Separating Work-life from Home-life during COVID-19

Nina Bartmann; Senior Behavioral Researcher, Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted our lives in many ways. Whether it’s in a physical, emotional, or social sense, we now have to make changes in our lives in order to prevent the spread of the virus. These changes can be scary and could make the days appear longer, stressful, and chaotic.

Personally, my days seem to blend; times of day, eating schedules, and even the distinction between weekdays and weekends has become blurry.

But how did we go from living our daily lives with a clear separation between work-life and home-life to feeling like Saturday is the new Wednesday? And most importantly, how can we restore this important separation despite a lack of physical distance for the sake of our mental wellbeing? I will be sharing some insights on the benefits of our often dreaded daily commute on our mental wellbeing, and an easy, 5-step solution based on these commuting benefits to help you successfully establish work-life boundaries when the home is the new office.


The Benefits of a Daily Commute    

Before the pandemic, I biked to work. A great way to get fresh air and some exercise both in the morning, and after work. What I enjoyed the most about my commute, however — and I’m sure this resonates with many of you — is that it provided me with both a mental and a physical separation from work.    

Those 20 minutes on my bike in the evening gave me time to do two important things: (1) to decompress after a long day at work, and (2) to look forward to being home.

The first part of my bike ride I would spend sorting my thoughts. What went well at work? What did I accomplish? Some colleagues use their commute to plan their to-dos for the next day, while others go over meeting notes, or review their schedule for the next day. Whatever it is that you do at the end of your workday, it compartmentalizes work, and frees up mental energy and capacity for the rest of the evening.

During the second part of my bike ride, I’d think about home. I’d ponder my dinner choices, consider what movie I might want to watch, or the order in which I’m going to call my girlfriends. This second part of the commute mentally prepared me for being home. It can help us look forward to being greeted by family, playing with our children, and yet it sometimes makes us dread the load of laundry we forgot to deal with on the previous day. Whether pleasant or not (and I hope most of these longings are pleasant), we mentally prepare for what is about to happen when we walk through the front door.

Once you walk through that front door, work is not only physically distant, but you have mentally squared it away in order to devote your energy to home life.


Working from Home

Of course, this routine is no longer part of my day now that my home has become my workplace. This daily commute that gave me time for both reflection and planning is gone. Instead of getting on my bike, I move from my kitchen table to my living room.

While it is true that some of us save a considerable amount of time without the commute, the lines between work-life and home-life become blurry. Due to a lack of physical distance between work and home, it has become ever more tempting to pull up your laptop late at night or on the weekends. Work never seems to be completed. Over the past weeks, I have come to find myself answering emails, working on a brief, or writing down ideas late at night.

The lack of separation between work-life and home-life is not conducive to mental wellbeing. However, all hope is not lost. I’ve devised a 5-step solution to help myself and others successfully establish work-life boundaries when the home is the new office. With these five steps you can restore a clear distinction between work-life and home-life, while also boosting energy and quality time with family.


The 5-step solution 

Step 1 - Put your Work Materials Aside

At the end of the workday, take concrete steps to physically distance yourself from your work, even if that means just hiding it. Personally, I very consciously close my laptop, and put it in a backpack with my notepad where I won’t see it and be reminded of work until the next morning. If you have a dedicated office in your home, leave and close the door behind you. Lock it, if you must! Any source of friction between you and your work will help establish that necessary boundary. Whatever your home situation looks like, the important part is that you create space between your work and your home.

Step 2 - Change your Clothes

Regardless of what you have been wearing during the day, your clothes will remind you of work. By putting on something else, your new outfit will be associated with your new priority: your personal life. Change into something comfortable, put on your shoes and jacket, and head outside. 


Step 3 - Spend Time Outside

Spend time outside, alone or with your kids, partner or roommate. It doesn’t matter what you do — jogging, biking or going for a walk — but it matters that you do something you enjoy. Strive to just get out the door at least once a day, and if you make it to 30 minutes, even better. I have discovered a new joy for audiobooks while running, but on rainy days, for example, I prefer to take a walk around the neighborhood while calling my grandmother on the phone. The important part is that you spend time outside, away from your home.


Step 4 - The Benefit of Exercise

Whether you are walking, biking or jogging, you are not only getting exercise, but you are spending time outside, soaking up Vitamin D, and getting some quality time with family (be it physically or over the phone). In addition, your time outside, just like the commute, provides you with the mental and physical separation from work.

Step 5 - Coming Home

You are finally home! After time spent outside, you get to walk through that front door without having to worry about work. Enjoy your evening! 


Using this easy, 5-step solution, you will successfully restore work-life boundaries during a time when the home is the new office. Taking concrete steps to physically distance yourself from your work at the end of the day, spending time outside, and soaking up Vitamin D, gives you back time for both reflection and planning and, importantly, it puts you in charge of your mental wellbeing again. Never do your weekends have to feel like a weekday ever again!