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Work Mode to Home Mode

By: Paul LaChance, PhD, LPC

Transitioning from work to home can be difficult. For some it is a time of heightened anxiety. Clinicians have noticed that many of a couple’s most heated and sometimes violent arguments occur during this crucial time of transition. Intuitively we might image that exhaustion, hunger and stressful commutes, along with left-over negative feelings from work itself, contribute to the heightened tension and risk of explosions at home. But psychologists have begun to suspect something else. Moving from work to home is not simply a change in location. It is a transition from one world with its rules, expectations, roles and requisite skills to another world in which everything is different. Studies suggest that a blurring of work and family roles is associated with lower levels of psychological well-being and negative reports of marital satisfaction. Work and home are distinct because of what counts as important in each domain. What counts as important at work is, well, “what works”—what brings in the most revenue. Decision making is often hierarchical and flows in one direction. Often what counts as good in the interactions among family members is not what works but what is beautiful. The refrigerator in many homes is a gallery dedicated to the value of creative endeavors that win no prizes and earn no lesser accolades than parental love. What counts as good is time spent (quality time) that serves no utilitarian purpose. Decision making is less shared and flows in several directions. The worlds of work and home are distinct not simply because of the rules and roles that constitute each, but because of what the members cherish, because of the patterns of feelings and emotions that are expected and appropriate, and because of the values that define each world as a unique sphere of human living. During the time of transition individuals may experience the demands to notice precisely what they had been ignoring for the previous eight hours yet be unable to meet those demands. The economic personality is called upon to see, to feel, to think, to care and to act in a world which it only perceives dimly, at a distance and as a foreigner. One way to help ease the transition from work-mode into family-mode is to make use of specific routines that help the body and mind to adjust. Couple therapists encourage clients to develop boundary marking habits and rituals of connection that mark and ease the transition from work to home. These include:

  • Physical reminders to leave work at work, such as taking off work badges and removable insignia or uniforms

  • Values-informed scheduling, for example, blocking-off “family-time” or “date-night” on the calendar

  • Self-Care and relaxation

    • Admire nature

    • Listen to music

    • Take a walk or Park as far from the building as possible

    • Meditate and pause for a few deep relaxing breathes

    • Say a brief prayer

    • Shower or bathe

  • Rituals of re-connection with loved ones, such as a long hug or a six-second kiss (which marriage therapist John Gottman calls “a kiss with possibilities”)

  • A strategic meeting with a spouse on ‘neutral ground’ like a restaurant or café.

In a time when for many people ‘work’ and ‘home’ are the same place, shifting gears may be an even more challenging task. Couples who do not even notice the difference between the two worlds are at greatest risk for conflict or emotional disengagement. Individuals who work from home may have to become creative. For example:

  • ‘Commute’ to and from work by walking around the block or to a favorite coffee shop

  • Maintain a dedicated workspace in the house that you can leave and forget about

  • Set an alarm that sounds at the end of your day or shift

  • Change into and out of work clothes (imagine, if you are old enough, Fred Rogers changing his sweater and shoes!)

Above all couples are encouraged to talk together about home-work boundaries, and what each needs during the period of transition.

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