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How to Manage Overwork, Stress, and Work-Life Balance Within Remote Teams

Working from home can be incredibly beneficial for a whole host of reasons. Without the need to commute to a fixed office location, remote workers are free to make their decisions based on other factors like family or lifestyle. They may choose to live further away from the CBD, reduce their carbon footprint by downsizing to one car per household or change their working hours to accommodate other commitments like errands or simply sleeping in. Working parents may find it easier to fit in school runs, childcare and extracurricular activities. Equally, those with time-intensive hobbies, such as marathon training or side hustles may find it easier to juggle.

We know that remote workers are more productive than their in-office counterparts and potentially happier, as according to Buffer’s State of Remote Work, most remote workers would rather continue working remotely for the rest of their careers. 

And yet, it’s not all good news. 

For some, working remotely can mean better work-life balance and more time spent with friends and family, but for others working and living in the same space can lead to disconnection, overwork, and difficulty switching off. 

To unpack this difficult issue, I chat with workplace psychologist, Dr. Richard Mackinnon to hear his perspective on overwork and stress and his tips on how to achieve a better work-life balance for remote workers. 

What’s the issue with remote work?

“It’s becoming more of a challenge with time passing,” Dr. Richard says. “Technology allows that there’s increased flexibility of working arrangements, which is a great thing, but one of the downsides is it hasn’t always come with effective training and support to enable people to manage these boundaries.” 

Having an adequate policy, training, and support is essential in ensuring remote work is successful at both the individual and company level. Like anything new, working remotely isn’t something you can just fall into and immediately excel at, it often takes time to adjust, intentional effort, and a strong support system to ensure things run smoothly. 

“Of course, at the moment, 2020 is a bit of a nightmare for all of this because so many people are working at home for the first time. They did that suddenly with, in many cases, no support,” Dr. Richard muses. “And, so in doing so, they’ve picked up some pretty awful habits.”

The effects of WFH on remote workers

“I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve worked with this year who fell into that trap of long working hours because they didn’t have their routine,” Dr. Richard says. 

Without the everyday rhythms of getting ready to leave the house, commuting, and settling into the office for the day, it’s much harder to enforce structure, and we can end up falling into unintentional bad habits. 

“They’re simple things, working on the couch, working from bed, not taking breaks and not moving around, not staying hydrated, all of that stuff is more likely to happen because we’re out of a routine and we’re away from a physical environment that reminds us to do this,” Dr. Richard says. 

When we’re around other people, we can subconsciously take our cues from them. We see our teammates get up to make a coffee, take their lunch break, and leave for the day, and it prompts us to do the same. 

“But if it’s you and a laptop at the kitchen table, it’s very easy to sort of get stuck into that in a way that’s unhealthy for the medium to longer-term,” Dr. Richard says. 

“People may feel, ‘Oh, well, I’ll just keep going, and I’ll get ahead of the work,’ but of course, for knowledge workers, you don’t really get ahead. There’s always more work.”

If you’re not seeing the office gradually empty, or you don’t have to rush off to catch a train or get home in time for dinner, there’s no longer that external pressure to finish at a particular time. You can see how it makes it much easier for work to bleed into the evening. 

While the occasional late-night working session to finish a project or hit a deadline can be normal for many roles, continual long working hours can harm many areas of our lives. 

“If we are working crazy long hours for a long time, we’re not getting the rest and recovery from work we need,” Dr. Richard says.  

“It impacts us psychologically, physically, socially, and it has an impact on our work too.”

The later we work, the smaller the gap between the end of the workday and going to sleep. Not only does this have the potential to damage the quality of our sleep overall but also erodes our overall sense of self. 

“That space between work and sleep is our personal life, and we need that to be defined, and we need to actively engage with it, and not just use it as a buffer time,” Dr. Richard says. 

What are the employer’s responsibilities? 

“I would look at this from a top-down perspective and a bottom-up perspective,” Dr. Richard says. “The overwork is a function of both the organization and the individual.”

