Work, rest and play… all under one roof? That’s the reality for millions of us who are adapting to working from home as part of strict lockdown rules. As the physical boundaries between work and home blur, what happens to our work-life balance? Just how do you separate the two when you’re tapping away on a laptop at the kitchen table? Here we explain how to achieve a healthy work-life balance whatever your lockdown situation.
Working from home used to be for the minority. Only 1.7 million people—5% for the UK workforce—did so prior to Covid-19. When Boris Johnson announced a strict national lockdown on March 23, these figures jumped overnight. A YouGov report has revealed that 52% of the UK workforce is working from home during the Covid-19 pandemic. That’s 15.3 million workers suddenly wrestling with tech issues, virtual communication and self-discipline as they adapt to a totally new out-of-office experience, all stuck at home, all of the time.
What is work-life balance?
Work-life balance refers to the time an individual allocates to work compared to the rest of life such as family, friends, personal interests and so on. Many of us struggle to achieve this at the best of times: a recent survey revealed that 60% of people work longer hours than they want and 24% say it’s hard to relax and not think about work. A poor work-life balance can lead to stress, depression and even burnout with 22% saying their job exhausts them and 22% under excessive work pressure.
Lockdown has thrown everyone’s work-life balance off-kilter and you need to get it back on an even keel. From single people or those living with their parents to housemates, couples and families, refinding a balance will be a very personal experience.
1. Plan ahead
Don’t expect to slip into a slick new routine. Be organised and it will make your working week much easier. This is especially important if you have a family, like Elaine and Colin, who have a nine-year-old boy and five-year-old twins. The couple start each week by looking at their workloads. Colin has a new job in the pharmaceutical sector and Elaine is a family youth work project coordinator. “We have to sync our diaries each week for the most important tasks we each have each day and then work the lads around that,” said Elaine.
2. Stick to a routine
A schedule creates boundaries to define your working day. It doesn’t have to be regular office hours, but if you’re not careful you’ll be dipping in and out of work 24/7.
Steffie, an HR manager, and Stephen, an engineer technician, find 9-6 works well for them. “We work away pretty much all day as if we were in our respective offices,” said Steffie. Elaine and Colin juggle work with the kids. “Colin starts early while I get the boys up, check my emails and sort schoolwork. If I have any Zoom meetings, I work through these while Colin gives the boys lunch and time in the garden or colouring, and does work on his laptop from the kitchen table. Then I set up with my laptop while doing a bit more schoolwork.”
Experiment with what works for you and your household. If you have the flexibility to shift your hours to suit your lifestyle, go for it. Colin and Elaine take a break together after lunch to spend time as a family. “We come together at some point in the day to play. After lunch, one of us starts a game in the garden and when the other can, they join in for 30 minutes. This gives the lads our total attention and it’s a great stress-buster for us too,” said Elaine.
3. Maximise your outdoor allowance
Lockdown rules allow for one brief period of outdoor exercise a day, so make the most of it. Apart from the obvious physical health benefits, recent studies have also found that exercise lifts your mood and helps depression and anxiety.
Nikki has adapted her exercise regime to suit lockdown. “Exercise is everything for me right now. It’s one thing I can control in this crazy world,” she said. “Instead of my normal cycle commute, I do a morning online HIIT session. I also run, walk or cycle for an hour a day after lunch. Getting out really helps me as I am on my own in the flat. It gives me a boost to get my afternoon work done. I can see people, make eye contact and smile—yes, even in London that is starting to happen. Just some human interaction!”
4. Learn to switch off
It’s hard not to be tempted to finish off a few things in the evening. There are, however, simple ways to disconnect. You used to clock off at a set time and travel home from work—now you need another evening ritual:
The food rule.
Use dinner as a natural cut-off point. This works for Nikki. “I do not work after dinner. To stop that time slipping, I schedule in something that gets me away from my screen before dinner, from clearing out my wardrobe to cleaning the windows. Then suddenly it’s dinnertime. My work laptop goes away and I don’t open it until the next day.”
Hide your tech.
If you can’t see your work laptop and phone, you’re much less likely to reach for them. Steffie said, “At 6pm, we clear everything away. Out of sight really is out of mind.” If you’re using your own computer and phone, turn off push notifications for work chats.
Schedule a social call.
If you arrange a Whatsapp call at, say, 5pm, this gives you a deadline to finish your work tasks. A chat with family or friends will quickly switch your brain from work to play mode.
Grab some fresh air.
To make a distinction between work and play, replace your evening commute with a walk. Steffie said, “If I don’t have a walk, I continue working. It’s my decompression time, I use it in the same way as I used to use my drive home from work, to compartmentalise and clear my head. Then we make dinner and eat together.”
Book a virtual class.
If you have something to look forward to in the evening, you’re much more likely to switch off your computer at a decent time. Online classes and courses are having a moment, from photography to pottery, cooking to karate, and many are free, too.
“How was your day, darling?”
Talk through your working day with your partner to clear your head. “We ask each other about how our day was. Just because neither of us left the house, there’s still a whole world of work that’s going on for each of us,” said Elaine.
5. Make weekends sacred
Treat weekends differently, which means definitely no work! Relax and treat yourself. Most of all, make them fun, says Elaine. “Work stops at the weekend. There are quality moments and fun times… water fights and slip’n’slides, barbecues, chalk murals and baking! If we can just get organised to have a date night, that would be the icing on the cake.”
If you live alone, weekends can be especially hard, admits Nikki. “It’s ok if I watch TV in bed for a morning or get sucked into a YouTube vortex, I try not to have any rules. I chat to friends and family a lot on weekends and on a Friday and Saturday night I do so with a glass of wine.”
6. Create a designated workspace
If possible, physically separate work from the rest of your home life. Steffie and Stephen work in different rooms, but what if you don’t have the space? In a one-bedroom flat, Nikki had to get creative. “I have to use the sofa, which makes it hard,” she said. “I make it slightly different by sitting at the other end of the sofa when I’m relaxing. It’s not much but it helps.”
Elaine and Colin also have to be flexible. “We have created an office space in one of the boy’s bedrooms that has become ‘the Zoom room’. I set up in the kitchen, so the boys can be in the garden, playing Lego or doing school stuff, and I can be present while linking into work online. Then we alternate for my scheduled calls,” said Elaine.
7. Prioritise your relationships
Being together 24/7 under exceptionally stressful circumstances can put a lot of pressure on a relationship, says psychotherapist Emma Cullinan. “Everyone in lock-down will feel adverse emotions to varying extents, depending on your history and how much of a life-change it is,” she said. “The key is what you do with those emotions. Difficult feelings that are stirring inside have to go somewhere. Some people internalise them in the form of self-criticism, and others look for someone else to blame. Relationships that are suffering during lockdown are those in which people are landing their anger onto partners in the form of criticism.
Resist the temptation to snap at each other.“For relationships to survive this, people need to be mindful of each other. If you are feeling low, name that feeling to yourself or a good listener rather than just acting it out in blame (or self-harm),” Cullinan said.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in your own work, but you need to support each other, as Elaine found. “I needed to breathe when home school was not going well, the house was upside down and I knew I had a difficult online call ahead of me. Colin heard me and jumped in,” she said. “I thanked him afterwards, it meant the world. This is not normal, none of it, so we can’t act in a normal way as we respond to it.”
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