In a world of remote work, the blurred physical boundaries between personal and professional life make it challenging to avoid stress and burnout. With 54 percent of workers in a Pew Research Center survey wanting to work from home even after the coronavirus pandemic, it’s important to learn how to establish a healthy and balanced life. Whether you’re in office, remote, or a hybrid of the two, setting boundaries at work ensures that earning your livelihood won’t negatively impact your life.
On top of the negative effects on your health, burnout can even affect your career and income. Employees suffering from burnout are nearly three times as likely to leave their current employer, and this could stunt your career trajectory and leave you in a precarious financial situation. Jump to the infographic for ways to prevent burnout with healthy work boundaries and tips for overcoming barriers that might be in the way.
What Is Burnout?
Although not an official medical condition, burnout is a specific type of job stress that’s characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion, as well as feelings of lost personal identity and diminished accomplishment. Burnout is caused by prolonged stress and many work-related factors like a heavy workload, lack of team support, and unrealistic work expectations contribute to this job stress.
Signs of Burnout
Those who experience burnout don’t always believe their symptoms are caused by their job. It’s important to recognize the symptoms so that you know when to get help and take action. Familiarize yourself with these major signs of burnout below:
- Emotional exhaustion
- Physical fatigue
- Difficulty concentrating
- Decreased work performance
- Job dissatisfaction or disillusionment
Consequences of Burnout
Burnout is not only detrimental to your health, but it can even impact your finances. Here are some ways being burnt out can negatively affect your life and budget:
- Susceptibility to illness and increased risk of chronic diseases
- More sick days taken may result in missed income
- Reduced work performance may lead to a lost bonus or promotion
- Increased spending for conveniences like food delivery
How to Set Healthy Boundaries at Work
Avoid the negative consequences of burnout and use these tips to create healthy work boundaries.
1. Identify Your Priorities
While earning an income is necessary to provide yourself with basic necessities like food and shelter, it’s not the only priority in life. List out your top priorities in addition to work to see how you should allocate your time and energy. You may prefer to spend time on your hobbies or with your loved ones, so make sure to keep these in mind when scheduling your work week.
This also includes your priorities at work. Whether you’re trying to earn a promotion or just get through your workload by the end of the week, prioritize the tasks that will help you get there, and be mindful of overextending yourself.
2. Learn to Say No
Once you’ve established your priorities, it’s important to exercise your ability to say no at work. For example, if you value rest from work on your lunch breaks, politely decline meeting invitations scheduled for that time. Another scenario when it’s OK to say no is when you’re offered extra work. Consider whether the work will help you directly achieve your goals, and if it doesn’t, go ahead and turn it down. Saying no is a powerful skill that helps you enforce your boundaries and keep your goals a priority.
3. Take Time Off
Time off is a way to set boundaries at work by giving yourself the ability to take a break from your responsibilities. Planning time off, however, can be a challenge. Whether it’s hard to find time in your work schedule or you run your own business, it’s important to recognize that much like your income, you’ve earned it.
Get ahead of your busy schedule and try planning out a vacation or mental health days well in advance. Planning ensures that you’ll actually take time off, and once it rolls around, you can focus on resting and reenergizing for when you come back.
4. Look for Examples of Professional Boundaries
Establishing boundaries at work may be easier said than done. Reach out to a manager, supervisor, coworker, or mentor that you trust and ask them about the ways they maintain boundaries at work. This opens the conversation for you to communicate your own boundaries with your colleagues and may even give you inspiration on how to create them. Everyone’s boundaries are different, so take inspiration from those whose boundaries align with yours.
5. Communicate Clearly
Communication is key when it comes to boundaries at work. Personal boundaries at work vary depending on the person, so it’s important to be up front about yours if you want people to respect them. Try out these different ways to clearly communicate your boundaries to others:
- Let your team know that you sign off at a certain time every day.
- When you’re out of the office or signed off for the day, specify that you won’t answer emails or calls unless there’s an emergency.
- Define what constitutes an appropriate emergency to your team.
- Put a note in your email signature saying you only answer emails during specific hours.
6. Establish Boundaries With Coworkers
When it comes to water cooler talk or happy hours over Zoom, your personal life might get brought up in a professional setting. It’s up to you to decide how much personal information you would like to share with coworkers. After deciding on your level of sharing comfortability, don’t be afraid to establish professional boundaries.
Let others know that you prefer to stick to conversations about professional topics or if you’re open to sharing, be aware that others might not match your communication style. Below are a few examples of what not to share at work.
- Financial problems
7. Silence Notifications
Another way to set boundaries with work is to not let it interfere with your personal time. Silence notifications at the end of the day so that emails and messages aren’t interrupting your dinner or family time. You can also keep notifications away from you by removing work applications like Slack or Teams off your personal devices. Although they can be helpful during work, sometimes it’s not worth it to have notifications from coworkers constantly blowing up your phone or laptop.
