WFH tips: How to maintain a healthy work-home balance

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For most people, working from home is a dream come true.

After all, you would hardly have to leave the comfort of your own home to get work done, in addition to having daily expenditures on meals and commute significantly cut down. There’s also the added benefit of not having to waste precious hours stuck in traffic; and for those with homebody inclinations, you wouldn’t even have to change out of your pajamas to attend a meeting.

There are plenty of other reasons why working remotely is ideal. Ultimately, psychiatrist Ned Hallowell shares, it all boils down to three things under which all else falls under: flexibility, autonomy, and being able to work in your own space—no annoying co-workers interrupting your work flow being the proverbial cherry on top.

Yet as the number of companies transitioning to a work from home set-up continues to rise, so do the concerns that employee productivity may take a blow, abounding distractions in the home and all a purported temptation to slack off. According to a recent Airtasker study, however, companies need not sweat it: remote employees are actually more productive than in-office workers, working 1.4 more days per month on average. That’s a whopping 16.8 days more than in-office workers clock in per year!

But like all things, this increased productivity comes at a price, and may not necessarily be a cause for celebration in the long run.

The same study found that by and by, remote employees are immensely struggling to strike a work-home balance, precisely because the traditional boundaries that make it relatively easy to leave pending work at the office at the end of the day have been all but obliterated in a work from home set-up.

Should the inability to maintain this vital balance persist, companies will run the risk of their work from home employees suffering from digital fatigue, work fatigue, or worse—both. And this, in turn, may lead to not just higher stress levels and lower productivity all around (a twist of irony in the story, for sure), but a possible surge in resignations as well.

So what is it about digital fatigue and work fatigue that make these phenomena significantly threatening, and how do they get in the way of both employee productivity and a healthy work-home balance?

 

Bone deep: digital fatigue and work fatigue

In today’s increasingly technology-dependent workspace, digital tools such as computers, laptops, and tablets have become inevitably essential to get work done.

This is especially true for remote employees, whose attendance and presence in video meetings with managers and clients heavily depend on the possession of at least one of these aforementioned tools.

Additionally, the “always on-call” mentality perpetuated by working remotely further pushes them to be mostly, if not always, sitting in front of their digital screen of choice. This is regardless of whether they are needed at work or not. Consequently, they are more susceptible to digital fatigue than most others.

 

The eyes don’t lie

Also known as screen fatigue, digital fatigue is the physical discomfort brought about by prolonged usage of and exposure to digital tools.

It primarily manifests as eye strain coupled with mental exhaustion. Think of the mindless, red-eyed, computer-addicted zombies you see in kids’ cartoons. Other symptoms for digital fatigue include headaches; neck, shoulder, or back pain; sensitivity to light; double vision; dry eyes; and difficulty in focusing.

Between physical discomfort and an overall lack of energy and mental clarity, the effects of digital fatigue reach past a diminished quality in work output. It also encroaches on greater health risks later down the line, due to a compromised immune system and sleep deprivation.

Of the latter, skin health specialist Annee de Mamiel explains that excess screen time represses our bodies’ production of the sleep hormone melatonin, thereby affecting the quality and amount of sleep we get. Therefore, it isn’t uncommon for work from home employees suffering from digital fatigue to grapple with an increasingly worsening insomnia.

 

Work out to burnout

Unsurprisingly then, digital fatigue and all it entails can eventually lead to work fatigue as well.

Work fatigue is the state of exhaustion and reduced functional capacity experienced by employees at the conclusion of the work day. Often a combination of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion, its symptoms include a lack of motivation and focus, irritability, increased sickliness, chronic sleepiness, and headaches and stomachaches.

A study conducted by Deloitte shows that 77% of the 1,000 full-time employee respondents surveyed have experienced work fatigue, 51% of these having experienced it more than once. These staggering numbers are extreme red flags, most alarmingly because of their implications.

The Mayo Clinic reports that the primary effects of work fatigue include excessive stress, insomnia, and extreme mood swings. It may also push one into alcohol or substance abuse in order to circumvent it; and worse, it can lead to significant health risks such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and Type 2 diabetes. Afflicted people are also prone to poor decision-making and of course, lower productivity levels.

Taken together, digital fatigue and work fatigue pose serious threats not just to remote workers’ performance and productivity levels, but to their overall well-being, too. In order to prevent this from happening, employees working from home must be encouraged to maintain a healthy work-home balance.

