Working from Home Guidance

Neil HartleyHealth & Safety Issues/TrendsLeave a Comment

woman using laptop in the kitchen

There have been many good, well-intentioned articles in both the print press and online over the past week about how to successfully work from home.

The Daily Telegraph on Tuesday (March 17th) advocated working from 9am to 5pm to maximise overlap with colleagues and speed decision making. Google recommend creating “work” triggers for your brain such as establishing a designated workplace. I used to work with a guy who could only be productive working from home if he got up, showered and put on a suit and tie – another “work” trigger.

I’ve worked at home on and off (mainly on) for the last 10-15 years so maybe my input would be useful. Or maybe it wouldn’t as we’re all different and what works for me wouldn’t necessarily work for others. Conversely, my issues won’t be those faced by others. I certainly don’t have a five year old tearing around the place as many will now the schools have closed.

So, without repeating all that has been covered elsewhere, what advice can Health and Safety experts provide to those now experiencing working from home for the first time? What practical action can they take to support those workers?

Taking the practical action first. Here’s just one example. I’ve seen a dramatic drop in broadband performance over the past two weeks. It makes working harder and more stressful. For those employees who have an option to upgrade their home broadband, let them do so and expense it. It will enable them to be more productive and improve their wellness.

In terms of advice for new home workers, as I mentioned above we’re all different so my advice is not necessarily relevant outside my own designated workspace. However, I can legitimately share the knowledge of psychologist Guy Winch as something I wish I had had prior to embarking on a decade plus of working from home.

You can watch his TED talk in this video with abstract/commentary/quotes below.


Regular readers will remember this talk from our post on ruminating cows and reasons to be cheerful at the beginning of the year. At that time we focused on work stress and how ruminating about work outside of work was the cause of stress – chewing it over and over with the Trojan Horse of our smartphone further fuelling the engine of stress. As Guy said:

“The problem wasn’t the work I did in my office. It was the hours I spent ruminating about work when I was home. I closed the door to my office every night, but the door in my head remained wide-open and the stress just flooded in. That’s the interesting thing about work stress. We don’t really experience much of it at work. We’re too busy. We experience it outside of work, when we are commuting, when we’re home, when we’re trying to rejuvenate. It is important to recover in our spare time, to de-stress and do things we enjoy, and the biggest obstruction we face in that regard is ruminating. Because each time we do it, we’re actually activating our stress response.

“Ruminating about work, replaying the same thoughts and worries over and over again, significantly disrupts our ability to recover and recharge in the off hours. The more we ruminate about work when we’re home, the more likely we are to experience sleep disturbances, to eat unhealthier foods and to have worse moods.”

Guy recommends having clear guardrails (such as not looking at your phone after a certain time) but these are measures that work nicely when there is a clear physical divide between work and home. What happens when that physical barrier has been removed and people are working from home? Of course, the reminders of work will be all around us and able to trigger destructive ruminations. Here’s how Guy recommends dealing with those:

“First, create a defined work zone in your home, even if it’s tiny, and try to work only there. Try not to work on the living room couch or on the bed.

“Next, when you’re working from home, wear clothes you only wear when you’re working. And then at the end of the day, change clothes, and use music and lighting to shift the atmosphere from work to home. Make it a ritual.”

Interestingly, at least in this talk, Guy doesn’t refer to an allocated time for work, just an allocated space and environment. He also points out that, “While ruminating about work when we’re home damages our emotional well-being, thinking about work in creative or problem-solving ways does not” which then can provide a remedy when ruminations do invade our non-work time. He explains:

“Now those things will help, but ruminations will still invade. And when they do, you have to convert them into productive forms of thinking, like problem-solving.

“To convert a ruminative thought into a productive one, you have to pose it as a problem to be solved. The problem-solving version of “I have so much work to do” is a scheduling question.

“Like, “Where in my schedule can I fit the tasks that are troubling me?”

“Or, “What can I move in my schedule to make room for this more urgent thing?”

“Or even, “When do I have 15 minutes to go over my schedule?”

“All those are problems that can be solved. “I have so much work to do” is not. Battling rumination is hard, but if you stick to your guardrails, if you ritualise the transition from work to home, and if you train yourself to convert ruminations into productive forms of thinking, you will succeed.

“Banishing ruminations truly enhanced my personal life, but what it enhanced even more was the joy and satisfaction I get from my work. Ground zero for creating a healthy work-life balance is not in the real world. It’s in our head. It’s with ruminating. If you want to reduce your stress and improve your quality of life, you don’t necessarily have to change your hours or your job. You just have to change how you think.”

In these unprecedented times, I think Guy’s insights can help all of us avoid the pitfalls of working from home while, at the same time, better prepare us for improving our wellness when our lives return to something approaching normal.

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