With the rise in working from home and juggling multiple responsibilities due to the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us have seen our productivity slump. In this article, carers Nadine La Reine and Julie Simpson give their tips to help make the role of a carer a little easier.
Few jobs or roles in life can be as fulfilling as care work. Whether it’s looking after a loved one or caring for a patient or a client, working to improve the life of another person brings rich rewards and a very rare sense of achievement.
But it is also undeniably hard work. Juggling multiple tasks with the responsibilities and distractions of a job and home life can be both mentally and physically tough and staying productive and motivated as a carer can be a challenge.
To help, here are eight tips and techniques designed to make the role a little easier, with some insight from actual carers.
1. Get assessed
If you’re new to caring, you need to get assessed. As a carer, you automatically qualify for an NHS carer’s assessment that is designed to help make your life easier and make you more productive in the process.
The assessment varies from person to person but can include help with housework, providing taxi fares if you don’t drive, and arranging for someone to take over caring if or when you need a break.
The carer’s assessment is free for any carer over the age of 18 and you can find more details here.
2. Sign up for a support network
You should also register as a carer with your GP at the earliest opportunity. Doing so will help you get additional support in your role from both the GP and their primary care team – which will often include a practice nurse, district nurse and health visitor.
It will also include a free flu vaccination and regular health check-ups. Both are crucial if you’re to remain fit and healthy – all too often, carers overlook their own health as they focus on the needs of others
Other benefits can include greater flexibility with appointments for both you and whoever you care for, home visits, and double appointments if preferred. It can also open up a support network that can make your work easier and, in turn, help you to be more productive.
3. Become more flexible
If you’re one of the many people in Britain who juggle a job with caring for someone, flexible working can make it easier to balance your responsibilities.
The rise in working from home during the Covid pandemic has changed many patterns and attitudes, but flexible working comes in many forms. It can include changing the hours or days that you work, working ‘compressed hours’ to fit five days’ work into three or four longer days, or part-time working or job sharing.
To find out if there is a flexible working policy in place, check your contract of employment or speak to your direct manager or the human resources department. If your employer doesn’t have a policy in place, you can follow the statutory procedure which means writing to your employer to request a change in your working pattern.
By law, employers must give serious consideration to all statutory requests for flexible working and must let you know their decision within three months of the application. If they decline your request, your employer must explain why they have chosen to do so.
For further details on flexible working, see the Acas website.
4. Shift your focus
By nature, carers put the needs of others before their own. That doesn’t make the adjustment easy, however.
“You very quickly learn, as a carer, that you come at the very bottom of the pile,” says Nadine La Reine, mother and full-time carer to Oliver, 17, and Amelia, 11. “I balance my work with caring for my son, who is autistic, with poor mental health, and my daughter, who’s had a chronic illness since birth. There is a huge amount to juggle and their needs come before mine every time.”
“The hardest thing about being a carer is not having a choice in when things need to be done,” says Julie Simpson, whose son Joe was diagnosed with autism and learning difficulties at 3-years-old, followed by sensory processing hypermobility. Now 17 but with the mental capacity of a 6-year-old, Joe has required round-the-clock care since the Covid pandemic began.
“If I’m just sitting down to eat tea and have had a hard day but Joe needs his nappy changing, it can’t be put off and so whatever you were doing has to wait. It can be hard, and I’d say mentally more than physically, but being there for Joe, watching him learn and develop is such a humbling experience and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”
5. Take a break
Taking a break from your caring duties isn’t always easy or possible, but it will help you perform more effectively when you return to your duties. Studies have shown that people perform more effectively after having a break.
“I’ve heard about the importance of taking breaks,” smiles Julie. “I hope one day I’ll be able to try it for myself!”
If your circumstances make taking regular breaks difficult, contact your local council to discuss what respite care options may be open to you. Respite care allows you to take a short break from caring, while the person you care for receives qualified caring from another person.
Care work often involves long hours but be aware that working long isn’t working smart. Human brains perform more effectively if they also take regular breaks throughout the day – and that also applies to caring, even if it feels like you have 101 things to do each day.
Recent studies have found that the most productive workers follow the Rule of 52 and 17 – working for 52 minutes then resting for 17 before returning to their work. During those 17 minutes, they switch off completely – they don’t check social media or send texts – many turn to meditation as a very effective way of switching off.
The same 52 and 17 principle can be applied to caring. While it’s not always possible to simply stop when caring for another person, look to take regular breaks wherever possible, allowing you to rest, recover and recharge your batteries.
6. Make more ‘To-do’ lists
Providing care can put your time management skills and ability to cope with stress to the test on a daily basis. Having a ‘to-do’ list of the things you need to achieve each day helps focus the mind.
“I write everything down,” says Julie. “We have to be so well organised just to make it through a day. Every aspect and detail of Joe’s life has to be planned well in advance, so pre-planning is vital to us. It also becomes second nature after a while.”
Because our productivity levels are usually higher first thing in the morning, schedule a bigger or more difficult job for first thing, then reward yourself for completing it with smaller and easier tasks as the day goes on.
You may feel more productive having achieved something significant early in the day.
7. Set achievable goals
Having 101 things on your to-do list, you may feel pressured to get as much done as possible each day. Many carers suggest you focus on quality rather than quantity, however.
“You have to set realistic and achievable targets,” says Julie. “If your to-do list is unrealistic, you will fail. But if you can set targets you can hit, that will give you the confidence to keep going and build on the skills you have developed and the lessons you learn from each goal you set.”
“Yes, you have to be realistic”, agrees Nadine. “I find it helps to break down my weekly goals into daily ones and allocate time slots for each task. Having that list helps to keep me focused and cuts down on distractions that can slow me down.”
She also recommends establishing a repeatable routine as early as you can. “I use a colour-coded system in my diary to block out time slots for different tasks, whether that be work, cooking, children, cleaning or whatever else. Sticking to this as much as possible gives me the focus I need.”
8. Factor in ‘Me Time’
While your role as a carer means you’ll usually be thinking first about the wellbeing of others, it’s hugely beneficial to regularly consider yourself.
Factoring in time for yourself can have a number of benefits, including making you more productive, increasing your energy levels and reducing your stress, all of which will improve your productivity and performance as a carer.
Take an hour or an evening out of your schedule every week and do something that interests you. Read, learn a new language or exercise. Whatever you choose will allow you to focus on your needs for a short time. “I try to set aside an hour, once a week when Joe is in bed, to put a meditation app on my phone and listen to some relaxing music,” says Julie. “I understand how important self-care can be.”
Exercise, in particular, has significant benefits, having been shown to reduce fatigue, improve alertness, improve the quality of your sleep and enhance cognitive function – all of which can flag if you’re working hard and juggling multiple tasks. Of course, how long you can dedicate to yourself depends on those around you, but even five minutes of regular aerobic exercise can have a beneficial effect.