Midlife mishap: blurring the boundaries between work and home

Posted by on Dec 7, 2012 in aging, work, Work/occupation | 3 comments

Telecommuting is the new black, right?

Not so fast.

Researchers say that while telecommuting (i.e. working regularly but not exclusively at home) has gained traction in the American workplace, the foothold remains elusive and the proportion of workers with flexible work options has been essentially flat over the past decade and a half. Additionally, the number of hours that workers actually telecommute on a weekly basis is less than one full day, a mere six hours. Although the reasons for this are numerous, it appears that managers remain reluctant to relinquish supervisory control, even though on average, telecommuters work harder and longer than their colleagues who are tied to their office chairs.

Do the math: Fewer telecommuting hours still equates to longer working hours.

What this brings to mind is the potential impact that telecommuting has on our lives outside of work, especially when work takes place at home? And how does this impact in turn, affect stress, which of course, has been linked to worsening of menopausal symptoms such as weight gain, hot flashes and depression?

I have been working at home for 20 years now, having started a business in 1992. While I am not a telecommuter, I am very aware of the black hole that one can fall into and how that has affected my ability to shut it down after a certain time of day. This ability has grown more difficult the more connected the world is and I find that I am consistently interrupted by clients during gym workouts, breaks, early morning coffee reentries and late day ratchet down.

Data demonstrate that my experience is often the norm and not the exception.

Let’s take a look at what the research shows. Analyzing trends from two national data sources — the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 Panel and the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Study — Sociology Professors Mary Noonen and Jennifer Glass from the University of Texas at Austin learned that while the number of weekly telecommuting hours is relatively modest (just 6 hours, per above), most of the 30% of respondents who work from home add at least five to seven hours to their work week. In fact, 50% to 67% of telecommuting hours reported in these surveys push work hours past the 40 hour workweek model and are essentially overtime work. Just think: if you feel that you are already pushed to the brim in the office and volley for work at home hours, you may actually be relocating hours but not eliminating them. Moreover, your employer may be raising his or her expectations not only of what you deliver but when, including evenings and weekends.

Study findings also show that there is a misconception that telecommuting is more prevalent among parents with dependent children. In fact, parents are not likelier than the general population to work from home; rather authority and status in the workplace appear to drive telecommuting hours.

The researchers note that “telecommuting is intrinsically linked to information technologies that facilitate 24/7 communication between clients, coworkers and supervisors [thereby] potentially increasing the penetration of work tasks into home time.” A 2008 Pew Study supports this contention, demonstrating that the majority of ‘wired workers’ use technology to perform work tasks, even while sick or on vacation.

The perils run deep when the boundaries become blurry between work and home. Moreover, over wired means overload, and the ability to shut off our brains becomes increasingly difficult. Adrenal fatigue may set in, where after prolonged periods of cortisol production overdrive, the adrenal glands can no longer keep up with outside stressors and the body’s demand to handle stress and protect the immune system. In turn, the ability to handle life stressors declines.

Do blurred boundaries yield diminishing returns, midlife mishaps, a mishmash of expectations?

What do you think?




  1. 12-8-2012

    I’ve been freelancing, which is a form of telecommuting, for nearly 20 years now. The fact is that clients, like small children, will eat you alive IF you allow them to. And they will also respect your boundaries IF you consistently and respectfully set boundaries. I turn my phone off when I am at lunch, or the gym; I don’t respond to emails that come in during the evening (until 5 am, which, for me, is super productive time.) 
    If it seems hard to hold this line for your own mental health, consider that if you were with another client, Client 2 (instead of the gym) Client 1’s experience of you not answering your phone would be exactly the same. You would simply call back when you could, not in the middle of your meeting.
    When you make these decisions in your own best interest, telecommuting becomes extraordinarily productive and peaceful–and efficient. You work when you’re at your peak, whenever that is; you can shop when stores are empty; you work hard when there is a lot of work and can rest and enjoy when it throttles back. 
    It is very much a choice, how we experience a mixed home/work life.

    • 12-8-2012

      @mamieduff You are absolutely right; it is about setting boundaries. But those boundaries are becoming increasingly blurry the more interconnected everyone is. When I first started freelancing, the global internet was in its infancy, land lines were still the rule and expectations were different. That has changed. And, for a worker who only works at home one day a week, it’s hard to change old habits. I think that it’s become very complicated. And it’s always critical to look at the entire picture so that you can find that productivity and peace and efficiency.

      • 12-8-2012

        @Liz It’s complicated, and it took me a long time to get to the spot where it feels simple most of the time. I remember the early years, when Every Single Time I arranged a vacation or other family or me-time commitment, a great job would come knocking, and it was hard to turn them down; I thought I might never work again. However, for what it’s worth, I did find that over time, if I just stuck to my guns, the work continued to flow around my home and life priorities. Probably I could be a lot more successful in my work if I changed priorities. But for me, the balance has been worth the boundaries. 
        One thing that really helped was noticing that the very most successful people I know–the Vice Presidents of whatever, the killer entrepreneurs. People who are doing really well in business, many of them men. They are actually the ones who seem to have the most control of their time and most focus on having fun in life. It’s eye-opening when you realize they didn’t get where they are through sheer hard work and hours.

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