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Stronger boundaries between work and personal life can reduce stress

Researchers say having time to unplug from work can be beneficial for consumers’ personal lives

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Photo (c) Viktoriia Hnatiuk - Getty Images
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many consumers to work from home, making it much harder to truly unplug from their jobs at the end of the day. However, even pre-pandemic, it was difficult for consumers to separate their work lives from their personal lives. 

Now, a new study conducted by researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that boundaries are key. Employees who have strong boundaries around work and personal time were less likely to be stressed out at the end of the work day -- regardless of work-related notifications. 

“Most people simply can’t work without a smartphone, tablet, or laptop computer,” said researcher YoungAh Park. “These technologies are so ubiquitous and convenient that it can lead some people to think that employees have to always be on or always available. Clearly, this kind of after-hours intrusion into the home or personal life domain is unhealthy, and our research shows that an always-on mentality has a big downside in the form of increased job stress.” 

More boundaries, less stress

The researchers interviewed 500 elementary school teachers, a group that researchers have previously found to struggle with having a strong work-life balance. 

Park explained that the survey questions focused on how the teachers handled after-work notifications. How often were they receiving texts or emails after school ended? Did they feel compelled to answer such messages immediately? 

The researchers learned that boundaries are crucial in lowering stress levels after work for several reasons. When the teachers were able to put work to rest at the end of the day, they were less likely to ruminate on stressful events or worry about what’s coming the next day. 

Moreover, having supportive managers or supervisors can help employees keep stronger boundaries at the end of the work day. The researchers found that teachers were more likely to hold onto their personal boundaries when they felt supported in this way. 

“When you have supportive leaders who model behaviors for work-life balance and work effectively with employees to creatively solve work-life conflicts, that translates into less stress for teachers through boundary control,” said Park. 

Unplugging from work

The researchers recommend turning off notifications for work-related emails so that consumers can have some separation at the end of the day -- for teachers or employees in any field. This helped the teachers in the study not only be more productive, but it enacted a chain reaction that helped co-workers stick to their own personal boundaries. 

“Managing your work-life balance through boundary control is not only helpful for you and your family, it also could be a benefit for your co-workers, because they also have to potentially read and respond to the back-and-forth messages that people are sending after the workday is done,” said researcher Yihao Liu. 

“Setting a good boundary between work and regular life is going to help more people and more stakeholders. Overall, it’s critical that individuals manage their work-life boundaries for their own health and well-being, but also for their own productivity and their colleagues’ productivity.”  

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