Why is working from home so exhausting?

Working from home (WFH) seems to have many perks. You can catch up on all your washing, save money without a commute, sleep in just that little bit longer, and you can take a break whenever you feel like it. There’s no manager watching you from across the office!

However, many of the people I work with describe feeling drained, exhausted, and under more pressure than ever before. Why is this?

Boundaries

This word has been bouncing around well-being emails for some time now, and has long been a prominent idea in psychotherapy. Boundaries come in many forms and may be more concrete at times, such as:

  • creating a dedicated space to work that is separate to where you relax
  • setting out clear working hours
  • creating a routine for the work week

Boundaries can also be around relationships and communication, such as:

  • saying no
  • clearly communicating what you can and cannot do
  • knowing what negatively impacts your mental health and having ways to manage this

I’m hearing more and more often that these boundaries are slipping, something I like to call “the boundary bleed”. As your 9-5 bleeds into 8-6, then 7-7, and then “why not check the emails once more just before bed?” People I work with describe feeling pressured to say “yes” to more work in order to prove they are not just slacking off at home. The external manager watching every move has now been replaced by the internal one, the one that says “am I doing enough? I hope people don’t think I’m lazy”.

I have found this boundary bleed to happen slowly and over time, but it has a dramatic impact on our mental health. Perhaps you can use this as a prompt to consider your boundaries, how you relate to them, and if they have evolved into something you no longer find healthy or helpful.

Video calls and transitions

There seems to be something particularly tiring about video calls, which can be hard to narrow down, however I have noticed two particular features that may help to explain this “Zoom fatigue”.

First, there is some research suggesting we have to work a lot harder in virtual calls than when meeting in-person. The basic human communication cues of tone of voice, eye gaze, facial expressions, and body language are all much more difficult to interpret through a webcam. Some therapists are finding they have to exaggerate their facial expressions and voice when working remotely to ensure what they want to communicate is easily understood. Of course, this takes more effort and is more tiring for both parties to communicate and interpret.

Second, the lack of a transition space between calls. There seems to be an unspoken assumption that back-to-back video calls are normal and manageable. From my experience, these calls have a habit of overrunning and leaking into the next one, disrupting those boundaries once again.

When we were working in an office, a transition space tended to occur naturally and this allowed us to decompress for a moment. For example, we would spend some time travelling to the next meeting (even if this was just a short walk to the next meeting room) that allowed us to process “the previous meeting has ended”. Even the different environment of meeting rooms allowed us to experience something other than the monotony and sameness that virtual calls can sometimes deliver.

You may have noticed that therapists tend to limit their sessions to 50 minutes at a time. There are many benefits to this (including easier timekeeping and note writing), but a major one is to allow a transition from one session to the next. To allow a space to process, to breathe, and to prepare.

Similar to the boundaries above, I invite you to use this article as a prompt to consider how you can add a transition space between video calls. How can you add a space to process the end of something before the start of something else?

Conclusion

Like most things in life, working from home is a double-edged sword. It is neither all-good nor all-bad, but somewhere in between. As it becomes a larger part of our every day, I believe we would all benefit from taking a moment to re-examine our boundaries, and how we use transition spaces. This article has focused on your professional life, but these concepts have much wider-reaching applications to other domains such as intimate relationships, families, and friends. I encourage you to use this article to begin the process of self-reflection and see where it takes you.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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London SE1 & E1W

Written by Dr Chris MacGregor

London SE1 & E1W

I am an HCPC registered Clinical Psychologist offering individual psychological therapy to adults (18+) on a short- to long-term basis. I offer a free 10 minute call to discuss your situation and how we could work together. Therapy can be too manualised; I want to ensure it is tailored to you.

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