Opinion: how should those now working from home due to the coronavirus deal with guilt and exhaustion?

In the current work environment, where a large number of us are now working remotely from our homes, how good are we at identifying when enough work is enough, or do we have trouble detaching from work and calling it a day? I often idealised working from home uninterrupted and how productive I would be, but this is not the case in our new remote working environment. Many now find that formal and ad-hoc meetings can now continue virtually and we are permanently accessible and "always on". Working from home is no longer the peaceful uninterrupted space where we can get some concentrated work completed, and it probably never will be again in a post Covid-19 workplace.

Many remote workers are now saying they are working longer hours and finding it harder to switch off from work. Knowing when to switch off and being able to ignore the screen and technology that has permanently moved into your home, has become more and more difficult for some. What’s stopping us from switching off? Could it be guilt?

The guilt complex

Guilt is a self-conscious emotion that results from relationships and interactions. It arises from a perceived or anticipated public exposure and disapproval of some shortcoming or transgression. This unpleasant emotion is activated when we focus on our behaviour and perceive that we have failed to meet internalised social standards such as morality or competence.

From RTÉ Radio 1's The Business, Liam Geraghty has been hearing about how working from home is going for some employees and businesses

In our current work environment, where the boundaries between work and home life have become blurred, the core working day has become fluid to allow employees to balance work and home demands. Knowing when enough work is enough is becoming more difficult and there is the potential to experience guilt when deciding if I should respond to that email that arrives at 9.30pm. Should I also still be working?

Guilt results in a sense of tension, remorse and regret over a "bad thing done". This leads to negative self-evaluative behaviour driving us to ruminate, reassess our actions and work to make amends. If I reply to this email, am I perpetuating a culture of long working hours and condoning a culture of workaholism? If I don’t reply, will my colleagues think I am unreasonable, uncommitted and a slacker. After all, I have nowhere else to be with the country on lockdown. The fact that we are now constantly on and contactable has the added pressure of not wanting to endure public disapproval by not being available. 

A new state of wellbeing

But what does this now mean for our wellbeing while working from home? Employee work-related wellbeing has both positive and negative dimensions. Employee wellbeing is a state of job satisfaction and engagement, while employee ill-being is a state of workaholism and burnout.

Employees experiencing each state display unique levels of energy and pleasure. For example, employees who experience job satisfaction are happy, content and relaxed. In the ideal state of engagement, employees are happy, work with energy, are dedicated and fully concentrated on their work. In contrast, in the negative state of ill-being, workaholic employees are unhappy, agitated, irritable and hostile. Employees who are burned out are sad, exhausted and lethargic. Knowing how to recognise each state of work-related wellbeing/ill-being is the first step in addressing a healthy relationship with your work and preventing work-life spillover

From RTÉ Radio 1's The Business, psychotherapist Siobhan Murray on the challenges of managing work from home and parenting

We know that events in the workplace trigger both positive and negative emotional reactions and that emotions are related to our wellbeing at work. Events that trigger emotional reactions are acts of management, the ability to achieve our goals, receiving recognition and having some control over our work.

Emotions in the workplace are important because they influence our wellbeing. A study shows that the negative self-conscious emotion guilt is related to employee exhaustion. This is an important indicator that we must learn to manage the boundaries of work and home life in our new work environment and stop feeling guilty and ruminating about work when we are not connected. 

How to manage work-life boundaries

Everyone has a role to play in this. Employees need to be conscious of how they are working and feeling and aware of their current state of work-related wellbeing. It is important to acknowledge when you are in a positive state (feeling satisfied and engaged), a negative state (working excessively and compulsively like a workaholic) or feeling exhausted (with no switch off or recovery time).

Managers also have a key role to play ensuring employees have clear goals and deliverables. This will enable effort and achievement to be measured and acknowledged while helping employees to know when they have delivered enough work for that day. Managers also have control over employee workload and influence the culture of the team in relation to respecting work-life boundaries and core working hours. If a manager's behaviour indicates that we should be contactable and on at all times during remote working and lockdown, then employees trying to keep work-life boundaries will feel guilty if they cannot work to this standard. 

From RTÉ News, a survey has found that four out of ten workers are struggling with working from home

The organisation also has a role to play in encouraging all employees to comply with the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997. Some organisations proactively encourage an email curfew and protect the employee’s right to disconnect for a healthy digital work-life balance. Some company emails carry the tag line "if this email arrives outside of core working hours please do not feel obliged to respond". Volkswagen went a step further and stopped their servers sending emails to some employees when they are off-shift.

Don’t let guilt and ruminating about work drive you into a state of exhaustion. We are born free and have the right to disconnect. Know when enough work is enough for today and close the laptop until tomorrow.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