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Working From Home Now? A Therapist’s Advice on Maintaining Healthy Family Relationships

Tyler Davidson

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Millions of workers have suddenly transitioned to working at home to wait out the coronavirus pandemic.

Relationship therapist Megan Bearce, MA, shares tips for maintaining your family relationships when you’re all under stress and cooped up in the same house.

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[Start Transcript]

Tyler Davidson: Hello, I’m Tyler Davidson with Stamats, and I’m also the vice president and chief content director of Meetings Today.

Joining us today is Megan Bearce, who is a licensed marriage and family therapist, coach, speaker and author of Super Commuter Couples: Staying Together When a Job Keeps You Apart. And, you know, kind of the background on this is Megan and I were working to do a story about how difficult it is for people who travel a lot to maintain their personal and family relationships.

But of course, since then the coronavirus has really hit far and wide and has really resulted in so many people having to work from home. So that’s adding so many different stressors to their everyday personal and professional lives.

So thanks for joining us today, Megan.

Megan Bearce: Thanks for having me.

Davidson: And I noticed on your website you have a great tips article I think people should check out, on MeganBearce.com, “Top 10 Tips for Families Navigating COVID-19 Together at Home.” Why don’t you explain to the listeners what is in that article and what they can perhaps glean from it?

Bearce: Sure. Well, the biggest thing—well, they’re all big, I mean where this list could be 20 items long, is that whether you’re a road warrior, like we were talking about earlier, or just a regular employee with a 9 to 5 job, all of a sudden you’re going to be spending a lot of time together. And when I was talking with road warriors, and [when] I work with clients, that actually tended to be the time that was the hardest for couples—when they were back together because they were used to being apart.

I think a lot of families are going to find the same thing. Yes, you are together regularly, but you’re not together from sunup to sundown every single day. And so I think the theme or kind of the focus a lot of families might find helpful is just really figuring out a routine.

And if you think about it, just as a parent or anybody that’s worked with children, that’s one of the first things you try to implement with toddlers is routine that brings some comfort, some stability. And so as we head into these days and weeks, if you can either replicate the routines your children have at school; for example, if they always have lunch at noon, and try to make that your standard, or if they always have a snack at 2, everything that’s as normal as possible, but just now at home, I think will be really helpful.

But then the same for you as employees. If you usually take a break at 10 o’clock and walk down and talk to your coworker? Well, can you do that except now do it on Skype or have a text message. And also finding ways to, you know, exercise, get movement, not just stay locked at your desk now that you’re at your house all the time?

Davidson: What do you think will be the biggest challenge is for couples at home together in the coming days and weeks?

Bearce: I think it is just going to be this figuring out how to dance together all day long. Because like I said, you have your routines—when you go to the office, what you do on your commute—you know the ways you ease into your day and out of your day, but now you’re going to be together.

Megan Bearce, MA, Therapist, Author and Speaker

Megan Bearce, MA, Therapist, Author and Speaker

So just think of it even just from the aspect of your office space. You may have a cubicle that’s your own, you may have an office where the door shuts. You may not have that in your home, depending on the size of it. Especially for more densely populated cities, real estate is tight.

And so are you going to be sitting across the kitchen table from your spouse trying to make conference calls at the same time? So are there ways that you can ease the stress of that with noise-cancelling headphones, coordinate your calls at opposite times? Just all those tiny things that can really wear on each other.

And I think that’s going to be the biggest thing, is people are going to be stressed out. People are going to be anxious. People are going to be uncertain. And we’re all really figuring this out together.

So I think that’s one thing that everybody can kind of focus on, is being kind to yourself and kind to each other, and know that there’s going to be times that are a little chaotic.

Davidson: And I think it might be important to stress that everyone is going through this, right? So you’re probably going to be talking on the phone with other people who are kind of thrust into the same situation. So maybe just realize that you aren’t alone in this, and we’re all sort of navigating this the best we can.

Bearce: Yeah, and I think a great example that I’ve been seeing even just in the last 24 hours with schools across the country shutting down, is the power of social media to really connect and support each other. There’s lots of different groups on Twitter and Facebook that are popping up to just literally be a repository for, “Here’s a website with free e-learning. Here’s a website with free yoga classes. Here’s a website with free access to the internet if you don’t have it.”

So I think it’s going to be a real opportunity for community building, and if you can just take a breath and just start to look for what you need, I think you’re going find it pretty quickly, which is great to see.

