WFH tips: How to keep work and personal lives separate for your mental wellbeing
Drawing boundaries and sticking to them is good for your mental health, and your privacy.
Every so often since the pandemic started, I’ll tweet this silly joke when the workday is over: “6:22pm put the bad laptop away and switch to the party laptop!”
It’s dumb, and it refers to a meme that has been around for years, but drawing those lines between work and personal time has been a lifesaver for my own mental health and sense of boundaries.
For many people who worked full-time in an office before the pandemic, the switch to working from home has meant the lines between work life and personal life have become blurrier than ever.
It used to be so simple: Stroll into the office, do your work, go home. (We can pretend for a moment that none of us ever answered work emails on our phones after hours.)
The setting reinforced that you were in work mode, and the equipment – our work computer – was, at least theoretically, a deterrent against doing personal things. (I say theoretically because who among us hasn’t done a little online shopping at the office?)
Oh, how things have changed.
The monotony of working from home and still not really being able to go anywhere has meant that, throughout the day, a degree of switching between working and not working has become a normal part of life. And that’s fine! The pressure to be productive and always on is destructive to our psyches and, in a twisted way, harmful to our output, studies have shown.
But switching between work mode and non-work mode brings its own potential problems, for your privacy and for your mental health. Drawing firm lines can help.
PRIVACY? WHAT PRIVACY?
Let’s get one thing out of the way early: How much privacy should you expect when using work-issued equipment?
“None,” said Lee Tien, the legislative director and Adams Chair for Internet Rights at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit that advocates digital rights and privacy.
There is, Tien conceded, more nuance than a one-word answer can capture, including individual state laws around worker rights.
But, broadly speaking, Tien said workers should assume that everything they do on a work-issued device can potentially – and legally – be surveilled by their employer.
“The main point is this is a very, very big problem” he said.
“Work and surveillance go hand in hand. If they want to measure productivity, or ensure it, there is some level of data gathering that is going to be perceived as justified for the employer, and yet, you can’t simply say, ‘This is for work so they get to do it,’ because that just destroys the attempt to have a boundary between work and life.”
That said, it’s unlikely your employer has assigned someone from the corporate security team to monitor every minute you spend on your computer, experts said.
That level of data collection would be overwhelming, and, while most companies have protocols for targeted surveillance, the truth is your employer probably has bigger fish to fry.
“Without supporting evidence, at scale this is pretty rare,” Jesse Krembs, a senior information security analyst at The New York Times, told Wirecutter last year.
“It tends to generate a lot of useless data, rope the employer into liability issues, and generally make the team that monitors these surveillance systems miserable.
"That being said, almost all large companies have a targeted programme for doing this, especially for dealing with suspected insider threat or fraud.”
Still, don’t get complacent. As a rule of thumb, just don’t do anything on a work-issued device you wouldn’t want your manager to know about.
OWN YOUR TIME
For those fortunate enough to still have a job, deadlines must still be hit, presentations must still be created, and papers must still be written.
Worse still, research has shown that for many people, the workday has gotten even longer – by nearly 50 minutes, according to one recent study.
“If we already thought that there was no separation between work and home, we’re really struggling now that we’re basically living at work,” said Ashley Whillans, the author of Time Smart: How To Reclaim Your Time And Live A Happier Life and an assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School.
You probably know all of the standard advice: If you’re able to, work in a separate area from where you spend your leisure time. Try to set limits for when you start and stop working for the day. Don’t look at your work email in the evening.
But the longer we’re stuck at home, the trickier it becomes to implement that advice.
Whillans has been researching the way we work now, and she has found that people who are better at “time crafting” while working from home have higher job satisfaction, less stress and more overall happiness.
TIME CRAFTING? WHAT?
“It means being very deliberate about setting breaks, boundaries and rituals throughout the day to help ourselves transition from personal to work,” Whillans said.
Based on her research, Whillans recommends a few ways to be better at time crafting:
Create a commute. Don’t just roll out of bed and head straight to your workstation. Spend 15 minutes gearing up for work – but not actually working – to give yourself mental space between your personal time and the start of your workday.
Take work-ish breaks. This is separate from the breaks you should already be taking to completely step away from your workstation.
Whillans has found that “bounce time” – the informal time at work during which people bounce ideas off one another – has largely gone missing.
Allow time for breaks and gaps between the formal parts of your job to have some idle water-cooler chat with your colleagues.
Establish an end-of-day ritual. A positive ritual at the end of the day can reinforce that you’re out of work mode and your personal time has begun.
Even something as simple as planning a walk around the block or setting aside time to call a friend will work. You just want something that will be a buffer between work time and personal time you can look forward to.
Post your schedule at home. Time management is now a communal endeavour, Whillans said, and letting the people you live know your schedule can help everyone understand and know the boundaries between work and personal time.
And, as always: Just don’t work when you’re not working. It’s better for you and your co-workers.
DON'T MIX WORK AND PLAY ON YOUR EQUIPMENT
The most concrete way to section off your work time from your personal time? Just don’t use the same devices for both.
“There’s been some great research showing that people with two phones, one for work and one for personal, feel less distracted during the day and are better able to compartmentalize work,” Whillans said.
“That becomes especially important in the work-from-home environment. You want to create physical separation between personal and work where it doesn’t easily mix.”
Working on only your work devices, and doing personal stuff on only your personal devices — your party laptop, if you will – establishes a habit and boundary that reinforces the separation between what each device is for, experts said.
And remember how at the beginning of shelter-at-home orders a lot of the advice was around dressing up for work? That’s not a bad habit to pick back up, according to Art Markman, a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, and the author Bring Your Brain To Work.
“We’ve all learned a set of habits about what it means to be acting professionally, and those physical reminders of it” keep us in the right emotional and mental state, he said.
“It means you don’t have to keep track of what space you’re in,” he added. “You just have to look down and you’ve got a nice shirt on, you must be working.”
By Tim Herrera © The New York Times
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.