The opportunity to have all staff work remotely can be incredibly beneficial for many companies. Having overcome the fear of difficulty monitoring staff output, many have come to see the giant cost savings associated with renting or owning office space and the unanticipated perks of getting more hours or accessibility to staff. But many employees, only starting to adjust to this new working life are struggling with burnout, exhaustion, lack of inspiration or motivation and a desperate need for a break. This in itself is damaging to staff collaboration, trust and creativity and so becomes a problem for employer and employee alike. So what can be done to help people create the healthy boundaries needed to adapt to this new working reality?
A recent CNBC article citing a survey by Monster, noted that in this current environment, over two-thirds (69%) of employees are experiencing burnout symptoms (20% higher than findings in May) with almost 60% working longer hours, taking less time off and feeling greater stress and financial anxiety (largely due to uncertainty and fear they too could lose their jobs). Despite best efforts, many people lucky enough to have held onto their jobs are struggling and the move to working from home is a large contributing factor.
Many years ago, a skiing accident left me trapped in bed for several weeks. After much negotiation and my boss realising that if he wanted me to keep working, he had little choice, I started working remotely (once the heavy sedatives wore off and the pain had subsided). In the new world of remote access, I relished the opportunity to avoid trains, uncomfortable chairs and the feeling that I was being constantly watched. But the sparkle soon faded as I discovered that my work boundaries quickly disappeared and I realised that I was working longer hours and had become accessible even in the evenings and on weekends. My personal self care went out the window until I decided that healthy boundaries were a non-negotiable. Even though the opportunity to work from home has been available to many people for several years now, the transition to 100% remote work has proven challenging for many who have never had to set up these boundaries, especially when COVID has left them juggling a new work environment where partners, housemates or children co-exist in your workspace.
The below are a few ways to help introduce healthy boundaries that reduce the blur between work and personal life so that work doesn’t turn into a 24/7 job.
The gradual transition
Thanks to globalisation and the rate of progress with technology, the ability to work remote (anywhere in the world if you can manage the sleep deprivation or strange working hours) has been possible for years. From companies introducing flexible working hours to signing up to participate in the gig economy of contracting and working for themselves, the idea of blending work and home life isn’t exactly new. Just look at your mobile phone as an example. Many people now prefer to have a single device that acts as both a personal and work phone as it’s more convenient than carrying around two phones. The same has happened with computers where people don’t need to access company specific confidential files. Many people liked the idea of working from home. Tempted by the opportunity to avoid the dreaded morning commute, to save money by not needing to eat out and the ability to stay in pyjamas or sweatpants all day, it seemed like a dream. The main barrier to remote work for most companies however was fear. Attached to the narrative that they won’t be able to control their staff and guarantee the same levels of efficiency, many companies justified their resistance using the excuse that their technology simply isn’t advanced enough to sustain remote working, at least not for the entire company. COVID however, obliterated that excuse when the options presented to companies were adapt or die.
And so, people got what they asked for, only for the age old warning be careful what you wish for to echo softly in the background. Many started to feel disconnected, overworked, exhausted, uninspired and resentful of their new circumstances. One of the greatest causes for this is the stress and burnout associated with being unable to separate work life and home life. It’s no longer as simple as walking out of the office. Putting healthy boundaries in place now actively requires effort.
Creating physical boundaries
The first way that boundaries can be created is by creating physical boundaries. In the same way that you walk out the door of your office at the end of the day, having a separate space that’s exclusively for work which can be shut off at the end of the day is one of the most effective boundaries. Ideally, this means you have enough space to have a separate office in your house but if not, try carving out a space in one of the bigger rooms and even getting a partition screen or hanging up a bedsheet so that when you enter that space you’re telling yourself that you’re at work and when you leave that space, it’s the end of the day. If you have young kids, it’s probably inevitable that they’ll come looking for you at some point in the day and during those moments, you’ll probably flip temporarily back into mum/dad mode, but as soon as they’re off somewhere else, it becomes much easier to revert to work mode than if you were all sitting in the same space all day long.
The second boundary is one that we’ve had a bit of practice with since the days when work emails first appeared on our phones and that involves cutting contact. Yes, that’s right. Get to a certain hour and TURN OFF your computer and work phone. And if the phone/computer is the same for personal and work, be prepared to invest more effort into resisting temptation. Admittedly, having the discipline to resist checking your phone or laptop is one of the hardest tasks here as we’re psychologically programmed to crave the excitement and unknown of when a new email might appear (even if we rarely enjoy the contents). However, this is for your own good as it helps your brain focus on other parts of your life instead of constantly wondering if a new email has come through. By turning off devices, you’ve told your brain that it’s out of sight and out of mind until connections start back up at 8am/9am the next morning.
Schedule other tasks
If you find resisting temptation tricky, look to add in other tasks. For example, Microsoft recommends that their staff block out commuting time creating something that necessitates your concentration at the end of the workday can be a great strategy. From building a habit to go for a walk or to cook dinner from 6-7pm each night can help create either physical distance from work or at least shift your focus. Though not the healthiest long term strategy, many people have started adopting rituals to mark the end of the day such as pouring a glass of wine.
The same applies to tasks during the day. Because boundaries blur, many people find they start signing onto computers far earlier, working through lunch breaks and then clocking off much later than before. If you find yourself struggling with this, block out a clear lunch break and take yourself for a walk to the park or plan a meal that requires you to step away and prepare in the kitchen.
Getting others involved
As horrible as it sounds, guilt is one of the main reasons we willingly work far more than we may need. Wanting to belong to our group of colleagues, we can often be tempted to stay online until it looks like most other people have signed off or to jump on before everyone else so we can be seen to be diligent. This is the equivalent of staying in the office until the boss leaves so everyone else thinks you’re a hard worker. But if you can get colleagues to join in on an activity that encourages a break, it helps you set up healthy boundaries and also provides a bonding opportunity within your team. Whether you choose to do a daily yoga class, a virtual coffee break or even a touch base catch-up, normalising a breather by roping others in can be incredibly helpful.
Create a sense of choice
When it comes to boundaries, the most common battle is with the ideas of give and take. We feel depleted, angered and frustrated when we give more than we want to, especially when we don’t feel we’re being adequately compensated. Working longer hours (even when self-imposed) for no extra reward when we’re juggling more demands in our home life thanks to COVID means this is a recipe for disaster. As such, if one cannot address the boundaries themselves, the other solution is to change perspective and search for something that you can perceive yourself as trading for the extra hours and opportunity to work from home. For example, you may find that you can work more flexible hours so that you can go out for a long lunch. You may decide you can finally put your efficiency as a night owl to use and take an afternoon nap or sleep in until noon (provided you don’t have any meetings). You might even find that simply having the opportunity to have a movie playing in the background or being able to blast your favourite kind of music and sing along while you work is incentive enough. Ultimately though, you need to feel like you’re getting something in return for your compromise. Otherwise, you’ll need far stronger and more inflexible boundaries to stop you from feeling burnt out and taken advantage of.
Michelle is a qualified behavioural scientist and passionate change champion. Dedicated to understanding resistance to change and the environments that make it easy or difficult for people to adapt to change, Michelle is our go to expert for helping people out of survival mode so they can create, connect and change lives in the best ways possible.