Work-home boundaries can reduce risk of burnout
The ability to work effectively remotely is helping companies and employees endure the COVID-19 pandemic more safely but it can also mean feeling ‘on’ 24/7. Research shows people are actually more effective when they take breaks from work and create clearer boundaries between work and home. It can take a little more effort with ubiquitous connection, but there is real value to your mental health and productivity when you can close the door on the workday.
During especially intense and busy periods, work has likely followed you home at times throughout your career. And then COVID-19 hit and gave work the formal invitation to move in, stay overnight, settle into the guest room and unpack its bags.
The ability to work from home is a unique benefit enjoyed by those not providing front-line, in-person services. Employees working remotely is also helping organizations sustain operations and keep team members employed. However, a total blending of work and home can increase employee burnout.
Sure, memes abound about working in your pajamas, having your Zoom Shirt handy and seeing reporters caught on camera without their pants. But there’s a good argument for dressing for work to strengthen not only professional presence, but your emotional health. Think Mr. Rogers swapping out the blazer and oxfords for a sweater and sneakers at the end of the day.
Researchers from Cornell University and the London Business School call these “boundary-crossing activities.” Physical actions such as shutting down your computer, greeting the evening cleaning crew, getting on the train or starting your car all send clear signals that the workday is ending. As does changing your clothes when you get home. Remote works removes many of those rituals and can leave employees feeling always ‘on.’
That feeling is associated with higher risk of burnout. “America’s always-on work culture has reached new heights,” a Bloomberg article recently warned, reporting on a survey showing 45% of U.S. employees were burned out after just two months of working from home.
Consider these boundary-crossing activities to help make the break from work, increase productivity and decrease burnout.
Create a commute
Not sitting in traffic is one of the great advantages of remote work. But a commute can provide time to gear up for work or decompress from it. To reclaim that time, you might literally walk to a local park in the morning so you can “arrive” back home ready to work. Or change into workout gear at day’s end and walk, or run, away from work.
Shut it down
When you used to leave your physical workplace, chances are you powered down your computer, turned off lights and literally closed the door. If you actually have a door on your home workspace, consider closing it at the end of the day too. If you work at the dining room table, turn off your computer so it’s not so easily accessed and even cover it with a table cloth to put it out of sight.
Watch the time
You were never a clock watcher and won’t become one now. However, temporal boundaries are as important as physical ones. Stick as closely as possible to your former schedule. Or organize chunks of time when the kids are occupied or in bed. You can even use autoreply to let colleagues know when you are, and are not, fully engaged.
Consider using your last call, email or virtual meeting of the day to say goodnight. You might compose a summary for your team that highlights accomplishments of the day, sets the stage for tomorrow and shares the message that today is a wrap.
Lean into close relationships
Without normal workplace rituals, role models and personal interaction, it’s easy to feel isolated. Managers need to increase communication to nurture connections, share organization culture and keep members engaged. But focus on friends and family outside of work is also key to keeping isolation and loneliness at bay. Gallup recently reported on one study that shows workplace isolation can derail productivity up to 21%. Especially if you live alone, consider ending the workday with a rejuvenating call or socially distant visit with a close friend.
Set the example
Every leader needs to demonstrate by example respect for work-life boundaries. Even if you prefer to work at odd hours, or need to due to caregiving, use the delay send feature so emails don’t arrive outside the workday. Cornell University and London Business School researchers studied more than 2,000 working adults and found that senders of after-hours emails underestimate the obligation receivers feel to respond, even to non-urgent emails.
Every organization must maximize creativity and productivity to meet these unprecedented challenges. Prioritizing uninterrupted time to focus on high-value tasks and supporting team members in avoiding a 24/7 work schedule will increase results and decrease burnout