Workplace Stress at Home
Research in 2020 has shown that 79% of people are under stress at work in the UK. It’s worse in the US. These statistics were obtained during a time in which the UK experienced four lockdowns that forced most people to work from home (WFH), and they’re likely to worsen because the WFH model has been adopted permanently by many organisations who have since realised that employees don’t need to be in the office most of the time to get their work done. That means that the temporary office that was squished into employees’ already small homes will remain so for the foreseeable future.
It’s been said that a man’s home is his castle. This applies equally to women. Your home or your castle all amount to the same thing: A place where you can go to get away from work.
Why would you want to do that?
It’s so that you can relax, rest, and recover. You need that time and that environment to get you ready for work whenever you go back to it.
The enforced work-from-home mandate destroyed that boundary. Those who are already accustomed to WFH will tell you that you have to create a separate space for work that you can set aside or close the door on so that you can disconnect from it when you’re not doing it.
Not everyone, however, has a spare room. Houses are expensive, and most of them are too small for the needs of the people who live in them regardless. To add one more function - and one that depends upon quiet as well for concentration and teleconferencing - can be a step too far. In fact, it can be impossible at times because other family members or roommates also expect to relax at home, and they shouldn’t have to put up with the demands your job places on you.
All of this has put people under a great deal more stress than they experienced beforehand. Now there’s no place that they can go to get time to themselves.
Impact on employee health
Workplace stress is so serious that it has almost as much of an effect on employees as secondhand cigarette smoke. That’s according to the research.
Think about that.
It’s unlikely that you would want your employees to work in a smoke-filled environment, so why would you deliberately subject them to an stress-filled one that has the same effect?
Workplace stress at home
The WFH movement is here to stay. With it, however, has come a number of problems all of which can be considered under the banner of workplace stress at home.
One problem that comes with working from home is access to the fridge. When you work in the office, it’s easier to take with you only the food you’d normally have for lunch. When you’re working from home, you have to exercise greater self-control because you have a week’s groceries including all the tasty desserts sitting in the cupboards, fridge, or freezer. And because you can decide when to work, there’s nothing to stop you from eating at your desk. So instead of tea and a biscuit, it becomes a pot of tea and the whole pack.
This makes weight gain probable, and the incidence of Type 2 diabetes more likely, not to mention metabolic syndrome, and heart disease. And those who feel stressed already are prone to these conditions as it is. The propensity to eat “comfort food” increases as more comfort is needed, and workplace stress, especially at home, is the perfect stimulus.
It’s known that employees who experience less workplace stress are also less likely to be absent.
When you work from home, however, it’s almost impossible to be absent. Often, those who are too sick to work will lie in bed and binge watch TV shows and movies. When your office is at home, that’s much harder to do because you don’t have to go anywhere to work. And that means that many who are genuinely ill won’t get the rest that they need to recover. Instead, they’ll push through because they feel a sense of obligation to do so.
Domestic/neighbour noise and chaos
Working from home adds stress, too, because of the chaotic nature of many households. It can be a great relief to leave the house to go to the relatively calm office. Sure, there are phones ringing in the background, but no one (usually) is crying or screaming, and not many dogs bark there either.
Of course, not everyone’s home is like that, but many are.
If you happen to live in a block of flats, or a terraced house, then you may suffer from the noise that your neighbors make, too.
That’s not to say that the workplace for everyone is calm and serene. It could be that where you work, it’s more chaotic than it is at home, but you mustn’t assume that when people work from home that their stress levels have automatically subsided as a result.
Noisy or chaotic surroundings, whether it’s at home or at an external workplace diminishes productivity and destroys concentration; and left that way for long enough, it can make people feel incompetent and anxious, and demotivate them. That’s because when they can’t control what’s going on in their environment, it makes them feel as though their job is out of control as well. When you feel that you can’t do your work - for whatever reason - then that also affects your feelings of self-worth.
Pay and stress
One of the most stressful things a person can experience is worries over money. Having more month than money can cause people to look for second jobs or to get overtime in their primary one. That’s because they’ve been taught that time is money. If they work fewer hours, then their pay is reduced.
One of the benefits that come from working from home is that it takes less time to finish your work, but if you’re paid by the hour, then that becomes a worry because it means a smaller pay packet, too.
And those who subscribe to the “time is money” school of thought also enjoy their leisure time less. That’s because relaxation feels like wasting time. Such people expect to be productive all the time. Recovery doesn’t feel that way. If sleep habits are anything to go by, then most people don’t feel that getting enough is a wise use of their time.