 

Golden ratio: achieving a healthy work-home balance

The two most important things to remember in achieving a healthy and comfortable work-home balance are simple: moderation and boundaries.

These two work hand in hand to ensure that remote workers don’t overwhelm themselves and help them to preserve their peace of mind amidst overlapping professional and personal responsibilities in the haven of home.

This is crucial, as eventually, “[one] may start to feel [they]’re always at work and lose a place to come home to”, warns Hallowell.

This is something that must be deterred at all costs, so below are some practical yet effective work from home tips to help you get started on your work-home balance journey—and hopefully, prevent you from developing digital or work fatigue.

 

Keep a regular schedule

It’s easy to lose track of time when there aren’t any co-workers vying for your immediate help or managers directly keeping tabs on you, like there would be in an office setting.

Working from home allows you to control your day, and while this is a good thing, it could also quickly become overwhelming once the distractions of life at home pop up here and there throughout the day.

In order to alleviate some of the stress that comes with this, create and follow a regular schedule of your own. This will allow you to work with a sense of structure and routine-borne regularity in mind, while also keeping you motivated to stay productive.

Give yourself time to figure out a rhythm and system that works for you, then stick to it. The first few days (or even weeks) may require some trials and errors to figure out the pace and ways that will work best for you, but keep at it and you’ll get there.

If working a compensation reward into your system will help move things along as well, why not go for it? For every task accomplished, you can treat yourself to a small reward that will boost your happiness levels: a snack, a quick nap, a few minutes of guilty pleasure indulgence—whatever will help you stay on track goes. Your schedule is your own and there are no judgments here.

Of course, it’s important to set aside time to level expectations and to recalibrate your mindset. Although you are working from home, act as if you are still physically reporting to the office. Start by setting realistic expectations for what you can accomplish within the next few hours and jot them down on a task list, and end by giving yourself permission for downtime.

Most often than not, allotting a section of your time for physical activities after the work days ends will effectively allow you to walk away from unfinished work. This physical unplugging, if you will, keeps the urge to keep working at bay, and it keeps your serotonin levels high, too. A win-win situation, over all.

 

Take brain breaks

Occasionally, you may find yourself working non-stop in a bid to prove your efficiency away from the standard progression metrics found in a physical office.

With no other measure for your productivity other than your output, it can be tempting to pull an all-nighter to have a show for something the next day. And while this is a good sign of your dedication to your job, it is also prime ground for digital and/or work fatigue to set in.

It will also do you no good to keep powering on without hitting the brakes once in a while. Your brain is a muscle just like any other, and rest is imperative to its performance and overall health. So don’t overwhelm yourself, and be conscious of your work habits. Know the symptoms of digital and work fatigue, and when you feel your focus beginning to slip and your body starting to ache, hit pause and take a brain break.

In fact, intentionally schedule restorative breaks into your routine. Make the time to consciously move away from your screen and allow yourself to breathe. Give your body the freedom to replenish its energy reserves and mental juices by digitally disconnecting, even for just as short a time as 15-20 minutes. You can do whatever you wish to during these brain breaks. In the end, it’s all about mentally refreshing yourself in order to refocus and realign your mind and body with your tasks.

A great way to incorporate breaks into your routine is the Pomodoro Technique. This technique requires you to set a timer to divide your time into sets of 30-minute intervals known as pomodoros: 25 minutes to work on a task and 5 minutes to take a break. For every four pomodoros completed, you earn the right to a long break, usually 15-30 minutes in length.

Another effective method is the 20-20-20 Rule. This approach instructs that for every 20 minutes of screen time you register, you should take 20 seconds to look at any object at a distance of 20 feet away. It’s a quick but refreshing break that’s highly underrated.

Both methods get the job of enforcing deliberate breaks done, while also furthering your eyes a step away from digital fatigue. The message is clear: the world won’t end if and when you do take a break.

 

Establish clear boundaries

One of the most effective ways to keep your work and home lives from blending together is to set your own work hours.

This not only holds you accountable to your manager and co-workers for the things you are committing to accomplish within that time period, but it also helps you to mentally distinguish the when of your work responsibilities. Don’t be afraid to stop when you have to, especially when your work hours officially end. You can even go so far as to indicate your work hours in your email, so both your team and clients know when you will be reachable.

