Setting boundaries at work is one of the best ways we can have healthier working lives. In the communications industry, it’s common to see professionals work overtime and push themselves to the limit to get work done. For all the busy people out there, burnout is a real and present threat.
To be “burned out” means being physically and mentally exhausted after dealing with excessive and long-term stress. Burnout manifests itself in so many ways, depending on the person and how their body manages stress. Some people feel drained even after a good night’s rest, while others will catch a cold. Some people become irritable and others become forgetful as brain fog sets in. More serious health conditions can occur too.
A recent trending story was that Gen Z and millennials were “quiet quitting” – which means they’re doing the bare minimum at work. There were several explanations, a major one being they wanted more work-life balance and they didn’t believe that “hustling” to get ahead, actually got them anywhere. Quiet quitting can be seen as a necessary coping tactic, but unfortunately, it can also cause professionals to stagnate in their careers.
Where can we find a balance between dissociating from your work and also not letting it consume you?
It begins with building boundaries at work between yourself and your colleagues, managers, and clients.
Here are ways you can set boundaries at work and avoid burnout:
- Determine your priorities and communicate them
- Set clear expectations about your working hours
- Take control of your calendar
- Say “no” to extra projects
- Take breaks and time off
Determine your priorities and communicate them
It is easy to get off-track and distracted at work as new projects fly in and out. If you don’t keep to the priorities you have set, you will fall behind on your responsibilities and professional goals.
It’s important to figure out your short-term and long-term priorities. Short-term priorities involve projects you want to complete within a matter of weeks or months. Long-term priorities think years ahead and bring you closer to achieving milestones in your career.
Once your priorities are set, communicate them to your team and manager. Your colleagues should be aware of what you plan to focus on in the short term. They can then either offer support or hold back from requesting you to work on other priorities last minute. Of course, unexpected work can come up from time to time, but it shouldn’t be constantly happening.
If you find a colleague is always distracting you from your priorities, gently remind them of your areas of focus. Also, let them know that once you have time to help them, you will. While often people can elevate the importance of their projects, it’s not always as urgent as it seems. And they cannot demand you stop what you’re doing to help them at their preferred time.
Your long-term priorities should be shared with your manager. If you hope to move up in the organization, or you want to become more skilled in a specific field, your manager could be your best support. They should best understand what professional opportunities are available and help you determine a course of action.
Your manager can also potentially distract you. If it’s simply a matter of covering work in the short term, then it’s okay. But if you’re asked to take the lead on something unrelated that pulls you away from opportunities getting you closer to your goal, then let them know. Sometimes, they just need a reminder you are staying on a certain track and are not interested in deviating to something else.
Set clear expectations about your working hours
With hybrid and remote work on the rise, we’re not all sitting in an office from 9 am to 5 pm, five days a week. Instead, with teams working in different cities and people working on different schedules due to childcare or other reasons, it’s all a bit up in the air.
The unfortunate downside of increased work-from-home flexibility is people can be drawn into work even during their leisure hours. A survey from Robert Half found: “Nearly 70 percent of professionals who transitioned to remote work…say they now work on the weekends, and 45 percent say they regularly work more hours during the week than they did before.”
To avoid this, the first step is figuring out what hours work best for you. Not every workplace is super accommodating, but you can still try making your case. For example, I’m an early riser and it seemed silly not to take advantage. So I adjusted my work hours to be from 8:30 am to 4:30 pm. In other cases, maybe there are certain days of the week you’d like to finish earlier due to personal responsibilities. Let your manager know and see what can be figured out.
The next step is making your work hours clear to everybody else. Communicate it to your team and manager so they know if they need to reach you, these are the hours they can do so. Otherwise, they’ll have to wait for the next day to roll around.
Google Calendar has a feature that allows you to set your working hours so if someone tries to book a meeting before or after your hours, they get notified. If your workplace has “summer Fridays” or you just have clients who like to email on weekends, set an automatic out-of-office reply for the weekend (“I’ll get back to you on Monday!”)
And, for the love of God, turn your notifications off. Email notifications, Slack notifications, and whatever other notifications you get. If there truly is a catastrophic emergency, your manager will probably hear about it first and reach out via phone. So, don’t worry about it.
Take control of your calendar
Many of us feel like we are at the mercy of our meetings. We can’t get out of them, they go on longer than they should, and they leave us with a pile of work to do.
Sometimes your colleagues set up meetings quite mindlessly. They may not know how busy your week is or that your concentration nosedives after 3 pm.
First of all, you are not obligated to accept every meeting invite. If you are seriously confused about why you’ve been invited, ask the meeting leader to explain why you have to participate. Determine whether you will be expected to contribute, or you just need to hear what’s said. If it’s the latter, you should be given the meeting minutes. You can read that in 10 minutes rather than devote 30 minutes to listening in on a conversation.
