Healthy ways to set boundaries at work to avoid burnout

October, 19th, 2018
Avoid burnout

50 years ago, most of our boundaries regarding work were made for us. Religious institutions insisted that at least one day a week be reserved for rest. Work was limited to specific hours because of office/factory opening times. Meetings and communication were restricted to office hours because we didn’t have instant, digital methods of contact.

We didn’t have to think about work-life balance because all of these boundaries were enforced for us.

In today’s workplace none of these boundaries are enforced for us and in my experience, the people who survive best in this environment are the ones who are able to set effective boundaries for themselves. Those who try to be always on, always working and always responding may do well in the short term, but eventually they burn out. If you don’t create balance, your body will eventually find a way of forcing you to come to balance.

Setting healthy boundaries is our responsibility nowadays and it opens up a great opportunity in allowing us to work in our most effective ways and to fit around our personal circumstances. When we accept this responsibility, we give ourselves permission to create necessary boundaries that make for more sustainable and enjoyable work.

Here are 7 ideas for setting healthy boundaries at work, that will still allow you to excel at what you do.

Be consistent, not always on

Your clients and colleagues may like it if you’re always available to answer their emails and action their requests but this isn’t a healthy way to work because it gets in the way of your work priorities and stops you appreciating the personal time you do have.

At one point after having my daughter, I was working 3 days a week (9.30-4.30), which isn’t ideal from a client perspective. I worked with this situation however by being available during these working hours and then checking emails/doing work for an hour at 8pm in the evening. Clients didn’t worry if I hadn’t replied to an email they sent at 5pm because they knew when I would next be looking at my emails.

Be clear and consistent about when you are available to work and this routine will make it easier for others to work with you.

Be clear on your priorities

It’s so important to be clear on your priorities because this allows you to negotiate your boundaries with others. If someone asks you to help on a piece of work, you can either say yes (because you have the time or it supports your priorities) or no because you’re clear on what you need to do that week and how long it will take you to do.

Scheduling 30 minutes at the start of the week (perhaps a Sunday evening or Monday morning) will help you to be clear on your priorities and what you need to achieve that week. Think about what you need to do, how long it will take and plan that out across the week. You should then have some idea of your capacity and free time. If you’re over stretched, think about asking for support with clear business reasons for why you need it.

Help others when you are able

If you’re under stretched, it’s also important to help other people when you can. People will respect your boundaries more if they know you only enforce them when you need to. If you’re seen as willing to help and take on more when you have capacity, you won’t be seen as ‘shirking’ responsibility or under delivering.

Sell your strengths and not your time

If you crave a better balance, you need to let go of the notion of being seen to be busy. Instead, you need to be seen to be good. Anyone can stay in the office until 8pm every evening but that doesn’t mean that they’re actually doing something productive.

Think about what value you bring to your business. Nurture these skills and allow yourself more time to do them well. Everything else you can do competently but don’t expect to be the best at them. The idea here is to prioritise your time so that you get maximum benefit from the things you spend the most time on.

As Tim Ferriss says “The best employees have the most leverage”.

Get a dog (not literally)

People with dogs or children naturally get better at enforcing boundaries because they have to. They have to pick up their children from child care or they need to get home to walk the dog.

You don’t need to get a dog (or child) though, you just need to give yourself a reason to be somewhere else. Maybe a class that starts after work or arrange to meet friends or family for lunch.

Read your emotional barometer

The authors of ‘From stressed to centred: A practical guide to a healthier and happier you’ (Dana Gionta and Dan Guerra) describe 3 red flags that suggest you may need to enforce a boundary in a certain situation. These are 1. Resentment, 2. Discomfort and 3. Guilt. If you are consistently feeling uncomfortable, resentful or guilty in a particular situation at work then it’s time to explore why you’re feeling that way and what you can do about it.

Speak to your line manager or mentor and discuss what you can do to make this situation work better for you. Propose a solution that suits you rather than asking for solutions, because they’re more likely to accept this way.

Try the puppy dog close

If you want to create a boundary solution that you know may not be popular or well received, you can try the puppy dog close. This means you ask to try it before committing to it permanently. Most people will allow you to try it and continue with it unless there are big issues.

It’s the difference between making a decision to take a dog for life (with all the associated vet bills and responsibilities) and just taking a puppy for a few weeks before making the decision. How many people would actually give the puppy back?

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