We take a closer look at why “Working From Home” has become “Living At Work” and how to avoid the pitfalls.
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, surveys showed that only about 29% of Americans were able to work from home, and 43% were working from home part-time or more. Starting in late March, with stay-at-home orders across the nation, that number skyrocketed, enabling more than 63% of workers to realize their #WFH dreams, whether or not they were ready. Working from home is attractive because it is usually associated with flexibility, work-life balance, saving commute time and other commute-related expenses. And if they are a parent – spending more time with children is also a perk.
However, according to recent data from NordVPN, which tracks when users connect and disconnect from its service, workers are now clocking an average of 3 more hours per day than they were when they worked in an office. Workers reported being stressed, overworked, and burned out.
Huda Idrees, the chief executive officer of Dot Health, a Toronto-based technology startup, confirms that her employees are working, on average, 12-hour days, up from 9 hours pre-pandemic. “We’re at our computers very early because there’s no commute time,” she said. “And because no one is going out in the evenings, we’re also always there.”
Another reason why workers are feeling stressed is due to the economic impacts of the pandemic. Many workers know of family, friends, or coworkers who have been recently laid off. Although they are grateful and relieved to have their jobs still, some feel a tremendous amount of burden having to prove their value. This results in trying to be available at all hours, having the “always-on 24/7” on-call mentality. For working parents, this pressure, coupled with the added responsibility of taking care of children at home and other household duties, results in a tremendous amount of stress. In addition, parents of school-aged children also found themselves suddenly homeschooling for the first time.
Now that many of us have worked from home for at least a couple of months and experienced some of the stresses firsthand, it’s time to take a closer look at how we can avoid burnout and achieve greater harmony working from home. Here are a few practical tips:
- Create New Rituals and Routines.
“All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits — practical, emotional, and intellectual.”- William James, psychologist and philosopher
Humans are creatures of habit. Having routines is physiologically essential and beneficial to how we function. Previously, before heading into the office, one might go to the gym first, drive their kids to school, or grab a cup of their favorite coffee to start the workday. Now that schools and some gyms remain closed, there’s currently no commute time so workers are waking up later than before. It might be nice getting a little extra sleep, but this actually shortchanges us from the “buffer” time that we used to have for ourselves before work to help us transition into the “work mode.”
It might be a little hard to do at first, but try to wake up the same time as you did before, and use what would have been your old commute time to ready yourself for the day. This does not mean checking email or doing anything work-related. Perhaps this could be time well-spent doing something you enjoy – whether it’s brewing your favorite tea or coffee, doing some gardening, or listening to music – anything that you find enjoyable to help you start the day strong and sustain that energy for the remainder of the day.
- Take Breaks and Schedule your Lunch Hour.
Schedule short mental breaks away from the screen throughout the day and schedule your lunchtime. While it’s tempting to throw in a load of laundry or empty the dishwasher in between conference calls, multitasking actually stretches your workday longer, and it may also cause you to lose focus. If you must schedule in 15 –20 minutes each day to complete a household chore by all means, do it! But planning it and scheduling it on your calendar allows you to be in control of the time you allot towards it and not lose sight of the most important things you need to work on.
“Breaks” may mean different things to different people, so do what you need to recharge throughout the day, whether that means taking care of things around the house, taking the dog for a walk, chatting with a friend on the phone, or spending a few minutes with a hobby. Always keep in mind that the end goal is to be more energized and productive towards your work product. Be honest with yourself in that the breaks you schedule for yourself is to help you recharge, not procrastinate.
- Communication and Transparency is Key.
Having said the above, this third suggestion, communication & transparency, is probably the most important.
One executive for a California-based CRM company shares how he communicates expectations with his remote team and coworkers:
“Schedule your day and let your coworkers know how you schedule your day. I try to keep my meetings in the morning since I work with a lot of people in European time zones. This way, everyone knows that my mornings are full of meetings, and so if someone is trying to get a hold of me, there isn’t any second-guessing of why they are not hearing back from me right away. They know that I’m in meetings. Sharing calendars helps with this as well.”
