Keeping a healthy work-life balance was never easy, even before the pandemic. Digital technologies have long enabled us to be available and at work no matter where we are. On the other hand, it is enormously important for our mental and physical health to be able to switch off completely once in a while. During the past year, the corona crisis has made it even more difficult to draw the line between work and private life. According to a recent EU study, 30 percent of respondents in Austria say that their workload has increased during the pandemic. Across the EU, 27 percent of working individuals report that work also occupies their mind in their free time.
In a basic research project, teams of researchers from Slovenia and Austria are currently exploring the factors that cause people to worry about work-related issues in their free time. The researchers are interested in the kind of individual behaviour that contributes to flexible working schemes being more stressful and leading to burnout in the worst case. “Another central question in the project is whether exacting professional demands and the associated inability to finish all tasks result in work making inroads into people’s free time, and whether this is more likely to be the case with people prone to negative thought patterns,” reports Bettina Kubicek, a psychologist from the University of Graz and the principal investigator of this project.
Burnout fostered by negative thinking
“Previously, studies have only investigated the tendency to negative feelings in general. We have now developed new instruments and related this issue to the situation at work,” Kubicek explains in talking about her research approach. Initial results from surveys in companies and among German members of the workforce confirm what the researchers had suspected: negative thought patterns are related to burnout. Negative thoughts about one’s work can lead to considering one’s own performance as poor, to feeling inflexible, to comparing oneself with others and to overrating minor mistakes. Those who have negative thoughts also feel more emotionally exhausted and sometimes become cynical – two central aspects of burnout – in situations when they question the meaning of their own activities and their work. What the study also shows is that positive thoughts promote well-being and job commitment.
The project involves a diary study – currently ongoing – that provides further insights. Over the course of a working week, the participants are asked to note down at the beginning and end of a working day what emotional and cognitive stress factors they encountered at work and how well they were able to switch off from work. So far, the researchers have received 50 percent of the diary entries from the total number of 200 participants. As expected, the results show that time pressure and unfinished tasks are associated with negative thoughts about work during leisure time. “On the one hand, this suggests that working conditions are a causal factor, but negative thought patterns can reinforce this even more,” Kubicek explains. Such situations lead to a veritable vicious circle: those who tend to think negative thoughts find it harder to cope with heightened work demands, which in turn leads to negative emotions – even during off-work hours – and can ultimately end in burnout.
Counteracting stress through good planning
In order to avoid total exhaustion and inability to work, it is important to take countermeasures in good time – again, an aspect highlighted clearly in the research project. Therapists are conducting interventions such as mindfulness training or relaxation techniques with those affected. Bettina Kubicek emphasises that it is particularly important to set boundaries when dealing with stress, especially when working from home. People in home office should set up a fixed workplace and keep regular hours. Good time management and planning help one to work through individual tasks. This also involves communicating such boundaries to family members and people at work. Those who believe they have to be constantly available when working from home may well be mistaken. “Management often do not expect that at all,” Kubicek notes. It is all the more important therefore to clarify time schedules and expectations in one’s own environment.
Bettina Kubicek is Professor of Work and Organisational Psychology at the University of Graz. She studied psychology and sociology in Vienna and Berlin and was a visiting scholar at the University of Madison-Wisconsin and the University of Maribor. Her research focuses on the effects of the intensification and heightened flexibility in working life. The bilateral project “Work-home boundary management and burnout” is funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF and will run until the end of 2021.