For a lot of office workers, stringing together the words “work from home” and “stress” in the same sentence is a feat of mental gymnastics. After all, what’s so stressful about working in your pyjamas and taking breaks whenever you want?
Well, those of us who get to do it more often than once or twice every month know full well that home-based work comes with its own challenges.
This “work-from-home” stress is different from workplace stress but it can still result in lower motivation, productivity, and employee engagement. The most common triggers are:
- Lack of structure and focus,
- Too many distractions,
- Difficulty setting boundaries (resulting in frequent interruptions),
- Social isolation, and others.
And, every year, more and more employees are forced to deal with these triggers, without having a clue about how to handle them - or the stress of working from home - the right way.
In the US, 43% of employees work from their home office at least sometimes, with 5.2% of them never setting a foot in a corporate office. Globally, employers seem to favour home-based work even more - IWG, a Switzerland-based serviced office provider, did a survey in 2018 that showed that 70% of global professionals worked from home at least once per week (with 53% telecommuting for at least half of the week).
Going forward, we can expect this telecommuting trend to continue and even intensify - employers are keen on reducing overheads at every turn and unnecessary office space definitely qualifies for the chop.
Managing stress that comes with home-based work becomes even more important when we look beyond productivity and engagement - close to 30% of employees who work exclusively from home or are highly mobile say that this negatively impacts their mental health.
Healthy employees are engaged employees. We wrote a whole blog post about it, detailing three things that you need to focus on to promote mental health awareness in the workplace.
Flexible working conditions are often touted as a perk so let’s try to live up to that promise. Share these 5 tips on managing the stress of working from home with your employees, team members, and everyone else you know who are in the same rocky boat right now.
5 Tips for Managing Stress of Working from Home
1- Create a Schedule (& Try to Stick to It)
Setting your schedule can feel liberating but it also has its pitfalls.
Since you don’t have to honour the 9 to 5 as religiously as when in the office, you might get tempted to...stretch things out a bit. Before you know it, it’s 6 PM and that report you were supposed to finish that day is not even half done.
When you’re working from home, it’s okay to cut yourself some slack but you still need to stay on top of things. Here are three things that you can implement right now to make sure that you get things done on time:
- Figure out when you’re most productive - if you work in an office, you’ve been conditioned to start working early and wrap things up as the afternoon approaches. However, that might not be your most productive time - you might do your best work in the afternoons. If that’s the case, shake up your schedule. Answer emails and do other “autopilot” tasks early, and schedule those challenging tasks for after lunch.
- Plan your work the day before - before you log off work for the day, use the last 15 minutes to write out what you’re going to do tomorrow - when will you start, when will you take your breaks, what are the two-three “big” ticket items you’re going to tackle, and so on. The idea here is not to become a slave to a rigid schedule; rather, it’s to create a contract with yourself that helps you map out and visualise the day ahead so that you know if you’re hitting your targets or not.
- Prioritise challenging tasks - don’t let the most challenging task of the day hover over your head like a dark, wet cloud. It contributes immensely to that “work-from-home” stress that you’re already feeling, and it can leave you paralysed and unable to complete any of your other work. When planning your day, schedule that annoying, big task right at the start of your “peak” work time and get it off your plate so you can easily focus on other things.
2- Stake Out Your Territory
Even if you live alone, it’s a good idea to create a “workspace” - a home office that you associate with “doing work things” and where you feel like a pro.
If you can assign a whole room for that purpose, that’s great - if you can’t, a designated corner with a desk and a chair will do.
What you’re aiming for here is to enter into a “work mindset” as soon as you set foot into this space. Avoid doing anything other than working here - this is not a place to binge watch Netflix, play Facebook games or read a book. If you need to take a break, step away and come back when you’re ready to focus on work again.
The whole point of this is to create one workspace so that your to-do list doesn’t follow you around your home when you step away. Working from home becomes stressful when we start thinking that we can squeeze 15 minutes of work on the couch while waiting for that pizza delivery. Before you know it, you’re working in very small increments spread out over your entire day, and you have no time to simply unwind and relax.
3- Set Boundaries (& Let People Know About Them)
When people hear that you’re working from home, most assume that you’re not working at all. Or, at least, that you don’t have to work at that exact time when they called because they have something urgent (and usually personal) to discuss with you.
If you give an inch in these situations, you can count on them taking a mile.
Avoid this by letting people know that you’re not to be disturbed while working. Once you figure out your schedule, communicate it with your family and friends, manage expectations, and set firm boundaries. The sooner you do that, the better - you’ll be able to wrap things up faster without having to work late due to constant interruptions.
4- Make Time to Meet with People (when safe to do so)
It happens more often than you think - you start working from home and one day you realise that this is your third day in a row that you haven’t set foot outside of the house. Or, that it’s been two weeks since you popped by the office for a meeting or a catch-up with your boss.
Depending on your personality, this can feel like a blessing at first. However, social isolation is a major source of stress for home workers, and even hardcore introverts need face-to-face interactions from time to time.
The best course of action here is to plan on working from the office at least once a week. That way, you get to catch up with everyone in person and get to socialise, even if you’re not big on hanging out with friends and family. Alternatively, you can schedule one face-to-face meeting with a colleague/partner/customer every week - instead of doing it over Zoom or Hangouts, grab a cup of coffee and do it in person.
Now that we’ve cleared up the definition and the benefits, let’s take a look at how you can design a truly comprehensive and clear social media policy for employees - one that will help you to quickly collect on all the good things that come with it!
5- Keep an Eye on Your Quality of Sleep
We relax and unwind best when we sleep - the better our quality of sleep, the more productive we are in the morning.
Now, you might think that you will sleep better now that you get to set your hours, but science says otherwise. According to a study done by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), 42% of home-workers report waking repeatedly during the night, as opposed to 29% of office workers.
Researchers are not exactly sure why this is, but it might be because the line between working and relaxing becomes blurry when you’re doing both from home. If you’re not good at setting boundaries, the stress of working from home just piles on, and that’s not something that you can “switch off” when you go to bed.
There are several things you might want to try if you notice your sleep deteriorating:
- Stop working several hours before you turn in - this will give your brain a chance to switch gears and prepare for sleep.
- Limit work activities to one room/area - work in one designated space and don’t allow work activities to spill all over your home.
- No screen time before bed - resist the urge to check your email one last time before calling it a night. Better yet, try to not stare at a screen at all when you go to bed - pick up a good book instead.
Can Working from Home be Stress-Free?
I’d love to tell you that following the advice above will completely eliminate the stress of working from home. And, I’d love for you to be able to say that to your employees and colleagues: “Here, apply this and you’ll be back to your productive old self again”.
It doesn’t work like that.
The best that we can do is to learn to manage work-from-home stress better, the same way we’ve learned to manage workplace stress.
If dealing with remote workers is a part of your daily routine, arm yourself with patience and be ready to provide continuing support. Hopefully, the tips we shared with you here will give you a few ideas about how to make working from home substantially less stressful for everyone involved, including yourself.
Home-based employees are not the only ones who can feel unproductive and unmotivated at times. Office-based employees also often need managerial support and help on the road to becoming super-engaged and productive workers. If you’re not sure how to provide that support, take a look at our comprehensive guide to employee engagement.