Work-Home Boundary Blurring

When “flexible work boundaries” turn into “work without boundaries”’ (Becker et al., 2021)

It's all about Work-Life Balance, isn't it?

Whether you are an employee, employer or self-employed, you are more than likely to have heard of the term ‘Work-Life Balance’ (WLB).

Although the mass media and pop psychology suggest that we ought to have a good WLB, and seem to suggest an ideal of 8 hours of paid work to be completed each day – and then return home to conduct ‘unpaid work’ – this perception of what WLB is for the individual is not a realistic or ideal one for most. 

The definition seems a bit of a sweeping, disingenuous (and rather incorrect) statement to refer to how we manage our lives. To diminish work into a ‘non-life’ event can make it seem more of a chore and something that has to be endured, rather than it being as much of a necessity as home-based responsibilities. 

The traditional view of being at work for a set number of hours and being at home for a set number of hours is a very Industrial Revolution perspective on how to divide up our waking lives. 

For the majority of human history, we didn’t need or use these delineations. Life was made up of a combination of work, home, play, family, community, eating, socialising, doing what needed to get done for the day and resting to recover from the work of living.

We now refer to work as something we do to earn a wage and everything else as ‘life’.

But, for some, their work is their life. They may love what they do, they may be earning money through their hobby, their travels or passively. 

And for some ‘life’ is a lot of hard work. Ask any parent (especially mothers) or carer, who escapes to paid work to have a break from home responsibilities. 

It also seems to not consider the reality that, as humans, we also need to play – which is so essential for our mental, emotional and physical energy recovery from the demands of our work (and sometimes home life). 

Finally, the word ‘balance’ implies an equal and reciprocal amount of time and energy that needs to be paid to the two sides of work and life. But, this is also not the case. Some people require a greater level of energy recovery, others need less.

Work, Life and Play

So, to re-address this balance (slightly), we will be referring to the unique ‘balance’ that we, as individuals, need to achieve our own positive state of health and well-being as a work-home-play balance (WHPB).

Although this still (to a degree) implies that all 3 need to be given equal quantities of time, and still doesn’t quite capture the harmony that we need to individually curate between them, by splitting out ‘Life’ into ‘Home and Play’ it feels a little less so. 

The balance comes when you are content with the number of hours you work to earn a comfortable income, and still have the time to engage in personal pursuits – whether these are obligations, responsibilities, recreation or simply being with others. 

What boundary blurring means

Boundaries are a fundamental part of our psychological and physical make-up.

When we talk about ‘Boundary Blurring’ in CyberPsychology, what we mean is doing work stuff during personal time and doing personal stuff during work time. 

The Boundary is created by either a physical, mental or emotional separation between these two distinct life realms. 

Whether we think about it or not, we automatically create boundaries and barriers in our lives.

Individual boundaries

On an individual basis, when someone or something has crossed that boundary we start feeling really uncomfortable. 

We know what it is like to have someone, who we don’t know well, enter into our personal space, and how uncomfortable that feels for us. We automatically back up and create that delineated space again – allowing ourselves a bit more ‘breathing room’. However if we are standing in an overcrowded London Underground Tube, these personal boundaries soon disappear. 

We also know how uncomfortable it feels when someone sits near us on an almost empty beach or park or sits on our bench when there are loads of other free ones nearby. On the other hand, if the beach is crowded, we don’t mind as much if someone sits close to us. Although still a little uncomfortable, we feel less infringed or imposed upon than if they sat in the same space on an almost empty beach.

If someone says something that we’re not particularly comfortable with, we emotionally react in some way. 

The interesting thing about personal boundaries is that they are contextual and individual. They fall in different places for each of us. When infringed upon, they affect us emotionally (we feel cross), physically (we feel uncomfortable) and mentally (we feel anxious). 

Group boundaries

As a culture or a society, we put boundaries in place between the space we occupy and the space another society or culture occupies. This is why we have borders between countries, signs to denote the start of a town or village, perimeters around our homes, and markers around our space. 

