Work Creep – How It Keeps Creeping In, and What to Do About It

How often over this past COVID year have you found yourself working when you really would have preferred spending time with family, friends, outside playing? Or are you longing for some quiet time? This is a common experience with many people representing how this last year has felt trying to find some “balance” between work and personal time.

It is critical for one’s mental agility and physical health to make sure time is dedicated away from work. As a leader in your organization, employees look to you to set the expectations, the accountability, and model ways of keeping the work creep reasonable.

The obvious question, then, is how to actually manage when work creeps into what feels like everything. Or how do you intentionally choose to work longer because a particular situation requires more time? In the latter, you are consciously making a choice while understanding the potential impacts.

Let’s take some time to contemplate the realities of this COVID year and how to set boundaries around daily work and personal time. Most everyone has had to work from home at some point over this past year. Some are still working at home. It’s easy for work creep to become part of a daily routine.

This work creep phenomena and its impact was part of a two-year study on 230 healthcare employees in the Netherlands, actually before COVID. The results completely fit for this point-in-time. The researchers studied how engaging in work-related activities beyond the normal work hours affected performance, creativity, and mental agility. In essence, if there is no time to replenish one’s energy through leisure and sleep, the capacity to optimally perform is reduced significantly.

The reality is some jobs are highly stressful. Deadlines, workload, or demands from corporate, a board of directors, and citizens can all compound, leading to work creep, resulting in feeling overwhelmed and stressed. All too quickly, you find yourself saying: “I think I’ll just do this one more thing, real quick.” That one more thing suddenly turns into the black hole, and another hour has passed. You know your brain, body, and spirit would have been better served by walking away from the computer and detaching from the work – and – “It’s just one more little thing…”

The Netherlands study found that if you finish work and still do “that one more thing,” it creates a pattern in your brain, making it much more difficult to truly detach. Stress rises. The body produces a hormone called cortisol. Sustained levels of chronic stress and the constant release of cortisol interrupts working memory and cognitive learning. Creativity diminishes. People become unmotivated, uncertain, and potentially lose their ability to lead others. Uncertainty, fear, anxiety, and risk aversion are potential products of high stress and cortisol levels.

It is critical to completely detach. Your work routine needs to include time to recover. What might that look like, you ask.

Here are ten suggestions from the Netherlands study and other stress experts:

  • Low-effort activities such as reading, listening to music, and watching television all help to detach.
  • Cooking, cleaning, caring for children centers the attention in the home and in connection with others. These connections are what contribute to sleep quality.
  • Completely turn off your computer before leaving your desk. Close the office door behind you and mentally end the work time.
  • There may not be a commute time anymore. Create a commute time transition. Go outside for a short walk before sitting down at your desk in the morning. At the end of the day, take another long walk or run some errands to transition.
  • Set real work hours – and – find an accountability buddy. They check in on you to make sure you finished work at your predesignated time.
  • Discover your high productivity periods of the day – then crank out the work: finish and move on to something else.
  • Stick to one project management app.
  • Don’t work in your pajamas.
  • Develop a morning routine and stick to it. Remember to keep your “commute time” as part of that regiment.
  • Get up from your desk and move around every hour – only 5 minutes is enough for your brain and body to away from the work creep effect to a state of relaxation and rejuvenation.

As a leader in your organization, it is critically important for you to set expectations that minimize work creep. Here are six additional suggestions for you to consider.

  • Have open and honest discussions with employees about how easy it is to let work creep in and how critical it is to stop working each day. Help them develop healthy boundaries around work.
  • During that discussion, create a definition of well-being and how to live it.
  • Understand what each employee’s unique needs are to stay engaged at work and their needs to fully detach.
  • Help those employees who have difficulty detaching find an accountability buddy to make sure they disconnect from their work.
  • Encourage employees to get up, get out, shut off the computer, and don’t take emails or texts after hours unless it’s an emergency.
  • Model by openly discussing how difficult it is to get caught in the work creep effect. Then explain what practices you have created for yourself to help detach.

Work creep is very common. Yes, it is necessary at times. More importantly, this creep can be minimized with some conscious effort. So start with asking yourself: “what do I need to feel energized, creative, healthy, and productive when I’m at work?” The answer is time away from work to regenerate. So make a plan to minimize work creep and find someone to support you in “walking away at the end of the day.” Then help your employees to the same. Employers Council can help; give us a call.