If you are going to get admin tasks done early, you still need to get up, get dressed, have some breakfast and set yourself mentally for the day.

The day might look and feel a lot different than it used to, but if you’re still in your pyjamas at lunch time, you’re in trouble. There are very few jobs that require you to be in pyjamas, if you aren’t B1 or B2, you are kidding yourself. You are still going to work (mentally), so you still need to get ready (mentally). Getting dressed is a part of that. Be professional.

5. Above all else, you are a parent. Your angry little co-worker needs a lot more love and attention than your regular ones (hopefully) do. There are things that are more important than work, and provided you are committed to being available during your work hours, getting your work done and maintaining professionalism – there are times that it is more important that your connect with your children than finish an email.

If you can provide some quality time for your kids between bursts of productivity, they are more likely to leave you alone when you need to be left alone for the state-wide video conference. Be kind to yourself if you’ve spent more time than budgeted giving them attention. They need it at this time. Kids are picking up on our stress and anxiety.

You can’t work in the same ways you have in your office – but why do you have to? Why do you have to be at a computer from 9 until 5 at home? Did you ever ACTUALLY do that in the office? No coffees? No wandering up to the photocopy? No meetings that could’ve been an email? Be open to your kids coming and having a chat to you because they are your most important stakeholder – and they will be there well after this situation, and this job. Be a parent.

Nursing is a team sport

Nursing is an incredibly complicated job that combines so may different elements in to a single role. You don’t have to be great at everything, but you have to be a good all-rounder. One thing you can’t be lacking in is team work. Don’t play well with others? Can’t accept help? Don’t seem to be able to find ways to get out of your own way to give some else a hand? You may not cut it as a nurse.

Working in a busy hospital setting can be stressful, it can be busy and sometimes, despite all your best efforts, everything goes to hell and you never get to your break. Or you don’t finish what you were planning to do. Or you miss home time and have to stay back to finish your notes. Or you realise you haven’t been to the toilet for six hours. It happens. When it starts happening all the time, then something is up. When it starts happening to others all the time – you have to start looking at the workplace, the staff and the culture.

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A large responsibility falls on senior nurses. Their role is two fold: to lead from the front in setting the tone for teamwork; and to set the example when it comes to self-care. Graduate nurses and students will always look to the example set by the most senior staff on the ward. If you are coordinating a nursing shift, you are often under the pump. Bed managers want you to clear your decks, theatre are always wanting to clear their recovery ward and get patients off their hands, the emergency department are desperate for you to clear their beds, families want information, your boss wants your time and your nurses want leadership. It can be stressful. There is a lot to coordinate. There can feel like no time to think. What there is always time for, is time to help.

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The more you can get around your staff, the better. Just because you were in the right place at the right time to score some epaulettes, a red collar or a clipboard doesn’t mean you can’t muck in and help. Your coordinating a shift – you aren’t above helping with the most basic of nursing tasks. I’ve seen Director’s of Nursing treading the lino of a busy hospital in a crisis stripping beds and taking observations. Get over yourself. Where this is critical is when it comes to helping graduate nurses and new staff. Desperate to seem like they are on top of it, they will refuse help or view it as an acknowledgement of their lack of ability. The more normalised helping is, coming form the leaders on a ward, the easier it is for graduates to accept help. This will help them from floundering, build the culture of helping and guide them on what is expected when they aren’t the new graduate.

The next key thing a leader on a ward MUST do is take meal breaks. We’ve all seen coordinators eating al desko while sorting out transfers, paperwork, admissions or the like. That’s great. Its really inspiring to see their dedication. Their refusal to step away from the fray. Their reluctance to hand over the reigns to another profssoinal, to admit that they are expendable to the machinations of the ward. We’ve paid witness their inability to manage their time effectively. Their lack of awareness of OH&S legislation and patiently negotiated Enterprise Bargaining Agreements outlining their entitlements. Their lack of leadership when it comes to setting a correct example in ensuring that you have taken the appropriate steps for maintain your own well-being. We’ve seen them ignore patient safety by taking an allotted break; and fail to show the new nurses and graduates that one of the most important things you can do as a nurse is look after your most important resource – yourself.

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Now, if it is UNSAFE to leave your ward environment due to a change in condition, a catastrophe or inappropriate staffing, then you still have a major role to play. You need to call nursing management above you and demand they come and relieve you so that you can take your break. If this is a regular problem due to workload, you need to show leadership and ensure that all nurses working through breaks apply to be paid for that time. Unless you are in a senior hospital management position that prohibits you from leaving the facility during your shift, your break is probably not paid for. Which means it is your time.

Now, if you feel like donating your time to your health service and government department, on top of your contribution through taxes, that is noble – because that is what you are doing. It is also crazy. You are not helping your patients or your fellow staff by not taking a break. If anything, you are undermining them by suggesting they should stay on the ward too, or suggesting they aren’t as “dedicated” as you are. You are also undermining your Enterprise Bargaining Agreement and giving management no reason to improve staffing as you always seem to “manage”. you are cutting your nose off to spite your face. No body likes that.

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Taking your breaks and helping other professionals may seem like small things, but when you are working in a high-pressure environment, they mean big things. Helping those around you, if you are a senior nurse or not, helps morale. It helps the professionals around you know that you think beyond your workload, your six patients. It points out that your not so absorbed with your own workload that you can’t lend five minutes to someone to help with a turn or a wash or some post-operative observations. It points out that you are a team player.

On the flip-side – don’t exploit people that do offer you help. I worked a shift recently where I did more work with a group of patients than the nurse that was allocated their care. I wasn’t the only one that noticed this – my fellow colleagues on the shift and the manager did too. Its not a good look. It hinged somewhere between a lack of time management and a keenness to reduce a workload beyond what is reasonable. Don’t be one of those people that refuses to accept help when it is offered – but don’t be one of those people that tries to get others to do the tasks you aren’t that interested in or are less than great. Acting like that puts you well offside with your colleagues to the point that come the day you really need some help, and you are really under the pump – they might just blow you off. Professionally, of course.

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The reason it is so important to embed such small concepts in to ever day practice is that in nursing, when things go really bad – they can go REALLY bad. If you’ve got a strong, committed and engaged team that genuinely respects each other; when things go badly, there will be no question that the team will kick in to gear.

When you’ve instilled in all nurses that looking after their own well-being is more important than paperwork or six hourly observations being thirty minutes late – then you’ll have well balanced, well rested, well fed individuals who will work harder and more efficiently because of their breaks, not in spite of them.

When graduates know that taking their coffee break is critical to managing their time, because their supervising nurse does it – they won’t baulk at doing it.They won’t learn the bad habits of eating meals while writing notes or skipping breaks to provide care.

When a nurse knows that they can help a colleague who is under the pump without being exploited, or shooed away – they’ll keep offering.

When everyone is working together and playing on the same team with the same rules, goals and expectations – those busy, pressurised environments become fun, engaging professional challenges.

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When you’ve got a great group around you that values team work – you enjoy your shift and have great patient outcomes.  There is no place for individuals, egos or selfishness when nursing is a team sport.