As for the where, consider designating an area of your home as your official workspace, your very own work station or home office so to speak, to help you better grasp a sense of regularity as you work at home. This will greatly aid in switching the work mode on and off, and it will also ease you into focusing on what needs to be done once you enter your work area. It can be as simple as your kitchen table or any quiet nook in the house—so long as it’s a place you can claim for yourself, you should be all set.

You want to avoid making your bedroom your home office though, as that should remain a safe space for you, detached from the stresses of your job. Think of it as a self-conditioning of sorts. Assigning and associating a particular time and place for the specific function of work will go a long way in physically and mentally setting the tone of your day.

Additionally, establish ground rules with your family members. Reinforce the notion that you will be off-limits to them and to any home concerns, unless absolutely necessary, during your scheduled work hours. This will keep disruptions to your routine and focus to a minimum, and level their expectations of their access to your presence at home.

Bear in mind that achieving a work-home balance of your own rests on the principle of give and take: it will only consume you as much as you allow it to, so be firm on your boundaries—and don’t feel guilty about keeping them!

 

Stay connected to others

A recurring challenge that working from home presents is isolation. For some people, getting away from bothersome colleagues can be a huge plus; but for others who thrive on a sense of community, working remotely is a huge downer.

No matter which category you fall under, extended isolation can eventually get the best of all of us. It contributes to demotivation and increases the risk of work stagnancy. This is understandable, given that within the comforts of your own home, there is likely no one else (with regards to the scope of your work, anyway) to bounce ideas off of, to brainstorm with, and to feed off of another’s intellectual and creative energies.

Before this can fend you off the track of working from home, consider the simple solution of intentionally connecting with others.

Staying connected can come in many different forms. You can set meetings with members of your team at a nearby coffee shop to either level with or to check in on them. You can plan after-work casual dates with family and friends to catch up and to relax. You can even capitalize on how technology and social media are making the world smaller and more accessible by planning a video chat and teleparty, a browser extension for watching shows remotely with anyone anywhere in the world, no matter your respective time zones.

On the work end, you can host virtual conference calls with colleagues so as not to feel disconnected from your team, despite not being together physically in the office.

The best thing about all these ways to stay grounded—and there are a lot more that have not been covered here—is that they hit two birds with one stone. On one hand, they give you something to look forward to after the work day ends, thereby motivating you. On the other, they give you a reason to “leave” work on time instead of staying chained to your screen for longer than necessary.

In effect, the inclination to stay ensconced in your home office to get even more work done is curbed. Isn’t that swell?

 

Celebrate the small stuff

Something you’ll hear a lot as a remote worker is that you are responsible for your own progress, and this is true.

Your manager will not always have the time to check in on you for a status report every step of the way; and most often than not, they will expect a fully polished, completed work by the next meeting following the initial briefing.

This procedural gap can often feel daunting and even demotivating, but it can easily be overcome by taking the initiative to provide updates on your progress yourself. By sharing what you’ve accomplished, you not only provide your manager with accountability on your end, but you also make sure of your visibility as an employee.

These little progress markers may seem inconsequential, but celebrating them is terribly self-satisfying and actually helps in inspiring you to take the next step. By fixating on what’s been ticked off the to-do list rather than on what’s left pending, you are able to boost your self-confidence and overall appreciation of your work.

That isn’t to say that you should be wary of your pending tasks each and every time. Instead, you can choose to see it as something to look forward to: there’s enough time tomorrow to tackle the snails and giants you weren’t able to conquer today. And that’s completely okay.

 

It’s all about discipline

At the end of the day, working from home and achieving the right work-home balance is all about discipline.

It is discipline that allows you to moderate yourself: when you need to take breaks, when it’s time to connect with your team and with other people, when it’s time to celebrate the big and small wins. And it is discipline that allows you to firmly maintain your boundaries—come what may.

It is also discipline that pushes you to craft a schedule and to stick to it; and it is discipline that tells you not to fixate on the things that go out of plan, lest you suffer from self-induced stress.

It is discipline that urges you to prioritize well so you can be firm on what needs to be done, yet to still have the breathing room to slow down and to center yourself.

It is discipline that keeps you focused throughout the day, no matter the background noise or the temptations to slack off that spring up occasionally as you work from home.