We create an identity within the space we occupy. We personalise it, we cherish it, and we create stories, songs and history about it. We compare our identity to that of others who live in other spaces and we sometimes try to encroach on these spaces as a way of expanding our own boundaries. 

Why this matters

The issue comes in when someone or something edges over or infringes on the boundaries we have set up for ourselves – either by force, subterfuge or invitation. 

There are two ways that we react to this infringement. We either capitulate to it (blurring the boundaries) or rebel against it (implement boundary strategies).

If we allow our boundaries to be infringed upon, it is often because the infringing party has greater power over us, we are less likely to win, or we need them as part of what we deem to be a strategic alliance. 

If we do implement a boundary strategy (which only about a third of us do), it is often one we build from a place of necessity, practicality or determination. It is often done when we feel we have the agency and ability to stand up for our own self-care and knowledge that if we continue as is, it is likely to end badly for us. 

Managing the boundaries between work and home life will always be a tricky one, but also one of the kingpin variables that impact our stress and anxiety levels. 

How do we separate or integrate our work and home lives?

We’re all on a spectrum, for most things.

Where humans are concerned, there is very little that is black and white, ‘normal’, or definitive.

This is also the case in how we manage the boundaries we each have between our work and home lives [i].

Research shows 2/3’s of us don’t have a strategy when it comes to how we manage the boundary between our work and home responsibilities.

We often work as and when we feel we need to or are compelled to by internal and external forces.

Although we may have some type of routine, we are not always acting in a decisive, proactive way.

Since a lot more of us work in a flexible, hybrid or remote way, we are more likely to integrate more of our home lives into our working day. 

So, we bumble along trying to get through the workload and try squeeze in a bit of life (constantly juggling work and home responsibilities) and then feel guilty about not doing either well enough.

It is only when things aren’t going so well, and we’re feeling stressed and anxious that we start to think that something needs to change.

Our default is to not detach from work unless we realise that we need to do so and actively seek to do so and put a strategy in place to separate our work and home life.

So, for the 1/3 of us who do put a strategy in place, creating some element of boundary between work and home life, what does that detachment strategy look like?

There are generally two preferences when it comes to boundary creation [ii].

Depending on our personality, worldview, life stage, aims and circumstances, we tend to either be an Integrator or Segmenter. 

Although whichever side we generally fall on, we include elements of the other side within our overall strategy. 

Integrators:

Are those who adopt a more blended, flexible approach to work-home boundaries – attempting to be more effective at juggling the responsibilities they have in each life realm throughout the day.

Integrators are less likely to experience conflict between work and family responsibilities and tend to feel relieved if they are given the ability to be flexible in fulfilling their work demands around set family time restraints and responsibilities.

They may have time-bound home responsibilities that need to be attended to, such as picking a child up from school, focusing on schoolwork, feeding little ones and getting them into bed.

This can mean that they need to dedicate some core hours each day to focus on and attend to home responsibilities.

During these core hours, they are generally unable to effectively focus on and attend to work-based activities.

They may use the time before their children get up in the mornings and after they go to bed to catch up on and complete work-based tasks and projects.

Working parents and caregivers are more likely to benefit from the ability to work before and after traditional working hours, allowing for chunks of dedicated time during traditional core work hours to focus on home-based tasks and ‘swopping’ these hours with traditional core home hours.

Other integrators may be passionate about their work or just enjoy the autonomy and flexibility to get their job done the way that works best for them and allows them to take time out to enjoy other aspects of their life that bring them fulfilment and contentment.

Segmenters:

Conversely, some prefer work and home life to be kept apart.

They would rather block out evenings and weekends to spend time with family and friends and pursue their leisure activities.

They do not want to think about or engage in any work-related communication or tasks.

Their ‘off work’ time helps them recover from the stress and demands of their job and helps to avoid the excess build-up of emotional exhaustion and work stress.

They feel resentment when job demands infringe on personal time and energy and take away from time spent with family and on their personal pursuits.

