The struggle frontline workers face in trying to juggle work and family life
‘We’ve now been flying solo for weeks with no outside support. There has been tough times’
Social care worker Jason Fitzpatrick with his partner Saran and 16-month-old daughter Lexi. Since the restrictions, Jason has been redeployed from day services for people with intellectual disabilities to residential services
The struggle to juggle has upped a gear for many of us as we try to cope with school and crèche closures, family responsibilities, and pandemic fears and restrictions, while trying to work from home. But for those who are front line and essential workers, the ask is so much more.
Dr Lisa Guthrie is an emergency medicine doctor in Galway University Hospital. She’s also a mother of three children, Cathal (6) Cuan (4) and Feile (15 months).
Working life “has changed hugely” in the emergency department, Lisa says, as they adapt to being both a coronavirus department along with their continued role as an emergency department for patients with non-coronavirus-related symptoms.
Lisa’s husband, Bernard, has been working from home since the introduction of the restrictions, but she says childcare is a huge issue for many of her colleagues. “Some of my colleagues are married to other frontline workers and have had to change shifts constantly to accommodate. I do know of a couple where the female had to give up work as they were unable to balance their shifts, working in different hospitals. We’ve now been flying solo for weeks with no outside support and there has been tough times.”
Lisa tries not to bring the worries and stresses of the working day home and uses journaling to channel her worries, thoughts and fears instead. She also talks things through with her husband. She is, however, very conscious of the need to ensure that the virus does not make its way into her household as Bernard requires immunosuppressing drugs.
“I change out of my scrubs in the hospital, before I come home. I bag them in a pillowcase to put straight on at a 90-degree wash and I go straight for a shower. I’ve alcohol gel in my car and in many places around the house,” she explains. “My worry is that society becomes complacent with the Government restrictions. I hope people pay attention to our public health colleagues and the HSE.”
Social care worker Jason Fitzpatrick lives with his partner Saran and 16-month-old daughter Lexi in Greystones. Since the restrictions, Jason has been redeployed from day services for people with intellectual disabilities to residential services.
“In a normal situation residential care is just their home and you’re helping them with personal care or any kind of care, but now at the minute we’re dealing with challenging behaviour situations as well, because some of the residents don’t understand the impact of what’s going on outside. Their routine is interrupted, they can’t even really go for the walk they want to go on. We’re trying to cocoon them almost because they are vulnerable. We’re trying to explain to them why it’s all happening,” he says.
“Most of the residents would have gone home at weekends, so had a lot of family interaction. Now they’re not getting that. Also they’re looking out the window, especially in the last few weeks, at people acting as though the world’s righted itself again,” Jason says, referencing a street barbecue which had taken place opposite the residential setting.
With a commute to factor in, Jason’s working day is long and he’s very conscious that Saran is at home in the apartment alone with their baby all day. Saran is self-employed, but with childcare no longer available to her, she hasn’t been able to salvage her business by moving it online in daytime hours.
Prior to the restrictions, Jason was undergoing investigations for unexplained pain. With these now on hold, he’s worried about his vulnerability if he were to catch the virus. He’s also aware of the risk that he might bring it home to his partner and baby. His fear now is that this may all extend well beyond the summer.
Pharmacist Laura Dowling says it’s very hard to keep on top of her three children’s schoolwork at the moment but that she’s “trying to take deep breaths and not stress about this too much”.
Laura works four days a week in a pharmacy in Stillorgan while her husband is working from home. “My husband can only do so much when he’s on conference calls and that.” Her 11-year-old helps with the nine- and seven-year-olds where he can.
The couple have a childminder who comes to their house one day a week but Laura’s parents, who had previously taken care of the children three afternoons a week, “are off the radar now”. She worries about what might happen if and when her husband has to return to his workplace, but for now is focusing on the current situation.
“Things have change immeasurably” in Laura’s work. There has been a huge increase in the number of calls received to the pharmacy as prescriptions are organised. “There’s a big perspex screen up around the dispensary and the front counter. I find that quite challenging because I’m the kind of pharmacist that loves to go out and talk to people,” she says.
“Now when someone drops in a prescription I’ve to say to them, ‘okay I’ll do that for you in 10 minutes. Can you leave the shop please and I’ll call you in when it’s ready?’ There’s no time for engagement.”
Laura worries about her older patients and makes a point of phoning them once a week. She points out that for some of them, collecting their prescriptions and the conversation that followed in the chemist, may have been their only conversation all week.
“I get a lot of mental stability from my family,” Laura says adding that she tries to “do some form of exercise every day”. She isn’t overly concerned about the risks of bringing the virus home as she follows the advice and says her family are in good health.
It has made her question the pace of pre-Covid life though. “It has made me wonder, why are we running around? My children are absolutely happy with life. They’re not really missing their friends.”
Postman and Irish Coast Guard volunteer Stiofan O’Broin has double the juggle as his wife is an essential worker too.
Stiofan, who starts his day at 3:30am has been doing the same round for a long time and so knows the locals well and checks in on those who are cocooning. “I ring the bell and stand back,” he says, conducting their conversation from a safe distance.
The couple work opposite each other so that they can manage childcare for their four-year-old daughter Eleanor whose Montessori has closed since the restrictions came into place. It means in, spite of his very early start, Stiofan rarely gets to bed before 10 and so is surviving on very little sleep.
With two essential workers in the house, the couple have a strict routine which includes always changing their clothes before coming into the house to minimise the risk of bringing the virus home to their young daughter. They’re also very aware of Stiofan’s father-in-law who lives next door and has an underlying condition.
With the restrictions on movement, Stiofan has noticed a reduction in the number of Coast Guard callouts. Although being part of the emergency services means that a pager going off requires he drop everything and run, Stiofan is comfortable putting himself on the front line once again. “I’m the sort of person who likes to help if I can.”