Homeworking is often thought as an easy solution to workplace stress, long hours and exhausting commutes. In fact, apart from the commute, the opposite can be the case if you don’t manage carefully how, where and when homeworkers are working, as Graham Bird explains
As a workplace, the home is often thought of as a less stressful environment than the office. We tend to associate homeworking with relaxed commute-free days, flexible hours, peaceful surroundings and minimal disturbance. Whilst this may be true for some, it isn’t for most.
In actual fact, mobile technology and the modern misunderstanding that we must always be available, has led to unprecedented levels of workplace stress for the homeworker. A few years ago a US study from the Pennsylvania State University compared stress levels between those working from home and those in the office. They swabbed the cheeks of both parties and measured levels of the stress hormone cortisol and, surprisingly, scientists found that it was homeworkers who had the higher levels.
About the author
Graham Bird is director of workplace consultancy Where Workplace Works
The truth is there are undoubtedly many positive aspects to agile working and flexibility, all which we are very aware of. But, if not performed correctly, working at home can cause an individual to feel isolated, overworked and burned out, leaving the boundaries between work and personal life either unclear or non-existent.
Understanding if home-working is the right choice
Let’s face it, it would be ridiculous to think that everyone’s home is a productive workplace.
For example, for the people who have a shared house, for those who are carers, or those that have a spouse and children or other family members in their home, disruption is inevitable.
We’ve all seen the famous video clip where Professor Robert Kelly is taking part in a BBC interview from his home, when his children enter the room dancing.
It only takes a few disturbances or moments where home life enters into our working day, and our plans quickly dissolve. Before you know it, deadlines loom, emails build up, calls are missed, and stress levels inevitably rise.
Most people will immediately know if their home environment is or isn’t a suitable workspace. If it isn’t, the simple answer is to seek an alternative environment.
However, for some, homeworking is essential and so, in this case, it’s critical they explain to others that, despite being at home, they are still at work. It may be a difficult conversation to have, but homeworkers must communicate to family, friends and house mates, that their presence at home is strictly for a purpose.
Developing a workspace within the home with a closeable door and a “do not disturb” sign will help others to begin to understand that working at home doesn’t mean having a ‘day-off’.
One of the biggest causes of stress for the homeworker is isolation. When working in a busy office, interaction with others often acts as a defence to the everyday stresses a worker is exposed to. When issues arise or problems occur most people confide in a colleague over coffee or during a water cooler moment. However, the homeworker’s remote location often means these interactions are lost.
To counter this, the homeworker should be encouraged to communicate regularly through various tools such as instant messaging platforms, intranets, phone calls, emails, collaboration and video conferencing tools.
Each homeworker should be encouraged to have at least one person they can regularly communicate with – and not just for work reasons.
Seeing a friendly face is recommended so virtual “tea breaks” via Google Hangouts, Skype or FaceTime should be encouraged. These interactions should not be considered as “meetings” that solely focus on work, they should be social interactions and have a focus on simply catching up and chewing the fat.
If you want to take things a step further, you could encourage homeworkers occasionally to turn their webcams on and stream a live image of themselves into the office via a laptop placed somewhere they can be seen, making them almost physically present.
This will allow those passing by to comment or greet the homeworker, so maintaining a level of communication usually lost whilst working remotely. Social events should also be a priority for organisations with homeworkers to ensure that the communal aspect and camaraderie throughout the whole team is maintained.
Maintaining a daily structure in a home environment isn’t easy. But if you don’t have a clear start and a definite end time, you can feel like you are working 24/7 and this will certainly lead to increased stress and eventual burnout.
One way homeworkers can maintain structure in their day is to get up early, dress and eat breakfast, as if they were heading off for the day in an ordinary office. Staying in your pyjamas, tending to chores such as washing, cooking and engaging in any other household duties, are the first steps in losing track of time. Inevitably the boundaries between work and home become blurred.
If jobs in the house need to be done, they should be taken care of outside of an agreed start/finish time, or perhaps in the time ordinarily spent on the daily commute. Once entering the “home workspace”, a time for breaks and a finish time should be established and work should continue in the designated environment.
It is a good idea to choose and stick to a specific room or environment in the home and make this space as professional as possible. Moving around the house with a laptop can lead to distraction, and further blurring of work/life lines.
In a typical office, seeing colleagues leave the workplace is a good indication that the day is over – we all know that feeling of being the last one to leave – it’s a good reminder that the day is done! However, homeworkers don’t see others log-off and walk out, so it is important that they stick rigidly to finishing at their predetermined time.
At the end of a day in an office, most people have a moment to decompress, whether it’s by reading a book on the train, listening to music in the car, walking, cycling home, or even socialising outside of work with a colleague. These moments are instrumental in stress relief.
The homeworker rarely has this time, and often can move from their working world to tasks and challenges in their home life in a single second. Time to decompress should be incorporated into the homeworker’s day.
It is a good idea to structure 30 minutes to an hour to do something, whether it’s going for a swim, walking, taking the dog out, reading, meditating, calling a friend, getting outdoors or even taking a 15-minute nap.
Keep the balance – know how to stop
It is a common misconception that overworking will increase your productivity. Not only will it reduce it, it will increase fatigue, be detrimental to your health and above all cause high levels of stress. So knowing how to stop is critical.
In Sweden, some businesses introduced a six-hour workday, as opposed to eight, in an attempt to improve productivity and create a happier workforce. This experiment relates to Parkinson’s Law, a concept which supports the idea that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. In other words, if you put aside six hours to complete a task – even though it can be done in two – you will fill the six hours with work. The key, of course, lies in understanding what needs to be achieved and when to stop.
For many homeworkers, the timings of work are often blurred, especially if they start late or get distracted with home life. If we lose track of time, or our start/stop boundaries are hazy, we tend to overwork to make up, or work into the late hours to compensate, all of which is unhealthy and stress inducing.
By sticking to a rigid routine and planning time and activities, stopping becomes easier. After confidently achieving everything one sets out to achieve in a day, the homeworker can stop- just as they would if it was 5pm in the office. Employers can help by enforcing these stop times by introducing email and call curfews and having all staff (from the top down) adhere to these rules.
If there are still problems with letting go, laptops and phones should be locked away in personal time, all notifications turned off – especially at meal times or during those moments with the family.
If possible, personal technology should not have work communications apps or platforms on them to ensure that temptation to check in at any given time is resisted.
Finally, always ensure managers are aware of homeworker stress and make sure they look out for any signs that might suggest a remote colleague is struggling.
Regular contact and checking in on the wellbeing of long-term homeworkers will give you an idea of whether they are communicating regularly, maintaining structure to their days and generally interacting well with their team.
Stress levels higher at home than work for those balancing career and family, The Guardian, May 2014, available online at https://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/may/31/more-stress-at-home-than-work
‘Cheeky interruption of BBC guest’, BBC, Mach 2017, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/world-asia-39274662/prof-robert-kelly-and-family-the-full-interview
Swedish researchers examined whether a six-hour workday is the way forward; here’s what they found, https://www.equaltimes.org/swedish-researchers-examined#.XLlwnjBKiUl