Are you a Segmenter or an Integrator?

Although we all fit somewhere on this spectrum, we tend to skew heavily in one direction or the other, with our own variation and nuances on our preferred style.

Generally, you are either:

  • a Segmenter works a continuous set of hours either at or on work and then doesn’t look at or think about anything to do with work until the next allocated work time slot. A segmenter  prefers work and home life to be kept apart 
  • an Integrator allocates blocks of time throughout the day to either engage in work or home responsibilities or tasks. They prefer to juggle both throughout the day.

Whatever our preference around workplace technology use (especially communication with colleagues and job task completion) outside of set working hours, we primarily need to have a personal strategy that we have decided on and mapped out. Because if we don’t have a strategy mapped out, without a structure to operate in, we don’t know when enough is enough and mostly find it difficult to say ‘no’. 

It needs to be consciously curated and should be:

  • Bespoke and nuanced to fit with our life circumstances, work and home priorities, preferences and world views
  • Strategic, with caveats on acceptable infringements in boundary-blurring activities and
  • Aligned with company/team culture

Personal conflict arises when there is a mismatch of segmentation preference versus the organisational norms and culture. This is one of the catalysts for the onset of stress and anxiety in the workplace.

Why we need to detach - we all need recovery time, or we will reduce our energy supply

So, the question remains, why is it so important to create a boundary between work and home and allow ourselves to detach from work each day?

The biggest reason is that work is tiring. And whatever our preference, we need to ensure that we block out time in the day to switch off. Because the demands of our role are mentally, physically and emotionally exhausting. So, we need to completely switch off from work-based activities and communication with others. We all need time to recover our energy levels.

Protecting that recovery time and making it a personal non-negotiable, because one of the overarching things we lack in our business culture, as employees, is giving ourselves ‘permission’ to log off from work responsibilities after hours. 

As we are unlikely to be given that permission by employers, it is up to us as individuals to take control of how, when and where we use our DigiTech to ‘do work’.

Because the demands of our jobs make us emotionally, mentally and physically exhausted.

Wholistic recovery from the job at the end of the day is a necessary part of reducing stress, anxiety and potentially burnout. 

We have to detach from our work to recover from work.

Emotional work

Working with others and having to constantly maintain an enthusiastic or positive (and sometimes just neutral)  front is emotional work it is emotionally draining – even when we like the people we work with. 

Having to constantly manage, temper and rein in various emotions, say the right thing, display the right expression, not offend others, keep others satisfied and play the right corporate game takes its toll on our emotions. 

This is especially true if you are client-facing or work in office cultures that require emotional resilience and have a strong work-passion schema.

We need time at the end of each day to recover from the emotional work of the day. Like a mobile phone running out of energy that needs to be recharged. If it’s not fully charged before heading out, you are going to try to conserve the energy to make it last through the day. 

Mental work

Knowledge work is in and of itself mentally exhausting. It takes effort to constantly think of the right responses to messages and constantly think of what to do to add value, and be seen as being productive and a good worker or team player. 

It requires constant focus, thinking and decision-making. Our brains are energy-hungry when in use and sufficient need recovery time to function well the next day.

One of the best ways to do this is to engage in other forms of mental functioning directly unrelated to our work.

Even having a hobby or sport that requires a lot of thinking and concentration but uses another part of the brain is beneficial in reducing post-work rumination.

OR if you are fortunate enough to be one of those 10% who are emotionally engaged in their work, then doing additional work-related research and reading after hours is a great way to re-energise the passion.

Physical work

We are in a constant state of hyper-vigilance and stress when working. Even sitting still in a tensed state keeps our muscles physically engaged. 

Sitting still for long periods puts strain on your muscles and circulation. It is part of why working from home during Lockdowns became so exhausting. We stopped moving so much. We didn’t walk to meetings, chat with a colleague, or walk to the shop to buy a coffee or lunch.

