Whether you’re in a work-from-home or on-site situation, your ability to place boundaries between your work and your personal life impacts not only your personal well-being, but also your ability to perform at a high level in your work. As I always say, work-life boundaries aren’t selfish. They are deeply beneficial for you, and they also benefit your work. It’s a win-win for everyone.

So how can you improve the boundaries you can (and should) place between your work, and your life, in a work-from-home situation? I’ve been speaking to organizations about this since spring 2020, with the massive pivot to remote work. Right now, with so many organizations looking at or implementing hybrid work policies, or delaying “return-to-office” dates, this remains an important conversation.

Have you inadvertently become an “integrator”?

Ellen Ernst Kossek, Ph.D., a leading social scientist, researcher, work-family expert, and professor at Purdue’s Krannert School of Management, has published numerous papers on work-life boundaries. In a 2016 article on “Managing Work-Life Boundaries in the Digital Age,” she states that “effectively managing boundaries can help you not only effectively balance your career with your personal life, but can also be more effective as a leader who manages others.”

In that same article and others, Kossek describes different boundary management styles, from “separators” who strive for a greater divide between work and life, and “integrators” who like to blend work and non-work roles.

Over the last couple of years of our work-from-home reality, many of us have found ourselves to be unintentional integrators. We hit the ground running in 2020, thrust into working from home. The boundaries between work and life became blurred and stressful. We’re working longer to try to maintain productivity. We deal with constant interruptions. It feels like there’s no relief. I’ve heard this over and over from people at organizations of all kinds.

When we think of work-from-home boundaries (or lack thereof), most of us think of a laptop and papers taking over the kitchen table, or trying to take a meeting while getting the kids ready for school. These are example of physical boundaries being crossed, but there are also temporal and mental boundaries to keep in mind and put in place. Let’s start with the physical.

Improve physical boundaries in your work-from-home environment

There are a number of ways you can do this:

  • Create a dedicated space in your home for anything work-related that you don’t use at any other time.
  • If your workspace is in a common or multi-use area, put all signs of work away when you’re done for the day.
  • Put on “work clothes” when you start your day, and change out of them when your day is over. At an educational session I did this year for the U.S. Navy, a leader shared that he puts on his full uniform before he goes down to his home basement office for the day. When his day is done, he switches into civilian clothes. A fantastic example of this strategy.
  • When working, put your phone on “do not disturb” mode. Program it so that only certain calls or messages come through. This has been a game-changer for me in the last few months.

Create time-related boundaries

When working from home, it’s tempting to flow back and forth between work and your home life, without drawing any lines. Every time you stop a work task to attend to a personal situation, you lose concentration and focus. It can take significant time to get back in this zone. These “process losses” affect your productivity, efficiency, and stress levels.

Some tips:

  • Have a dedicated time to start your workday, and a fixed time when you’ll finish it. You’d be surprised by how much more efficient you can be when you have a forced end-time.
  • Set times for breaks and lunch, and stick to them. Encourage family members or anyone else who is at home with you to wait until these breaks to chat or spend time with you. This minimizes interruptions and distractions.
  • Pick a time after which you won’t check email, or won’t do anything work-related (e.g., 6:30 p.m.). Do this in discussion with your team at work, to adjust expectations.
  • Have protected times, whether it’s evenings or weekends or other time blocks, where anything related to work is off-limits.

Practice mindful management of mental boundaries

In our 24/7 world, it’s easy for thoughts of work to dominate your life, even when you’re not working. When you’re in a work-from-home situation, it makes it even harder to prevent intrusive work-related thoughts and worries. I coach my clients to pay careful attention to work thoughts that invade their personal time, through a practice of mindful awareness.

If you find it hard to turn off thoughts of work, for example when you’re spending time with your family, cultivate mindfulness around this. Commit to noticing work thoughts as they pop up. Instead of engaging with the work-related thought, let it pass and immediately refocus your attention on what’s in front of you (your child’s smiling face, your partner, nature, whatever is around you).

This can be very soothing and reassuring, as you’ll learn that you have control over your thought life. By practicing this, you can impact your stress levels and how your personal time feels. It’s so much better than feeling like you can’t get away from work, even psychologically.

As an exercise, make a list of five ways that your work encroaches on your personal life at home, or vice versa. Next, based on that initial list, list five ways (one for each) that you can implement a helpful boundary. You’ll be glad you did. Your life and work will feel noticeably better.

Additional reading:

How Lack of Boundaries Leads to Burnout

7 Ways to Protect Your Energy & Enforce Healthy Boundaries

3 Signs It’s Burnout & Not Just Stress

 

© Copyright 2022 Dr. Susan Biali Haas.

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