By Karen Greville, D&I Specialist, Withers & Rogers LLP
Setting healthy boundaries at work is a fundamental part of self-care and significantly reduces the risk of stress and burnout. Boundaries around work/life balance can make for better communication with line managers and colleagues. Setting boundaries gives clarity on what can be expected of us and what we can expect from others.
Many workers are not clear about their boundaries, both with themselves and others. This can lead to a spiral of unhealthy behaviours becoming the norm. The pandemic has seen many of us working from home which can lead to further blurred lines between home and work life. Whilst working from home can be seen as a benefit by many, it can also result in stretching work days. It is also all too easy to be connected to work via technology outside of working hours.
People who work like this regularly can become exhausted, demotivated and feel undervalued especially when working over and above becomes an expectation. This can form a vicious cycle potentially resulting in stress and burnout. It can then impact family, friends and relationships. Equally, not setting boundaries in the home can cause further stress on workloads.
To break the cycle and make a move to healthy workplace boundaries you need to:
Let your team know your availability.
Put your working hours in your email signature.
Block out time on your electronic calendar (eg Outlook or Teams) so colleagues avoid booking meetings or disturbing you in this time e.g. lunch breaks/school runs/urgent work.
Change your notification settings to reduce how often you are disrupted.
Use ‘Out of Office’ messaging with an agreed forwarding contact.
Include your team in annual leave calendar invites.
When leaders create role models who normalise working long days and unhealthy boundaries it can push others to break healthy boundaries. It also risks pushing people beyond their limits, in order to be perceived as equally hard working. Guilt can set in when logging off and it can be harder to relax. Whilst being promoted as ‘what hard work and success looks like’, or ‘this is just part of the job if you want to succeed’, these messages can have the opposite effect. Overwork can lead to lower productivity, decreased creativity, poor health and burnout resulting in time off work. The World Health Organisation even considers a lack of work/life balance as a workplace health and safety hazard.1
If we want to change the culture we should all model healthy boundaries.
Marcus and Claire work in a small team of two attorneys, where they each provide IP support to one of them.
Marcus only works Monday to Thursday which resulted in Claire finding Fridays really pressured as not only did she have her own workload but had become the overflow for Marcus’ attorney. What started off as occasionally taking on urgent work, had now become somehow expected and ‘the norm’. This meant she often had to work late on Fridays and was starting to resent her team. She felt that the impact on her was never considered, and that the attorneys had completely different motivators to work late than her. Her family were also complaining that she was stressed and taking it out on them. All in all, she was demotivated and was even considering looking for new employment.
Claire decided to raise this in her 1-2-1 with her manager and spoke honestly about the impact and unfair demand on her time. She stated the boundaries she needed and why. Her manager had not realised this was the situation and welcomed her honesty as it allowed them to reflect on the team dynamics. They in turn spoke to the second attorney to agree that Claire was not the overflow and that they would have to agree with Marcus how they managed their cases in four days. Marcus then had the same discussion in his 1-2-1 and new processes were agreed upon. Finally, a team meeting was held so all parties agreed to the changes. Marcus revealed that he had been feeling guilty that Claire was picking up the extra work and sensed her resentment. The honest conversations and boundary setting produced a more efficient system and healthy colleague relationships were restored.
World Health Organisation Guidelines on mental health at work, 2022 https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789240053052
Your guide to drawing the line and setting boundaries that work
Harvard Business Review
The Research Is Clear: Long Hours Backfire for People and for Companies
World Health Organization
Occupational health: Stress at the workplace