Work and leisure blur in the home office, a study shows – how you can protect yourself

  • Several studies show that home office employees have a hard time switching off from work.
  • This is partly because the boundaries between work and personal life can easily become blurred when people work and live in the same space.
  • It’s therefore helpful to establish precise rules with your employer about when you can be reached in the home office, too.
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More peace and quiet, more flexible time management, better compatibility of job and family: working in a home office has many advantages, that’s undeniable. Digital conferences and Zoom meetings eliminate unnecessary long business trips. You save time and money on commuting. Children can come home after school and don’t have to go to daycare.

What has advantages, however, always has disadvantages as well. For many, working from home on a permanent basis can become a real test of endurance – too much pressure, too little self-discipline, no social exchange with colleagues. It is also becoming more and more of a problem that many employees in the home office find it difficult to switch off from work. Checking e-mails early in the morning or hanging around for an hour after dinner has become a habit for many. Even after work, the cell phone remains switched on – it could be something important.

Of course, workaholics who work around the clock existed even before the Corona pandemic forced us all to sit at our desks at home. But in the home office, the threshold for being constantly available or working overtime is even lower. After all, the boundaries between work and private life easily threaten to merge when people work and live in the same rooms. Only one in two manages to keep the two areas strictly separate, shows an analysis by the DAK. And that, in turn, tempts people more quickly to work when they actually have free time.

The consequences are an increased stress level and too little rest – which in turn can lead to health problems. Because productivity needs rest. And that requires employees to be able to switch off sometimes.

Executives have the same problem

A survey conducted by the Frauenhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering among nearly 180 company managers and human resources specialists shows that the problem has already reached the executive floors. For example, around 70 percent of those surveyed said they observed a negative effect from the lack of separation between work and private life among their employees – albeit to varying degrees: 35 percent said some, 30 percent said a few and six percent said many of their employees were affected.

The HR managers and bosses surveyed cited work at unusual times of the day (66 percent), overtime (65 percent), fragmented work – i.e., starting early in the morning and then continuing with a long break only in the evening – and work on weekends (55 percent) as common reasons. This also reveals the typical coronavirus-related challenges many face in the home office, such as homeschooling, makeshift offices in the laundry room or hallway, and other tasks we have to do on the side.

Only a third see a need for action

The problems are well known, yet only about one-third of the bosses or HR professionals surveyed see a need for action. There is also disagreement about who is responsible for this issue and whose job it is to improve the situation. For example, half (52 percent) of the respondents take the direct manager to task. Around 48 percent of participants think the responsibility lies with the company management and the same number think it is up to the employees themselves. In contrast, less importance is attached to the HR department.

So what can be done? “Employees need to set boundaries when working at home and regulate themselves more closely,” advises the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB). On the one hand, the home office offers more flexibility in the use of time. However, it is also important to ensure that an employee’s protective rights are respected there just as they are in the office – i.e., the legally prescribed rest breaks and only a limited number of overtime hours.

Define clear rest periods

According to the DGB, it is helpful to create binding regulations for home office work that are based on legally safe and healthy working conditions. It should also be clearly defined at what times employees must be available. The bosses and HR managers surveyed by the Fraunhofer IAO also see a good solution approach in agreeing within the team on the availability of each employee – as well as in the training of managers and a positive example set by the company management. On the other hand, checks on whether rest periods are observed, for example, are less popular.

And it is also one’s own responsibility to allow oneself to rest so that one can return to full performance on the coming workday. If you’re afraid of being seen as less hardworking just because you’ve reduced your availability, you should probably talk to your supervisor about it. After all, they probably don’t expect their employees to read their e-mails late at night – and you’re just causing yourself unnecessary stress.

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