Additionally, the body’s lymphatic system needs muscle movement to activate and move essential fluids around the system and eliminate toxic fluids from the body. A reduction in blood movement means less oxygen to the brain and muscles.

Whatever our boundary strategy, we need to allow ourselves time to detach ourselves emotionally, psychologically and physically out from work so that we can recover from the demands of our job at the end of each day.

However, in our more hybrid working world that is Always On and Always Available – and with both life and work seeming to be speeding up, it’s often difficult to draw a personal strategic boundary between our career ambitions and what seems like a relentless home/family juggle.

But, continuing to engage in work comms after hours means we don’t detach from work and don’t allow ourselves enough recovery time to replenish those energy levels used up during each work day. 

But there are reasons why we struggle to detach from work. They generally fit into a few categories:

  • We often tend to check work email/message after hours. Sometimes because we don’t want to miss out on important communication. Sometimes we don’t want to get into work the next day with an email storm waiting in our inbox. But, checking emails increases the amount of time spent thinking about work, what needs to be done and how to formulate responses to them.
  • We could find ourselves feeling lonely and needing to engage with others through responding to emails and messages – this can be especially true for those who are extroverts and find remote work isolating.
  • We may find our job to be demanding or stressful, but we tend to not stop thinking about: the work from the day; what needs to be done the following day; who we still need to message; how we’re going to deal with that client, colleague or boss that has got us wound up, etc.

Our natural default for dealing with increased job stress and demands is to work harder and work longer hours, to try to keep up with the workload – attempting to mitigate future stress by trying to reduce current workload. It makes sense in the short-term, but is counter-productive, even in the medium-term. 

In doing so, we either reduce the amount of time we spend on personal activities or cut back on the amount of time we sleep, rather than detach from work and give ourselves time to recover.

Why we don’t detach

Remote working reduces our ability to detach

Pre-lockdowns, it was considered a privilege to be able to work away from the office. Even now, working remotely raises expectations of responsibility and increases the need to be continuously available and signal that you are working at specific points during the day. So, You are more likely to attend more meetings, work longer hours and tend to put in extra time during the traditional commute times.

Continuing to think about work and spending longer in a higher state of wholistic stress, means not allowing the body, mind and emotions the time needed to recover and, therefore, starting the next working day in a deficit. 

Like any form of continued stress to a system, unless there is a period of rest, the system becomes overworked and tired.

Lower levels of physical and psychological detachment [iii] from work, and work-based stress, can lead to a lack of wholistic [iv] recovery.

In short, this results in emotional exhaustion, lower levels of work engagement (i.e. ‘presenteeism’ – being in the office but not being very productive), underperformance and elevated strain and in the long term, it can lead to burnout.

We’ll talk more about remote and hybrid work in Chapter 2. 

We need to prioritise the development of a personal boundary management strategy that works to maximise productivity and increase quality time at home and play. 

Without a definitive strategy to live by, we can quickly become more and more entrenched in habits that take us away from the things we most value in life. 

We all need a plan that steers us to where we need to be because stress, anxiety and burnout come when we fail to plan and set and (mostly stick to personal boundaries around work, home and play. 

These boundaries can be immovable, temporarily dissolvable or rebuilt in another way. But, whatever it looks like is important to spend time developing your personal work-home boundary and technology strategy. It needs to:

