Boundaries between work and life have been dissolving as cell phones and the internet made it possible to reach people outside the office.
But when the pandemic hit in 2020, sending legions of office workers to log in from home, separating work from the rest of life became a totally different ballgame. And it’s taken a big toll on mental health.
Work is the leading cause of stressTrusted Source among Americans, and research shows that work has grown considerably more intense over the past 50 years. Two-thirds of U.S. workers believe that burnout had worsened during the pandemic, according to a survey by the recruiting site Indeed.
And parents are facing especially extreme stress juggling work with other responsibilities, as are Communities of Color and others disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
But many workers also report benefits of working from home, including increased productivity, flexibility, and convenience. And remote work appears to have staying power: Ninety-nine percent of HR leaders believe some form of hybrid work will continue into the future, according to a survey by Gartner.
“The pandemic is forcing everyone to rethink the traditional structures, which I think will be really positive long term.” — Samantha Ettus
Such major changes have necessitated fresh conversations about work-life balance, and experts believe we may be well-positioned to make real progress.
“We’ve never seen a more seismic shift,” says Samantha Ettus, author of “The Pie Life: A Guilt-Free Recipe for Success and Satisfaction.” “The pandemic is forcing everyone to rethink the traditional structures, which I think will be really positive long term.”
For most people, the days of clocking in to an office from 9 to 5 are gone. And the challenges and benefits of achieving better work-life integration are in the spotlight like never before.
Responsibility lies with employers to create respectful and accommodating professional environments, ultimately recognizing that people have lives outside of work. More companies are acknowledging the need for change and trying out policies like increased paid time off or even a 4-day workweek.
Research has shown that companies can improve employee well-being by giving them more control over their work, ditching unnecessary tasks, and fostering a sense of community.
On an individual level, workers can also benefit from setting up clear boundaries, communicating proactively, and evaluating their own priorities.
The nature of work may have changed, but it doesn’t have to take over our lives.
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The pandemic has shown that companies are able to pivot their policies on a dime.
When it was in the best interest of health and safety for people to work from home, companies swiftly made the necessary adjustments, allowing employees to accomplish many of the same tasks offsite and rethinking the necessity of in-person interactions.
But the further breakdown of the separation between work and home life has led to major burnout, and companies need to do more to protect the physical and mental health of their employees.
The Work and Well-Being Initiative, a joint effort between Harvard and MIT started in 2018, identified three main principles for improving well-being among workers: Allowing employees more control over their work, taming excessive work demands, and improving social relationships in the workplace.
Loss of agency, not just at work but in various aspects of life, is a proven cause of stress. “The ability to control when, where, and how you work is paramount,” says Phyllis Moen, PhD, professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota and co-author of “Overload: How Good Jobs Went Bad and What We Can Do About It.”
Giving employees more control over their methods and scheduling, particularly as they work from home, allows people greater agency to do what works best for them.
“Smart companies are offering a lot of support and latitude for their employees to figure out how to get the job done,” Moen says.
“The focus is on results, not on the time that people are logging on.” Zeroing in on results also tends to increase productivity, by narrowing time spent to more essential tasks.
“Shifting to more of a results-driven ethos can only help all of us, because time is our most precious commodity,” Ettus says.
Making sure that employees aren’t overloaded, or taking on so much work that they’re always stressed out, pays off for both workers and companies. Excessive work demands, like long hours and pressure to work fast, have proven negative impacts on physical and mental health.
And because workers who are sick or struggling with stress are less productive, ensuring their well-being also benefits a company’s bottom line.
“There’s less room for miscommunication now than ever before because you can’t fix it at the watercooler.” — Samantha Ettus
Employers also need to be clear about what’s expected. “It’s important to be very specific about deliverables, and what your expectations are as an employer,” Ettus says.
And because remote workers are offsite, employers have to extend a measure of trust that work is getting done, which is key to professional relationships to begin with.
Clear exchange of information is essential, as well, particularly given people are less often in the same room. “There’s less room for miscommunication now than ever before because you can’t fix it at the watercooler,” Ettus says.
Working independently can also be isolating, and social connections have proven benefits to health and well-being. Fostering interpersonal bonds between workers can help them feel more in tune with each other, and even with the company more broadly.
As Zoom and other video-conferencing platforms have revealed in a meaningful way, everyone’s life looks different at home. A child or pet wandering into the frame, for example, may be cause for laughs or distraction, but it also provides a window into someone’s life outside of work.