8. Create Built-In Breaks
When establishing work boundaries, it’s useful to create a system that helps you stick to them. Build your lunch break into your digital calendar every day of the week to reserve that time. Once it’s blocked off, colleagues will be notified that you’re unavailable if they try to set up a meeting. This will also remind you to take your meal break at an appropriate time and not let you get carried away with work.
9. Triage Your Tasks
On busy days, even if you have a system created to take breaks, that may not be enough to combat a heavy workload. Learn how to triage your work tasks based on priority in order to stick to your schedule and your boundaries. Use the Eisenhower Matrix to prioritize tasks based on urgency and importance. Tasks that are urgent and important should be done now, while other tasks that don’t fall in this category can be delegated, saved for later, or eliminated.
10. Don’t Skip Breaks
If you ever feel bad about taking breaks from work, you’re not alone. Researchers found that feelings of guilt and anxiety are a barrier to taking breaks at work, but it’s important to push past these feelings and not skip your breaks.
Breaks give you time to recover from work-related stress, and this recovery process helps boost your performance and energy. If you’re someone who regularly forgets their breaks, set reminders in your digital calendar to notify you when it’s time to put your work down and go for a walk or grab a snack.
11. Power Down Technology
One of the most important work boundaries is the one that signals the end of the day. For remote workers, this boundary often gets blurred because work and technology are a constant presence. Remote workers found that their average work day can get extended by nearly 49 minutes, so establishing a hard deadline to end work and power down is necessary to preserve work-life balance. Pick a time to end work and stick to it every day. Make sure all technology is turned off for the night, and you won’t be tempted to send just one more email.
12. Stick to Your Routine
Routines are important because they’re our default behavior. If you make it a habit to begin and end work and take your breaks at the same time every day, you’ll be more likely to do them. Additionally, try building a transition activity into your routine before and after work. This activity could be a 15-minute journal session before work to wake up your mind and a 30-minute workout after work to relieve stress in your body. Having a transition routine to get you in and out of work mode can help create mental boundaries, even if you don’t have physical ones.
13. Try Separating Your Workspace
While this may not be possible for every work from home situation, try creating some form of separation between your remote workspace and your personal space. If you have the space, put your WFH setup in a different room and close the door behind you at the end of the day.
For those with less space and a small budget, try closing off your space with a curtain or using a movable partition to block it from view. By introducing a physical boundary, you can separate yourself from a stressful environment, even if you can’t afford to have a fancy office.
14. Turn Your Camera Off
Another way to set a remote work boundary is to turn your camera off during virtual calls or meetings. Many people are having to work in spaces that they sleep and eat in, so if that window into your life is something you’d prefer to keep private, leave your camera off. Your coworkers aren’t entitled to look into your home and space, so it’s OK to opt for audio only or a virtual background that isn’t too distracting.
How to Handle Overstepped Boundaries
Even with all the right tips to help you create and communicate your boundaries, there will be times when someone oversteps them. Below are some potential boundary-breaking scenarios and ways to politely and professionally push back. Your ability to communicate your boundaries effectively might even be a skill that sets you up to negotiate a raise.
When You Need to Set Realistic Expectations:
- “Given the quick turnaround time for this project, I’m able to accomplish Objectives X and Y. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough time to complete Objective Z with the quality it deserves.”
- “This project was slated for X hours for completion, but on average it takes Y hours. It would be helpful to extend the scope of this project to ensure it’s finished to the best of my ability.”
When Asked to Take on Extra Work:
- “Unfortunately, I don’t currently have the bandwidth to give this project the attention it needs.”
- “I’m happy to help with this if Project X can be deprioritized to allow me to pivot my focus.”
Meeting Scheduled During a Break:
- “Hi [Name], I just saw your meeting invitation and wanted to see if there’s a chance we could push it back? I normally take a lunch break during that time, and that break helps me feel energized and focused for our meetings.”
Free Stress Management Resources
Handling overstepped boundaries can be stressful, especially on top of stress from your workload. These resources don’t cost a thing and can help alleviate your stress before you get burnt out.
- Headspace: Take advantage of the free meditations for relieving stress and anxiety.
- Mindfulness Awareness Podcast: Sign up to attend this free mindfulness podcast that’s brought to you by University of California, Los Angeles and the Hammer Museum.
- Jellyfish Meditation: Monterey Bay Aquarium offers an 11-minute meditation while you watch jellyfish. Learning to be mindful with mindless jellies (really — they have no brains) might just be the trick to relieving stress!
- Support Groups: Join a support group through the Anxiety and Depression Association of America for free peer-to-peer stress management in English or Spanish.
- Employee Assistance Program (EAP): Check to see if your employer sponsors an EAP to help workers manage their personal and professional lives.
Burnout at work can lead to a host of negative consequences for your physical, mental, and financial health. Try setting boundaries at work to preserve your own well-being. Much like the Mint app makes it easy to manage your money, work boundaries help manage stress and allow you to recover so that you can keep achieving your goals. Put these tips into practice to sustain an upward career trajectory and increased earning potential for years to come.