People who think of time as money are also discouraged from taking holidays. In companies where bank holidays are included in the annual holiday time, there will be those who will seek to work on those days rather than taking the time off.
Salaried employees are often called upon to work an unreasonably large number of hours. They find themselves “on duty” 24/7.
Both of these situations cause people to feel more stressed, and where people perceive it, for them it’s true. There doesn’t appear to be any such thing as psychosomatic stress. That means that even in identical conditions, some will feel stressed, while others won’t.
Notwithstanding the limits to the number of hours that employees are allowed to work in the UK, waivers can be obtained, and many hourly workers freely give them because for them, the more hours worked, the more money they make.
Improving employee health
One of the things that is known to promote employee health is the degree to which they can control their own work. Research has shown that those who have greater autonomy to decide when and how to do it are generally healthier than those who don’t.
They’ll also pay you back with higher productivity and less absenteeism.
“Great!” you might think. When people work from home, it’s entirely up to them when they work.
That’s not quite the same thing.
If they have a place where they can work at home without interruption, or disturbing other family members, then that’s one thing; but if they’re competing for space because all the rooms are taken, or their environment is too noisy to work in, then this can offset the benefits. And that’s because, in truth, they’re only afforded the how part of that autonomy.
When you work in the office, you’re expected to be at work during certain hours. When you can decide your own timetable for accomplishing the things you need to do within those hours, that benefits your overall well-being. But that presupposes, for instance, that your children are in school or at a child care center. If they’re at home, then your attention is divided. You no longer can decide when to do your work because other responsibilities are more pressing. Children have to be a certain age before they can look after themselves, and it’s not the same for everyone.
Ironically, the greatest autonomy at work is found among those who need it less - those who are highest in the organization. It’s the more junior staff who face competing demands on their space at home and claims on their budget. Most of them simply can’t afford to move to a larger property. Many of those who hold senior positions elect to downsize because all of their children have grown-up and moved out.
You can help people to minimize stress no matter where they work by giving them all the support they need.
If they’re stuck at home for any reason, then minimizing the number of times that you need to be in touch with them is vital. That may mean only checking in with them once per week. If they’re not getting their work done, then you may need to touch base a little more often, but don’t bug them daily or several times in a day. Leave them alone to get on with their jobs. The more you check on them, the less confidence they’ll have in themselves, and lower confidence creates stress rather than limiting it.
The goal is always to help them to feel responsible for what they do and to give them as much freedom - autonomy - as you can to do it.
This holds true for when they’re in the office as well. Just because they’re in proximity to you isn’t an invitation for you to interrupt them whenever you feel like it.
Encourage workplace friendships
Another thing that you can do is to encourage workplace friendships. This is something that many organizations discourage, but between working too many hours and being locked down for weeks at a time, people are losing touch with one another. Friendships are on the decline, which is making more people lonely. Those who lack social support networks also have higher mortality rates.
It’s that serious.
You should also reduce competition in the workplace, which is antithetical to teamwork anyway. When people compete against one another, they stop cooperating. You can’t have it both ways, no matter what happens on TV.
If you really believe that you’re “all in this together,” then you have to use language that reinforces that ideal. That means doing away with job titles that make one group sound superior to another. Terms such as director, manager, and worker are classic examples of terms to eliminate. Employees will already feel the distinction in the different levels of authority, but there’s no need to rub in in. You’re not in the military.
Remember office parties?
You don’t have to have them the way you did in the past.
Make these fun events. Use your imagination. Have them just to have them. They needn’t be attached to a holiday. Turn a Friday afternoon into an ice cream social. It could be just your office, department, or even the whole company.
And afford people time off to volunteer. Volunteering strengthens relationships, too.
You’ll find that people who have strong relationships at work won’t want to leave. Retention will be higher, and so your recruitment costs will decrease.
Reduce workplace stress
Jobs should be redesigned such that workplace stress is reduced. This includes reducing work hours, limiting shift work or unpredictable work hours, and flexibility.
Some scholars have suggested that government oversight is increased, but for one thing, it shouldn’t come to that, and for another, you don’t want to invite more regulation than you already have to contend with. Taking care of your employees should be something that you want to do. It shouldn’t take an Act of Parliament to get you to do the right thing.
The new normal is working from home, and that means that workplace stress has come home with them. It’s in your power to reduce that stress by supporting your people as much as possible. You must make this your goal from now on.
Want to learn more? Contact me here.