Also, because there is the added pressure for workers to demonstrate they are available and working, some have reported that chat or other collaboration tools sometimes actually bring on more added stress of always having to be “on” and “available.” In reality, there could be other immediate pressures or issues you need to tend to in the background. For example, kids could be having a meltdown or an argument in the other room and you need to play referee. Handle it and don’t feel like there’s a need to fib about it. When tactfully done, it leads to better communication and transparency.
When it comes to being truthful and transparent, the CRM executive tells his team: “You shouldn’t feel like you can’t ever have your chat status show you as being “away” or “idle.” Working from home is making both aspects work together and not have one or the other control your life. Because if you choose to let one aspect control you, the stress will pile up, hindering productivity and performance. Being idle on chat may mean that you’re on the phone, going to the restroom, getting a snack, etc. Those all happen when you’re in the office too, so have a meaningful conversation with [your manager or direct reports] that being on “idle” does not mean you are slacking off work.”
At the end of the day, we’re all human. Humans working – through a pandemic – at home. If we dare to show this side of us (while, of course, remaining professional), it encourages our coworkers also to share and do the same. And when we share, we can empathize and be flexible with each other, ultimately building trust and respect.
- Set Boundaries and Expectations.
How many of us have had that annoying coworker that plays music at their cubicle too loud? Or that friendly but too-chatty coworker who interrupts your work and focus throughout the day? Only now, there’s isn’t HR you can complain to because you live with these new “coworkers”!
Communicate boundaries and expectations with those you share your living space with, such as your spouse, children, or roommate. Assign roles and responsibilities and create ground rules ahead of time by discussing these hard questions together:
- What are our work hours?
- Who will tend to the kids if they need attention or help with something?
- Whenever possible, have a separate, dedicated working space. If your working space is in an open area shared with others, layout ground rules on what noises, activities, and distractions are acceptable.
- If family pets become disruptive, who will help tend to them?
- Who will prep meals? Who will help with clean up?
- If there isn’t another adult available, communicate with children ahead of time, and explain what they need to do if they need your help. Create visual signs to show your availability (i.e., “On a Call – DO NOT DISTURB,” etc.) and perhaps designate pockets of time on a written schedule so they know when they can have your attention throughout the day.
- Unplug at the End of the Workday.
As mentioned earlier, without commute times, workers are waking up later, but also staying up later, further blurring the lines between work and home and likely adding to the burnout. Interestingly enough, although wake-up times have shifted later, NordVPN found that peak email time has crept up an hour earlier to 9 a.m. versus 10 a.m. pre-pandemic, indicating workers are likely not allowing a buffer of personal time before jumping right into work.
Employees are also logging back in late at night. Surfshark, another VPN provider, has seen spikes in usage from midnight to 3 a.m. that were not present before the coronavirus outbreak. To combat this, try going to bed the same time as you did before the pre-pandemic days, allowing yourself enough sleep each night to recharge. Getting enough rest is essential so that you can start the next morning fresh and on the right foot.
Remember setting boundaries? Resist the temptation to respond to that email at 2 a.m. (unless of course, it’s an emergency, but again, communicate those expectations with your team ahead of time), or even scanning through email with your phone as you lay in bed. Doing so prevents your brain from entirely “shutting down.” Some studies show blue light is harmful to your eyes and disrupts your sleep cycle. Instead, try out some of these healthy habits and routines:
- Physically distance yourself from work during your usual “clock-out” times
- Go to bed at a decent hour
- Wake up earlier, even with no commute time
- Take a few minutes to plan your day BEFORE you check email (as that ONE email could sometimes derail your entire plan for the day) – become proactive and not reactive
- Designate a specific time during the day to review and respond to non-urgent email
By implementing some of these tips, you will create the physical and psychological boundaries needed to differentiate between “home” and “work,” allowing for better focus and less stress. We all want to do a good job, and being proactive in preventing stress and burnout will allow you to achieve that more easily.