Working from home, switching off, well-being and productivity



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 programmes for teleworkers and their managers. It is estimated that the bill will affect approximately 1.2 million government workers.

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 rubbish bins (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?

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.

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.

For more on the subject of working from home,  psychological detachment, well-being and productivity, read my posting to Positive Psychology News Daily.

Image courtesy of javez

3 Responses

  1. Charlie Markwick Says:

    I can well remember how appealing washing my socks was when I had an essay deadline at college.

    It’s an interesting issue this. Without any evidence other than trying to look at myself and circumstances I think there are some points I’d like to offer:-

    1 People who are able to keep a balanced engagement with work AT work (eg people who do take a lunch break and not work) are often able to be highly effective at home working.

    2 The advent of mobile and inclusive technologies means that we can often mix work and relaxation at a really micro level; effective home working can then mean a very high quality of life if the worker has that ability to disengage at this more micro level.

    3 This mixing of work and relaxation poses challenges in personal relationships. There may no longer be the “boss” or “work colleagues” to shift blame onto or the worklplace to shift it into. I should add here that I don’t necessarily think it’s a negative thing to be able to shift blame in this way it can be both beneficial and just.

    4 An ability to be able to keep a balanced engagement with work doesn’t mean that someone is able to balance the competing demands between the type of personal and work pressures that arise from home working; I think this requires a different or additional set of skills.

    The worry is that as businesses see the financial benefit of promoting home working they are going to add stress and pressure on personal relationships. There will no longer be the separate work environment that will allow the worker to offset the stress. Nor is it likely that the employer will see any need to offer the worker support and help in promoting their inter-personal skills.

    So being able to build a positive view of one’s life, circumstances and abilities is going to be even more of an imperative.

  2. Bridget Says:

    Thanks for your comments Charlie. It seems that self-control, motivation and the ability to be mindful are all important elements of getting the balance right and maintaining good relationships. What different skills do you think are necessary re (4).

    I think more and more companies are waking up to the need to offer their employees support in dealing with stress (there has been a huge growth in the availability of Employee Assistance Programmes, for example). Inter-personal skills have for a long time been key to management and leadership training in organisations (and theoretically at least should be transferable to personal relationships), but haven’t generally been offered to all levels of staff, so you’re right there would be some homeworkers who wouldn’t benefit from this.

  3. Charlie Markwick Says:

    Seeing this today reminded me of your article:-

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