Although a large proportion of employees have adapted to the new remote work model and have improved productivity while working from home based on a report by BCG1, this has not translated to shorter working hours. While longer hours of productive work might bode well for companies’ bottom lines, the same positive effect is not reaped by employees.
In fact, another report by Limelight Networks found that 44% of employees reported working longer hours than before the pandemic.2 According to researchers, having the option to do work 24/7 via technology activates the Zeigarnik Effect - the inability to completely forget about something and move on when it is left incomplete, especially when the task is something that can be completed. 3 When there are no clear boundaries between work and home and the lines between work and personal life become blurred the Zeigarnik Effect is exacerbated, resulting in individuals working longer than usual when working from home (WFH).
Even as some parts of the world are beginning to shift back to working from the office, the WFH concept will still likely be the ‘new normal’ for many working individuals. For example, tech giants such as Google and Facebook have publicly announced that they will continue with WFH arrangements until the end of the year at a minimum.4 Deloitte estimates that about 50 million individuals in the ASEAN-6 nations could shift to working remotely over a multi-year time horizon.5
Employee burnout & wellbeing
Time and time again, researchers have found that working long hours without breaks over time can result in burnout, which could have detrimental effects on one's physiological and mental health.6 The term burnout basically describes a state of psychological, emotional, and physical exhaustion as a result of prolonged stress.7 Unfortunately, many employees facing burnout may not even realise anything is wrong, as they typically perceive it as typical stress that is part of the job. Though burnout may sound like a permanent condition, burnout is reversible and can be prevented with the right interventions and initiatives.
Having the “prevention is better than cure” mindset is key to taking a proactive approach to prevent or reduce the likelihood of burnout. As WFH is becoming the new normal moving forward, it is time to settle in for the long haul and take steps to ensure that employees adopt a healthy WFH routine.
Promoting a healthy WFH employee routine
Asking employees to change the daily routine they’ve been doing repeatedly for the past few months may seem impossible and overwhelming. Rather, managers can encourage employees to see it from the perspective of making small changes to their day-to-day habits. Habits are essentially automatic behaviours that have been developed through repetition and reinforcement, and subsequently, become a part of one’s daily routine. Therefore, having good habits can be seen as the ingredient for forming a healthy routine, which is key to maintaining work-life balance when working from home for long periods of time.
It may be hard to believe that small changes in the little habits can produce effective results. But the reality is that they can because small changes inspire small wins, which then helps us, humans, to endure and persevere through when we feel like quitting. One of the simplest and most effective ways to form a new habit is to take an existing habit in our current daily routine and link our new habit with it to create a new routine. This is known as habit stacking - a term coined by S.J Scott in his book, Habit Stacking: 97 Small Life Changes That Take Five Minutes or Less.8
To put it simply, the formula for habit stacking is:
Using this formula, a habit-stacked routine in the morning may look something like this:
- After I have a coffee, I will meditate for 2 minutes.
- After I meditate, I will write my to-do list for the day.
- After I write my to-do list for the day, I will start work.
Habit stacking works well because our existing habits are already built in our brains, which allows us to make use of the momentum that comes from one behaviour to the next. By chunking bigger changes down into smaller actions that make them easy to remember and complete.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, WFH has become commonplace and is likely to be the new normal for many working individuals. The integration of work and home life, coupled with this digital era where technology is available 24/7, exacerbates the difficulty of drawing boundaries between one’s work and personal life.
To prevent or reduce the chances of burnout, cultivating a healthy WFH routine is an effective proactive strategy to ensure employees have sufficient recovery periods. Being armed with good little daily habits contributes to having a healthy WFH routine, which ultimately helps the workforce maintain an optimal and positive work-life balance.
By Alicia Yoon
1. BCG COVID-19 Employee Sentiment Survey, May 21 to June 13, 2020 (N = 12, 662 in the US, Germany, and India)
2. Limelight Networks (2020). Video Streaming is the New Norm for Work. Limelight Networks, Inc.
3. Ruderman, M. N., Clerkin, C., & Deal, J. J. How to Prevent Overwork From Killing Productivity.
4. BBC, “Facebook and Google extend working from home to end of year”, www.bbc.com
5. Roy, I., Turner, C., Kulasooriy, D., Pannirselvam, V., (2020). Remote Work: A Temporary ‘Bug’ Becomes a Permanent ‘Feature’. Deloitte Consulting Pte. Ltd.
8. Scott, S. J. (2014). Habit Stacking 97 Small Life Changes That Take Five Minutes or Less.