The Obliterated Boundaries Between Home and Work

I am an amateur history nerd, and love to read political and military histories in whatever precious little spare time that I have. Recently I was reading a short piece about the mental challenges soldiers often have after they leave the battlefield. After Vietnam, and through to present day, we refer to it as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. In prior wars, the condition went by other names… “combat fatigue” (World War 2), “shell shock” (World War 1), and “soldiers’ heart” or (believe it or not) “nostalgia” (Civil War). 

Much of the research suggests that the incidence of PTSD after Vietnam was considerably higher, and lasted years longer, than in most previous wars. And one of the reasons often cited was the abrupt transition back into normal life when soldiers returned home from the battlefield. For example, after World War 2, soldiers were often (but not always) discharged by unit, as a group, and almost always returned home by ship, sometimes taking weeks to make it from the war theater back to the dining room table. During and after Vietnam, soldiers were often discharged individually, and returned home by airplane, sometimes taking only 72 hours to make it from the war theater back to the dining room table.

Before I go any further, let me make it clear that I am no expert in either history or psychology. I am well aware that there are many variables that contribute to the important and complicated issue of battlefield PTSD. But what caught my attention in this comparison was the role that an abrupt transition may have played in the lasting psychological impact of the experience. The shorter and more abrupt the transition time, the more likely that psychological impacts will be carried through from one experience to the next. When the boundaries between one experience to the next are too short, or non-existent, the brain has no time to transition, put things into context, and get ready for the next experience.

I have been thinking a lot lately about how the dramatic changes to our work lives over the last eighteen months have impacted our overall experience. And one of the things I am hearing over and over and over from people I am coaching and training, is that the boundaries between their work lives and their home lives have been obliterated… and that the impact of that has been huge. When working from home, there is no commute, and thus no transition time. We move from home to work and back again in the amount of time it takes to sit down in a chair and turn on a machine. When working from home, and always on video, we are literally welcoming colleagues and clients into our homes. They see us in our living rooms or at our kitchen tables, and they see and hear our pets or our kids in the background.

Suddenly there are no transitions or boundaries between one part of our life and another. It all bleeds together. So it should be no surprise that many people are feeling the impact of those obliterated boundaries.

There are certainly many benefits to the work-from-home model. My team has thrived. But just like anything else, every new reality brings new issues, both positive and negative. So while I hear lots of people loving the flexibility and the lack of commuting time, I hear an equal number of people struggling with the fact that their work life has suddenly overwhelmed their home life. There is no boundary anymore. There is no transition time at the beginning or the end of the day. Commuting is rarely fun. But there is some benefit to having a short commute to get your head ready for the day, and to decompress and leave it behind at the end. For many people, none of that exists anymore.

The point here is that, as a business community, we are continuing to learn the true impacts of our new work-from-home reality as we progress further into this new experience. And while I see major benefits to this new reality, all of us should be clear that it is not all positive. We need to be looking at what the new reality creates, and the new issues it causes, and do our best to adjust accordingly.

For example, once you become aware of the impacts of the loss of transition time because you may no longer have to commute, and once you start to feel the impact of the eliminated boundaries, it may make sense to try to build some of that back into your experience. I often sit outside or walk around the neighborhood for 20 minutes before I put my work day to rest. Those few minutes have a big impact on my ability to put my day behind me so that I can spend the evening fully present for my family.

Many people and teams are thriving in this new reality. And at least as many are still adjusting. Good business leaders should lead the charge in acknowledging that, and giving their teams room to talk about it and compensate accordingly.

Have a great day.

Does your team:
– Take too long to make decision?
– Fail to ask for what it wants or needs from you?
– Make things too complicated?
– Deliver unconvincing or disorganized presentations?
– Have new hires who are unprepared to communicate in the workplace?

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Dean Brenner

A book about change

The Latimer Group’s CEO Dean Brenner is a noted keynote speaker and author on the subject of persuasive communication. He has written three books, including Persuaded, in which he details how communication can transform organizations into highly effective, creative, transparent environments that succeed at every level.