  • Be one that works for you – your work, your home and for your energy recovery,
  • Be able to blur and dissolve it when necessary,
  • Review, adapt it on a semi-regular basis,
  • Start ‘training’ others in what that work-home balance looks like for you,
  • And, get back to it as a priority.
Some questions to consider
  1. What do you think your preferred boundary style is? Think about how you prefer to juggle your work around your personal time. Do you prefer to set immovable (hard) boundaries between work and home time with limited intrusion of each in the other life realm or do you prefer to integrate the two life realms (soft boundaries) and juggle your responsibilities for each simultaneously? 
  2. What infringements on that style are you willing to accept? How much leeway are you willing to accept on that style – so, e.g. if you are a separator, are you comfortable (and/or get comfort from) doing a quick check of emails in the evenings, just to make sure there aren’t any disasters, which helps you to mentally detach from work for the remainder of the evening? 
  3. How can you best use your boundary style to optimise your productivity and maximise non-work time? Whatever your boundary style is, what strategies can you think about putting in place to optimise your productivity during those hours set aside for work? And what strategies and habits can you implement to ensure you fully detach from work and all you the recovery time you need each day? 
  4. What boundary style do you think others in your team have and why do you think so? What have you noticed about their work behaviours? Do they have children that they need to look after at certain times of the day? What seems to be their most productive part of the day? 
  5. What can you do to help others in your team manage their boundary style more effectively? 
Get involved in the research

If you would like to be involved in the continued research on Boundary Blurring, Segmentation Strategies and how this impacts on Stress, Anxiety and Burnout, you can click on the button below and fill in the questionnaire.

You will not (at this point) receive any feedback on your answers, but it will provide you with more questions to consider in understanding your work-home digitech strategies and the impact this may have on you.

The questionnaire should take around 10 – 15 min’s to complete and your answers will remain anonymous.

A few hints and tips

If you are generally a Segmenter 

  • You may want to remove work emails and apps from any personal devices.
  • It may be worth investing in a separate phone you use specifically for work that you can switch off outside of working hours and on holiday.
  • Let colleagues and clients know that you generally prefer not to look at work stuff after working hours – so you can manage their expectations of when work will be done or correspondence replied to. It takes time to ‘educate’ those you work with to manage their expectations, but the effort will be worth the payoff. 

If you are generally an Integrator?

  • Try to keep work and home emails and communication separate. Your brain, body and emotions still need time to reboot during the day. 
  • When you do give yourself time to focus on home-based activities, try to be mindfully present on home stuff. If you need to, keep a paper and pen nearby to write down anything that needs doing during your next work slot, so you can get back to focussing on being present. 
Notes:
  • The opening quote: ‘When “flexible work boundaries” turn into “work without boundaries”’ (Becker et al., 2021, p.5) is a direct quote from their article called ‘Killing Me Softly: Electronic Communications Monitoring and employee and Significant other well-being’. You can read a summary of the research and the original research here.
  • [i] This section is based on the concept of Boundary Theory, which is: The extent to which individuals choose to psychologically transition between distinctive domains or life roles that have a particular meaning for an individual, such as work (e.g., parent, spouse) and home (e.g., worker, supervisor). The concept of Boundary Theory was originally developed by Ashforth et al (2000). If you would like to read more about this from an academic perspective, you can read their article called: All in a Day’s Work: Boundaries and Micro Role Transitions.
  • [ii] In their book ‘CEO of Me’, Ellen Ernst Kossek and Brenda A. Lautsch, present us with a 3rd style, that of ‘Volleyers’. They also provide a number of categories within each style that help to further identify the type of work-home ways of responsibility and life juggling. For the sake of simplicity, we have stuck to the two more ‘extreme’ segmentation styles in our model – i.e. whether or not we generally prefer to chunk up the day to juggle time-bound responsibilities or dedicate large portions of the day dedicating time and energy to focus on one specific life-realms at a time. If you would like to find out more about your specific style and how to develop a more bespoke personal strategy around managing work and home responsibilities, this is a good (although slightly on the academic side) read and a great resource in working out a segmentation strategy that may work best for you.
  • [iii] Psychological detachment from work is the ability to physically and mentally detach from work to allow the body & mind to rest & recover. Low detachment results in lack of recovery, emotional exhaustion, low work engagement & elevated strain experienced.
  • [iv] Although ‘Holistic’ is used more often in the English language, ‘Wholistic’ is as acceptable form of spelling. Wholistic is used in this context as it seems a greater representation of the need to recover the ‘whole’ self.  https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/wholistic-word-origin-and-use

Become an insider – sign up to the free newsletter

* indicates required

Intuit Mailchimp