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Generation Work

Why working from home could be bad for your health

About the author

Ronald is a freelance writer and editor and the author of eight books, including his latest, The Trophy Kids Grow Up: How the Millennial Generation is Shaking Up the Workplace. Previously, Ronald had a long career as an editor and columnist at the Wall Street Journal.

Lights out?

One of the pitfalls of working from home? It can be hard to step away from the computer – even at bedtime. (Thinkstock)

Working from home might seem to be the ideal remedy for tensions between your career and personal life. Who wouldn’t love flexible hours, no commute, fewer office distractions and more time with family?

Well, not quite everyone. Recent studies have found that telecommuters tend to be online more and work longer hours than their colleagues at the office. For some people, telework may actually do little to reduce exhaustion and stress — and could even prove to be more taxing.

For example, a study found that telework exacerbated feelings of mental and physical fatigue among employees of a large computer company who were already struggling with balancing job and personal responsibilities.

“When you have a lot of demands from both work and family and you put the workplace in the home, family demands become very salient and you’re reminded of the conflict,” said the study’s author Timothy Golden, who is an associate professor at the Lally School of Management & Technology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. “But when you’re at the office, you don’t see the chores and family members, so you’re a little removed from the conflict.”

Not for everyone

Telecommuting clearly isn’t a one-size-fits-all style of working. Members of the millennial generation who like to blend their work and personal lives often cope well with telecommuting, as do highly organised individuals who manage time and prioritise tasks effectively.

Telework alleviated exhaustion among people with lower levels of work-family conflict, according to Golden’s study. “Some people like to integrate multiple aspects of their lives and can juggle it all without a lot of stress,” he said.

But those who prefer a clear demarcation line between job and family may struggle to establish boundaries when both are in the same location.

“The flip side of flexibility is that many workers feel pressured — often by their peers — to be available anytime and anywhere,” said Tracy Haugen, a director in Deloitte Consulting’s human capital practice. “Learning how to disconnect is a new skill for many people.”

Employers are understandably most concerned about monitoring at-home workers to ensure they get the job done. But managers also need to help employees set limits because telecommuters who don’t know when to stop working may be at risk of burning out and becoming less productive.

Telecommuters and their bosses should discuss their expectations about work schedules, hours of availability and response times, and then try to reach common ground. “It can get really tricky if you know you work best after midnight when the house is quiet, but your company wants you available for the entire 9-to-5 work day,” said Rose Stanley, work-life practice leader at WorldatWork, a human resources association. “Such issues need to be part of the negotiations with your manager.”

Some teleworkers develop strategies on their own to avoid burnout. Many set up separate workspaces in their homes, display “do not disturb” signs to prevent interruptions, establish routine stopping and starting times, and take regular lunch and coffee breaks. To avoid perceptions of always being on call, some teleworkers answer emails whenever they find it convenient, but take care not to send them off until after 08:00 the next day.

A case study in training

Stanley and other workplace experts believe training is crucial for both managers and employees before they jump into a flexible work arrangement. But a 2011 WorldatWork survey found that only 17% of employers provide such training for their workers, while only 21% do so for managers.

Among those companies in that minority is Ryan LLC, which decided a few years ago to move from a rigid face-time environment to one with much greater flexibility. The Dallas-based tax services firm hoped to reduce its turnover rate by letting employees decide when and where they wanted to work, but knew it needed to assist people in adjusting to the change.

“We did a 180, going from a very draconian environment to flex, but we didn’t just turn people loose to figure it out all on their own,” said Delta Emerson, Ryan’s executive vice president and chief of staff.

Ryan offered employees a webinar and books about flexible work arrangements, an online dashboard of performance indicators, project management software, and other technology and training tools to help them prepare for their new independence. Employees also took online personality and work-style assessments to determine whether they preferred to integrate or segregate their job and family responsibilities.

“Some people definitely adjust better than others; it’s often harder for people who have been in a traditional workplace for a long time,” Emerson said. “A lot also has to do with self-discipline and realising work is never done but giving yourself permission to stop after you’ve made sure you’re hitting priorities and meeting timelines.”

Teams of telecommuters at Ryan also establish their own “blueprints” for how they’ll work together, including the hours when members are available via email or phone, the days when everyone should convene in the office, and the protocol for updating each other on a project’s status.

Sandra Laird, a senior communications specialist at Ryan, fashioned a schedule that includes work at both the office and her home. She fits into the separator camp and likes to turn off her computer when her work is completed.

“It took me a month or so to get used to managing my time at home, but now I prioritise throughout the day and say some things can wait for tomorrow,” Laird said. “I might occasionally check email, but I don’t let work overwhelm me. I’m able to walk away from my work and say now this time is mine to go to the gym or meet with friends.”

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Telecommuting clearly isn’t a one-size-fits-all style of working.

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