Emotional Health & Home Working
Working from home sounded like some futuristic utopia; discarding the stresses of work commutes, we would wake up late and finish early. Propping up our laptops on our pillows we would chill though online conference calls wearing sports-gear and burning scented candles. (Don’t judge me.) Which ever way you imagined it, it was undoubtedly with less stress than in the office. Less stress, because we could discard the things that we thought exhausted us the most, like the commute or the constant interruptions.
Queue three months of working from home and I regularly speak to people who are struggling. It turns out that it’s not the emotional health utopia we had imagined it to be: Far from feeling less stressed, we are beginning to long for the office, (and it’s not just the home schoolers!) We are missing things that we thought we would be delighted to live without as well as feeling miss-sold the work from home dream.
Part of the issue was the false assumptions that many of us held about colleagues who were already working in this way. Who hasn’t occasionally raised their eyebrows and said, “They are working from home:’ Whilst imagining them asleep in a jacuzzi. Given the opportunity to do the same, we suddenly realised that our assumptions about our colleagues were totally misplaced.
A Digital Ocean Survey of tech professionals who have been working remotely showed that 77%[i] (UK) felt burnt-out through working from home. 52% believed that they ended up working harder than their ‘in office’ colleagues. This idea was born out in the Buffer 2019 State of Remote Working Survey[ii], which showed that whist remote workers had more flexibility than office-based colleagues, they took less holiday: 43% took only 2 or 3 weeks per year and 10% took less than one week or none at all.
Which of the things we thought we wouldn't miss are actually important for our emotional health?
I believe in boundaries and their power to protect our emotional health. However, I haven’t used my 'Out of Office' reply once in three months! Effectively this means that I have given others the impression that I am available to work at any time. To be fair to them its been more than just an impression: Looking back now, I can see that I have answered calls and emails at all times of day and night and that my boundaries have been badly compromised.
I am usually good at boundaries but the false guilt that I have felt about remote working, has weakened my resolve to stick to them. I know that I am vulnerable to believing that I only as valuable as my hard work. Over the past 16 years in Christian leadership I have always declined to work in the vicarage because I have wanted to make it clear that I’m not just drinking tea and gardening.
Home working can make you work harder and weaken your boundaries because you feel that you are somehow cheating the system. James Titcomb writing in the newspaper this week on home working said, “As far as employers are concerned, the biggest risk is that their staff split into a two-tier workforce - the office class and the work-from-home class.” This fear of the perceptions of the 'other tier' is going to be hard to overcome.
What can we do: I am committed to starting to reassert healthy working boundaries and I realise that this comes from more, not less communication with my office and team. When I am not working they need to know and I need to let go of the faulty belief that they may think I’m slacking off. I need to work for an audience of One and make sure that my anxiety isn't driving me to work for affirmation.
Like many people, I have found home-working to be a life of ‘sharp edges’ in which all of the days soft transitions have been edited out. I used to get my tea from the furthest office kitchen, despite having one next door to my desk. Yes, it was a waste of time, but it created helpful transitions between the activities and events of my day. It was also a means by which I would chat to colleagues briefly along the way. This margin helped me clear my head after an emotional call or concentrated period of work.
Pat of transition making is having clearly designated spaces for work rest and play, which is why the office is so appealing. Working from home requires some creativity in doing this, but it is still worth the effort to set up that 'special sideboard' which you are going to designate as your work base. Try to make it as appealing as possible so it is something that you are happy to transition back to.
What can we do: I realise that I need transitions, especially between coaching or pastoral calls. The garden or road outside of my house has become my new office kitchen and I am trying to push myself to take breaks between things even though its tempting to stay put. I have a designated work space in the house with a good view that I am happy to occupy again after a short break.
Work was never meant to be a roll of solid activity and our brains and bodies need short rests between exertions. Imagine you are a pool swimmer needing a breather after 10 lengths before setting off again for the next section of their training.
I know I am at risk of being British about the weather, “Too hot, too cold, too wet, to dry…” When I say this but, 'I miss my commute'. If you had been in the office following my arrival on a torrential morning, or after a tangle with an Uber Driver, you would not believe that I am saying this. However, what I have realised about that thirty-minute bike battle through West London, is that it helped me switch effectively between home life and work life. It was a mixture of prayer and planning on the way in and reflecting and processing on the way out. Now I find myself walking between the kitchen, and the sitting room and frankly, it’s not enough.
What can we do: I am making my lockdown exercise my new commute; trying to have a half-hour walk in the morning and evening to top and tail the day. At the moment it is still later than I would like but I can see how helpful it is not to just jump onto the laptop at the crack of dawn.
Wherever you find yourself, it is possible to build a transition into and out of your working day, it may involve exercise or meditation, or stretching or just a walk, but however inconvenient and unnecessary it may feel, it can really help you get into a working mindset and then process your working day before relaxing again.
Being interrupted during the working day can be frustrating at times, but it can also be the greatest gift in our day. ‘Meaningful work’ is not always the work we imagined we would do on a particular day. Very often it is the unexpected opportunity to inconvenience ourselves in the service of others, that we find true joy and purpose. This is also where I believe Jesus meets and shapes me most obviously within my week. Ironically, I haven't always been so positive about being interrupted by my three kids when I have been working from home. Lockdown has helped me to be grateful for their interruptions too and pivot much more freely between dad mode and work mode.
What can we do: If you are loving alone this is a tough one to replace. With so much Zoom-time its easy not to bother making random social calls, especially in work time. But what’s the difference between chatting in the corridor and chatting on the phone? I have taken to interrupting other by making a few random friend calls each day. Its amazing how positive people sound when you aren’t asking for anything specific, just a little, ‘How you doing?’
Without these, weird, inconvenient and sometime uncomfortable additions to my day, I sense I am not doing quite so well, but like with all stark contrasts in life’ I am finding new appreciation for old grumbles. Proverbs 29:18 says, “If people can’t see what God is doing, they stumble all over themselves; But when they attend to what he reveals, they are most blessed.”
There is no doubt that working practices will change as a result of lockdown and that, corona virus or not, flexible, remote working will be a real option for many people. It is essential that we think through the emotional health ramifications of home working and find ways of mitigating some of its challenges, whilst also recognising its benefits. I believe that if we can ‘attend to what he reveals’ we can find ways to thrive in this new landscape of work life.
Will Van Der Hart, 29/06/2020