It can be tempting to catch up on work in the evening, but beware the risks. Creating boundaries and reframing your worries are key to coping — especially if you regularly work from home.
With the rise of the internet, smart phones and flexible work, it’s never been easier to spend an hour or two on the laptop at night catching up on your day job.
It might not even really feel like you’re working — perhaps you quickly check emails after dinner, or maybe just spend your down time thinking about what’s on your schedule for the next day.
Yet we know that failing to switch off after work is bad for you.
It has a detrimental effect on your physical and mental health, potentially increasing stress and anxiety, and can even lead to things like smoking, drinking, excessive weight gain, heart disease and hypertension. If you’re pressed for time you’re less likely to cook healthy meals or ensure you’re getting enough exercise.
It can also damage your relationships and family life, signalling to your loved ones that your priorities lie elsewhere.
Lacking a boundary between home and work life can also be bad for your job. Focusing on work after hours can be exhausting, leaving you tired during the day, increasing your chances of burnout. Long working hours are also associated with lower productivity.
Nonetheless, plenty of Australians do it — the Australian Bureau of Statistics says nearly one-third of people work from home regularly, with 42% of those citing catching up on work as the main reason.
Working from home makes the line between work and home even fuzzier. After all, if you’re in your house all day, it’s up to you to say where work ends and your private life begins. Without the clean break of leaving the office at 5pm, it can feel like there’s no difference between catching up on emails at 2pm or 8pm.
Research shows employees with greater flexibility work longer hours on average. Balancing work and personal tasks across the day, even if you work the same number of hours in total, can also make it difficult to properly focus on the job at hand.
This may be why working from home can actually increase stress levels for some people, and interrupt their ability to sleep.
Switching off after work
Given all these risks, defining a clear boundary between work and home life is important.
This means asserting control over when and where you intend to think about your job, carving out spaces on which it cannot intrude. Control — or lack thereof — is one of the major influences on work stress.
Plan in advance when is work time and when is personal time, and stick to it. If you work from home, set a time when you plan to finish for the day. These measures help you know when you’ve done enough, and can help you avoid procrastination too.
Create a defined work area in your house, and only work from there — not the couch or your bed.
For some people, it helps to wear work clothes while working from home, then change out of them at the end of the day. Differences in light or music might also help your brain switch gears.
While electronics and the internet didn’t create overwork, they certainly facilitate it — so be aware of how often you gaze at your phone, especially when you’re with other people.
Set a time beyond which you will not check or respond to emails or instant messages, and switch off notifications after hours. This not only creates the space in your own mind to disengage from work (and engage with life), but stops others expecting you will be available.
And if family members or colleagues are intruding on work or rest time, consider having conversations with them about when you need space to get things done.
Still it can be difficult to stop work thoughts intruding on private time.
Psychologist Guy Winch recommends taking a problem-solving approach to what he calls “ruminations”.
“To convert a ruminative thought into a productive one, you have to pose it as a problem to be solved,” he says.
“The problem-solving approach to ‘I have so much work to do’ is a scheduling question.
“Like, where in my schedule can I fit the tasks that are troubling me?”
Planning out when to deal with the source of your anxiety means it can be handled productively — unlike just thinking repetitively about how much needs to be done.
Creating a daily schedule can also give you the focus needed to ensure work tasks are done during the day, undermining the temptation to procrastinate. Spending a few minutes every morning reflecting on your priorities can be a useful way of ensuring your priorities are correct.
Separating the important from the pressing is another good time management technique to give you increased control over your workload.
The important thing about setting these boundaries is sticking with them.
There may indeed be some occasions when extra hours are necessary, but a lack of vigilance can allow you to slip easily into poor work-life balance.
Just remember that over-working yourself isn’t just bad for you, it’s detrimental to your loved ones — and since exhausting yourself through overwork makes you less productive, and more likely to suffer burnout, you’re probably not even doing your employer a favour.