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With no end yet in sight to physical distancing, some Canadians may be feeling overwhelmed as they juggle domestic duties, childcare, homeschooling and working from home.

Before the pandemic, people tended to cope with work-life balance by separating the domains, either physically or by time, says Linda Duxbury, professor of management at Carleton University. But now, she says, it can be hard to make that separation.

Dr. Duxbury says her research has found telework works “wonderfully,” provided it is for a few days a week and you have someone looking after your children.

“It doesn’t work if you’re trying to do it all,” she says.

So how do you cope with competing demands for your attention? What do you do if you’re feeling exhausted and frayed?

We asked experts for their advice:

Role overload versus burnout

Dr. Duxbury, who specializes in work-life balance, stress and employee well-being, says what most people are likely now experiencing is role overload, not burnout. Role overload occurs when you have more to do than you can handle, whereas burnout is an end-state psychological phenomenon, she says.

Role overload can lead to stress, anxiety, frustration and depression. By contrast, burnout is characterized by totally withdrawing and giving up on caring, and typically occurs among those in certain professions, such as psychiatrists and nurses, she says.

Even so, some people may be at greater risk of a specific type of burnout during this pandemic: parental burnout, says Moïra Mikolajczak, a professor of psychology at Belgium’s Université catholique de Louvain (UCLouvain).

Parental burnout stems from an imbalance between one’s stressors and resources, or the factors that lower parenting stress, says Dr. Mikolajczak, who studies parental burnout.

“What’s very specific and annoying with the lockdown situation” is it both increases your stressors and depletes your resources, she says. For example, children, who are bored and missing their friends, may be seeking more of your attention and getting into more fights with their siblings. Plus, you have more chores now, including preparing lunch everyday (instead of having children eat at school), and your house may be messier than ever. Meanwhile, you can no longer rely on grandparents or babysitters, or take your children on outings to alleviate your stress, she says.

Recognizing the signs

When people are in a state of parental burnout, they typically experience four symptoms, Dr. Mikolajczak says. The first is a feeling of overwhelming exhaustion related to parenting. Parents may find even thinking about their children makes them weary, she says.

Second is emotional distancing. Parents may perform all the necessary tasks such as cooking and bathing their children, but do so robotically, she says.

Third is a loss of pleasure in being with your children. Parents feel fed up with parenting, and may not even want to see their children, she says. Some say they watch their children sleep at night because that’s the only time they can feel love for them.

The final symptom is seeing a contrast between how the parent used to be and how he or she is now. If a parent has always been exhausted and distant, that’s not burnout, Dr. Mikolajczak says. With burnout, parents recognize they are now opposite to how they used to be and how they want to be, which leads to suffering, guilt and shame, she says.

Dr. Mikolajczak, however, says people don’t suddenly experience burnout; it develops progressively.

“People will become more and more tired, more and more emotionally exhausted, more and more irritable,” she says, adding it’s important to recognize and address these early warning signs.

Restoring the balance

Normally, Dr. Mikolajczak says she would recommend speaking with someone who can hear you out in a non-judgmental way. If this is not possible, she advises looking for ways to decrease your personal stressors and increase your resources, which can be different for everyone.

For example, this may mean asking older children to take care of younger ones for brief periods, and redistributing household chores, she says.

Dr. Duxbury recommends holding weekly family meetings, since achieving work-life balance is a challenge for the whole family that requires everyone to work together. She suggests keeping a notepad on the fridge, where everyone can add agenda items, and taking turns chairing the meetings.

“Your partner and your kids are not your enemies; they’re your allies. Recognize that and remember that,” she says.

It’s also important to cut yourself some slack, Dr. Duxbury says.

“You’re not going to be as productive right now,” she says. “Recognize that this is an unusual situation and the only way to get through it is [to] cut the demands you place on yourself.”

People’s ability to experience pleasure in parenting generally returns when their exhaustion significantly subsides, and when they are able to have quality time, Dr. Mikolajczuk says. But quality time does not mean engaging in activities for the sake of your children, such as playing games or going on family bike rides, if you don’t enjoy them yourself, she says.

“It’s better to do an activity with your child that has no educative goal at all," such as watching TV or playing video games together, she says. As long as everyone enjoys it, you’ll all benefit.

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