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SkillsTalk

5 tips to set healthy boundaries at work

By Ana Isabel Alonsagay | 24 June 2020


Today’s Australian workplaces continue to grapple with the ever-prevalent issue of mental health; with an annual average of 7,140 workers compensated for work-related mental health conditions.  In a 2019 study by national mental health organisation, Superfriend, findings showed how this effectively results in high turnover rates – with only 30.4% of workers planning to stay with their company over the course of 2020. 

Despite such alarming trends, employers continue to struggle with worker stress – and unfortunately, many still fear speaking up and asking for the help they need.

SkillsTalk explore five ways to effectively set healthy boundaries at work; helping you maintain your motivation and engagement in the workplace. 

1. Set limits on your workload.

When tackling assignments at work, your first priority should be those delegated by your boss – and not “quick favours” or assistance requested from you by co-workers.

While helping colleagues out can help you form positive work relationships and rapport, continuously lending a helping hand and covering for others will not only spread your time and energy thin (thus sacrificing your performance on other, more crucial tasks) – but they may also come to expect it, triggering a vicious cycle of job creep and stress.

It’s important to place solid boundaries on your daily tasks and schedule, saving your productivity for the critical, time-sensitive assignments you have on hand. 

You may even wish to try David Allen’s (productivity expert and author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity) four-way system of addressing tasks: either do it, defer it, delegate it, or drop it altogether. 
This way, you’ll split your time wisely between the work on your to-do list, while getting rid of any productivity-sinks or assigning duties to those with the capability to manage them better.

2. Set limits on communication. 

email concept

On top of setting limits on your workload, it’s also crucial to set restrictions on your communication with others.

This may be challenging if you’re digitally connected with your colleagues at all times – whether through a shared messaging app (i.e. Slack, WhatsApp, etc.), by having your e-mail notifications on 24/7, or by including them in your online social networks. Maintaining this constant connection can often lead to the mindset of never being “off the clock”; and can have work follow you beyond your place of business.

To effectively curb this, it firstly helps to update your communication channels as necessary, such as setting up “Away” messages when you’re busy on a project or creating automated “Out Of Office” e-mail messages when you’re away on vacation. 

Secondly, it’s vital to clearly and confidently communicate with your colleagues on the hours of your availability. Politely let them know when you’re available for a meeting or work conversation, and outline what constitutes as urgent, critical matters. Should they violate (or come close to violating) your boundaries, be sure to speak up and reinforce them. It’s best to address these issues in the moment, rather than let them lie (which commonly leads to pent-up resentment). 

3. Learn to say “no”.

It may require a bit of courage in certain situations (and may even result in a pang of guilt) – but learning to say “no” will do favours for your overall stress and productivity levels.

While we all want to be seen as a “go-to person” or “team player”, giving in to new side tasks and assignments while running on limited time and energy will ultimately hamper your primary responsibilities. Not only will you struggle with a larger workload – you’ll also face the pressure to impress and provide quality for all the tasks on hand. 

Sadly, this isn’t feasible for many. 

However, it’s also good to assess requests before giving a flat-out “no” altogether. In an article for Harvard Business Review, Karen Dillon (co-author of How Will You Measure Your Life?) shares the importance of determining how “interesting, engaging, and exciting” the opportunity presented may be, whether priorities can be shuffled, and the extent of the task or favour - before gauging your capability to take it on. 

If you still decide to reject their request, it’s important to be as honest and straightforward as possible. Concrete explanations work best, as tentative reasons can easily come off disingenuous. 

4. Take a break when needed.

coffee break

It’s natural to feel overwhelmed at work, though sometimes delegation, to-do lists, and time management are simply not enough to alleviate the mental pressure. At times, it can benefit you and the overall productivity of your team to take the day – or even a few days – off. 

Despite its benefits of improved work performance, well-being, and reduced stress, Australians are reportedly notorious for being a “nation of workaholics”; placing the country as the third worst in the world for taking annual leave (behind Japan and Italy), according to News.com.au. 

This likely plays a crucial role in the rising trend of mental health issues among Australian workers. 

To avoid falling into the pit of “workaholism” and sacrificing your motivation and engagement in the long-run, ensure you take breaks or leaves when necessary. Companies offer their workers well-deserved time off for a reason – they allow one to recharge their creativity, drive, and helps them maintain their satisfaction in their role.

Of course, it’s important to clearly communicate these desires to your boss and colleagues, allowing you to wrap up your current tasks and delegate the rest to others in your absence. 

5. Prepare for pushback.

Finally, it’s important to expect potential negative reactions, and to prepare yourself for such. 

For some, it can help to visualise your boundaries being crossed and to imagine productive ways of addressing these situations. This helps equip you with rational methods for handling these likely scenarios, in the event they do occur. 

In an article for PsychCentral, Melody Wilding – a therapist for young professionals and business owners – explains the importance of not getting “hijacked by emotions”, and ensuring you have “protocols” for handling difficult interactions in place. As mentioned, concrete explanations for your boundaries that focus on objective reasoning (i.e. outlining how a new task may affect your team’s performance with a client, rather than simply saying how stressed you are) may work best when staving off unreasonable requests or behaviour. 

It also helps to avoid viewing these violations as signs of “weak” boundaries, but rather as instructive opportunities to improve on your boundary setting. 

Healthy boundaries make for a more engaged, motivated workplace

With work-related stress a prominent issue among Australians, and plenty struggling to maintain proper work-life balance – encouraging and practicing ways of setting healthy work boundaries can help maintain the overall drive, productivity, and performance of both you and your team. 

By having respect for your time and capacity in the workplace, you’ll avoid the dreaded effects of job creep and demanding colleagues; focusing your energy on the tasks and relationships that truly matter. 
 
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