Mess stress puts your mental health at risk, survey confirms

With mixed messages from government around returning to the office, new data from a Kantar survey shows that 43% of workers will continue to work from home at least some of the time after the pandemic, compared to just 31% pre-pandemic. Diana Spellman, The Realistic Home Organisation Expert and founder of Serenely Sorted, believes now is that time to address the elephant in the room around the impact of home working on staff mental wellbeing, as hybrid working looks set to continue for the long term and research reveals that a huge proportion of us are suffering from ‘mess stress’.

Diana, 48, from Cheshire, knows too well the challenges of working from home, having done so for the past four years, and has suffered personally as a result of ‘mess stress’ as her worklife and homelife merged, leading to her experience anxiety and stress building up daily until she felt overwhelmed, uneasy and completely distracted by her working environment. She has just released the results of a nationwide survey she has conducted with Kantar to explore this issue, and found that just like her, 82% of us have experienced ‘mess stress’* at some point in our lives, with nearly half of respondents (44%) reporting that they experienced it at least weekly. 

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Diana said: “This confirms what we’ve all experienced during lockdown – that a messy home is a stressy home!  If we don’t have boundaries for our work space and our relaxing space our brains can’t function properly in either environment and this leads to overwhelm and anxiety.”. She added: “Whilst this may not be a huge surprise to those of us who have been working from home this past year, and both workers and employers have just done what they could to get through it, with this new data and other surveys confirming that hybrid working is here to stay: post pandemic, do we now need to get our houses in order to ensure home workers can both focus on work and switch off once it’s done – for the long term?”

“There’s just stuff everywhere and it gets me down and I struggle to prioritize work”

Her survey revealed that only 40% of those working from home having a dedicated desk or office, with the rest making do with a shared space such as the kitchen or dining table (29%) or the bedroom (31%). 

“It distracts me from being productive.”

Diana said: “Without mechanisms in place to ensure that the work stuff is put away at the end of the day, the lines between work and home life get even more blurred than they already were, with the danger that we will be ‘always on’ and unable to fully switch off from our day jobs at night.”

Added to that, with two thirds (64%) of workers saying a messy desk reduces their productivity or causes distractions, what can be done to help us keep focused and delete this debris distraction? 

“I’m more focused on the mess than I am my work”

Diana is a huge advocate of finding ‘end homes’ for things as a way of reducing our mess as well as making subtle behaviour changes that enable us to eliminate some of it completely – but it seems not many of us have such systems in place. With few (<10%) using one of the well-known home organization methods – Diana wonders if this comes down to overwhelm around the Insta perfect homes and the expectations we have of such solutions? Results showed that there is a high demand for a home organization solution that is not intimidating, and can be sustained over time, with three quarters (76%) of people being likely to adopt such a system.

“No peace of mind as it’s always at the back of your head”

Diana said: “What’s clear from these results is just how much of an issue mess stress is – whilst I knew the figures would be high these levels have surprised me. What’s also been revealed is that people want a realistic way of keeping their homes organized that they aren’t finding right now.  Much of what people see in terms of home organization tends to be the TV worthy stuff – the likes of perfectly matching pantries and crayons sorted into colours.  Life’s not like that for most of us – we just want something that’s not overwhelming and can slot into our lives in easy bitesized steps”

When looking at which aspects of a home organization system are important, ‘realistic expectations’ and ‘practical and functional’ came out top with 85/84% agreeing they would value these.

There has been a lot of focus by companies on providing Staff Wellness Benefits over the past year and in general, with such programmes offering a wide and varied selection of support systems for mental health and beyond.  Plus, with salary budgets tight, this is one way employers can differentiate.  48% of those employed in the survey worked for companies offering such benefits.

Given the impact of mess on our ability to concentrate on work, and its impact on our mental health, and the fact that there is high demand for realistic, sustainable home organization methods, the conclusion is clear: 79% of workers would be likely to take up the offer of a programme that would help reduce the mess distraction and enable them to relax at home more.

Having lived in Hong Kong and then moved between five countries in five years, Diana appreciated the minimalist look – and having a place for everything.  But when settled back into her forever home, as a naturally messy person, the piles started to build up and led to feelings of chaos. An operations systems/process improvement expert by trade she set to finding a solution to this problem as working from home she just couldn’t relax during her rare and precious free time and resented spending it always on housework – something had to change.

She was not pulled towards the ‘turn your house upside down’ decluttering approach because it just didn’t feel realistic, so instead, she set about creating her own system – the unique Serenely Sorted System, initially for herself – to transform the way she behaved around her things to eliminate those piles, reduce time spent tidying – and get rid of that nagging voice in her head. She is now on a mission to help others who are busy and mess stressed change their habits to help them find more peace and time to relax in their homes.

She said: “With over 59% of households spending more than 30 minutes per day tidying, it’s time we start to encourage some changes!  There are so many benefits to adopting ways of eliminating mess at home.  We free up hours of time for ourselves, reduce the distractions that impact our productivity and ability to focus on work and have a really practical way of improving our mental health.  It’s a win win all round for both individuals and employers navigating the new work/life blend.  And of course we get tidier homes!  So perhaps in this case we can all have our cake and eat it (in a tidy kitchen)!”

Diana has a free facebook group where she shares tips and advice on how to get Serenely Sorted and her three top tips for sorting the work/life merge stress include:-

  • Become aware of the ‘daily debris’ in your home

Because this is what causes the mess stress, not the box of old toys under the bed.  The things out on our surfaces are what trigger us, be it the work laptop left out overnight pinging as emails come in, or the pile of paper that you haven’t got round to sorting, but you know probably contains an unpaid bill.  Note down your top three mess makers and create ‘End Homes’ for them – a place where they will live.  Then for the next week mindfully always return those things to their End Homes every day and it will start to form a habit and begin to move your surfaces from stressful to serenity.

  • If you are working in the living room or bedroom, pack up your stuff at the end of the day

If you don’t have a designated working space and need to use the kitchen table or the bedroom (as 60% of those working from home in our survey do), but don’t clear it at the end of the day, it’s very difficult to switch off from work.  I use a large tote bag for my work stuff – it fits laptop, notebooks, chargers etc.  It’s very easy and quick then to get this out and put it back in the bag at the end of the day in what I call the ‘Use-in-one-move’ approach.  This avoids the endless moving of piles from one place to another, or the temptation to just leave everything out and be triggered by that email ping.

  • Start thinking about your behaviour around your stuff and begin to cut out the mess middleman

Think about the things you tend to plonk down when you come in.  Pick just one to start with and decide that it has an End Home.  For example, get a basket and put your handbag in it.  Next time you go out, take it from that basket and – the important bit – put it straight back there after – bypassing the kitchen worktop.  Congratulations – you have just eliminated mess from your life!

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