Just because someone sets a meeting at a particular time, doesn’t mean it can’t be changed. I have a personal rule not to attend more than three meetings in one day. When I have too many meetings, it distracts me from focusing deeply on my work. And personally, my introverted self lacks the stamina to speak with large groups of people three times a day for up to three hours.
Any time I have been in a situation where I’d prefer to have a meeting moved to another day, I’ve simply asked. And I’ve never been turned down. For the most part, people are selecting a random day and time, and they can just as well choose a different one.
Calendar blocking is a popular practice I’ve seen many colleagues utilize. Especially if there’s a time of day they feel extra energetic and productive. They will set up a meeting in their calendar, which blocks that time from being scheduled by anybody else. Then they know for sure a meeting won’t be set up at a time they want to devote to independent work.
Say “no” to extra projects
Hustle culture is dead. No, really. And why did it die such a grim death? Because young people were pouring themselves entirely into their work at the peak of this toxic trend and not seeing the benefits. “Quiet quitting” is a response to this moment in time when we were told to wake up at 5 am every day and work ourselves to exhaustion to move up in our careers.
We are all hired for a specific job. It is important to keep that in mind. Anything extra done outside of your predetermined responsibilities should be considered a “favour”. That’s the best term for it because think about it: favours are niceties we do to help others. But none of us expect to do favours every day with nothing in exchange.
Yet, it happens in the workplace all the time. And after a while, you’ve stacked up a bunch of favours you’ve done for your colleagues and your managers. In the meantime, you’ve fallen behind on your own work and your salary is the same as it was when you were hired to do three things and now you’re doing six.
It’s a fallacy that employees are expected to do anything thrown at them because they’ve committed to working at a certain organization. As much as we are committed to an organization, we are committed to a certain job. At the interview, they tell you clearly what your job is. Sure, that will adjust over time as you start working. And maybe there are new responsibilities you’re taking on that you actually enjoy.
But stay focused on your priorities and goals. This should still supersede everything else.
“Extra projects” are projects unrelated to your main job. They could pop up out of nowhere because of a manager’s sudden impulse. Or something a colleague has started but can’t finish alone. Or maybe, turnovers and layoffs have forced you to take on another person’s workload.
Sometimes, it’s really hard to turn these projects down. Understandable. But sometimes, it isn’t. It’s up to you to push back and determine whether this project really belongs with you – or somebody else. Or whether this project needs to be shut down, or put on the back burner.
For many of us, our impulse is to say “yes” to anything we’re asked to do at work. Simply because we fear the repercussions if we say “no”, instead. Many of us are also kind, accommodating people and we want to help our colleagues when they ask for it.
But for every “yes” we say to others, we say “no” to ourselves and our own needs.
Take breaks and time off
It’s mind-boggling that some professionals skip their lunch breaks and or don’t use all their vacation days. What a way to blow past your boundaries and silently communicate to your workplace that you are always “on” and “available” to work.
Taking breaks is not selfish. There are many studies that prove humans are not built to work for 8+ hours straight and remain highly productive the whole time. We all need breaks to recharge and refuel so we can come back to our work stronger and more alert. So, if you’re really feeling deep shame about taking a one-hour break, just tell yourself you’re actually doing your workplace a favour.
Some professionals feel unless they are trekking outside of their home, it doesn’t make sense to take a vacation day. C’mon! Vacation days are more than just travel opportunities. You can use vacation days to finally complete your long list of errands or use those health benefits. You can also just plant yourself on the couch and binge a new show from beginning to end without having to answer anybody’s emails. Or, you can spend the day with family and friends and let the love of other people recharge you.
But there are also more breaks you can take besides vacation days and lunches. Have coffee chats with colleagues or take a stroll with them outside the office on a beautiful day. Sure, work is still being done but maybe it’s more enjoyable and you’re not chained to your desk in the process.
Foosball tables in offices have gotten a lot of (deserved) flack for being described as an “employee perk” but actually, the foosball tournament we held at my workplace helped to build comradery and gave us an excuse to ditch work and have fun for 20 minutes.
Find spaces throughout your day that will allow you to take physical and mental breaks. You will actually do better work when you get back to your desk, because of it. It also shows your workplace that you value the time off you get to enjoy and you are not always at their beck and call.
It’s important to set boundaries at work for two major reasons: to protect yourself and set expectations for the people you work with. When I worked at a PR agency, I had a boss who texted and emailed on the weekends. This didn’t last long, however, because I would not answer them until I was back in the office. It was the first time I pushed back.
And I realized, “Hey, I didn’t get fired for that” and actually, I was able to change their behaviour. It was the beginning of me setting boundaries at work and making my mental and physical health my main priority.
You cannot push yourself for too long before your body will stop you or the quality of your personal life declines. Before that happens, set boundaries at work in any way you can and don’t constantly compromise on them just to appease others.
As young professionals, we have decades of work ahead of us. Keep yourself healthy and happy so you can survive the years ahead, instead of burning yourself out to survive the present.