The one constant of the pandemic era has been change—and workplace norms and expectations are no exception. We’ve turned dining-room tables into desks, roped our pets and children (however unwillingly) into meetings, and forgotten to unmute before speaking into any number of virtual platforms countless times. Now that many of us have adjusted to a work-from-home life, we're, quite frankly, due for a check-in on work-from-home boundaries. Considering the line between work and home life is inextricably blurred for many who sign on remotely, setting those boundaries and striking a healthy balance is essential.
That said, allowing work to play a role in your personal headspace isn’t always entirely a bad thing—particularly if you're passionate about what you do for a living and enjoy the people with whom you work. “You don’t always need to automatically stomp out work from your personal life because the reality is that there is often a wonderful overlap if you’re lucky enough to do something that you enjoy for a living,” says licensed clinical psychologist Chloe Carmichael, PhD, author of Nervous Energy: Harness the Power of Your Anxiety.
But when work starts taking up permanent residence in your mind, it's a signal that you've begun living at work—as opposed to working from home. “It’s so easy to just ‘live at work’ when work is always right there, from using the same devices for work and personal tasks to doing both in the same place,” says licensed clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD, LCP. “You’re living at work whenever you don’t respect your boundaries or expect others to respect them either.”
"It’s so easy to just ‘live at work’ when work is always right there, from using the same devices for work and personal tasks to doing both in the same place." —Aimee Daramus, PsyD, LCP
It’s also worth noting that defining where those boundaries fall can get even trickier if you’ll be working from home on some days and working in the office on others—aka the hybrid arrangement that a number of offices are working toward. “I think people will have to focus on designing their own work-life balance and avoid comparing themselves to others,” says Dr. Daramus, “or else, these kinds of flexible hybrid work schedules could cause resentment and office toxicity.”
To help set boundaries that work for you—and keep work from taking over your entire WFH life—do a mental scan with the following list of questions, posed by experts.
Here’s a 6-question checklist that will help you determine whether you’re WFH or living at work:
1. How much time do I actually spend working?
To find your accurate count, add up not only the technical hours you spend clocked-in or logged-on, but also any additional hours you spend thinking or ruminating about work, checking your email, meeting up with work colleagues or acquaintances, and the like. “You might not think it’s a lot, but doing the exercise could show you that it far exceeds the number of hours you’re actually being paid to work,” says Erayna Sargent, burnout expert and founder of Hooky Wellness.
To keep that number from creeping up, write down a list of what you need to get done at the start of each day, and check it off as you go, says Dr. Daramus—and once everything is checked off, let go of work for that day, no questions asked.
2. Do I have a no-working zone at home?
A work zone is essential to help define literal, physical work boundaries. So, it follows that a no-work zone is just as key for keeping personal spaces, well, personal. “Your bed, and, if possible, your entire bedroom should be free of work items,” says Dr. Carmichael.
Of course, not everyone has the spatial abilities to be able to separate home from work. In that case, there are other, more environmental cues you can use to help facilitate work-from-home boundaries, says Dr. Carmichael. "Maybe it’s programming your phone alarm to go off each day at 6 p.m., or perhaps it’s spritzing a relaxing scent like lavender at the end of each workday to help signal to your brain that it's time to transition," she says.
If you have a hybrid work schedule and are only working at home on some days, consider whether there’s a way that you might condense or even take down your home workspace on the days when you’re going into the office. “Perhaps you push your desk into a corner on those days when it’s not being used,” Sargent says. “Those types of little shifts create more space for other habits and behaviors.”
3. What personal elements of my life are off-limits, work-wise?
As rules and expectations surrounding work culture continue to be in flux, ask the question of what elements in your personal life need to stay as is, suggests Sargent: “That question of ‘what’s off-limits’—whether that’s certain time periods of your day, perhaps dinner time or family time—can help you create a rule that you can stick to.” Once you have that rule, you can be accountable to yourself by communicating it to your team at work.
4. When something exciting happens in my life, who are the first people I tell?
If the first people to pop into your mind are your colleagues, you might be allowing work to cross over into your personal life a tad too much. Of course, your colleagues can absolutely be valuable friends, but it's also wise to remember the other characters in the broader movie of your life. “While it's great to have good relationships with colleagues and be able to share things about your social life with them, you also want to make sure that you're nurturing the purely personal side of your life and the people that you would be friends with even if you didn’t have an external professional overlap pulling you together,” says Dr. Carmichael.
Thanks to things like team meetings that force you into contact with your colleagues—but not other friends and family members—it’s important to focus on those non-work loved ones more intentionally. If you find yourself jealous or resentful when colleagues talk about their personal lives, that could be another sign that you’re neglecting some important connections in your own life.
5. Do I pursue any meaningful goals outside of my work?
Having a passion project or hobby can help you redirect attention from work in non-working hours, especially while working remotely. Many social hobbies can also motivate you to stop working on time by requiring you to schedule meet-ups or classes outside of your house, says Dr. Daramus.
To ensure you stick to those projects, consider setting clear goals for yourself. “For example, if tennis is your hobby, you might have a goal of joining a new league,” says Dr. Carmichael, “or, if cooking is your hobby, maybe you have a goal of cooking a new dish every night for a week.”
6. What makes me feel rested—and have I been doing enough of that?
Along with blocking out time for yourself (perhaps with an actual time-block on your calendar, says Sargent), you’ll also want to make sure that you fill that me-time with whatever it is that soothes your soul. And again, it’s important to delineate parts of your home in which that me-time can take place—and where work never intrudes. “You need to be able to actually relax at home,” says Sargent, “because if you are always in 'work mode' mentally or you’re never turning ‘off,’ so to speak, you’ll inch toward burnout quickly.”
Whether it’s changing into different clothes, relaxing your posture, or switching the subject that you’re talking about with a family member, being able to “turn off” is essential to setting work-from-home boundaries, especially while both WFH and hybrid work schedules continue to be very much a reality.
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