• Lisa Walden

Boundary Setting Is Your Best Resilience Tool

“Work-life balance” is a unicorn. A fantastical idea that belongs in a fairytale more than in our corporate jargon. And if it was unattainable before 2020, these days it seems like a truly mythical and unrealistic dream.

What we’ve got now (those of us who have the kind of job that allows for WFH) is work-life enmeshment. Your living room is your office. Your couch is your new, very non-ergonomic desk chair. Working hours can now be defined as waking hours, because… what’s the difference?

Some of you might think this is a tad exaggerated, but our research tells us otherwise. Boundary erosion is a running theme when we speak with clients. One said to us, “My hours are usually 8am to 8pm. Some days have even been as bad as 6:30am to 9:30pm. That would never happen or be expected if I was going in to work.”

One part of the problem lies with how companies have handled the office-to-remote shift. Workloads, goals, and expectations from pre-2020 were ported over without the necessary adjustments for them to make sense in what is now a very different world. The other part of the problem lies with us, the people doing the work. The sudden, pandemic-inspired shift to virtual work has made it hard for those unpracticed in the WFH lifestyle to create clear distinctions between work and home.

Honestly, this isn’t all that surprising. Many of us have little experience working virtually for a sustained period of time. Also, we are and have been bad at setting boundaries long before the pandemic hit. Think checking email right after peeling your eyes open in the morning. Think dialing into “one quick meeting” while on vacation. Think sending work texts during dinner.

So now we’re thrust into this situation where everything is blurred together, and we don’t have the built-in, familiar routines to offer some sort of barrier between when we’re working and when we’re not. That means the onus is on us, and also our organizations and leaders, to create the invisible, virtual boundaries where before we relied on visible, physical ones. Without a doubt, boundary setting is some of the most important work we can do to be resilient in a year that is trying and testing us at every turn.

How to start setting clear boundaries:

Set your own boundaries

  • Create a "start of workday" and "end of workday" ritual. Light some incense, make coffee, go for a walk, change into your “professional athleisure.” Whatever it looks like for you, create an intentional portal from “home mode” to “work mode” and back again.

  • Set a timer for when your workday is over, and channel Top Chef vibes. When you hear it, hands up, laptops (not knives) down!

  • Get comfortable with a bit of discomfort. Get comfortable leaving to-dos not crossed off. Get comfortable leaving things undone. Did you make progress? Yes? Call it a day.

Advocate for boundaries

  • Communicate when you feel overwhelmed. Oftentimes managers aren’t even aware that you’re at that point. If you tell them you’re feeling stressed, anxious, or near burnout, more often than not they’ll try to help.

  • Regularly ask your manager what tasks on your plate are priorities. By doing this you’ll make it clear that your time is limited, and that you’re trying to be proactive and organized by tackling the most important work first.

  • Let people know when you’re available, and when you’re not. This could look like sending a short email that reads, “Lisa’s availability” and includes the hours you can easily be reached, and when you’re off the grid. It might feel a bit uncomfortable, but it will make people think twice before trying to reach you when you’re technically not working.

(Leaders) Model boundaries by example

  • Stop sending emails at odd times, especially if your organization has established work hours. Get very comfy using that scheduling tool on your email client (and if yours doesn’t have this function, consider switching!)

  • Give yourself and your team the grace to not be on video for every Zoom call. Some days you just need to be a hot mess. Let them be that hot mess too.

  • Don’t be the “always reachable” leader. You may have the best intentions but beware of the unintended consequences. Your behaviors, not words, set the precedent. If you’re always reachable, others will assume they need to always be reachable too.