The Covid-19 pandemic has triggered huge changes in both our personal and professional lives, and for many of us one of the biggest has been that of seeing the two merge together as we've moved from working at a desk in the office to working from our own kitchen tables. Working from home - or WFH - has allowed companies and workers to stay on the job despite lockdowns and social distancing. But this 'new normal' also brings with it the risk of encouraging us to devote unhealthy and unsustainable amounts of time and energy to our jobs, making the already blurred lines between our working and our private lives so blurred that they barely exist at all.
It's a situation which our productivity-obsessed society and constant connectedness make increasingly likely, and which the Covid-driven growth in WFH has only exacerbated. A recent study of WFH in the Italian public sector since the start of the pandemic showed how it tended to decrease both the physical and psychological boundaries between private and working life, producing positive effects in terms of mobility and productivity but also an increase in work-related stress and conditions like that of workaholism.
Despite its ubiquity in popular culture, there has been little scientific study of the figure of the workaholic, which makes identification of the condition difficult. Although there is no generally accepted medical definition, a workaholic is usually interpreted as meaning someone who is addicted to working the way another person might be addicted to gambling or to alcohol, and who works compulsively even at the cost of their health, relationships and personal happiness. Clues that someone might be a workaholic include their repeatedly prioritising work over their personal obligations, their making themselves overly available to coworkers, or their denying coworkers information they need in order to work autonomously, insisting instead on maintaining control of the situation personally. A workaholic will struggle to admit they have a problem and will rarely reveal the actual motives behind their behaviour: the way they tell it, they're just working hard in order to get the job done or because their coworkers aren't pulling their weight.
Fundamentally, the line separating a hard worker from a workaholic comes down to the extent to which a person is willing to let their job spill over into their personal life – and that is something which WFH makes far more likely.
For those of us who feel we may be at risk, experts recommend taking some small steps to help keep the situation in check.
The first is to draw up a clear work schedule which breaks down your day and delineates a start and a finish time – and to try, as much as possible, to stick to it. Next, if you can, create a dedicated space that you use specifically for work and which is separate from the parts of your home where you socialize: it's extremely important to maintain a physical border between work and the rest of your life. If you don't have the room to create a separate space, try repositioning furniture and objects when you start and finish work in order to create a distinction. And if possible, avoid working in your bedroom – associating a place of rest with work can make it hard to switch off at the end of the day and get a good night's sleep.
And most importantly of all, remind yourself that it's unrealistic to try and get everything done. Learn to walk away from your work when you've put in the hours you scheduled, even if everything hasn't been completed to your satisfaction. Turning off the computer and doing something enjoyable and absorbing which has nothing to do with your job is the best way of reinforcing the boundaries that Working from Home risks eroding.