“We’re recognizing that people are not just workers, they do have private lives,” Moen says. That’s especially important for bosses to recognize and take into account when dealing with employees.
“Supervisor support for all aspects of life, not just as a worker, is really key,” Moen says. Understanding that every employee is also dealing with their own personal concerns means treating them like, well, people.
While some companies have prioritized worker satisfaction for years with strategies like those outlined above, others have responded especially well to the shift in conditions brought about by the pandemic.
Those that prioritized flexible schedules, work-from-anywhere policies, and unlimited paid time off topped a recent study by Glassdoor of companies with the best work-life balance.
Acuity Insurance, a small firm based in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, ranked first on Glassdoor’s list. In addition to a flexible work-from-home policy, the company allowed workers to extend their weekends if they accomplished more during the days they worked.
That concept of the 4-day workweek has grown increasingly popular, with big companies like Panasonic and Bolt recently joining a swelling number of U.S. tech firms adopting the reduced schedule. Countries including Iceland, Belgium, and Spain have also tried shorter workweeks, with promising results.
But working fewer days, and potentially more hours each day, has its pros and cons.
“Understanding that every employee is also dealing with their own personal concerns means treating them like, well, people.”
A Gallup poll of people working 4-day weeks found they experienced less burnout and increased well-being from those who worked 5- or 6-day weeks. But the study also found that people working 4 days per week were more likely to feel disengaged from their employers, which can adversely impact job performance and satisfaction.
Some 4-day workweek schedules also mean working more hours per day, which can eat into time for other personal responsibilities like childcare and leave people feeling zonked.
Perhaps the most revealing result of Gallup’s poll was that, when it comes to overall well-being, the quality of the work experience has 2.5 to 3 times the impact of the number of days or hours worked.
Ultimately, 3-day weekends may have their perks, but the job itself, and how it fits around the rest of life, will still be the most important factor.
While employers bear responsibility for fostering better work environments, there are ways employees can be mindful of their own situation and well-being, too.
“Choosing your boss wisely is really important,” Ettus says. “If your boss doesn’t respect their own personal life, they’re not going to respect yours.”
Though people who are already employed may be beyond this point, it may be useful to keep in mind moving forward or while searching for a new job.
It’s also helpful for workers to consider what’s important to them in a potential or current job, but also in other aspects of life. “Be clear on what your non-negotiables are before you get into a situation that is going to ask you to change,” Ettus suggests.
If that means family dinner at a certain time every night, or carving out time for childcare or eldercare, communicate those needs clearly from the outset.
“It’s a lot like dating,” Ettus says. “If you’re not upfront about what your needs are, then you’re probably going to end up in a bad relationship.”
Strategies like adding work hours to your email signature and setting clear out-of-office replies when you’re away can help to draw boundaries around your availability.
“It’s a lot like dating. If you’re not upfront about what your needs are, then you’re probably going to end up in a bad relationship.” — Samantha Ettus
Working remotely also requires proactively speaking up about what you’ve actually gotten done. Think of it less like bragging and more like pushing your work over the finish line by making people aware of it.
“You have to be much more forthcoming about what you’ve accomplished” in a hybrid or work-from-home culture, Ettus says. “The more communicative you can be about what you’re working on, the more you’re going to be seen as someone who is working and working hard.”
Bridging the inherent distance of remote work entails speaking up about personal needs and boundaries as well as productivity.
Though the shift to remote work has blurred the lines between people’s professional and personal lives, it has also provided major opportunities for evaluation and change.
“This is an exciting time, because people are looking at the way we work — where, when, and how,” Moen says.
And in some ways, workers are holding the upper hand. “What will help us move forward is the labor shortage right now,” Moen says. “Employees have a lot more control over the jobs they take or those that they remain in.”
If companies want to recruit and retain employees, they will have to make themselves more attractive places to work.
“Work needs to fit your needs, your preferences, and your goals — at every stage of life,” Moen says. Those needs will inevitably change with time, from young people who may prioritize exploring many interests to workers who are caring for children or elders. Work is more flexible than ever before, but it will have to continue evolving to suit the lives of the people doing it.
“What holds us back is our old mindsets about where and how work should be done,” Moen says. Our ideas about work were developed around conditions our culture has outgrown. It’s time for work to grow along with us.
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