Working from home and struggling to feel festive? Our ‘always on’ culture could be to blame

Posted by for Mental Health

Even with Christmas fast approaching, many of us are struggling to ‘switch off’ from work and get into the festive spirit. A new study could explain why.

After a pretty stressful year, it’s safe to say many of us will be looking forward to having some time off work over Christmas.

However, whether you’re planning on visiting family, celebrating with friends or having a quiet one at home, there’s a chance that many of us will find switching off from work a lot more challenging than usual now we’re working from home.

Why? Because without many of us even realising it, ‘always on’ culture has become a bigger problem than it ever was in the office. Indeed, with the boundaries between work life and home life becoming increasingly blurred and many of us finding it increasingly hard to switch off when we finish work in the evening, ‘always on’ culture has taken on a whole new meaning. 

The extent of this problem has been revealed in a new study by the health insurance provider Aviva. According to their study of 2,000 UK workers, almost half of employees say they never fully switch off from work, with 70% admitting to checking emails and messages outside of work hours.

The research – which saw the workers answer surveys in February and August 2020 – also found that the number of people who were “completely happy” at work had almost halved in that period (from 20% to 13%) and the number of people who ranked their mental health between “very bad” and “fair” had risen by 5% (from 38% to 43%).

What these numbers tell us is that the ‘always on’ culture we spoke about before the pandemic – such as checking emails on our phones and working excessive overtime – has become even more insidious since we started working from home. 

A woman on her phone on the sofa at Christmas
‘Always on’ culture at Christmas: checking emails on the sofa between presents is far too easy now it's become normalised.

Hollie Richardson, Stylist’s digital writer, says she’s finding it all too easy to slip into “work mode” when she’s on her laptop in the evening.

“My work laptop is also my Netflix and social media laptop, so I use it most evenings, and I’ve developed a tendency to ‘check in’ on emails before hitting play. It’s so easy to do because I’m just clicking a button,” she tells me.

“Most of the time it’s not even urgent work, either, but it leads me to think about work for a period of time afterwards each time I do it.”

Not only are people finding it hard to switch off outside work hours – and finding themselves checking work-related emails and messages as a result – but they’re also working at all hours of the day, feeling guilty when they step away from their desk and not taking sick days when they need to. The extent of the problem is growing, too: according to Aviva’s research, the percentage of employees who took zero sick days in the last three months grew by almost 20% (from 67% to 84%) from February to August.

As time goes on, it’s clear that our ‘always on’ problem is growing – and even with Christmas on the horizon, it’s unlikely to improve. We may be desperately in need of a break, but without the workplace festivities and parties to give us that sense of ‘winding down’ for Christmas, yet another divide – that between work and the holiday – is at risk of being blurred. 

Jazmin Kopotsha, Stylist’s deputy digital editor, says she fears that the working from home lifestyle she’s built for herself this year will prevent her from switching off over the break.

“It’s pretty common to find me scrolling through work emails as I absentmindedly watch TV,” she admits. 

“It’s not a good habit, I know, but it’s a habit that I’ve found increasingly hard to shake as work and home life has merged this year, and it’s something that I’m anticipating being even worse over Christmas as someone who has a chronic inability to ‘rest’ or switch off properly.”

A woman on her laptop at Christmas
‘Always on’ culture at Christmas: with the work/life divide blurred by working from home, we're at danger of slipping into 'work' mode during our break.

She continues: “In the upcoming period of festive downtime typically reserved for the type of excitement that usually draws me away from work, I’m worried it’s going to get much worse. I’m not sure I really know where the line between work and out-of-office life is anymore and without all the usual social things that keep me away from my inbox, I can see myself falling even deeper into a dangerous hole.”

It’s clear that the ‘always on’ culture we’ve built for ourselves in 2020 isn’t doing us any good – especially when it comes to our inability to switch off during a time reserved for rest – but what can we do about it? While employers have a responsibility to help us unplug at the end of the day and create a healthy work/life balance, it’s also about us, as individuals, doing our best to switch off and be kind to ourselves – especially over Christmas when we deserve a break. 

Whether you decide to switch off your laptop completely, turn off your phone outside of working hours or try to incorporate an ‘end of day’ activity into your routine to create a divide between work and home time, finding what works for you when it comes to switching off from work has never been more important.

After such a challenging year, we all deserve time to relax and unwind this Christmas – so next time you go to check your email or reply to a message, try to remember that.

If working during the pandemic is taking its toll on your mental health, you’re not alone. From the isolation of being separated from colleagues and the stress of relying on technology to the threat of redundancy and the anxiety of applying for a new job, there are a number of reasons why you might find this time particularly challenging.

So, what can we do about it? We’ve got a plan.

Our new Work It Out campaign, supported by Mind, aims to give you the tools and resources you need to take care of your mental health while you’re stuck at home. From completing your Work 5 A Day to dealing with issues including anxiety, loneliness and stress, we’ll be exploring all aspects of wellbeing during this strange time.

For more information, including how to complete your Work 5 A Day, you can check out our guide to getting started.

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