Davidson: And what about people with children at home? Do you have any advice for them to really maintain that relationship? And I guess it’s kind of not go crazy when they’re going crazy?

Bearce: Exactly. Again, that’s kind of back to the routines. If you’re not used to being home with your kids eight hours a day, it might be challenging. And so there again, kind of give yourself the permission to revise and re-plan.

One thing I recommended in that article you mentioned was to sit down as soon as you can have a little family meeting and try to have a schedule. And that may be just as simple as everybody has to have breakfast by 7:30 in the morning, or everybody needs to check in with each other to look to see what the rest of your day is like.

And I think, obviously, for parents with younger kids, this is much harder because kids need a lot of attention and guidance, versus my kids, who are a little bit older—they’re 10 and 11. So I can say, you know, go read for 30 minutes or go do this.

So adjusting that, and I think a really important thing that hasn’t been mentioned too often, is kids pay attention to how their parents are responding to things. So if you can stay calm as a parent, if you cannot get too worked up, if you can watch the words that you use and the things that you’re saying, I think that will help keep the kids calm, also.

Davidson: Yeah, and I think, too, that this is stressful for all of us. We’re all trying to rationalize really what is happening right now. And with children, I mean, they’re going to have a lot of questions just about why is this happening? They’re probably filled with a lot of fear. And I guess the parents really have to keep control of the situation and really communicate to them.

Bearce: Yeah, I saw a great example of that just at the store a couple days ago. A girl who was maybe four with her mom, and she just kept saying, “Times are really crazy right now. Times are just really different right now.” So really paying attention to the age appropriateness of your comment, but again, just being as honest as you can within that realm of, “I don’t know, we’re just going to do the best we can. We’re going to plan it day by day,” and I think that really goes a long way. And then just the idea, when I talk with road warrior families, the idea that you know you’re in and out, in and out of relationships. So the person back home, a lot of the burden of just day-to-day life is on them.

The importance of having a Plan B and a Plan C—I think that guidance really applies here as well. Whether that’s Plan B in case you run out of medication, or contacting your neighbor; any of these sorts of things.

I think the more people can be proactive, I think that helps lower your anxiety, too, because then it becomes about control. What do we have control over? And what is out of our control? And how can we do the best we can to kind of reinforce what it is that we need from other people if we can’t do it ourselves?

And with clients, I’ll talk about “what-ifs.” What are the what-ifs that you’re telling yourself, but let’s look at the what-ifs that are positive, too. And so that’s kind of one thing I wanted to pass on in the article, is how can we use this time that we’re stuck at home in a positive way?

So one example, given the reality of what’s going on in the economy and the job market; can you use this time to beef up your resume to update it, to update your LinkedIn profile?

Not that you’re going to run off and find a new job or that you’re definitely going to not have one, but when things pick up—and they will pick up—now you’re really well positioned to go into your performance review and say, “Hey, look, this is what I’ve done.” Or if that amazing job opportunity pops up, you’re ready to go, you can send in that application.

So there’s little ways to use this time to tackle the projects you never have time to do because you’re too busy. Or off to children’s games and activities. I think this could be a really great time to reconnect and recharge and just slow down for a little bit.

Davidson: And you did mention road warriors, which you definitely specialize in, and sort of helping them maintain their relationships. Do road warriors have any additional coping skills, or challenges, versus traditional employees?

Bearce: Yeah, I think there is definitely more of a challenge, because you’re probably not on the road now. So you are not just transitioning for a week or a weekend; it could be longer term than that.

And so, again, talking with your partner and your family about just what do we want to change, how we want our days to go, the uncertainty of when you’re going to be out on the road again? I think there’s going to be that added layer of the uncertainty of the job market, and so how can we mitigate that?

And so I’m telling people in therapy, you may think, “Oh, I can’t go to my therapist’s or I can’t start therapy if I’m nervous.” A lot of therapists are available online via phone or the internet, so it is possible to reach out that way.

If you happen to be in AA or any other support groups, I know a lot of them are also trying to find ways to connect virtually versus in person. So again, trying to build up your village, and that is another thing I talked to about road warriors [about], is how do you build up your village. So when you do need help, you know who to call. And so I think this is another example of looking at those things.

Davidson: And I just think it’s really just the perfect storm of all these stressors. And then everyone’s cooped up right in the house, and that’s another stressor because you can probably get the suffocating feeling that you can’t escape. And I’m sure you’re hearing that.