And yes: it is also discipline that reminds you that you will have good days and bad as you continuously juggle the many hats of being a work from home career person; a parent, child, and/or sibling; a friend; and basically just someone who is trying to flourish in their own space and time.

It’s not easy, this balancing act that is trying to juggle your professional and personal lives. But it’s certainly doable, and you just might yourself thriving while doing so.

 

Other work from home tips

If you’re looking for some more practical tips, we got you. Here’s a couple more for you to consider.

 

Have a morning routine

One way to really get you up and about is to wake up early and to have a little time to yourself before the daily grind begins.

Take this time to stretch a little bit to get the blood going, to have a good breakfast, and to align yourself with the day ahead. The key to winning any battle is preparation.

 

Allot buffer times in your schedule

A good trick to help you stay calm on any given day is to include buffer times in your schedule. This ensures that you have enough leg room at any point of your day for when an unexpected task or unshakeable distraction weasels its way into your schedule.

It’s essentially the gift that keeps on giving: it’s either a stress-proof  way to offset longer-than-expected tasks, or a surprise reward for when you need a little pick-me-up in the form of a timeout.

 

Take power naps

If you’re running low on energy but find yourself in the middle of a hustle marathon, take a power nap to recharge then get back into the grind. The ideal length of your nap should fall between 10-20 minutes. The Sleep Foundation reports that 5 minutes is too short to be of any benefit, while any longer than 30 minutes will put you at risk of falling into deep sleep. 

So any time you start to feel your eyelids droop, don’t hesitate to jump into bed for a quick escape to dreamland. You’ll be glad when you wake up wonderfully refreshed.

 

Let your breaks be breaks

If you’re someone who likes planning but somehow never follows through with their own plans, then this is the tip of all tips for you.

It’s pretty simple: let your breaks be exactly that—breaks. A time to unwind, to take a step back, to chill. Lunch breaks should be a time for eating, not taking a few bites and then checking your phone for a work message or email. Don’t take phone calls, either! Personal breaks should be a moment of respite for yourself, no tending to chores or to other people’s concerns. There’s plenty of time for everything else… later.

 

Team work makes the dream work

We all have our limits, and while constantly pushing them to overcome them if we’re able is a good thing, there will still be moments where all we need is a little help from a friend.

Just because you’re working from home doesn’t mean you can’t pass off a task to your fellow remote workers anymore. So don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. You’re not expected to take on everything just because you’re doing remote work.

 

Exercise if you can

You’ve heard this before, but in case you’ve forgotten: exercising is not just good for you physically, but mentally and emotionally as well.

This is because it releases serotonin, the happy hormone, into your bloodstream and thereby boosts your mood. So you not just sweat your way into being healthy, but into a happier state of mind, too.

 

Use your leaves

For remote workers itching for a chance to get away, this is your sign.

It can be easy to forget how working at a physical office feels like when you’ve been working from home for quite a while. This may include forgetting that you have leaves at your disposal and ready for the using. It sounds silly, but it happens, y’know? So here’s your friendly reminder: use your leaves!

 

Don’t forget self care

You can forget all the work from home tips listed in this article so long as you don’t forget this: please take care of yourself.

Staying productive throughout the day as you work from home is important, yes. Being one of your team’s most efficient contributors is great, yes. Being a super(wo)man in the eyes of other people for expertly balancing your work and home spaces is marvelous, yes.

But at the end of the day, don’t forget to look out for yourself. All these tips will fall flat if you’re miserable and barely hanging on despite it all. Take care of yourself and you will naturally gravitate towards a healthy work-home balance.

 

The bottomline

Here’s the short version of everything you need to know: remote work takes a lot of, well, work. There are certainly particular costs and efforts that are advantageously reduced once you’ve localized yourself to your home, but there are also lurking dangers. The risk of falling into digital fatigue and/or work fatigue, for one, is always just around the corner.

But the good news is that there are plenty of practical ways to combat and to prevent these, most of which begin and end with moderation, boundaries management, and discipline. And at the crux of it all rests the maintenance of a healthy work-home balance.

It’s all a cycle, really, that keeps coming back to this: respect yourself as both an employee and an individual who happens to be living out both roles under the same roof intermittently but not simultaneously. Once you are able to carry that burden, most everything else will fall into place.

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