Working from home: how to set boundaries to prevent burnout

Woman working at a table at home
July 16, 2021

Claire Lamont, an Accelerator coach at our partner Untapped AI, looks at how you can define the boundaries between working from home and ‘living at work’ and how to create a harmonious balance for you or your team that avoids burnout.

The Covid-19 pandemic threw many of us into sudden homeworking, often with just days or even hours to prepare. What was initially seen as a novelty in the spring of 2020 now looks to be part of a longer-term change. Though company offices have been re-opening, an increasing number of people are seeing flexibility in working practices as the way of the future. A survey from Aviva found that only 14% of workers wished to return to working in an office environment 5 days-a-week, while 15% were in favour of working from home full-time.

At Untapped AI we’re following the impacts of this profound change. While some people thrived working from home, for many it’s posed challenges like managing teams which are now totally remote, or being unable able to fully 'switch off' from work.

Worryingly, we’ve seen a marked uptick in pre-burnout readings. The Aviva survey also found that 44% of workers feel unable to keep their work and home lives separate, and 40% are concerned about burnout. As we’ve worked with clients to maintain their mental health and think about the implications for their people, we’ve been returning time and time again to one key focus: Boundaries.

What are boundaries?

Boundaries are the markers, whether physical or psychological, that we use to create the space that we need in our lives and in our relationships with others.

For example, setting a boundary would be when we say ‘no’ to a project or a visit to friends that we know will be just too much. Or it might be about the special space in the house, say the bedroom, where we don’t allow phones. Another example would be being clear about the time when we stop working and move into other aspects of our lives.

There is often nothing hard-and-fast about boundaries – they can be highly individual. That is because we all have different needs, shaped by our personalities, history, and the place we’re at in our lives, or even how well we feel that day.

And perhaps this is why boundaries can be so tricky: Knowing them starts with recognising, acknowledging and respecting our own needs. Seeing that they are valid and worthy of our own attention, and the respect of others.

Work boundaries and Covid-19

Until the pandemic struck, our key working boundaries had usually been dictated by the needs of our employer, shaped by ‘the 9-5’ norm of the working day. We knew what was expected of us - when we start work, when we stop. We probably had an office we travelled to, creating a helpful transition between home and work at the beginning and end of the working day.

As Covid took hold though, and offices and other workplaces were shuttered, a lot of that flew out the window in record time. Suddenly we were all negotiating our home and workplace boundaries as they blurred together – and alongside managing the anxieties of a global pandemic.

For the leaders we’ve been working with, this lockdown interaction of the personal and the professional has created unique challenges when managing others. While some people have home offices, for many they were in a shared living space along with family members, children, flatmates. Everyone’s needs began to intersect in new and incongruous ways – a recipe for high tension.

Navigating their peoples’ needs in these circumstances means that managers have needed to bring high levels of emotional intelligence in order to listen, understand and act on the different situations their reports were thrown into.

Setting Physical Boundaries

Physical boundaries are markers of space or time. Often setting them involves the formation of new habits – for example, setting a time for exercise or yoga at the beginning or end of the day.

There could be simple, practical steps that will help people define working hours and space: one Untapped AI coach told me she has started going for a bike ride with her husband at the point when they both finish their working days, creating the physical separation that a commute used to.

While tech proved invaluable to us during the pandemic, allowing us to continue working and socialising while physical proximity was risky, it also contributed to our difficulties in switching off and creating healthy space for rest and sleep. Think about your own tech use and whether you found yourself working long or irregular hours (e.g. sending emails late at night.)

Setting Emotional Boundaries

It’s all very well setting out the rules for boundaries, but we all know that, however good our intentions, change can be hard. The thing is that our boundaries are often defined by our deeper motivations, some of them less-than-conscious.

We are all driven by unconscious ‘messages’ that show themselves in counter-productive behaviours. For example the common (often not conscious) message ‘I must be perfect at everything’ results in an inhibiting perfectionism or over-work. We live in a perfectionist culture, and our identities are often highly invested in our work. On top of that many people are feeling the pressure of an oncoming economic slowdown, with redundancies already announced across many sectors. The pressure to perform is, for many people, even greater than before. For some this is creating a perfect storm of over-work, pushing them towards burnout.

But there is a difference between productivity and presenteeism. Many studies show that overwork leads not to greater productivity, but the slow slip of quantity over quality, the exhaustion and overwhelm of a pre-burnout state leading to a dip in work standards rather than greater gains. And the implications for our mental health can be severe.

Recognising these messages can be hard: They can be deep-seated in our personalities from childhood, and they take a bit of digging to reach. This can be even harder where you are managing someone who is struggling to set new habits and behaviours, as they may only be partially aware of what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.

This is where open, non-judgemental communication and listening will set apart good leaders, allowing people to explore and grow in difficult areas. Where you see problems manifesting, some good open questions may start a powerful conversation – but this takes a relationship built on trust within a framework of psychological safety.

The vital and most difficult step is in recognising and honestly acknowledging the problem. Even if someone doesn’t know why they’re behaving a certain way, creating space to ask questions and investigate what might be going on ‘beneath the surface’ will open up new possibilities for examining motivations and thinking about ways forward.

The Boundaries Audit

With much of the working population now settled into a rhythm of sorts, having adjusted expectations for longer-term WFH arrangements, it's important that leaders are ready. If you’re a leader, now is the time to work with the people in your team to help them think about their personal needs, how these might have shifted during lockdown, and how this might continue to impact on their work – their availability, productivity, and wellbeing.

Here are some questions to get you started with those you manage:

  • What are your working hours now? Do you stick to them, or would you like to be better at this?
  • Do you feel like you have the space you need to work? Do you have to share your working space?
  • Are you interrupted by children or others in your household?
  • Do you feel exhausted, overwhelmed, or unproductive (even if working longer hours)?

And questions to ask yourself about how your team is functioning:

  • Do team relationships feel better or worse since lockdown?
  • People communicate differently when online, and it may be that people who have been more introverted in the office are more outgoing digitally – and vice-versa. Think about the individuals in your team and how you can best communicate with each now.
  • Do you know how individuals have been impacted by lockdown – do they have children at home, or housemates? Have they reported a rise in stress or anxiety? Are you worried about pre-burnout symptoms for anyone? (This is a useful guide if you’re not sure.)
  • Have your reports communicated differing needs through this time? How have you negotiated the needs of the company and their individual boundaries? Have there been tensions?

Learning to set healthy boundaries is hard work, and it takes time and effort to work on yourself and with others. But it is from a place of acknowledging that we are not all-seeing, all-achieving super-humans – and that we never will be - that we can start to think about what is realistic to ask of ourselves and others.

This article was first published in August 2020, and updated in July 2021

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