While individuals are of course responsible for their own mental health and enforcing their own habits around work times, employers still have some responsibility too. Namely around job design and providing support systems. 

“Bad job design exists where roles haven’t been reviewed, and they are just too much for a single person,” Dr. Richard says. “And so the resourcing is done like something from a fairy tale, they say, ‘Oh, I’m sure that’s, that’s doable within 45 hours in a week,’ and it’s absolutely not.”

In these cases, expectations are off from the very beginning, and overwork is essential just to get through the task list. 

There’s also a common issue among companies to be so focused on deadlines and targets that there isn’t space to think long term.

“The quarter to quarter focus of organizations means that longer-term issues like health, wellbeing, turnover, don’t factor as much as reaching targets,” Dr. Richard says. “And it’s almost like they forget the trail of destruction that’s been left behind.”

If everyone in your team is continuously stressed out, working longer hours than expected and the turnover rate is exceptionally high — that’s an issue with the company, not the individual. 

Set explicit expectations for communication and working hours

A critical factor for employers to consider is how they are communicating their expectations around availability. If you don’t expect your remote workers to be glued to their desks 24/7, have you explicitly shared that? 

This may seem like a no brainer, but again, without visual cues of teammates going to the post office during the day or leaving early on Thursdays to watch their kids play sports, it can be extremely difficult to pick up on unspoken rules. In remote settings, these expectations need to be explicitly and repetitively communicated, and then you need to follow through with them yourself. 

“If senior people are online all the time if senior people are sending messages at all hours, then what message does that send to everyone else?” Dr. Richard asks. “It says, you need to be online if you want to be good here. If you want to be a senior here, you need to be responding at all hours.”

Every company will have a different set of rules (whether they are explicitly stated or not), it’s the employer’s responsibility to communicate them effectively.  

Something that may help is asking your teams to share their (chosen) work hours. That way, across all time zones, everyone knows when they are expected to respond within a specific timeframe, and when they can comfortably sign out and turn off notifications. 

Again, how quickly you expect your team to respond will be dependent on the kind of work you do — maybe tasks are often urgent so you need to have responses immediately, possibly within the hour or by the end of the day would suit. Whatever the case, communicate this in various places and repeat it often. 

“Be specific about channels for communication too,” Dr. Richard adds. “If you need me quickly, Slack me. If you need to share some information with me, send me an email. If it’s crisis mode, pick up the phone — talk about that stuff that’s often assumed.” 

By being overt around expectations, employees can feel confident when following these rules, instead of doing things like keeping notifications on all night, just in case.  

Encourage your remote workers to incorporate good habits

“This issue is really, really complex,” Dr. Richard says. 

It’s definitely not as simple as telling your workers to finish at a particular time of day or capping the number of hours they work. 

“If you only look at one measure like working hours that can lead to unintended consequences like people not logging their hours,” Dr. Richard says. “They’re still doing the work, but they’ve been told, ‘Get your numbers down.'”

They may need more training to get through work more efficiently, or they may be struggling with procrastination, distraction or stress. By asking what they need, and continuing to invest in creating safe relationships and environments, you’re more likely to get to the heart of the issue for your team. 

“If leaders can create a culture where people feel safe to make suggestions, speak up about issues and know that the issue will be the focus and not them,” Dr. Richard says. “We know the research demonstrates that contributes to organizational success.”

He also says that positive reinforcement is essential in encouraging good habits. 

“Stories and case studies work really well,” he says. “You need policy, sure. But to illustrate what’s possible, having people share their success stories and what works for them, talking openly and positively about break-taking, staying hydrated, the benefits that come from working from home is an extremely positive way to encourage others to do the same.” 

What are the individual’s responsibilities? 

For individuals, the responsibility lies mostly with reflecting on why you may be finding it difficult to stick to regular working hours or switching off in the evening

If it is unclear working conditions or a workload that’s physically impossible to complete within the timeframe, it might mean having a conversation with your manager. 

