The big switch to remote work has been helpful for public health, but it’s fueling some new work-life balance and mental health issues.
Many workers report struggling to disengage from work when their new “office” is their spare bedroom or kitchen table. Some worry that the lack of face time means they’re being left out of opportunities, and this fear of missing out (FOMO) can spur them to overwork and experience more stress.
Others are worried that employers are monitoring their work habits via company-issued laptops, email accounts and phones while they work from home, which can fuel a sense of paranoia and the fear that they should be working more.
Add all these struggles to cabin fever and you have a recipe for stressed, anxious employees. How can you help your team, your co-workers and yourself set healthy boundaries so you can stay productive and well?
Shift your work-life balance mindset
Start by setting realistic expectations for work-life balance and what it can look like.
For example, it can be helpful to realize that it’s less of a daily goal and more of a long-term project. Maybe one day you have to spend an extra hour wrapping up the loose ends on a big project, but you take an extra-long walk with your dog on your next lunch break, for example.
- Have ongoing conversations with your team about what work-life balance looks like for them.
- It’s OK to admit you’re working on it, too.
- And it’s crucial that your team knows they can talk with you when they have issues or worries caused or exacerbated by remote work.
Choose your work-life routines and cues
In some ways work-life balance was easier for people back in the days when a whistle blew to start work and then again at the end of the day. Everyone knew that work was done. For many office workers, the daily commute added structure to the day, too.
Now, it may be up to you to decide what you want “factory whistles” to be. These are the cues that help you structure your workday and set limits, so that you, your team and the people who live with you know when you’re working and when you’re off-duty and available.
For example, you might want to get out of the clothes you wear during your time off and put on something that’s “for work.” It doesn’t have to be a suit or heels, but having outfits that are just for work can help you get into the work mindset – and cue your family that you’re working.
It can also be helpful to have a specific place where you consistently do your work, so you’re less tempted to be distracted by what’s going on around you at home and so others have a visual cue that you’re busy.
With cues established, you can tackle some of the issues that cause anxiety while working remotely.
Use separate devices for work and personal time
Feeling constantly monitored can be worse if you’re using the same laptop and phone for work and personal tasks. Having separate devices for work, and for personal use, if at all possible, can free you from the worry that your employer is tracking your personal website use.
Using work devices only for work also helps create a line of demarcation with your team or with your manager, by keeping you from automatically responding to work messages during your free time. If you’re a manager and your employer has cybersecurity guidelines around company device use at home, you can remind your team of those rules.
Even if it’s not a requirement, using different devices matters for setting healthy boundaries. For example, if you’re scrolling through Instagram at 8 o’clock at night, and a text comes through from work, it’s easy to decide to just answer it because you’re on your phone anyway – even if the message isn’t urgent.
However, by doing this, you’re sending signals to your team or manager that you’re still working and available during time that you should be reserving for yourself – something that can make it harder to enforce your boundaries next time. If you were using your personal phone instead, you wouldn’t see that non-urgent message until you picked up that device the following morning during your work time.
Start acting on your new work-life boundaries
Deciding to follow a more balanced work-life routine is the first step. Acting on that decision is the next – but it’s important not to overwhelm yourself, your co-workers and your family with too much change all at once. That can create pushback, and it may exacerbate fears of missing out on important exchanges at work.
It’s better to start with one of your new work-life goals and then add others gradually so everyone, including you, can adjust. If you focus on doing one thing better today than you did yesterday, your habits are more likely to stick and be accepted by the people around you.
For example, you might take a week to just stick to your new habit of working from one spot in your home before moving on to a conversation with co-workers about when you’re available and when you’re not.
Communicate clearly with your team
If one of your new work-life goals is to limit the hours when you’re available for work conversations, you’ll need to communicate that clearly to your team and especially to your manager or director. The conversation will be easier if you can:
- Describe your availability.
- Show that your available time is comparable to what it was when you worked in the office.
- Put your availability in the context of your other work-from-home responsibilities.
- Offer to help make a plan.
For example, you can remind your manager that before the switch to remote work, you dropped your child off at school, commuted to the office and arrived at nine.
Now, you’re using the time before 9 a.m. for a family breakfast before your child’s 9 o’clock remote school start time. So 9 a.m. is when you’re free to be fully present for work. You can also ask how you and your manager or team can plan to handle anything that comes in before you’re available.
Maintain work-life boundaries with others in your home
Work-life balance is easier to approach if you’re also consistent with the other people in your home, especially children, about when you’re available and when you’re working.
If your children are old enough to problem-solve some issues on their own, for example, you can let them know that you’re not available to settle the issue of who gets the last blueberry muffin while you’re on your weekly stand-up call.
You may have to remind your housemates and children repeatedly that you’re not available when you’re working. It can be stressful, but remind them of your cues
- Your work clothes
- Your presence at your workstation
- The time of day
Sticking to your plan will help you avoid prolonging the stress of blurred boundaries that make balance harder to achieve.
The flip side of setting those boundaries is sticking to the commitment you make to spend time with your family instead of letting work intrude. For example, you might tell your children that you’re not available between 9 a.m. and noon but you’ll spend 30 minutes with them at lunch time and not use that time to check email or answer texts. That gives the people in your life – and you – a positive incentive to respect your boundaries.
Choose a PTO gatekeeper
Vacation time is where FOMO and cabin fever can collide. On one hand, you don’t want to be unavailable if something truly urgent happens while you’re away. You probably don’t want to come back to hundreds of email messages, either.
On the other, taking PTO is important for recharging your mental batteries and enjoying your personal life. One way to balance the need for a break with the need to stay at least somewhat connected to work is to ask a trusted co-worker or manager to act as your PTO “gatekeeper” – the person who will decide if you need to be looped in on work issues while you’re on PTO.
For example, on your last day before PTO, you might let your team know that you’re turning off your work devices at 6 p.m. and that your manager or director has your personal cell number so they can contact you if there’s an emergency.
By modeling this, you can encourage other people to take the same approach. When you’re not on PTO, you can also offer to be the PTO gatekeeper for others on your team, to help them disconnect and refresh.
Even if there’s not a crisis while you’re on vacation, it may not be possible to completely disconnect from work, either for logistical or psychological reasons. If FOMO and dread of an email backlog will keep you from enjoying your time off, you can set aside 15 to 30 minutes to check emails each day.
By sticking to that limit, you can manage your concerns about work while freeing yourself to enjoy the rest of your time off.
Find and celebrate the upsides of remote work-life balance
There’s no question that remote working has created new challenges for many people, but it’s also offered new upsides. Identifying the ways that remote work has helped you can help to reduce the stress you may feel about not getting face time with colleagues and motivate you to keep working on healthy work-life boundaries.
For example, your employees may be getting to spend more quality time with people they care about or enjoy more playtime and walks with their dogs. Some might be using their freed-up commute time to pick up new skills to advance their career or pursue a hobby.
Talking about the ways remote work has helped you can model that appreciation for your team, while also encouraging them to pursue work-life balance. For more ideas on taking care of your team, download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to leadership and management.