Taking Work Home Is Common, and Unhealthy

A new study finds that almost half of U.S. workers take work home with them, and most say it negatively affects their lives.

January 26, 2010

Working at home makes it harder to relax.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—If you find yourself working away from work, you're not the only one. In fact, a new study published recently in the journal American Sociological Review found that nearly half of U.S. workers are bringing their work home, where work time eats away at the work-play balance and the time we need for family, friends, and leisure time. "When you go home, it allows for the phenomenon of recovery. Not just mental, but physiological," explains motivational speaker Ken Nedd, MD, author of The Time to Be Happy Is Now (QP Press, 2009) and Power Over Stress (QP Press, 2004). "The chemistry of the body will change as you go home and enter a different phase, a phase of relaxation." Denying yourself that recovery time is more than an inconvenience…it puts stress your body. "When there's constant stress on the cells, chemicals will be produced which can be injurious to your health," says Dr. Nedd.

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THE DETAILS: Using data from a 2005 survey of 1,800 U.S. workers, a team of Canadian and American researchers found that nearly half of U.S. workers take work home with them, and many of them say it interferes with family, social, or leisure aspects of their lives. Crunching the data, researchers found that people working more than 50 hours a week expressed the most interference with their private lives. Workers who obtained college and postgraduate degrees and made more money were more likely to say work interferes with personal life than people with a high-school degree.

Keep reading to find out how to keep work and home separate.

WHAT IT MEANS: The study used data collected from 2005 and does not take the current economic downturn into account. While the recent unemployment numbers suggest there are hundreds of thousands of people out of work, many of those who still have a job are working double or even triple duty, carrying the load of several other workers to make up for job cuts. No matter what your reasons, workplace stress that bleeds into your personal life is bad for you, for a whole host of reasons, some of which can snowball and make you feel worse and worse. "We all have duties to do at home. To add another component is tantamount to overload, and overload is one of the major producers of stress," says Dr. Nedd. "It sends a message to your body to send out cortisol and other chemicals, and this tends to increase your appetite for sugar and fat, and decrease your ability to exercise."

Here's how to prevent chronic work-after-work syndrome.

• Prevent resentment. If you wake up spooning your laptop and your Blackberry's getting more action than your significant other, a conversation is in order. Otherwise, if your better half starts feeling like you aren't fully participating in the household, and helping to take care of kids and/or elders, resentment could start to brew. "It's an issue of whether it's a temporary thing or chronic," says Lyle Kantor, PhD, clinical health psychologist in the department of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at Lahey Clinic Medical Center in Burlington, MA. "For some people, it's the pressure of the season for people in sales, tax season for accountants, or business turndown."

If this is likely temporary, remind your loved ones of this, and tell them you appreciate their patience. If it's a chronic problem, read on.

• Follow the one-time, one-space policy. "The biggest challenge is to balance between work and life responsibilities, and being off duty and able to relax, counterbalance," says Kantor.

If you do need to take work home from time to time, follow the one-time, one-space rule: A limited block of time for doing the work, and a specific area in your home for work-related tasks. "It allows you to feel on top of the job, but the job doesn't permeate all of your time," Kantor explains. For instance, you might plan for an hour after dinner to check in with work email, and only do it sitting at your desk, not while watching TV on the couch. Managing your home space to separate work from play both keeps your work stuff organized and keeps it out of your face. "You don't want your laptop in the bedroom and your work papers on the kitchen table," explains Kantor. "Anywhere you go it's in your line of sight."

And when your reserved block of work-time-at-home expires for the evening, turn off your laptop, smartphone, and anything else related to work. It's off limits until the morning.

• Get more done during the workday. "In this economy, we probably should all learn techniques to be more effective and focus better," says Dr. Nedd. "The ability to focus without diversion and distraction is a hallmark of real peak performance."

To get your mind in the habit of focusing like a laser beam, use compartmentalization instead of multitasking. For instance, if you have a presentation, designate a time block during your workday to work on it, and don't let a ringing Blackberry or incoming emails interfere with that. You'll find it easier to do so when you know there are other time compartments set aside to catch up on those things.

• Stop scrunching. To increase performance, Dr. Nedd says workers should focus on muscle tension at work and at home. "Become more aware of your physiological state, how you're holding your face, tensions in the body," he suggests. At work, whenever you are using one group of muscles, relax the other muscles. Use only the muscles you have to. If you're typing, for example, relax your shoulders and feet. To help your body get through the day, see our stories on easy exercises to stop neck and shoulder pain and tactics to counteract a day of sitting.

• Align your goals. "Today in America, you're not paid just to do things; at almost every level, you're paid to think," says Dr. Nedd. "The people who think they're doing their work just by clearing off their desk are losing ground." Instead, he recommends focusing on the goals of the company. Go to your manager and ask what the goals are for the week, month, or year. "Fit your activities with whatever that response is," suggests Dr. Nedd. This approach will enable you to work with your manager to prioritize projects, focusing your time on the important items first, and letting him know when miniscule tasks (ones you previously might have taken home) are on the back burner while you work on attaining company goals during work hours.

• Survey your peers. If you feel like your workload is unsustainable and unfair, first get a sense from your peers to see if they're working the same long hours, and ask how they are managing it. "Start with colleagues, see if it's consistent," says Kantor. "It gives you some grounds for perspective." If you find out your situation is out of line, you can use that as a talking point when you discuss things with your manager (see below).

• Complain without complaining. If your workload becomes too challenging or you see it moving in that direction, talk with your supervisor about the level of production that you're being asked to deliver. Don't frame the conversation as a list of complaints; rather, let your supervisor know you want to be a contributor, but you're concerned you can't counterbalance some of the workday pressures with downtime. Ask, 'Is there any other way we could be dividing this up or approaching it so I don't have to take it home as often?'

"Enlist your boss for suggestions, not in a complaining way," says Kantor, "But more in the spirit of 'You're experienced, are there any ways of approaching this I haven't thought of?'"

Realize it's not always bad. Putting in extra office time at home isn't always a bad thing, reminds Kantor. If you feel it's a healthy trade-off, it's OK. "It's not an absolute black or white issue. There can be times when it's positive," he says. "Some people find doing a little at home makes the workday a lot more manageable for them." Cutting out at a reasonable hour might get you to an exercise class, or let you spend time with the kids before they go to bed. Putting in another hour of work after everything settles down on the home front could be worth that.