And then there’s other people who might work in jobs that normally require them to be onsite, such as, say you’re managing some sort of facility like a convention center, an office building, working in a university. You must feel like there’s no way I can do my job at all. And then that’s going to add a whole other layer of stress to the situation.

Bearce: Right, and I think that’s for those when those what-ifs start to get really loud. And so for somebody in that situation, I would ask, are there projects you never have time to do because you’re so busy onsite and you’re doing so many calls? Can you use this time to focus on those? Are there colleagues that you haven’t caught up with for a while that might be good to do a check-in? Or are there salespeople or clients or customers that maybe you can do a longer check-in [with] now that you do have a little bit more time available?

I would assume people in those sorts of jobs are probably more introverted, personality-wise. And so I think that will be a challenge. Like all of a sudden you go from having all these people around and a million things going on which you thrive in. Now, you may be at home for a couple weeks. So how do you maintain connection in a meaningful way, kind of get that outlet that you need?

And so again, trying to find out as many virtual ways to do that I think will be really helpful. And, again, just trying to keep the worries, the questions quiet as best you can.

Davidson: Yeah, and I imagine through an organization it’s going to add a great deal of stress. And a lot of organizations are coming to the realization of, well, people are going to be not in the office here for a couple of weeks. You know, I don’t know if this is sort of outside of your area of expertise, but I mean, how do you handle those business relationships within your organization?

Bearce: Right. I think it’s going to be an opportunity to get really creative, unfortunately or fortunately, however you want to look at it, because yes, I’m sure a lot of those people are face-to-face, or the uncertainty about when will the convention happen or when will the meeting happen?

And so it could be just as simple as a phone call with all those people, you know, kind of brainstorming together. What is next for us? How do we weather this storm? How can we support each other?

And it may be a good opportunity to really hear each other’s strengths and get some really great ideas, and maybe we’ll come out the other side having processes more efficient or ideas that may never have evolved without this stressor.

Davidson: Yeah, and you know, I guess that could be some sort of silver lining on this cloud, in that you’re going really learn so much more about the people you work with, and probably hone your communication skills, coping skills and organizational skills.

Bearce: I think it’s going be a resilience-building opportunity, no doubt, which obviously is a big buzzword in today’s world, but I think this is a real application. You really are seeing leaders step up. You know, people who may not have been viewed as leaders are taking those roles, and I think it’ll be really interesting to see what happens across the board.

Davidson: Any other advice? This is probably tough, but people working at home with maybe their spouse, their kids; there’s got to be some way they have to set boundaries within the house—when I’m having a meeting now for half an hour, please don’t disturb me. How do you communicate that nicely and not step on anyone’s toes or hurt anyone’s feelings?

Bearce: Right? It’s definitely about how the message is communicated.

Where I’m living at right now my spouse is home. I’m doing this from home as well, and our two kids are downstairs and we have two dogs, and so that’s exactly what we did. I said I have a call at 2 o’clock and I need it to be quiet, and so he’s in another part of the house. We have the luxury of being able to spread out like that. It’s the same thing if kids need to be quiet for a while.

So definitely, communication is going to be extremely important right now. And even communication in regard to, like, “I’m feeling stressed out, I need a minute by myself.”

Really being both vocal and assertive is probably not the right word, but just letting each other know where you’re at. I think that really helps, too, so you’re not snapping at each other; you can give each other a break. Because unfortunately, everybody is feeling it at the same time, and so if you can mitigate that a little bit by setting those up.

Same with even just working from home; if you’ve never worked from home, it can be really easy to get distracted about all these little things you could be doing instead. And so I think even just having your own schedule written down, or whatever method works best for you, is really helpful to keep you on track, whether it’s, “I’m going make calls from 8 to 9 and then I’m going to answer emails from 9 to 10. And then I’m going to take a break from 10 to 10:30.”

Having that structure I think will really keep you more focused, because I think when we’re not focused, then our anxiety can go up to because all of a sudden it’s 4 o’clock and we’ve gotten nothing done.

Davidson: Yeah, and I am sure that even in the quote-unquote most perfect, balanced relationship, there are going to be stressors that happen and there’s going to be tension. Are there any tips for “deescalating” when things really get tense and maybe anger might flare up with anyone in the family?

Bearce: Right? Again, I think it’s about the words you use. So instead of saying, “You are snapping at me. You can say, “It sounds like you’re getting upset, is there anything I can do? Do you need a snack? How can I help?” Versus trying to problem-solve.

