By Prof Hew Gill, Associate Provost, Sunway University,
We’ve known for years that most people don’t like working from home (WFH) for more than one or two days a week, but the pandemic has meant millions of people have been forced to WFH for extended periods. So what does the research evidence tell us the stresses of WFH and how to tackle them ?
Perhaps the biggest cause of WFH stress is that many people focus on being at home, rather than behaving as though they are at actually at work. This leads to obvious mismatches between expectations and reality which in turn lead to personal stress and work family conflict. Gradually people begin to get up later than usual, starting and finishing times become fuzzy, so it’s difficult to set clear boundaries between work and personal time.
It’s hard to concentrate when the kids are “attending” lessons six feet away, and the technostress of using new equipment and software is much greater when the computer mouse won’t move on a sticky kitchen table. Some people begin to get resentful for being expected to work at home, can feel defensive about opening their private spaces to colleagues or customers, and often become tired and demotivated because every day is the same.
Then to cap it all, MCOs prove old adage that “Hell is other people,” as the pressures of being with the nearest and dearest every day leads to increased family friction and even open arguments. Taken together, these factors make WFH a perfect recipe for frustration, anger, stress, and even depression.
There are many articles about managing the stress of WFH by staying hydrated, eating properly, taking breaks, getting enough sleep, etc, etc and it’s all perfectly valid advice that you should try to follow. However, the research findings are clear that the best way to tackle the pressures of WFH for yourself, your family and your colleagues is to mentally get back to work.
This means behaving like you are going to work, because treating WFH as a semi-holiday creates mixed messages which will confuse and stress you and the people around you. You must follow your usual work routine, so get up at the same time every workday morning, eat your usual breakfast and get dressed for work. Replace your commute to work by going for a short walk outside or standing by an open window to take a few minutes to collect your thoughts before you mentally “arrive” at work.
Choose a dedicated workspace in your home and try to make it as close to your office as you can with a table and upright chair. Ensure you plan your day in advance, use your online calendar or a time management app to schedule difficult tasks at your most productive time, and boost your motivation by crossing off tasks as you go. Have lunch at the same time you would at work and make a point of arranging an online call to have virtual lunch with one or more of your work colleagues or friends.
When you reach the end of the workday, mentally “leave” the office by closing down your computer, putting away your work so you can’t see it, then again commute by taking a short walk or standing at the window for a few minutes to reflect on all the things you have done that day, and mentally “arrive at home”.
Once you are home do all the things you would usually do when you come home from work: take a shower, get changed, have dinner with your family, talk about your day. Make the break by managing your social media: stop reading or sending messages to work colleagues between 9 pm and 8:30 am, and go to bed at the usual time.
If everybody in your household follows their normal workday routine it will reduce stress for you all by making it obvious when you are “at work”, and by giving you all the opportunity to set clear limits between work and private time. If each person has a workspace, even if it’s sitting on a dining room chair at a laptop balanced on a chopping board over a bathroom sink, then a lot of distractions and friction will stop.
Evenings and weekends will again feel different to workdays, so you won’t feel guilty about stopping work, you will also be more motivated when it is actually time to do some work. You will find easier to rest and relax, and you will also have space for the things you enjoy whether it be hobbies, developing new skills, spending more time with your family or socialising online with friends.
Approaching WFH in the correct way will make the whole experience a lot easier for you and your family, and who knows, you might even be able to make positive changes that will last beyond this and future MCOs.
Professor Hew Gill is the Associate Provost of Sunway University and joined the University after a successful multi-track career as an entrepreneur, UK politician and public servant, banker, senior business leader, and media pundit. He has served as a chair, governor, trustee and lay member of various educational, charitable and professional institutions and organisations in the UK, Singapore and Malaysia. He is an alumnus of several world-class universities including St Anne’s College, Oxford University, Leeds University Business School, and the Derek Bok Center, Harvard University. He is a frequent broadcaster and sought-after public speaker on a range of educational, business, and psychological subjects.