Friday, November 11, 2011

Is Working from Home More Stressful than the Office?

A study by Tim Golden finds that working from home may be more stressful than going to the office.

I don't work from home for my job job, but I do a lot of work from home as a graduate student, so I feel like I have a little perspective on some of the topics in this discussion.

Golden's study found that work-life balance was particularly precarious for those who work from home:

The more work and family demands conflicted, the more people suffered from exhaustion.
Those with already high levels of work-family conflicts suffered higher exhaustion when they spent extensive time working from home.
Julie Bindel at the Guardian took a look at how this is particularly true for women:
There is no question that men working from home are afforded more respect than their female counterparts. It would be unlikely that dad would be interrupted by his partner to ask him what is for dinner. Women working from home are often thought to be earning "pin money" or only in part-time employment.
A lot of the conversations focus on the need for separate spheres, with some people going so far as to literally get dressed for work, walk out of their house, and walk back into it to signal that they've entered a new space. The study suggests a need for at least a mental separation between work and home life, and a physical separation is one way to help ensure that the mental divide gets put into place.

But is it the only way? I work eight hours a day from an office. I work many hours a week from home. I  think there are tasks suited for one more than the other.

Things I feel most comfortable doing at the office: meeting students, making phone calls, and having planning meetings with colleagues.

Things I feel most comfortable (or at least as comfortable) doing at home: emails, grading papers, reading, making presentations, planning individual projects.

Looking at these lists, the problem for me is one of code-switching. We all code switch between home and work, but if we work at home, there are some things that are harder to transition between. If I met colleagues and students in my house, for instance, I would have to code-switch not only my clothes, speech, and demeanor, but also the presentation of my house. It would be a lot of work and it would be hard to switch it back to "normal" when the work part was done.

But for things that don't require other people, that's less of an issue.

I know that there are studies saying multitasking doesn't work, that our brains can't handle more than one task at a time, and that we should focus on one task intensely before moving to the next one, but my personal experience doesn't match that. Maybe it's a generational thing. Maybe it's a literal transformation of the way our brains work because of new media.

Whatever it is, I know that I can accomplish a lot, and I know that I do it by switching through those tasks based on contextual analysis of what's going on around me.

This week, I had to read about 400 pages in two days. This was a lot to fit in since I also had to do all of my household/child care duties, work, and teach. I could not focus single-mindedly on that task. If I had tried, it would not have gotten done. I had to read whenever I could fit it in. That meant reading in the kitchen while the meat browned on the grill. That meant reading in my classroom while I waited for the class to start. That meant reading on my lunch break while I waited in line to get food.

And do you know what? I don't think it hurt my comprehension. I was able to talk about those books intelligently. I was able to write notes about what I thought. And in a few weeks, I'll be able to find passages in them when I write my research paper.

This is true for a lot of other tasks I do as well. I grade papers a few at a time when I get some downtime. I talk to my husband while I cook dinner and unload the dishwasher. I answer emails as they come up so that  I don't get bogged down, even if that means taking a pause from the presentation I'm planning.

I'm not saying this is the optimal way to work, but it is the optimal way for me to work.

Now, this style of work means I don't have clear divides between home space and work space. Work space becomes home space when I'm making grocery lists during my breaks. Home space becomes work space when I'm grading papers on the couch.

But, what I lack in physical divide, I make up for in mental divide. I do focus my attention on the task at hand, and I am conscious of making sure that I prioritize tasks across the board. I can't put all of my work stuff on top because there is home stuff that is equally (or more) important. There is one master list (sometimes mental, sometimes physically written down), and I pull tasks from it as that list requires.

I'm not dismissing the conclusions of this study, because I do think that having constantly overlapping spheres can be exhausting, but I do wonder about what we do with that information? Is there a way that we can approach our work differently?

How do you work? From home? In an office? Some combination? What do you think it does to your work-life balance?

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