Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Work/Life Separation Is Impossible. Here's How to Deal with It.

The ideal of compartmentalizing our work and home lives sounds appealing in a self-help book or advice-based TV show, but reality is much messier than that. As anyone who has ever received a call from their child’s school at work knows, the barrier between our professional and domestic realms is more of a door than a wall.

Emotional traffic through that door moves in both directions: good news in one arena can lead to positive effects in the other, and vice versa. Unfortunately, this is true for negative scenarios too. Rather than pretending we live in a tidy world with a clean separation between work and play, it’s more productive to acknowledge reality: life is complicated.

Consider the complex web of work and family influences uncovered by European psychologists in a paper published this summer. By studying diaries kept by over 150 employees at 25 Spanish organizations, the researchers led by Ana Sanz-Vergel documented what they described as a “negative spiral” – it started with a clash of priorities between work and home (for example, a mix-up over who was dropping the kids at school), this was followed by an increased risk of arguments with colleagues at work, and this strife at work then fed back and increased domestic friction in the home. We often think of our lives as having separate domains, but this research shows that when there’s a clash of demands from our different responsibilities, the fall out spreads far and wide like a common cold.

Research shows that when there’s a clash of demands from our different responsibilities, the fall out spreads far and wide like a common cold.

Your partner’s work-life affects your own

Of course, it’s not just our professional travails that wind up affecting our family life. Research shows that our partner’s experience at work affects us at home, and this in turn affects our behavior at work (and vice versa – that is, our working life affects our partner’s work). That “how was your day” conversation could have some unintended effects on you both if you’re not aware. For example, a German study of 114 dual-earning couples found that one person’s after-hours psychological detachment from work was associated with their partner’s own detachment from their work. Stated simply, if your other half finds it easy to switch off when they get home, then you will probably find it easier too, which is beneficial for your family and work life.

That “how was your day” conversation could have some unintended effects on you both if you’re not aware.

Similarly, if your partner comes home pumped from a good day, this will likely rub off on you, boosting your own work performance tomorrow. Researchers showed this in 2013 after asking a hundred more couples to keep diaries of their self-esteem when they got home from work, and then again just before bed. When a participant’s partner came home with high work-related self-esteem, by bedtime this had usually transferred to the spouse. These studies remind us to be considerate and sensitive when we return home. Our emotional baggage from work is highly contagious. Share your good news, by all means. But if you’re feeling stressed, try hard to unwind first before dumping out your stress, not just for your own sake, but for your partner’s too.

Your colleagues family-work interference affects your work

We read earlier that when our family and work lives clash, this is often followed by increased conflict at work. It follows logically that the same rule applies to our colleagues – if they have trouble juggling their domestic and professional lives, this is likely to have an adverse effect on us. Explicit evidence for this comes courtesy of a Dutch study of over a thousand pairs of employees. When one colleague in a pair struggled with work and family demands, this tended to go hand in hand with the other colleague experiencing more burn out (manifested as days off sick from work) and lower engagement with work (manifested as a desire to leave the organization). The precise reasons for this harmful contagion aren’t clear, but we can imagine that if a close colleague is struggling with family demands, this could mean picking up some of their slack and listening to their complaining.

What to do about it?

These findings remind us that we all influence each other – whether it’s partners at home or colleagues at work. If your colleague is struggling, this could hit you and filter through and harm your partner’s home and work life. Stress at home and at work are both contagious. And just like we can wash our hands to avoid illness, we can prevent our stress from rubbing off on one another. There’s a lesson here for all of us, and for managers in particular. By cultivating a supportive, flexible culture, we can reduce the likelihood of anyone getting swamped by work and family demands, and in so doing, we all gain.

Other practical steps come from research on psychological detachment – the ability to leave work-stress at the office. This is easier said than done, given that chronic time pressure and longer work hours mean less time at home. Which means we don’t get enough time to “detach.” In other words, mental detachment from work is hardest just when we need it most. Nonetheless, there are clear findings on how to help switch off from work: 

When you get home and find work-related thoughts encroaching on your mind, try focusing on what’s going well at work, and what you enjoy. It goes without saying – keep away from your work emails, especially last thing at night (it’s hard to detach when staring at that calendar invite). Also, fulfilling social activities and exercise have both been linked with effective psychological detachment. It sounds counter-intuitive but yet another study found that using spare time to complete unpaid volunteer work is particularly restorative, possibly because of the new skills and relationships that are formed. 

Finally, bear in mind other research that highlights the importance of using some of your non-work time to do what you enjoy and makes you happy – what you might think of as “me time”. The idea is that this helps you cope with your family and work responsibilities. The classic example would be the mother who goes to the gym or pool on the way home from work, arriving home in a better mood as a result. She subsequently enjoys her family responsibilities more, and in turn ends up being in a better frame of mind at work the next day, which has benefits for her family life, and so on. 

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Although you have many different roles in life, you are ultimately one and the same person, with limited time, energy and resources. If pressure is applied in one area of life, the consequences ripple outwards to other areas. The same is true for our partners and colleagues. By respecting this interconnectivity we have with each other, and across our different roles, we will all benefit.

How about you?

How do you keep work-you and home-you in balance?

More insights on: Well-being

Christian Jarrett

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Dr. Christian Jarrett seeks out exciting new research and showcases its relevance for life. A psychologist turned writer, he’s editor of the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blogcontributor to WIRED, and author of The Rough Guide to Psychology. On Twitter @Psych_Writer.
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