Why it feels harder to set boundaries and what healthy boundaries sound like – examples for you to use

The barriers to setting boundaries

The pandemic showed us that we can work from home and this was a win for most working parents; it meant we could actually collect our children at a reasonable time from school or nursery; it meant we didn’t have to trudge into the office for polite chit-chat in the tea room after we had been up half of the night with a sick child; for many, it meant they were able to move out of cities, to homes with bigger gardens and closer to their families. 

But the pandemic has also wreaked havoc on the clear separation of work and home. 

The mental separation that we used to get from leaving work at the office – even if we had a few emails to respond to once we got home – allowed there to be the mental ‘switch off’ and the sense of freedom, of thinking about what we’d have for dinner or sending a message to a friend about a weekend catch-up. 

In a 2022 Deloitte study, the key finding was that 53% of women said their stress levels were higher than they were a year ago, and almost half felt burned out. The survey was completed by 5,000 women across 10 countries.

It also shared that the ‘always on’ culture remains: just over one-third of women rated their ability to switch off from work as poor/very poor, and 42% of that group worried that their career progression would be affected if they were not constantly available.

When I speak with my clients, they frequently talk about how work has creeps into every available space, and the fact that it’s even trickier to set boundaries because our devices connecting us to our colleagues and work are always there. 

They will describe situations such as opening their laptop for 10 minutes after their children have gone to bed and, lo and behold, they are still sitting at the kitchen table three hours later as they’ve started working on that long overdue strategy document – even though they didn’t consciously sit down to do it. 

Others describe spending their child’s swimming lessons distracted by an inbox that can never seem to be cleared, or a colleague who has a habit of delegating their work to them, with the barrier to pushing back on this difficult colleague being a ‘fear of not looking like a team player’.

Do these situations resonate with you too?

Boundaries are important because they:

  • Show others that you have self-worth and you value your time and energy.
  • They prevent you from becoming burnt out, exhausted and suffering from health conditions, ranging from frequent headaches or colds to more serious health issues due to the effects of long-term stress.
  • They set the parameters around the way that you want to be treated, what’s acceptable to you and your values.
  • They enable you to be more resilient, especially if you are working in a competitive, busy or under-resourced environment.

When I’m working with clients, we sometimes discuss what healthy boundaries look like when they have become so accustomed to unhealthy ones. 

Establishing healthy boundaries – a process of learning

There is a process of learning or re-learning about boundaries. 

I went through this myself – I used to believe that because I worked with CEOs I had to be available at all hours because this is what I was told by my boss. 

“You even take your phone to the bathroom with you. Never, ever let it out of your sight in case one of the Executive team call. Don’t let it go to voicemail.”

No wonder I was constantly stressed and as a result, frequently had stomach issues and migraines. These are completely unrealistic expectations.

Healthy Boundaries can be:

  • Leaving work at a reasonable time and not continually working over-time: you need to rest and recover, especially if you want to perform well when you are at work. When you don’t have boundaries, you’re more likely to be burnt out or less motivated.
  • Saying to a colleague, “I’m happy to help on this occasion as it’s urgent, however, I can’t next week as my child has an event at their school and I’ve committed to that.”
  • Discussing your priorities with your boss when they add another task or project to your plate: calmly talk through everything you have on and see what can shift, or if there are other resources that can help if deadlines can’t be moved.
  • Letting family know that you’ll respond to their WhatsApp messages when you get home, rather than during work hours.
  • Writing out a list of acceptable snacks for your child that you’re happy for your in-laws to provide when they are babysitting and you’ll provide the funds for these.
  • Adding your flexible work hours to your email signature and making sure you stick to those – don’t start undermining your boundaries by working on your day off.
  • Closing your laptop/ work devices and putting it into a draw or cupboard to help you to ‘switch off’ from the day. Many of my clients have adopted this simple technique and one (a Partner in her law firm), now has Saturday mornings without looking at her phone and spends it with her daughter, which has been transformative for her personally and professionally.

Some important points about setting boundaries:

You can reset your boundaries at any time. You don’t need to start a new job, or wait until you come back from a holiday.

The most important thing is not to undermine your boundaries: if you undermine them, then others will follow.

The first step to setting boundaries is working out what is the boundary you want to set and with whom. When working with my clients, sometimes it’s easier to start with the person (eg is it your Manager, a colleague, a key stakeholder or a family member or in-law) and then work out what the boundary is. 

You want to be able to describe your boundary in a sentence – it shouldn’t be you venting about the million things that annoy you. It should be one, clear, simple thing.

The next and most difficult step is overcoming the fears that often arise when setting a boundary, like being concerned about what others will think. I’ll write more about that in my next blog post.

Blog summary:

  • Setting boundaries may feel trickier in our ‘always on’ technology driven world, but they are important to help you from becoming burnt out and being chronically stressed. If you want to perform well, you need boundaries.
  • Women are facing widespread burnout: more than half of women are more stressed than a year ago, and 46% feel burned out according to a Deloitte study.
  • Establish what healthy boundaries mean to you at home and work.
  • There are multiple steps to setting your boundaries effectively. Communicating your boundaries should be clear and simple and summarised in one sentence.

Set Your Boundaries for work and home: Live Setting Boundaries Masterclass:

I’ll be sharing some of my client case studies at my upcoming live Setting Boundaries Masterclass, which is taking place on 24 January at 12:30pm via Zoom for £37 (reserve your seat here).

It will include: 

  • My 7 steps to setting boundaries framework, which you’ll receive as a printable pdf – my clients continue to come back to this framework, year after year!
  • Scripts and key messages for communicating boundaries.
  • Tricky conversation model – for when you’re communicating boundaries with a tricky person and you want to get the conversation just right.
  • Flexible working email signatures that you can use straightaway.
  • Time dedicated to Q&A including the option to attend the deep dive Q&A for 10 participants where I will offer support to your personal challenges.

If you aren’t able to attend live, you’ll receive the recording and all of the inclusions mentioned above via email the following day. 

If you have any questions, please email me: oliviabath@thewomensvault.com 

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