Bridget Grenville-Cleave, MAPP graduate of the University of East London, is a UK-based positive psychology consultant, trainer and writer. She is author of Introducing Positive Psychology: A Practical Guide (2012), and The Happiness Equation with Dr Ilona Boniwell. She regularly facilitates school well-being programs and Positive Psychology Masterclasses for personal and professional development. Find her on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter @BridgetGC. Website. Full bio. Her articles are here.
In the UK this week we’re experiencing heavy snow and icy winds, which have closed many airports and left roads impassable. I happened to be chatting to my neighbour – we were both out on the driveway clearing the snow which had fallen the night before. I asked whether he’d tried to make it into work this week. “Oh no,” Anthony replied, “with my laptop, the webcam and the mobile I can work from home so easily, it doesn’t make sense to risk the commute unless I really need to.”
The numbers of employees who work from home, so-called teleworkers, has risen dramatically in the past decade or so, enabled by the internet and the availability of high-speed broadband in many areas of the country.
In the US it’s the same. According to Fortune Magazine this week, nearly half of U.S.-based companies currently have employees who telework, or work from outside the office. And President Obama has just signed into law the 2010 Telework Enhancement Act, which gives government agencies six months to establish a policy on working outside the office and create training programs for teleworkers and their managers. It is estimated that the bill will affect approximately 1.2 million government workers.
Pros and Cons of Teleworking
On the one hand, if you’re fairly well-disciplined and not easily distracted by the lure of all those day-time chat shows discussing marital misdemeanors, last night’s washing-up piled up in the sink, or the possibility of cleaning out the garbage cans (yes, for the easily tempted, even these can seem highly preferable to writing up that project report!), the ability to work from home is an absolute god-send.
On the other hand, when your home is also your workplace, does it become more difficult to switch off from work, to focus on the family instead of business, or to think about domestic issues rather than work issues? Do you need different skills in order to navigate a healthy path between being effective when you’re working at home and effective when you’re at home and not working?I can’t be the only one who frequently uses a few quiet moments in the evening or at the weekend, or occasionally the small hours of the morning, to catch up on work, answer a few emails, or write my contribution for Positive Psychology News Daily. Others I know who work from home are also thankful that they can be flexible, and like me, they feel that making the best use of their time means being prepared to work at odd hours, or at short bursts through the week (including the week-end) interspersed with family-time or other essential activities like getting the car serviced, taking the dog to the vet, or watching the school nativity play.
It’s true that I work longer hours now that I did as an employee; that seems par for the course for many who go independent, at least in the early years. For me personally though, I generally find the right work-life balance; I’m grateful that I can collect our son from school at 3pm and taking him swimming with friends or to the park on his scooter, even if it means that after he’s gone to sleep I spend several hours at my desk, catching up rather than chilling out. So as far as my individual well-being is concerned, I think I’m doing OK.
But perhaps people like my brother-in-law Tim, who works in R&D for one of the world’s biggest food and drink companies, are actually better off. When he leaves work at 5pm, Tim switches off completely, turning his attention to his family. He rarely works in the evening, or weekends, unless there’s an emergency. It has to be said that Tim isn’t an anomaly – his employer is serious about the importance of maintaining a good work/life balance, and it’s expected that senior managers like him will act as role models for their teams.Switching Off from Work Affects Well-being and Productivity
Interestingly, a recent piece of research from Charlotte Fritz at Portland State University and her colleagues Maya Yankelevich, Anna Zarubin and Patricia Barger at Bowling Green State University, has explored the relationship between switching off from work during non-work time (a.k.a. ‘psychological detachment’), well-being and productivity. The studies’ final sample was 107 college and university administrative employees whose job titles included admin assistant, program coordinator, director, library associate, and web-developer. 39% were college graduates, 30% held master’s degrees, and 5% held PhDs.
I think that most people would probably agree that being able to distance yourself mentally from work when you’ve left the workplace is a good thing because it helps you to recharge your mental, emotional and physical batteries. The research suggests that there is a linear relationship between psychological detachment and well-being (using the Oldenburg Burnout Inventory which measures emotional exhaustion, and the Satisfaction with Life Scale) which means the more you switch off, the higher your well-being, and vice versa.
In terms of productivity, the study asked the employees’ co-workers to rate their task performance and also their personal initiative over the past couple of weeks. The results suggest that medium levels of detachment are associated with the highest levels of job performance, whereas both very high and very low detachment are linked with lower levels of performance, In other words, the relationship is curvilinear. So whilst switching off completely is linked to a higher level of happiness, it is also linked with lower performance at work.Making it Easier to Switch On and Off
Charlotte Fritz and her colleagues suggest that organizations can encourage switching off, and thus higher levels of well-being, by insisting that their employees don’t work in non-work time, and making sure that absences are adequately covered so that employees aren’t called upon once they’re left the workplace at the end of their day. This is what my brother-in-law’s company manages to do so well.
Organizations can also help their employees transition from non-work to work in a way which encourages higher job performance back at work, for example by making sure they are aware of the value of such simple things such as creating a ‘To Do list’ at the beginning of the day, or perhaps using the latter half of the daily commute to think about work issues and get mentally prepared for the tasks ahead.
So as you finish off your work tasks, empty your inbox and head into the final holiday season of 2010, you might want to keep in mind that although switching off from work demands is linked to higher well-being, finding ways to get yourself gently back up to speed and on track with work issues at the end of the holiday is equally important for how well you perform on the job once the holiday is over.
I’d be very interested to hear if you’re good at switching off and switching back on, and if there are any particular tips or techniques you’d like to share.
Fritz, C., Yankelevich, M., Zarubin, A. & Barger, P. (2010). Happy, healthy, and productive: The role of detachment from work during nonwork time. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(5), 977-983. Abstract.
UK Snow Day by draml
School nativity play by Pedronet
Switch by javez
Nine Wreaths by Creativity+, Timothy K Hamilton