I think that’s one way couples get into trouble. They try to tell each other what’s wrong with the other person and tell them how to fix it. So just being curious, like, “What’s going on right now? Is there anything I can do? Is there something you’re worried about? Do you want to talk about it?”

And again, if you think back to the personalities of introverts versus extroverts, the introvert I think is probably going to have a harder time with this because they like their alone time, they like their quiet time. So finding ways for each other to balance that—can you go outside for a walk, take the kids so your spouse can, you know, have 20 minutes or half an hour by themselves?

So, again, just check in with each other, revising what do they need? How can I help? Or I need this.

So communicate what you need to your partner, to your kids. And check in with your kids, too, and have it be a team effort, like, how can we as a family “Smith” get through this together? Because the kids might have great ideas, too, so why not ask them?

Davidson: They’ll probably be on their phones, working with each other…

Bearce: Exactly.

Davidson: They might cope with this better than we can.

Bearce: And I’ve also seen some jokes going around the internet about Generation X, which is what I am, where we were latchkey kids. We were used to being by ourselves with one or two channels on TV. So, I mean, in some respects, we might be pretty prepared for it.

I think it’s the people that are used to being stimulated and going out all the time—an external stimulation—are the ones that may have to take a step or two back and figure out, “Okay, so how can I just be?” And so then that kind of leads you into the conversation of, do you want to use mindfulness meditation apps? Or, you know, that sort of way of staying present in the moment only thinking about what’s on the plan for today instead of trying to plan…I mean even just today, people are like, “Well, what are you doing next week?” I’m like, “I have no idea. I have no idea what I’m going to be able to do next week. I know I have a session with a client on Friday, but that might not happen.” So what’s my Plan B with that. So, little things.

Davidson: And I really think it’s important to stress, too, that you really should weigh heavily the decision to stay home at this time because even if you’re relatively young and healthy, if you get this virus you could transmit it to someone who’s maybe a senior, or has a compromised immune system. So it’s not just about us at this time, either.

Bearce: No, it’s not at all. So I think that definitely has to be heard more loudly if it’s not been already. So yes, I would encourage everybody to stay home as much as possible and work together to hopefully get this nipped quickly.

Davidson: And you did mention some mindful mindfulness apps? Are there any others? People are going to be online a lot during this time. Are there any other resources you could recommend people check out?

Bearce: Well, Simply Being is a really good app that you can customize a meditation session, like the length and the voice and how you want it to do. A good one that’s good for adults and kids is called Stop, Breathe & Think. And that one’s the same thing, but it’s geared more toward kids and you can customize that as well based on are you feeling agitated? Are you feeling overstimulated? Are you feeling grumpy? It’s really great for that.

I keep saying yoga, but that’s just one that pops into my head—teachers that are doing online classes for free or on their apps for free. And companies like Scholastic are offering lots of free content for parents who are trying to figure out how they’re going to teach our kids. I think that’s one thing, too.

I think for teachers and students, it’s going to be stressful, as most teachers have not done online learning before. So as they kind of navigate their way through that, what kind of backup plans can you have to keep your kids focused on learning?

And then even for adults, I just saw a link today to several universities that are offering free online courses. So I think there’s going to be a lot out there that arises.

Davidson: Yeah, I was going to mention that with universities, too, a number of them are really transitioning fast to delivering courses online. And I’m guessing you’re seeing that, too.

Bearce: Yes, I’m seeing that, too, and therapy online. And there’s millions of TED talks on certain topics that we may have the chance to actually sit down and watch. I’m trying to think. I had some more notes.

I think just kind of going back to where we started that change is hard and transitions are hard. And so the more you can talk about it, try to plan, have routines. I think people are going to get more settled. And then even with the idea of what’s next? And maybe use this time to say, “Okay, when things are back to normal, I would like to do this and this, and what can we do to move that forward today?” Kind of get that future thinking and planning moving forward.

Davidson: And it’s important to realize that it will get back to normal, hopefully sooner rather than later. But I think we’re all going through this together. And I thank you, Megan, for joining us today and all that great advice.

Bearce: Yeah. Thank you for having me.

Davidson: And check out Megan’s website at MeganBearce.com for that wonderful article, “10 Tips for Families Navigating COVID-19 Together at Home”—a lot of great information in that I think you’ll find useful.

So thanks for listening to our podcast today. And wherever you are, if you’re at your job or you’re in your home, just hang in there. We’re all in this together, as I said, and make it the greatest day—and business day—you can. Just hang in there and we’ll all be on the other side of this sooner rather than later.

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