Stop overworking when lockdown

The ongoing coronavirus crisis has left about 20% of the global population under lockdown, with this percentage looking likely to rise even further. By ‘lockdown’, I mean that we are confined to our homes, only being permitted to leave for essential reasons. This, in turn, has left many of us bored and worried about ourselves and our loved ones. Another effect it has had for a great number of us, however, is a heightened feeling of needing to be seen to be productive and helpful for the organisations that we work for, at a time when we are not physically at the office.

Working hours have spiked since the onset of the crisis

This means that during such a difficult time, you could easily end up working longer hours and overworking. The situation can feel even trickier for parents who are currently at home with their children, given that they are likelier to be working in the evening to catch up. Sure enough, according to NordVPN, there is evidence of employee hours having spiked since the onset of the coronavirus outbreak. Workers in the US have added three hours to their average workday, for example. Meanwhile, in the UK, France, Spain and Canada, workdays typically went up by two hours each.

Unfortunately, not only does overworking negatively impact on mental health at a time that is already testing for many of us, but it also adversely affects all-round productivity. The stress associated with overworking could even leave your immune system weakened, which is one of the last things you will want to happen during a pandemic. Research cited by the American Psychological Association (APA) has made this link between stress and immune response. Another 2005 study referenced by the APA found that social isolation could also weaken immunity – an obvious cause for concern for those currently working from home alone.

10 ways to prevent yourself from working longer hours when in lockdown

So, with this in mind, here are some tips for guarding against overworking as the coronavirus outbreak continues.

1.  Set strict boundaries. If you have the space, devote somewhere in your home specifically for work, complete with a study area, desk, upright chair and good lighting. Also clearly communicate the start and finish times of your ‘office hours’ with the people you live with. Blocking time in your calendar and sharing it with your colleagues will also help to promote healthy working patterns within your team. Measures like these will be instrumental in providing a clear distinction between the ‘work’ and ‘home’ parts of your life. That, in turn, should be effective at preventing your motivation from ‘drifting’ in the middle of the day. Staying focused and distraction-free while working from home can be especially tricky for those with children. So, if this describes you, consider arranging times when other members of the household can be taking care of the kids, and having activities and screen time planned for them while you’ll be busy on conference calls.

2.  Each day, only focus on the tasks that truly matter, right now. Be clear in your mind on what your key priorities and areas of focus should and need to be at this time. At the start of the working day, decide on a handful of main tasks that you’re going to commit to completing. Focus on these and communicate them with your team, while ensuring they are realistic. Encourage your colleagues to do the same. This will ensure you’re all collectively working towards the same aim and concentrating on the right things. This will also help you to be as productive as possible, giving you a greater sense of achievement at the end of the day, so that you’re likelier to log off and enjoy your evening.

3.  Say no to tasks if necessary. In these changing times, your priorities and areas of focus might shift, almost on a daily basis. That’s why you need to have the confidence and conviction to say no to tasks that aren’t going to help you or your business to achieve what’s truly important right now. Habitual over-workers are often notorious ‘people pleasers’, so you need to learn the art of graciously saying no if certain tasks would threaten to overwhelm you, and simply aren’t a priority right now. If an extra task or two really does need to be taken on, try to be realistic about what you can do in the time that you have during your main working day, perhaps offering a partial solution in the meantime.

4.  Keep the people you live with informed. If you’re living with people who work different hours to you, who still need to leave the house to work even during this time of lockdown, or who aren’t working at all at the moment, it’s easy for misunderstandings to arise. Working from home doesn’t mean you’re free to do your housemates’ shopping for them in the middle of the day, chat to them about their latest online date, have that difficult conversation with the landlord, or take deliveries. So, it’s important to let the people you live with know what you are working on, and the timescales you need to deliver them. This will keep you accountable while also allowing them to respect your time.

5.  Minimise in-work distractions. If COVID-19 has forced you into home working for the very first time – or you’ve never or rarely done it on a ‘9 to 5’ basis – it’s very easy to be sidetracked by social media feeds or news notifications. You’ll be able to do much better work when you’re freed up to focus on one thing. So, instead of trying to depend on ‘willpower’ alone, move your phone away from your desk, turn off push notifications or delete those apps that can be especially distracting. You won’t want to end up only getting four or five hours’ worth of work done in an eight-hour workday, thereby leaving you having to work extra hours for several days to catch up.

6.  Take a set lunch break. And don’t eat from your desk! If you can, have a space that is nowhere near your desk for eating, or go outside for some fresh air, while respecting your local authority’s guidelines on social distancing. This will enable you to ensure your lunch break feels like an actual break. This, in turn, will help you to feel more motivated when you resume work in the afternoon.

Once the working day is over:

7.  Close your home office door. It isn’t enough to merely say your hours are from 9 to 5 – you also have to walk away once it really is 5pm. So, be disciplined in leaving your home office, and don’t go back in until the morning! Try not to blend your home and work life. It can be especially tempting for many people to ‘put a bit of work in’ late at night. However, this could come at the cost of disrupting your sleep schedule, depleting your energy levels the following day. That could then hurt your productivity and leave you struggling to catch up.

8.  Turn off and put away work devices. If this isn’t possible, at least limit yourself to only checking your work emails once or twice in the evening. You should also be logging out of Skype or any other chat or messaging functionality that you may have on your machine. Use your personal laptop – if you have one – for personal stuff such as online shopping.

9.  Do something for yourself. It’s crucial to enable your mind to understand that you are no longer working. Go out for a walk or run, if you’re able to, or cook dinner – in short, whatever healthy thing you can do that is different to your work activities, in a different environment to where you work. Make this consistent, and it’ll become a signal in your mind that the work day is over. As a consequence, it will help to break out your two lives.

10. Focus on the positives. You may be overworking to avoid paying too much attention to the crisis that is going on around us. So instead, try to focus on the positives in your life and what you have to be grateful for. Also consider what you can do around the house that you’ve been meaning to get to, and spending quality time with your family if you are able to do so. In short, there are always things that you can do to distract yourself and use your time in healthy and productive ways during this outbreak, rather than simply scrolling through social media and being left anxious by scary headlines, or, indeed, overworking.

Don’t allow overworking to imperil your wellbeing at this difficult time

It’s easy to feel guilty if you aren’t working more hours than usual during the coronavirus pandemic. After all, if you’re working from home with the associated lack of commuting time, or demand for your usual services has temporarily dropped, it might seem that you have more time to fill with other work. Alternatively, you may have seen increased business since the outbreak started – in which case, it may seem inevitable that you need to put in more hours. Furthermore, 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.

However, a feeling that you ‘need’ to work more right now can also be a slippery slope that causes you to venture into bad habits, such as overworking, imperilling your health and wellness when you most need to protect yourself. It’s therefore important to have a sense of perspective, letting go of the unrealistic expectations you ‘think’ your employer currently has of you.

Adopt simple, but stringent measures like the above, then, and you will be able to better shield yourself from the dangerous consequences of overworking during this very testing time for us all.

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