Tips to Help Work-from-Home Employees Disconnect

At this point, if the COVID-19 pandemic still has you working from home, then you’re likely tired of all the jokes about not showering for days and working in your pajamas. The real reason people might not shower for days or get out of bed to work is because they’re working more and staying “on the clock” beyond regular business hours.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 40 percent of adults reported struggling with mental health or substance abuse in June 2020.

In a July 2020 working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research, researchers analyzed data from over 3 million workers worldwide. What they found supports the general feeling that working at home makes it harder for employees to disconnect: not only do workers send and receive more internal emails than before the pandemic, their work day is now almost an hour longer.

That may not seem like much for one day, but if you add it up over the course of the now almost eight months since some businesses decided to shift to working remotely, it starts to look like a serious work-life balance problem. The COVID-19 pandemic is already straining many peoples’ mental health––according to the Centers for Disease Control, 40 percent of adults reported struggling with mental health or substance abuse in June 2020. Something’s got to give.

If employers and managers don’t want to burn out their remote employees, they need to help them regain a better work-life balance. And it’s not just up to employers; employees need to establish healthier work-from-home habits, too. In this article, we’ll discuss tips for employers and employees to help everyone achieve a better work-from-home balance.

How Can Employers and Managers Help Remote Employees Disconnect?

Wean yourself off of crisis mode.

The pandemic threw many businesses off course at the beginning of the year, and many have had to ask their employees to do more with less—fewer workers due to furloughs or downsizing, fewer resources and materials due to supply chain disruptions, etc. But your employees are a finite resource. Overwork them, and they’ll get sick, burn out, or quit.

Keep to a regular, predictable business schedule.

Different industries have different hours of operation and different standards for what constitutes a “regular day at the office.” Stick to those hours as much as possible for the sake of your employees. Their lives may be unpredictable, but your expectations need to be clear, consistent, and reasonable, just like they would if you were all back at the office.

Working remotely doesn’t give you free reign over your employees’ time. So if you find yourself typing up an email at midnight for something your employees could do the next day, stop typing. It might do you some good to disconnect, too.

Communicate openly and honestly.

“This is all well and good,” you might be thinking, “but what if we can’t afford to throttle back at this point?” Then tell your employees. Whatever the situation might be, it’s better to be upfront about what’s happening. If you’re considering layoffs or furloughs, you might think you’re doing your employees a favor by shielding them from the truth. But what you’re really doing is making it harder for them to prepare for what’s coming.

And on the other hand, if you’ve got good news to share—e.g., you’re hiring again, unfreezing pay raises, bringing back furloughed or laid-off employees—then telling your employees helps relieve some of the pressure they’re feeling to pick up the slack and always be “on.”

Accept that working remotely is a different beast, and adjust accordingly.

There are a lot of myths about remote work, especially when it comes to productivity, that might have you hounding your remote employees even after all this time. But that’s just what they are—myths. If you’ve hired the right people, trained them well, and given them the right tools to do their jobs, it’s also in their best interest to keep performing well.

So if you’re seeing issues or hiccups in your processes, maybe it’s time to change them, especially if the processes you had in place in the office are more trouble than they’re worth in a work-from-home scenario. Lean into your productivity tools for project management, communication, and time tracking to help your employees be more productive and independent and help you feel less like a nanny.

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Encourage socializing that isn’t about work.

According to the NBER study on the impact of COVID-19 on work, employees are sitting through more meetings and with more people in those meetings. Certainly, collaboration is key when working remotely, and some of these meetings might be replacing more impromptu conversations that would otherwise take place in person in the office.

But just like conversations at work might veer into the personal realm, leave room for people to be, well, people. Your employees’ workspace doesn’t include coworkers anymore, so they can’t have those casual conversations at the coffee machine or walking around the office. These simple interactions aren’t just nice distractions; they build camaraderie and solidarity.

Not every conference call needs to turn into a kaffeeklatsch. But it might not be a bad idea to suggest something like that to your team—as long as there isn’t any sense of obligation because that would defeat the whole purpose of helping employees disconnect.

How Can Employees Disconnect When Working Remotely?

Find out what your employer’s expectations are for working from home.

