After more than 18 months of enforced homeworking during the pandemic, the lines between our professional lives and our personal lives have blurred.
Many of us have work laptops on our dining tables, work emails arriving on our mobiles at all times of the day, and evenings and weekends that look suspiciously like work days.
“It’s important to re-establish the division,” says Niels Eék, psychologist and co-founder of mental health platform Remente as millions head back to the office.
In any job, there will be times when working longer hours is necessary, but a consistent, long-standing lack of boundaries around what you can and can not feasibly achieve in your working hours is a slippery slope to burnout.
“Having no boundaries is an invitation to be overwhelmed,” says Nic Marks, therapist, CEO of Friday Pulse and developer of the Happiness Test.
Signs you don’t have good work boundaries
Work behaviour that might have become normalised could be doing serious damage to your wellbeing. So, what should you watch out for? According to Marks, habits that should be red flags include sending emails at odd hours, not taking breaks, constantly working, giving instant replies to everything, and not being able to delegate or collaborate – and therefore taking on much more than you need to.
“There are times that working extra hours is necessary for certain deadlines. But if overtime is constant and work pressure never relents, then you might have a problem,” he says. Taking everything on yourself not only leaves you exhausted but possibly “angry, resentful and even guilty” too.
“Personal relationships outside of work might be in a mess. [You] may be having trouble with family and friends for neglecting those relationships,” he adds. Or if you feel close to the edge, like you might snap and pack in your job at a moment’s notice – it’s a massive sign something needs to change.
Marks says the result can be “reduced professional efficacy” as well as having a terrible impact on your mental health.
Work and self-worth
However, it’s more complicated than simply identifying certain behaviours and stopping them. What about what your bosses and colleagues expect from you? What about what you expect from yourself? For many people, work is more than just a means to put food on the table, it forms a huge part of our self-identify, which means the boundaries can get hazy.
“So much of our lives and social interactions focus on what we do for a living,” says Eék. “From a young age, people ask what you want to do when you grow up. As adults, many conversations start with the question, ‘What do you do?’ so our jobs become a key way that people learn about us. This can add to the pressure to have an impressive career to point to as an indicator of success, or a source of validation.
“While working remotely, the pressure to be available around the clock means that people may be more likely to define themselves by their profession, because it dominates so much of their time.”
This need for external validation through our careers and allowing how we perform at work to affect how we feel about ourselves makes it difficult to draw a boundary between your work and personal life. “If your view of yourself is linked to your job, then it’s much harder to switch off when the working day ends,” explains Eék.
“While finding self-worth in work may bring short-term rewards, it is not conducive to finding fulfilment in the long term. While things can go wrong in our careers, having a more rounded sense of self can make us more positive and resilient people.”
A common problem is the assumption that we should be saying “yes” to everything. “Saying yes makes us feel useful, and if we’re ambitious, it helps feed that drive,” says Marks. “But saying yes can also be isolating; it makes us feel like we have to do everything ourselves. This then causes feelings of resentment and anger, as we feel like we’re the only one working.”
If you care about what you do, even enjoy it, it’s natural to want to bring a positive ‘can do’ attitude, but Marks warns, “Burnout is possible for everyone – especially people who are very passionate about what they do.
“If we don’t set boundaries, we might end up hating our jobs. There can be a sense of emotional exhaustion that sets in, a depersonalisation and detachment.”
We don’t want to say “no” because the brain has a stronger reaction to the negative than the positive, explains Eék.
Redefining healthier boundaries
If the volume of work on your plate is overwhelming your free time, spend some time identifying tasks that could move elsewhere.
“Setting boundaries is a way of establishing rules in that relationship,” says Marks. “This may mean having an honest conversation with a manager where you negotiate your priorities. There is a bit of fear that our colleagues will think that we’re slacking off. And you know what? That’s OK. Prepare for a bit of pushback. If it happens, then that’s a sign that the boundaries are necessary.”
After that, it’s important to protect your time. “Don’t cheat. If it means no emails while you’re on holiday, then make sure that happens,” says Marks.
Saying “no” may be difficult, but it’s also an act of self-care, he adds. “Saying ‘no’ helps people respect your ‘yes’, because they’ll be able to trust your ‘yes’. If you can’t say ‘no’, then try saying ‘yes’ with conditions – be clear about your timeline and where the quality of your work needs to be.”
Reclaiming your evenings could also be key if you’ve become used to working well into them.
Even if you still do a lot of work from home, try to ‘mentally leave’ the office at the end of the day, Eék suggests. “Set clear boundaries at home where you do not address work emails during certain hours, to give you time to destress for the next day.
“Of course, some tasks might be urgent, so ask your manager to phone you if something immediately needs to be addressed [in the evening or weekend]. That way, you don’t need to be constantly checking your device and can instead focus on your own mental and physical wellbeing.”
Start to rewire how you validate your self-worth too, if it’s very tied up in work success and failure. “Making time for at least one activity you enjoy, unrelated to work, each day, may help you find other sources of self-worth. Embracing other rewarding and enriching parts of life can act as a useful reminder that we don’t have to be defined by our careers.”
Try not to compare yourself to anyone else, and their career success, either.
“There is always going to be someone who is more professionally successful to measure your career against,” Eék says, “but professional success is not always a shortcut to happiness, particularly if it comes at the cost of our overall wellbeing.”