As an academic who regularly worked from home in the days before coronavirus, my friends often joked about what they imagined my daily routine might be (such as enjoying a morning gin and not changing out of my pyjamas). But as many people now realise, the reality is quite different. Working from home can be quite a challenge.
But why? Research in occupational health psychology suggests one important answer which is all about self-control—the ability to suppress intruding thoughts, behaviours, and emotions which are not relevant or helpful for achieving a goal. Away from work, that may be as simple as refraining from eating a chocolate bar when on a diet, or sticking to a training regime before running a marathon.
But while self-control leads to positive outcomes in many aspects of life, such as career success or more stable relationships, my research has also found that frequent acts of self-control can have a negative impact on mental health and well-being.
What psychologists refer to as the “strength model” of self-control offers an explanation for this. It suggests that just like using a muscle requires physical energy, engaging in self-control consumes mental energy.
The more we practise it, the more likely it is to lead to mental exhaustion and associated unhealthy behaviours such as alcohol consumption, snacking, or getting into arguments.
Working from home can require considerable self-control. Whereas our “normal” work environments—offices, factories, shops—are set up to effectively engage in work, for many employees, home environments are not.
When working from home can mean adapting to new technologies, changing forms of communication, resisting distractions from family members, pets, or mundane household activities, or keeping up motivation when the sun is shining outside. Overcoming these demands and engaging in work requires self control, which in turn depletes mental energy levels.
The importance of detachment
A key element of replenishing vital mental energy, and reducing the negative effects of self control is what we call “psychological detachment” This refers to the act of mentally switching off from work during time off, and requires the absence of all work-related th … ughts and activities.
While the simple act of leaving the office after work immediately helps detachment, this clearly becomes much more difficult when working from home. So it is vitally important to actively manage boundaries between work and non-work time to allow for that kind of detachment.
To begin with, managing work time is key, as remote workers tend to work longer hours compared to office workers. Physical boundaries between the professional and domestic aspects of your life are also helpful, as is committing to time where you don’t communicate (or even think) about work, and immersive and enjoyable activities which require concentration.
Here are some tips on how to enhance mental health and well-being when working from home:
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