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February 10, 2022

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Women in Health & Safety

‘It’s all about balance, yes, there are things I feel guilty about, but I prioritise in the best way I can’ – Karen Godfrey on the impact of COVID on working mums

Karen Godfrey, SHE Manager, Morgan Sindall Construction, shares her experience of juggling a demanding career and home-schooling her children during the multiple COVID-19 lockdowns. She discusses un-realistic parenting expectations, a typical week in her life during that period, and what employers can do to best support working parents.

Karen Godfrey

With over 15 years’ experience in health and safety, Karen Godfrey is currently SHE Manager at Morgan Sindall Construction (Yorkshire and North East).

Like many parents up and down the country, on 18 March 2020, Karen found herself taking on another full-time role, except, she didn’t recall applying for this one.

For the months that followed, Karen juggled home-schooling her children whilst working full-time hours from home.

Here, we talk to Karen during the second lockdown as she reflects on the gratitude she felt for being able to take up flexible working, the impact of multiple lockdowns on her personal wellbeing, and the importance of embracing mum guilt and openly talking about it with employers.

This interview is part of a series for Women in Health and Safety.As a member of the committee our goal is to amplify the voices of women in the profession. Some of the topics covered affect women more than men. Some are deeply personal. It’s our belief that we bring our whole selves to work and therefore should be able to talk about all sorts of issues that affect us, day-to-day, in a work setting.

Two things have struck us throughout this series. 1) We all have so much in common. 2) People are often very willing to open up, if they’re given a safe opportunity to do so with someone who is willing to listen without judgement. So, our hope is that issues discussed in this series resonate with readers, perhaps making some feel less alone, perhaps even giving some the confidence to share their own stories. We also hope readers will be encouraged to check in on colleagues, talk about the whole selves we bring to work and be there to listen.

Karen Godfrey is mum to three boys who, during the second UK lockdown, were eight, four and two. Both Karen and her husband were working from home full-time, and a typical week in their lives looked significantly different to that of the previous year.

“My youngest is dropped off at 8am. I then get my two school-aged kids set up with home-schooling and check my emails. I try getting three things done with my Reception child in the morning and then try and get a full day’s work done in half a day.

“Me and my husband tried to block out times when we both needed to be child-free. It was difficult prioritising each other’s workloads, it took a lot of planning. Not everything went to plan, but we tried to map out what we can do.”

Unsurprisingly, during this hectic period, Karen found it hard to switch off during evenings and weekends as workloads piled up for both her and her partner.

“I can’t switch off as much as I’d like. Me and my husband tended to do an hour or so of work in the evening, we were both studying as well.

“I’ve finished my Mental Health First Aid Instructor course, and my husband has been studying for a diploma.

“There’s always a couple of hours around tea-time, bath-time, bed-time, where we’d make sure we were with the kids and that was really important to us all. But then I’ll get a niggle in the back of my head that I really need to just go and clear my emails or get a report out.”

Prioritising her own wellbeing whilst ensuring the contentment of her three children 24/7 was a difficult task, and something Karen identifies as an ability she found challenging during that period.

“When we first went into lockdown in March 2020, I was on maternity leave. I got a spin bike and every morning I’d get up and go on it. I know how much better I feel if I exercise in the morning – I’m much more relaxed with the kids, and as tired as I am, it’s really important to make time.”

Karen recalls feeling a self-imposed expectation to sustain a successful career and ensure her children were both happy and being educated to an equally high standard as that they would be if they were still in school.

“My employer has been very open to agile working, but I think for me, it’s my internal bias of feeling that I should be able to do everything.

“We tend to find I can get more out of the kids, through no fault of my husband’s, it’s just they naturally listen to me more.

“In most workplaces, I think the assumption is, it’s going to be the female who is going to struggle with the workload and is going to need to take time off to look after the kids, particularly in construction. If there were more women in my position, I think it would be more much more normalised.”

During the second lockdown, Karen was hopeful that once school’s re-opened, the family’s pre-pandemic routine would be able to at least somewhat resume.

“The load will be lightened because the kids will be dropped off at school and I know I’ve got the whole school day to be going on site and getting work done. But there’s still the pinch of pre-school and afterschool.

“It’s just about managing your calendar and making sure your diary gives you some flex and have some clear space in it so that you can use it to catch up or to have a bit of downtime.”

In 2022, flexible working hours continue to be offered by many employers as more and more workers are opting for remote positions.

Karen offers her advice to employers in best supporting home-working parents.

“It all comes down to agile working, and employers actively encouraging it. It’s all very well having an agile working policy, but then to ramp up the workload and give you extra demands defeats the point. Employees have got to be genuinely encouraged to work in a way that suits them, and they should know that their wellbeing is seen as important.

“At a managerial level, it’s a frank conversation about what’s happening and what can be done to best support. Managers should be asking what is needed to make working as easy as possible and check in on a regular basis.

“As a working mother, own it. Don’t ever feel embarrassed about the fact that you’re a working mum. I wanted a career but, at the same time, I wanted a family. It’s all about balance, yes there are sacrifices, but I prioritise in the best way I can.

“You’ve got to embrace mum guilt and talk about it. Understand why you’re feeling it, it’s probably because you’ve decided to prioritise yourself and there is nothing wrong with that. Remember that you can’t do it all and it’s not weak to ask for help.

“From COVID, we should all learn that we can slow down a little, and everything will still be ok.”

For more information about the Women in Health & Safety Network, see our hub page here.

Read more from this Women in Health & Safety interview series.

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