By: Akeso Milnerton occupational therapist, Mariaan Jacklin
Tips from an occupational therapist for maintaining a healthy work-life balance
Technology and improved ease of communication are making it possible for an increasing number of people to work remotely. Akeso Milnerton occupational therapist, Mariaan Jacklin, says there are both advantages and disadvantages in working away from a central office, and offers advice for maintaining a work-life balance to avoid burnout.
“There is very little research available on remote work within the South African context, and despite the growing popularity of remote work, there remains a worldwide shortage of research available on the subject. There is a common perception that working remotely has positive effects for the worker, however, there is very little evidence to support this view,” Jacklin notes.
“Ease of communication across the planet makes it possible to work from the other side of the world, which may even involve working across different time-zones, however, this makes it challenging to differentiate when a workday starts and ends.
“There have been studies suggesting that traditional work instils structure to the day, which encourages routine and a clear distinction between work and home activities1.”
According to Jacklin, without clear delineation, there is increased risk of falling into the “always-on” trap, where boundaries between work and personal life may become blurred to the point where the individual is unable to ever completely disengage from their work responsibilities. “This poses a challenge to the modern worker, where the work and the home environment are often one and the same, as they are unable to ‘switch off’ from their work role to fully relax during leisure time,” she says.
Working remotely may also create inter-role conflict, where a worker is required to fulfil different roles at the same time. “The presence of children in the remote work environment may be extremely demanding on the worker who may simultaneously have to fulfil the role of caregiver, and this lack of role differentiation may leave the individual feeling overwhelmed and guilty. Individuals with poor role clarity may feel that one role is being neglected for another, and try to compensate for this, leading to unsatisfactory role fulfilment.”
A number of positive aspects associated with the work environment, which give individuals a sense of connectedness and achievement, may also be difficult to replicate when working from home.
“A 2015 study on the influence of technology on job satisfaction and collaboration2 found that work productivity and satisfaction depend on the meaningfulness of the work, autonomy with regards to work tasks and measurable outcomes, and meaningful social relationships at work.
“While working remotely may tick some of these boxes, there are various factors that need to be considered to establish whether the recent trend towards working remotely could be beneficial to South African workers.”
Working remotely may provide the worker with a greater sense of autonomy, and more flexibility can enhance feelings of independence, as well as creating opportunities for exercise during traditional working hours.
“Although improvement in autonomy is implied when working remotely, research suggests that the lack of proximity to supervisors and managers may actually lead to micromanagement and a breakdown of trust between the manager and the worker, as the manager is not aware of how the worker uses his or her time,” Jacklin adds.
“Many may argue that working from home or remotely may reduce stress by diminishing travelling time. Reduced stress leads to various physiological benefits such as reduced blood pressure, improved digestion, reduced muscular pain, better sleep and improved cardiovascular functioning. On the other hand, some research argues that the travel time between work and home serves as a buffer to assist the worker in leaving the role of employee and stepping into the role of spouse, parent, or partner before entering the home environment, and vice versa. The loss of this buffer might lead to inter-role conflict,” she explains.
While there is a popular belief that working remotely leads to a better work-life balance and prevents burnout, the opposite may also be true, particularly where flexibility in daily schedules could lead to either too little or too much time spent working, as well as inconsistent sleep and wake patterns.
In addition, the lack of structure in remote working may lead to longer working hours, with less home-work differentiation and an increased risk of burnout. As the worker functions more independently, there is less exposure to company group goals, values and motives, and this may reduce the individual’s ability to experience meaning in their work.
The most prevalent risk of remote work, according to Jacklin, is that of social isolation. “When working remotely, social interaction is limited to the primary group in the household or immediate community. It has been suggested that social interaction may be the key reason some people seek out employment3, such as in the case of single people, stay-at-home-mothers with grown children, or someone who has recently lost a partner. For these individuals, the work environment provides varied opportunities for social interaction and connection.”
Working remotely, even with the benefit of communication via email, text message or phone calls, may provide little scope for peer-group support, such as social contact with people from the same work environment for example. “Non-verbal communication cues, tone of voice, and social subtleties are lost when communicating via electronic media, which may lead to miscommunication and depersonalisation,” she observes.
“Anyone considering working remotely should assess whether they possess the necessary intrinsic motivation and self-reinforcement needed to maintain proper boundaries between work and home life, as a lack of differentiation between work and home may lead to role confusion and occupational imbalance.”
Jacklin offers the following tips for those who may be offered the opportunity to work remotely:
- Maintain a daily routine that includes no more than eight hours of work per day, six to eight hours of sleep, and half an hour of exercise daily.
- Ensure there is time in your schedule for home and childcare tasks, and meaningful social and leisure time pursuits, which should ideally not be work-related.
- Try to differentiate work space from home space. The self-employed worker, or home-based worker, may find that working from coffee shops, libraries, or collaborative ‘floating-desk’ spaces may be more beneficial to their emotional wellness, as it allows for community interaction.
“If you feel emotionally drained and overwhelmed and need assistance to restore your work-life balance, or if you feel that you are neglecting important roles to maintain your work habits, it may be helpful to seek professional assistance,” Jacklin adds.
“The Akeso group of psychiatric hospitals offers in-patient treatment to assist individuals to establish balance in their lives and restore emotional resilience. This provides burnt-out individuals with the opportunity to become more grounded in their roles, and rediscover meaning in various areas of their lives, be it social, vocational or recreational,” she concluded