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Working from home: 7 science-backed strategies to combat stress

Work-life balance is hard to strike if your desk is also your couch.

by Kate S. Petersen
Originally Published: 
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The Covid-19 pandemic means many former office workers now slog it out in their homes. Work-from-home arrangements were already becoming increasingly common, with commuting giving way to telecommuting. Now, many companies are considering never sending their workers back to their desks.

While there are many advantages to working from home — avoiding lengthy commutes, not having to wear a suit and tie, flexible schedules — there are serious downsides, too.

Working from home can make it difficult to leave work at work. A 2017 report found almost twice as many people who worked from home were highly stressed as people who worked in an office.

But rather than despair, these seven science-backed strategies could help you strike the right balance between your job and the rest of your life.

How does working from home affect the work-life balance?

Julia Richardson, a professor of human resource management and head of the School of Management and Marketing at Curtin University, tells Inverse the lack of physical separation between work and home can blur the psychic boundaries between work and home life, making work-life balance all the more difficult to attain.

In the past, an office worker could literally leave work behind, back at the office. But now, cloud computing, cellular technology, and the internet means the office comes with you wherever you go.

“It becomes difficult then, I think, to cut off work because it's always there," she says. "It's in your home."

And once work is in the home, it’s easy for it to become a major distraction even when you’re not technically “working.”

The problem begins when, on evenings or on days off, you fall into the trap of doing some work to get ahead, or catch up, Richardson says.

“[But] then there's always more work coming in," she says. "Whereas when you're in your office, you can say ‘I'm going home,’ so you get that mental break."

It's easy to be distracted when working from home

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Is working from home more stressful than working at the office?

In addition to compromising work-life balance, work from home has the potential to really stress you out.

“In the competition for your time, work tends to be the victor in most cases, for most people, because of the connection with your professional identity,” Richardson says. “[Professionals] want to be seen to be doing well, they don't want that performance to slip.”

Remote workers may also suffer from not feeling like an equal part of the team. One study found the majority of workers who worked remotely on occasion felt mistreated, left out, or had a difficult time managing conflict with colleagues.

"There's always more work coming in."

How does working from home affect mental health?

Work-life balance problems end in the other direction, too. Whether it’s kids, a leaky faucet, or just the inability to concentrate when confined to the same four walls, home workers may be especially susceptible to procrastination and burnout.

Working from home can also be lonely. In a 2018 study, researchers found loneliness may harm your job performance. Employees who felt lonely in their job were less approachable and were less likely to cultivate relationships with their colleagues.

Richardson says that one big casualty of unhealthy work-life boundaries is sleep/

“When people have been… on the computer screen till late at night, then they don't have any psychological break from their work,” Richardson says. “So they'll finish off writing emails or a report, they go to bed, and it's still on their mind.”

Disturbed sleep, combined with sitting at a computer all day, decreases both your mental and physical well-being.

“Your overall work performance can suffer as well,” Richardson says. “Because you're not well, because you're not getting the breaks that you need.”

Of course, personal and family relationships can also suffer as more and more of your time is spent on work.

Young children "see mom and dad or grandparents, aunts, and uncles working from home. What is that telling them about… where work can and should be done?” Richardson says.

Make clear commitments that define work time and non-work time

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Seven strategies for maintaining work-life balance:

There are certain ways to combat stress and reestablish the work-life balance. Here are seven science-backed ways to make sure work stays at work and you stay healthy:

  1. Commit not to work during time off.
  2. Don't answer you phone or emails after hours.
  3. Follow a healthy lifestyle during down time.
  4. Work less than 42 hours a week.
  5. Practice psychological detachment.
  6. Get social.
  7. Take charge.

Here's how each of these strategies might work in practice:

As much as you are able, make a clear commitment to not do any work tasks during your time off. It's easy to think you can “multitask,” for instance by doing a little work while playing with the kids, ultimately, both work and the relationships suffer, Richardson says.

Train your colleagues to respect your work-life balance, establishing a precedent by not answering your phone or attending to emails when you’re not “at work.” You also need to train yourself to sign off when you are supposed to. A study published earlier this year found people who worked between 53 and 83 hours a week were more than twice as likely to suffer from hypothyroidism than people who worked 36-42 hours per week.

And while moving your body away from the desk is important, dragging your mind's eye away from your task list is also critical. Psychological detachment is the practice of mentally switching off — not just shutting your computer, but also shutting off your racing mind and turning it to other, more relaxing thoughts.

Finding solace in others is also beneficial — even if it is just whining to a friend about your boss' irritating Zoom habits or how many emails you need to answer, finding social connections with fellow workers and people outside work is important, too, Richardson says.

Ultimately, these strategies all depend on the last recommendation: You need to take charge in order to affect change. Practicing mindfulness may be the key to unlocking this skill, Richardson says. Just a few minutes a day may make all the difference, research suggests.

“The whole thing is about being mindful and, I think, taking charge as well,” Richardson says. “It's reaching a state where you feel comfortable with how your work is organized and how your non-work is organized.”

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