With so many of us taking work home, follow Stylist’s guide to not letting it rule your life
It’s Sunday, 11pm. Yet the irony of writing a piece on the dangers of taking work home does not immediately occur to me because my brain is fried. Despite the fact that it’s late on the day of rest, emails still pop up persistently in my inbox. I am not the only adult overwhelmed by homework, frantically typing to ease my Sunday night dread. These aren’t one-off projects, it’s ongoing work we do on top of our normal hours. And the more advanced our careers, the more we have.
We work an average of 10 hours a week in free overtime on top of an average 48-hour week, according to a recent poll by Totally Money. But the real cost of adult homework is not financial. It’s our health. Long-term stress, anxiety and prolonged sedentary periods have been proven by the Stanford Graduate School of Business to reduce our lifespan. New research from the Australian National University found that working more than 39 hours a week is damaging our mental health.
We could blame the ability to log on anywhere for invading our home life, but that’s not quite the case. “Tech has given us a 24/7 parade of successful people on social media, plus the underlying fear that our jobs are becoming outdated by technology itself,” says Gail Kinman, professor of occupational health psychology at the University of Bedfordshire. Subconsciously, we’re saying, “I’m busy! I’m important!” via a constant stream of emails and productivity.
Ironically, taking on adult homework to futureproof our careers isn’t sustainable. “All the research categorically states that working more hours and having no physical or psychological boundary between work and life can make you less productive,” says Kinman. Not only do we rob ourselves of downtime, she says, we also have less time to invest in basic health-giving activities such as exercise, grocery shopping and sleep.
“Time with family and friends is essential for our health too,” says Kinman, who points to recent research proving loneliness is as bad for our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. And there’s more: before we even sit down to do our homework, its looming shadow starts damaging us psychologically. “That Sunday night dread takes us back to our school years, when we had little control over our lives,” says Kinman. “Being coerced into a juvenile position dents our confidence and efficacy.”
For many of us it just isn’t practical or possible to do away with our homework. We all have emergencies that demand extra hours, and sometimes, we just want to get some extra work done in peace. So we asked the experts about their strategies for regaining a bit of balance…
Take a stand
Even if you only do a few hours of homework, your back will thank you for setting up an ergonomic workstation. “You’ll be most comfortable typing while resting your elbows at your waist, forearms straight out in front of you,” explains osteopath Leah Hearle. “The kitchen counter is the perfect height for a standing desk.”
Eat the frog
Mark Twain said that if the first thing you do is eat a live frog, you’ll go through the day with the satisfaction that you’ve probably already done the worst thing you could do. Yet human nature dictates that we procrastinate on the most difficult task, aka our ‘frog’, according to Brian Tracy, time management expert and author of Eat That Frog!: Get More Of The Important Things Done Today. To stop adult homework monopolising your downtime, he says: “Discipline yourself to begin the toughest task immediately and then persist until complete before you go on to something else.”
But if you do procrastinate….
If you’re putting off a daunting piece of work, ask yourself why. “Is the idea not yet fully formed? Is the task even worth completing at all?” says Carson Tate, founder and managing partner of Working Simply. Being honest will allow you to put things into perspective and hack down your to-do list.
Tear your eyes away
A University of Illinois study followed four groups of people working on an intensive task for 50 minutes. The group that took more screen breaks had the highest mental stamina at the end of the time period. “Even 30 seconds looking away from the screen can be beneficial as it gives our eyes and brains a chance to refocus,” says Maura Thomas, author of Work Without Walls. “Stand and stretch, gaze out of the window or put the kettle on – they use different parts of your brain, so when we go back to our homework, we’re more creative and energised.”
If you can, go analogue
“Reading on paper is less stressful than reading on screen,” says Thomas. Why? “The work is restricted to the paper in your hands. So the work is not only finite, but you can monotask – once you’re on your device your attention gets pulled into your inbox and all the different browser tabs.”
Try some one-minute mindfulness
“You’d laugh to hear me say, ‘Alexa, give me one minute of mindfulness,’ but since setting the device up I have found that taking a mindful break gives me the headspace I need to think clearly and work more effectively,” says Professor Kinman. Try Buddhify (£4.99, App Store) which offers guided mindfulness meditation, including a special ‘work break’ session. You can also try a YouTube tutorial on ‘alternate nostril breathing’, a mindfulness practice which Hillary Clinton says helps her feel calmer and more focused.
Create your sensory sorbet
As adult homework and the constant presence of our laptops and phones help to erode the physical boundary between home and the workplace, when our work is done we can psychologically benefit from having a ‘sorbet’ – aka a palate cleanser – between the two zones. This helps our brain to get into relaxation mode. “Change your clothes, shower with a fragrant body oil or do something with your hands like cooking or stroking the cat – activating different senses creates a buffer zone between work and rest,” says Professor Kinman.
Uphold a curfew
Give yourself a cut-off time – it can take an hour to wind down from work enough to sleep, especially if you use a screen, according to a study published in Applied Ergonomics. In bed, read something for six minutes – researchers at the University of Sussex found this can reduce stress by 68%.
Has this article left you feeling inspired? Be sure to check out the rest of our Stylist September Shake-Up content here.
Images: Getty, Unsplash