Shifting to a COVID-induced WFH paradigm has brought many changes to the way we are showing up for work. Some of these, like the opportunity to dress in a more comfortable way, are generally welcome. Others, like having to negotiate precious workday hours alongside the demands of parenting school-age children, are harder to swallow.
Mothers in particular appear to be caught in this new scramble for time and concentration. Many of my clients with children are feeling whip-sawed by the challenge. Their concentration is suffering, because they have to switch back and forth between parenting and work duties so often during a single day.
I’ve also noticed that my clients are feeling extra-anxious about making decisions, especially those at high-level positions. They’re struggling to find the brainspace to reach any definite conclusions. Watching deadlines fly by compounds their anxiety and makes them feel like they aren’t fulfilling the duties of their role. In an uncertain economy when many workers have already lost their positions (some of them permanently), this is not a welcome thought.
As if that’s not hard enough, there is also a general feeling of overwhelm and brain-fog affecting many of my clients who are attempting to parent while working. We can, of course, call this a natural reaction to the current state of the world. This reaction is shared by all, but working parents attempting full- or even part-time childcare are suffering acutely.
If working mothers are going to stay on the job and keep their sanity, there are a few things they can do to advocate for themselves and hopefully ease some of the stress. As I remind my clients on a daily basis, humans are powerfully adaptable. Especially in times of great stress we are capable of making big changes that can keep us calm, organized and focused. Here are five that I recommend:
- Become a direct communicator: If you identify as an introvert, or someone who actively avoids conflict, you might not have effective direct communication skills. Learning how to spell out exactly what you need and want to your co-workers and boss, so you can get your work done, is crucial (ex: “In order to finish this report I need the stats from marketing in my inbox by end of day”). Direct communication can also help you draw strong boundaries around your time and energy (ex: “I’ll be at my desk working on this project for the next 45 minutes. Please feel free to reach out to me during that time. After that I’ll be with my kids until I return to my desk at 4pm”). You’ll need these in order to complete the tasks on your plate, and still have something left over for family hours.
- Reach out to new allies: Who can you trust at work to be your ally in meetings and presentations? If you’re being constantly interrupted, or if your ideas are frequently co-opted by others, you’re probably feeling unheard and unappreciated. Choose someone trustworthy and create a mutually beneficial allyship where you both stick up for each other. Practice intervening on each others’ behalf using clear, direct language (ex: Excuse me! _____ isn’t done speaking yet and I’d like to hear what she has to say”). Do a quick allyship strategy check-in together before each meeting, and stay consistent in your actions. You are stronger together, and modelling these behaviors can help uplift other women in your office who may choose to do the same thing. Ideally all women can advocate for each other’s voices to be heard when the moment comes.
- Front-load your day with decisions, and let people know that’s when you’ll be making them: if you’re like most people, your ability to make clear decisions decreases throughout the day. This “decision fatigue” can make you feel depleted and ______. Shifting your decision-making duties to the first part of the day, when you’re feeling refreshed after a night of sleep, can help you access deeper levels of focus. Let your team know you’ll need final reports and all relevant decision-making materials by EOD the day before your deadline (ex: “I’ll be making my final decision on Friday at 11am. Any reports not submitted by EOD on Thursday will not be considered”).
- Ask for clarification when you need it: When you’re given something new to work on, it’s not a good choice to pretend that you fully comprehend a concept, idea or task if you don’t. Wasting precious time trying to sort out specifics or fill in the blanks will only delay the amount of actual work you can do on the project. Ask directly for more information, and keep requesting it until you’re 100% clear (ex: “Great presentation. Can you clarify what you meant by ________? I want to make sure I understand the complete parameters before I go forward with my tasks”).
- Acknowledge accommodations: When your boss or co-worker gives you extra time to complete a task, or shifts a deadline to accommodate your schedule, thank them for this change (ex: “Here’s my final report. I appreciate the extra three days, it was helpful to have that time to consider all possibilities before making my conclusions”). It might seem counterintuitive to draw attention to the fact that you needed extra time. Yet by expressing gratitude you’re also signaling that you work better with accommodations, and that they are key to your success in the WFH paradigm. It’s also a chance to describe what you did with the extra time, as in the example above, so that everyone understands that you used it well.
Lastly, I advise my clients to get in the habit of taking three slow, deep breaths with their eyes closed between each meeting and/or parenting session. Pausing for oxygen can help you change brain-states more efficiently. Give yourself a moment of peace, so you can transition with more clarity and focus. Taking these mini-pauses throughout the day can also help keep you calmer overall.
Alicia Dara is a nationally recognized speech and presentation coach based in Seattle. She has helped thousands of people including CEO’s, Global VPs, Executive Directors and Presidential candidates break through blocks, find their voice, and put it to work. Her most popular group training is “Power Voice for Career Women”, which helps women strengthen their voices, clarify their messaging, and push back against workplace sexism. Corporate clients include Microsoft (where she is a vendor), WeWork (where she is a vendor), Kimpton Hotels, Planned Parenthood, The Riveter, The Rivkin Center, Carhartt, and Premera. Private clients include the National Women’s Political Caucus, the Female Founders Alliance, and members of Amazon, Merrill Lynch, Seattle Trade Commission, Windermere, and Lake Partners. Alicia was born into a family of Grammy-award winning symphony musicians. She studied musical theater in New York City and is an AMDA grad. As a musician she has released 5 original solo records and 4 with her current band Diamondwolf. Her writings about public speaking and creativity have appeared in Lioness Magazine, Thrive Global, The Select 7, Medium, CoveyClub, The WriteLife, and Daily OM.