As remote working continues to be the norm (and 2021 doesn’t seem all that different to 2020 after all!), we’re aware that employees and managers are feeling fatigued and struggling to maintain motivation and engagement levels. This is a completely natural response to what we've collectively experienced. And while some of us seem to be OK with the blurry lines between work and play, some research suggests that creating clear boundaries to enable people to switch off from work when they need to can improve wellbeing and productivity.
We've been through a lot - and it's not over yet
After the ordeal of 2020, many of us may have been running on pure adrenalin - otherwise known as a stress response called ‘flight, fright or freeze’. Our Learning from Lockdown survey told us that the second most cited negative impact of working from home more was 'longer hours and increased stress'.
Helpful responses to stress
Prolonged states of stress left unchecked can cause quite significant harm – known as workplace burnout which was recently classified as an occupational phenomenon in the International Classification of Diseases by the World Health Organisation. Some ways to deal with stress include activating the ‘Rest and Digest’ response and reconsidering the way you view stress, even seeing it as your friend.
Thankfully, there are numerous things we can do to improve our wellbeing, reduce our stress levels and avoid burnout while working from home. It helps to start with assessing your own wellbeing and what you feel works best for you, particularly when it comes to setting boundaries between work and home life.
Are you a segmentor or an integrator?
Do you need boundaries to separate work and home life, or are you happy for these areas to merge? In 2016, Google looked to past research from Christena Nippert-Eng that suggested people tend to use one of two strategies to manage work and nonwork or 'home' roles:
- Segmentors are employees who prefer to create rigid boundaries between their personal and work lives. They reported that: "In my life, there is a clear boundary between my career and my non-work roles."
- Integrators are employees who don’t mind blurring the lines been work and home, switching back and forth between the two. This group often agreed that: “It is often difficult to tell where my work life ends and my non-work life begins.”
Google’s research found that, regardless of preference, Segmentors were significantly happier with their well-being than Integrators. Additionally, Segmentors were more than twice as likely to be able to detach from work (when they wanted to). Less than a third of Googlers behaved like Segmentors and over half of Integrators said they wished they could segment better.
Other research suggests that wellbeing levels increase when your preference aligns with your reality. Like many things that affect wellbeing - strategies that suit some people don't always suit others, so it is important to find what 'fits' best for you.
What are 'boundaries' anyway?
Boundaries are typically things that show where one thing ends and another begins. Christena Nippert-Eng's research 'explores boundary practices involving using calendars and keys, clothes and appearances, eating and drinking, money, people and their representations (like photographs and gifts), talk styles and conversations, reading materials and habits, and work breaks (including lunches, breaks and holidays)'. We would add to this:
- Workspaces/zones - designated areas where the work and rest happens at home and in the workplace
- Structured boundaries for personal and work time slots
- Rituals for starting and ending workdays and work-related tasks
- Accepting and managing delegated tasks - the ability to say no when you need to
- Recognising when a task, project or result is 'good enough' to move on (avoiding perfectionism)
Five easy ways to set more boundaries between work and play
In our wellbeing workshops, we find that when our participants set their 'Wellbeing Action Plan' after learning the science and principles, goals will often include increased time for self-care and mindfulness activities. Creating time for these activities can be seen as a form of boundary-setting. If you are looking for 'stress-relief' and feel that setting boundaries could help you to manage your wellbeing, you may want to try these five steps:
1) Build your self-awareness. Find out what works for you. Are you OK with blurring and uncertainty or do you need strict time boundaries and workzones (are you an integrator or segmentor)? Recognise and respect that what works for you may not work for others.
2) Block out some time for non-work activity and also include productive or 'deep-work' time. This may mean you'll need to review your calendar with your colleagues, manager and those you live with to ensure it works logistically. If you want to, agree on start and end times for work.
3) Turn off or reduce digital notifications. Consider reviewing emails and messages only during set hours and times of day. Some people even have separate work and personal devices so they can literally put work aside when they need to.
4) Create some rituals to signify the start and end of things. You might want to get dressed for work or take a walk at the end of the day to signify the end of work and the start of personal time.
5) Be aware that things will change and accept your emotions. Despite best laid plans, things do go wrong, and lines do blur! Be kind to yourself and recognise that negative emotions are OK, and you can continue to work on improving things. As we share in our Resilience segment workshop, we like to use the 'Triple A' tool of Awareness, Acceptance and Action.
Additionally, one important thing that we humans often need, regardless of our boundary preference, is to take regular breaks. Taking breaks - whether It's as simple as a 5-minute break between tasks, eating lunch away from your desk or booking and taking planned annual leave - helps our brains and bodies to regenerate. So, if you haven't got a holiday planned, book one in!
New ways of working are here to stay
These newer ways of working remotely and flexibly are likely here to stay. This is shifting the paradigm of how we manage so-called ‘work-life balance’ and our workplace relationships.
Understanding that we all have lives outside of our work that inform how we behave, it's vital that we find ways to communicate and check in with one another regularly. If we are building self-awareness, seeking feedback and maintaining open communication, we'll be much more likely to know when it's time to review and establish clearer boundaries between home and work life.