Without clear direction, it’s easy for you to put unnecessary pressure on yourself to work too hard. You might feel unsure of how your manager is measuring your performance or monitoring your productivity now that you’re not all working in the same location. Or maybe it seems like everyone else is putting in longer hours, so you try to match what you perceive to be their speed.

But instead of working yourself into a burnout, do the scary thing and check in with your manager. What do they actually expect from you during this time? What do you need from them in terms of feedback? Don’t toil away in obscurity, trying to measure up to a standard that was never set in the first place.

Set clear boundaries for yourself.

If your employer is flexible or you’re in a more senior position, you might be responsible for setting your own limits. While we’re certainly not telling anyone to be any less productive, you also need to be reasonable with yourself. How did you spend your time before the pandemic? While you may not have had a strict schedule even when working at an office, a routine can help set better boundaries when working from home.

With “the office” now right in your living space, it’s there all the time staring at you. You don’t have your commute and a physically separate location to mark the difference between “home” and “work.” But for your own sanity, you need to recreate it somehow.

Here are some suggestions for creating more separation between your work and home life:

Set expectations with your family or housemates.

Working from home has a lot of advantages. If you have a family or a significant other, you get to see them more often. If you’re a dog owner, you get to take your furry friend on midday walks. But your housemates, mostly the human ones, can also throw your work-life balance off-kilter.

In the same way that you need to discuss schedule expectations with your manager, you need to make it clear to your housemates when you’re “at work”—whether that’s writing up a schedule, hanging a “busy/free” sign on your door, or however else.

We are so far along into the pandemic that you may have already done this, and if so, great! But do you need to readjust expectations? Does the routine still work for you? Your children may be back at school or doing school from home, which adds different beats to the work-family rhythm than during the summer months.

If your children are at home, be flexible.

We realize we just told employers to keep to regular business hours, but for employees working from home with children, that might not be possible and may cause even more stress and anxiety about work, making it harder for them to fully disconnect.

Just like we told employers and managers, the best way for you to avoid burning out on stress and anxiety about your work schedule is to realize that it’s not going to be the same as it used to be. Because of the pandemic, you may have a lot of unknown variables messing with your schedule. But just because you’re not working your usual 8 to 5 with an hour lunch break doesn’t mean you can’t still be productive.

As suggested by the Society for Human Resources (SHRM), here are some ways to adjust your schedule to be less stressed:

Communicate often with your manager or employer.

We’ve given this advice to managers and employers, and now it’s your turn to hear it: communication is crucial. First of all, working remotely can be isolating, especially when that’s compounded with social distancing precautions. You’re not seeing coworkers or much of anybody, and that takes a toll on your mental health.

Secondly, your manager can’t read your mind even in the best of times, and it’s easier to have misunderstandings when you’re not working in the same physical workplace. Nobody loves video conferencing, but it’s better to have a quick face-to-face conversation to get your questions answered or explain your concerns. Video conferencing lets you talk it out in real time rather than trading emails, and the added benefit of seeing each other’s body language provides important context for your communications.

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Remind yourself to do something other than work.

Again, with social distancing in place, restaurant and movie theater closures, travel restrictions, etc., it may be tough to unplug for the simple fact that you can’t participate in the same after-work activities. Your ritual might have involved getting together with friends at a bar or hitting the gym after a hard week at the office, but that’s not really advisable these days.

As with your work schedule, remember to focus on purposefully relaxing when choosing after-work activities instead of trying to meet some undefined standard for constant personal productivity. For example, putting pressure on yourself to learn a whole new language on top of everything else you have going on might send you further down a spiral of decision fatigue and burnout. No matter where the mental load comes from, taking on too much can shortchange both your personal and professional goals.

So binge-watch TV shows, if that’ll help you unwind. Run through your neighborhood instead of on the treadmill at the gym. Or if learning Mandarin Chinese is a fun and fulfilling challenge, go ahead. Discover what works to clear your mind, recharge your batteries, and disconnect from work—then make time for it.

Are We Done Adjusting to the New Normal Yet?

You may be thrilled to be working from home, or you may dream of going back to the office. Either way, working from home puts a different strain on employers and employees alike. While staying productive certainly is important, another top priority for everyone is to keep a healthy work-life balance. It’s not clear yet how long the pandemic or social distancing restrictions will remain in effect, so we all need to make the necessary changes to stay sane and make it through to the other side.