When work intrudes into family time
A guest post by Helen Beedham on 5 ways to negotiate work/family boundaries harmoniously at home.
Have you ever tried to send a ‘quick’ work email during family time and half an hour later, you’re cross because multiple interruptions mean you’ve barely typed a full sentence, your children are cross because you’re no longer listening to them and your partner is cross because you’ve seemingly checked out?
Since the pandemic ripped up old working patterns and brought hybrid working, flexible working and home-working into the mainstream, many parents have welcomed greater autonomy over how, when and where we work. But one challenge has mushroomed exponentially as a result: how to manage the unwanted invasion of work time into family time. Drawing boundaries between work and home feels so much harder today but there are some effective ways we can negotiate with our families and regain control of our time in a way that restores household harmony.
If it feels like work has never been so busy, it’s not just you. Studies have shown that ‘work intensification’ is a genuine and widespread phenomenon and has been increasing steadily in the UK, by around 20% since 2001. Additionally, the UK has among the longest working hours in Europe and overwork is common. In a survey I ran in November 2020, working professionals told me that most of their ‘normal’ working hours were spent ‘dealing with incoming demands day to day’, closely followed by ‘participating in calls and meetings’. For many, ‘the real work gets done outside of working hours’… which generally means at home and during family time. So it’s genuinely difficult to switch off when we walk out of our home office or in through the front door.
When we are juggling work and family time, switching constantly between these two aims doesn’t work well for family relationships and often results in confused children, an impatient partner/co-carer (I’ll use ‘partner’ for short from here on) and our own mounting stress levels. Dipping in and out doesn’t work well for our brains either – the frequent attentional switching drains our mental energy, impairs our cognitive functioning and leaves us feeling even more depleted. Our brains need extended periods of focused attention without distractions in order to work efficiently. So, our goal here is to broker a more productive, less disruptive arrangement that works better for everyone: we get our work done efficiently in peace, our children understand we’ll be back in play sooner, and our partner is actively supportive.
How do we achieve this? Well, our time choices are highly interdependent i.e. what one of us does with our time affects other family members too. This means we can’t manage all the demands on our time and attention singlehandedly without it impacting others so we have to discuss these competing priorities with our families and negotiate openly to find a win-win arrangement that meets everyone’s needs (note that this applies equally to finding some downtime for ourselves). The language we use when negotiating will obviously vary depending on whether we’re speaking to our partner or our children; years ago an au pair once told me how she explained to her young charges that her bedroom in the house was like a shop, sometimes it was ‘open’ and they could visit, at other times it was ‘closed’ and she wasn’t available. It was a simple but effective way to establish the boundaries around her working time and discourage unwanted interruptions.
5 ways to negotiate work/family boundaries
Here are 5 negotiation steps to follow – the order matters:
- Push back on any unrealistic deadlines at work before you commit to them. Research from Harvard finds that just under half of important work deadlines are typically adjustable without any adverse consequences, and that contrary to our assumptions, managers often care more about quality than speed.
- Open the conversation by first asking your partner what time they need for themselves this evening/weekend. Check your understanding by saying ‘I’m hearing it’s important for you to do X and I’d like to help make that happen’. This reassures them you’re listening, you’re supportive and you want to work together as a team.
- Explain what you also want to do and ask if you can explore together a plan that enables you both to get your work done. As part of this you might both agree to put work away for a specific window of family time for some quality child-free time together.
- If your mutual requests clash horribly, emotions are running high or you’re spiralling into an argument, try asking ‘help me to understand what really matters to you here?’ This shifts the tone and the dynamic of the conversation onto a more compassionate footing. For more on this, psychology expert Alice Sheldon’s book Why weren’t we taught this at school? is a brilliant guide to communicating about our basic human needs that lie beneath every difficult interaction.
- Once you’ve found a way forward with your partner, the next step is to agree the deal with your child(ren). Tell them you want to give them your full attention so you can both enjoy XYZ together and emphasise how much this matters to you. Then explain that it’s also important to you that you do your work well and help your client/colleague. Ask them how they feel about your plan, acknowledge any concerns and reassure them that you’ll still get to do XYZ together. Putting your phone or laptop in a bag or drawer when you’ve finished work can be a powerful visual signal.
There’s no silver bullet or magic app that will instantly fix our time pressures at home or at work – it takes effort and commitment to change our mindset and habits, but some things do help. Look out for the cues or triggers that tend to lead to you working during family time; start by trialling a small, frequent change; and be open about your new plan with family, colleagues, your boss and clients – if they don’t know, they can’t buy into it.
And finally, accept the messiness: don’t feel guilty about not getting this right every time, just experiment and see which new approaches work out better. It’s also a great opportunity to role model concentrating well on our work (aka homework) and taking a break from our digital devices, and to teach our children time management skills that’ll help them when they eventually become time-pressed parents themselves.
This is a guest post by Helen Beedham. Helen Beedham writes, speaks and advises clients on creating workplaces where everyone can flourish. She is author of the Amazon best-selling business book The Future of Time: how ‘re-working’ time can help you boost productivity, diversity and wellbeing and host of The Business of Being Brilliant podcast. Her short, time-friendly programme Time For The Things That Matter helps people to transform the way they think about, and spend, their time.