One of the most enduring tropes of remote working has always been the idea that employees would slack off from home. But since lockdown was enforced and millions began working remotely, we’ve discovered that actually, the opposite is true. One recent study reveals that most employees working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic have actually been overworking – with US workers working an extra three hours each day on average, and employees in France, the UK and Canada working an additional two.
Taking fewer breaks, working longer hours and blurring boundaries between work and home are established features of remote working – but they are also a sure cocktail for mental exhaustion and burnout. So how can we avoid overworking while working remotely?
Why do remote workers overwork?
It’s a curious mixture of navigating your own time and boundaries, and the expectations of the people you work with – whether those are explicitly stated or imagined by you.
Being the sole master of your time, schedule and work environment isn’t easy, and without discipline and clear cut boundaries it’s scarily easy for remote workers to work long hours and skip breaks. The lines between personal and professional lives can quickly blur in new and unusual ways, and being constantly digitally available can make you feel like you never really transition out of “work mode”.
Of course, whether consciously done or not, remote workers also use overworking as a social signal. For many, putting in extra hours or creating and attending more virtual meetings is a convenient way of proving your commitment, productivity and helpfulness when your employer can’t physically see the effort you’re putting in
“At a time when many of us who still have jobs are worried about being able to keep them, we might understandably feel that the pressure is now on to perform, putting in the hours to ensure our position is secure in the future.” – via Hays
Given the very real disadvantages that remote “invisibility” has for career development, many remote workers naturally use virtual presenteeism to try and stay in the sight and mind of their employers. In the particular context of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s also easy for remote workers to feel guilty about not putting in more hours – as well as feel the pressure to try and shore up their jobs in the face of potential unemployment.
How to stop yourself overworking
1. Introduce set hours and routines
It’s incredibly important to create your own boundaries when you’re working from home. To ensure you stick to daily hours and don’t work too much, it’s also helpful to create a schedule. As frustrating as commutes can be, they act as bookends to our working day, allowing us to easily distinguish between work and home, so create a defined routine for when you start and finish work – like bookending your day with a run, walking the dog, stretching or meditating.
While remote work has the benefit of generally being more flexible, you should still try to keep regular work hours as much as possible. This doesn’t necessarily have to mean sticking to a 9-5 pattern (e.g. if you’re not a morning person you could start an hour or two later), but the important thing is that you have a set deadline for switching off for the day.
In these challenging times, it’s important to devote your energy to the work that’s actually a priority. By that, we don’t mean working on things that are urgent – we mean working on things that are truly important and contribute to your own progress. People who habitually work long hours are often “people pleasers”, agreeing to help out with other people’s projects, or saying yes to taking on more tasks even when they don’t have capacity. Learn to say “no” to things (graciously!) and try to prioritize the work that’s genuinely important to you. Remember that the average person is only truly productive for a couple of hours each day – and these hours should always be spent working on your most important tasks.
3. Track the time you spend on work
When you’re working from home it’s easy to lose track of time, or not to realize how many extra hours you’re putting in each week. That’s why automatically tracking all the time you spend at work is a no-brainer. It makes it easy to keep within your weekly capacity and not take on too much. When integrated with your team, it also helps your colleagues and managers see when you’re overstretched and in need of support.
Tracking your time automatically is a great way to keep a record of what you’ve done – providing a complete account of your productive efforts and a useful reference for how long different tasks take to help refine your scheduling. You can also see which times of the day you’re most productive and highlight low-value tasks that eat up your time. Working from home allows you to test out your optimal ways of working, so see what insights you get from tracking your hours and experiment with your schedule.
Of course, you’ll also want a solid time keeping app to accurately document the overtime you work. This helps you keep an eye on how much you overwork so you can adjust the rest of your week to offset it. For example, if you did an extra four hours overtime earlier in the week, you could end your workday early on a Friday and begin your weekend early. Taking enough time off is super important for avoiding burnout, so you should stay mindful of any extra hours you’ve put in. It’s easy for overtime to quickly amount up – ten minutes here, half an hour there – so by documenting it, you’ll always have a clear idea of how many hours you’ve worked that week. The flexibility of remote working is a double-edged sword, so you need to be proactive to ensure your hours don't start mounting up without you realizing.
Remote work makes it harder for managers and colleagues to keep everyone’s workload and working patterns visible – so to bridge that visibility gap you need to self-advocate far more than you would in an office. If you regularly find yourself working flat out with few breaks, or doing regular overtime, raise the issue. Having time data from your tracked hours to back you up will help your case and ensure you get support or additional resources.
Have a mechanism for summarizing your progress and highlighting blockers or delays to your manager (e.g. through regular one-to-ones or catch-ups). While constantly documenting what you’re doing might feel a bit unnecessary, when you’re not sitting alongside your coworkers, you need to be proactive when it comes to communication. Feeling overwhelmed isn’t only counterproductive when it comes to being efficient; it also harms our mental and physical health – which now, more than ever, we need to be protecting.