“These might be difficult, challenging, uncomfortable conversations,” Dr. Richard says. “But they lead to clarity. You know, ‘I don’t expect to get calls on the weekends, why are people calling me on the weekends? Is that what we do here?'”

With all of the information, individuals can then make decisions around whether they are happy to continue in the role or not. When it’s not clear, it’s extremely difficult to make any changes or take ownership of the situation. 

But for some individuals, their company culture is excellent, they are merely struggling with some unhealthy habits. 

Dr. Richard says this is the case for many people this year who suddenly found themselves working from home without the proper forethought. It’s been especially challenging because of the effects on other lifestyle activities too. 

“The work-life balance literature is great to draw from, but it wasn’t conducted in this kind of an environment,” he says. “And so many of the recommendations are just not possible for people. But the principles remain the same.” 

He says one of the most important things people can do to help with work-life balance is to foster intentional engagement with work and then mode switching to intentional engagement with the personal.

Establish a workday routine and incorporate daily rituals

“The things that can really help are very basic, yet have a huge impact,” Dr. Richard says. “So for example, establishing a routine where you’ve got familiar things happening at the same time each day gives us a sense of control when we don’t have control in the world at the moment.”

He points out that a routine doesn’t have to be obsessive or even time-based, it can be whatever works for you.  

“The start of the day could be, I have a cup of coffee, and I make a list of my priorities for the day, and that signals to me (and maybe the people around me) that’s the start of my day,” he says. “At the end of my day, it could be a pack of my laptop, and I put it in a drawer, and that’s the end of my day. Or I walk around the block, or I have a cup of herbal tea, or who knows, but something simple that you like doing that signals to the world and to you, I’ve finished.”

In the absence of a commute, where you incidentally have time to prepare for the day ahead and decompress after the workday, you may find it difficult to immediately switch from work mode to personal mode. 

“And so inserting something in the morning and the evening to say, I’m moving from one domain to another is really, really helpful,” Dr. Richard says. 

Remove work cues from home life 

“We’re visual creatures. We respond very well to visual cues. So if you can see your laptop all evening, it’s reminding you of work. If you can see paperwork, it’s reminding you of work. So get that stuff out of the way,” Dr. Richard says. 

If you have a home office, shut the door. If you don’t, put everything away out of sight. 

“Put it in your bag, put the bag in the closet, don’t have work stuff around you when you don’t want to.” 

Unfortunately, in many instances, people are using the same devices for both work and home life. 

“Basic things like learning how to manage the notifications on your devices so that you can have quiet time,” Dr. Richard says. “That way you can use that device, whether it’s a phone or a tablet for entertainment purposes and not worry that your colleague in a different time zone is going to message you.” 

Write a to-do list

“A lot of the time, the intrusive thoughts about work are around things that need to be done,” Dr. Richard says. “Instead of doing them, it’s a great idea just to write them down.”

You may like to finish your day by writing tomorrow’s to-do list, so you know you’ve set aside time for the tasks on your mind. If you start to think about something you forgot about, you can walk over and add to your list throughout the evening. 

“Writing down the thing is a really good way of fooling our brains into thinking we’ve made some progress, and it’s less likely to be, scratching away in our minds and distracting us,” Dr. Richard says.

“People forget that if you’re thinking about work, you’re working. If you’re problem-solving, you’re working. If you have a quick look at your email while you’re on the laptop, you’re working.”

Explore different solutions and continue striving for a healthy work-life balance

As with all complicated issues, overwork has many potential sources and solutions. There won’t be one right way to replicate, but there are some common themes to think about.  

From an employer’s perspective, keep assessing the workload of your teams. Is it physically possible for them to take on another project? Maybe not. It’s also essential to communicate your expectations as well as create a safe environment for employees to talk about issues without adverse repercussions. 

On the individual’s side, make time for self-reflection, ask yourself why you’re working late at night or early in the morning. Is this something you can bring up with your team, or is it an issue of unhealthy habits? 

The most important factor is an effort from both ends and dedication to trial solutions and switch gears when something isn’t working out. 

— Bree Caggiati

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