Since the pandemic we have seen a significant spike in hours spent on work, even though we might not physically be at work. More recent research has shown that 70% of professionals who started working from home when lockdowns started, say they worked longer days, and started working weekends (Maurer, 2020).
However, before and at the beginning of the pandemic, flexible working arrangements such as working from home had positive outcomes on performance and mental health (van Zoonen, 2021).
Some leaders I spoke with, created healthier boundaries for themselves. They would often use ‘down tools’ throughout the day to spend time with family, exercise or something else they wouldn’t have been able to do it in an office environment.
Van Zoonen (2021) concluded that further research would need to be conducted to explore the longer- term impacts of remote work. With many organisations encouraging employees to return to the office, this begs the question - are we all returning to more ‘normal’ working hours and how is that impacting setting healthy boundaries at work?
What is a Healthy Work Boundary?
How leaders can help set healthy work boundaries
This is where you feel you are able to set physical, emotional, and mental limits that protect you from feeling physical or psychological harm, while these limits also allow room for you to reach your potential.
Having some flexibility around work boundaries that does not lead to physical and psychological harm is also important, as there are times, like a crisis, where many people are willing to work longer hours, or take on extra work for the good of their team, community, or even humanity.
As trite as this may sound “Do as I do” applies here. Let’s look at 3 examples:
1. If you are a leader who sends emails outside core hours or on the weekends, this puts pressure on your team members to break their work and home boundary to respond.
This also means you may not be setting some healthy boundaries for yourself.
I do email over the weekend as this when I get some time out, so I understand completely why this happens. What I have seen, is some leaders scheduling their emails to be sent the next working day. A bit like how you would do on a plane flight (when we used to fly and without wifi!). Some employees figure out what you are doing, but at least you are not putting pressure on them to respond immediately.
2. Have lunch a break at least once a week, and with or where your employees may have lunch. Let them see it is okay to take a break.
Maybe take them with you on a 10-minute walking meeting if that is the only way you can get yourself and a team member away from their desk. I have a CEO client who does this often and their people love it.
3. Leave the office at least once a week at the official finishing time. And if at all possible commit to yourself that on this day, you will not be checking, clearing or sending out emails after dinner!
And an even more outrageous suggestion is, finish early once a week!
How employees can set healthy work boundaries
1. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable saying ‘no’. No doesn’t have to mean never, it can just mean, not now. Yes, saying ‘no’ can stir up fear, guilt or both. For example, fear of the consequences of saying ‘no’ to your boss, or guilt that we may have let someone down. If you constantly say ‘yes’ to things, you let others set your boundaries for you and often end up with more work than you can manage. The irony is that you may have let someone down anyway because you have said ‘yes’, to too many things! Think of the discomfort of saying ‘no’ as an indicator that you care about the person or situation, which is actually positive.
2. Have a break. It’s exactly the same as Point 2 for leaders above. Even if your leader isn’t taking a break, don’t let that mean you can’t. I have seen employees help their leaders take breaks, by sometimes asking them to take a break with them. You can influence up the ladder! Alternatively, grab a colleague and get out of the office, even if it is for that short walk.
Related: Want More Creative Breakthroughs? Slow Down
3. Be where you are. Huh? If you are at work late, and you notice your mind drifting to feeling guilty that you are not at home, take a breath and bring yourself back to your work. If you have chosen to work late, then focus on the work, as you will most likely get it done faster, so you can get home. Do the same in reverse. If you are at home, hanging out with family, and you start thinking about your to-do-list or that email you forgot to write, take a breath, and bring yourself back to whatever you are doing at home. Your to-do-list and that email will be waiting for you later.
Related: 5 Techniques to Outsmart Overwhelm at Work
This is a form of mindfulness practice (which I use and have seen, help leaders and their people have a healthier mindset). Mindfulness involves noticing when our mind has drifted away from where we are, particularly when the drift invokes feelings of guilt or worry.
Focusing on the guilt and worry, doesn’t tend to make it go away, while bringing your thoughts back to where you are, for example playing with your kids or task you are working on, does seem to redirect us away from uncomfortable thoughts and feelings.
I could write a whole article on mindfulness, however for now, there are lots of great free apps out there you can try. You can research and read how mindfulness can improve employee and organisational performance.
Why is this important?
The Adecco Group, who have 14,800 offices worldwide, with 1000 in Australia conducted research in 2021 to find that Australians are the most burnout in the world.
They also found that 52% of employees had taken time off for mental health reasons. LinkedIn also did research to find the same, that 52% of employees admitted to taking time off for mental health. This probably means you have had people take time off or take extended sick leave. You may have been one of them. This is not just bad for wellbeing, it is also bad for business.
You may like this: Physical and Mental Wellbeing: Two Halves, Same Coin
Leaders need to ask themselves if they have an expectation that their team continue to work outside core hours, regardless of whether they have returned to the office or continue to work remotely.
They may also need to set their own healthy work boundaries, which then gives permission to their team members to do the same. Healthy work boundaries can equate to a happier and healthier workplace which has to be good for business.