Are We Working to Get Away From Our Families?

The sun is setting. It’s chilly and lonely here in my sterile office – devoid of the usual hum of activity we hear five days a week.

It’s Sunday, and I’m in the office. Why am I here? There is a perfectly good office setup in my home, granted, with a couple of lively cats, but quite adequate. I’m not alone either. The car park has vehicles in double figures and I’ve seen two men working downstairs.

Likewise, two work emails have come in. (From men, if you’re interested.) As I contemplate each of these scenarios – plus a recent post in my feed celebrating the return to work “despite” family – I wonder:

Are we working to get away from our families?

This isn’t an attack on men. I myself have joined the ranks of the Sunday hustlers, and I too took to social media to announce cheerfully that I rather enjoyed Christmas sans family. So my question is this: are we trying to get away from our families, and should work be an outlet for this?

Locked down and locked up

There were a million and one studies during the pandemic and beyond as to the mental health impacts of working from home. Specifically, many workers reported the ill effects that home-schooling had on their wellbeing.

One Australian study of 1,296 adults reported that parents and caregivers had “significantly higher levels of psychological distress” during lockdowns compared to those with no school-aged children. (I feel compelled to add at this point that I myself have no human children, and that I love my husband dearly.)

Beyond the ankle-biters

But it’s not just children. The “sandwich generation” – those caring for older and younger relatives – showed significant mental health problems. A 2019 Guardian report revealed that one-third of 240,000 “sandwich carers” had anxiety or depression.

Meanwhile, the Royal Society for Public Health states that 41 per cent of people working from home with their housemates said it was worse for their health and wellbeing.

So what are we getting away from then, really? It comes as no surprise that I write this blog in the post-Christmas lull, when many people are feeling social fatigue. Is work really a healthy alternative to the back-breaking toll of human company?

Theory 1: They just don’t understand

Before 2022 rolled to a stop, I published a somewhat controversial LinkedIn post. I told the world (and not my family) that I loved this social network because I could be my “professional self”. What they know is the runt of the litter and magnet for ridicule, often underpinned by her own self-inflicted drunken shenanigans.

What they don’t know is the award winner, the public speaker, the business owner that has worked with some of the largest brands in the world. And is there any point in trying to introduce them to that person when they’d sooner know the clown they mock every Christmas?

Your vibe attracts your tribe (vom, sorry) and sometimes we feel a little bit more respected in a work setting.

Theory 2: A change (of scenery) is as good as a rest

Amy Hale PhD at Psychology Today notes the physiological responses of simply getting outside, from decreased arousal levels to faster emotional processing. “Consider how you gear up for the day ahead as you get ready in the morning and shift fully into ‘work mode’,” she tells us.

Indeed, getting out of the house can have untold benefits on our mental health. And let’s not forget the physical. In August 2021, the wonderful data visualisation extraordinaire Craig studied the effects of our sedentary lockdown lifestyles:

  • 891,753 fewer steps
  • 62,423 calories
  • 52 per cent less physical activity.

You can view the full infographic here. So, while we might not necessarily be escaping Peppa Pig or casually racist grandparents, we might appreciate the fresh air.

Theory 3: Work fulfils us in a way that our loved ones cannot

Is there a better feeling than hearing a child’s laughter? Probably not – but there are plenty of situations that might give us the same satisfaction, albeit in a different context. You made that child. High five. But did you make that amazing presentation? Did you win that client pitch?

We’re driven by four feel-good hormones: dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphins. Dopamine might be triggered by our reward systems, but oxytocin might be triggered by breastfeeding. Both are going to make us feel good, but not for the same reasons.

Does this denigrate the pleasures felt by being with family? Absolutely not. But should we feel guilty for getting fulfilment from other parts of our lives? Absolutely not.

There are countless studies into women’s identities as mothers – how they change or indeed ‘disappear’. Equally, there’s the notion that men might feel pressured to conform to the ‘breadwinner’ ideal after becoming parents. Is family driving their desire to work, rather than driving them away?

ice cream

Did I mention that ice cream also makes us feel good?

Finding the balance

Just as too much of anything can be a bad thing, be it work, exercise or substances, we need to understand our motivations. Many people enjoy their job and that is nothing to be ashamed of (plenty hate it too; we’ve all been there).

What’s key is to have a healthy relationship with work – and not use it as an escape, or medicinally, as we would alcohol. Let’s not forget that spending time with family can:

  • Take our minds off the stresses of work
  • Give us a different, unbiased perspective on work problems
  • Enrich us with laughter and nostalgia
  • Tickle those happy reward hormones.

Work is exhausting. Family is exhausting. So how can we find a balance between the two while making sure we’re fulfilled in every way?

Work on time management

When I feel overwhelmed, I like to stick to this simple time management table. Urgent, important, not urgent, etc. If we can use this in the workplace, why not in our home lives?

Be open about your boundaries

Families may feel they’re entitled to push boundaries because they’re close to you. If you value your work, don’t be ashamed of it – tell them that your time is precious and that you need to prioritise X right now, but you will make time for them. (This is common for the self-employed, where there’s a misconception that all time is free time.)

Think about what’s driving you at work

Are you getting those happy reward hormones when you complete tasks or are you driven by fear? Is stress motivating you? Do unrealistic deadlines and expectations keep the hamster wheel spinning? Sometimes it’s good to take a step back and evaluate this. Guess what – your family might just be there to help.

Remember why you’re there

Supporting a family isn’t the only reason we work. Having a family isn’t the only reason we live. Working isn’t the only reason we exist. We all have our own goals, aspirations and motivations. If that’s taking care of the ones you love, it’s all worth it.

The takeaway…

Take it from someone who’s been driven crazy by her family for more than 30 years. I hate them, and that is why I love them. Yes, I’m in the office right now. But sometimes it’s just nice to leave the house.

Katie Lingo
by Katie Lingo
8th January 2023