How to set boundaries for a thriving work/life balance

By Atasha Redhi

In 2020, the world was swept up by the Covid-19 pandemic that continues to loom over our every move. Various countries made the hard decision to halt the spread of the virus through extreme lockdown measures. In South Africa hard lockdown meant we could not move around freely and seeing friends and family outside of our immediate household was stopped for a period of time. This was an event not experienced in any of our lifetimes. According to The Economist, an African perspective, Covid will leave lasting economic scars on Africa.

On the work front, organisations have faced massive disruptions. Due to hard lockdown, businesses had to quickly adapt their operations (if they could operate at all). Due to the restrictive movement of people, traditional work environments stopped. Some organisations navigated this by working remotely and employees were thrust into this new way of work. Employees have reported that remote working has resulted in longer work hours, digital fatigue, communication frustration and lack of personal time and space. The question of practically and purposefully navigating this new working context is important.

It is necessary for employees and organisations to pick up new skills and habits quickly. Let’s explore some of these for employees. 

Setting workable boundaries

Before getting into the practicalities it is useful to acknowledge that for those of us from traditional work spaces, this environment was informed and structured by a building to go to. Our employment contracts and habits formed over years told us when to start work, what time we finished, when we could take a lunch break and that engaging with others through meetings and kitchen catch-ups was normal. This tradition is now on its way out.

Organisations have chosen to embrace the remote working approach, at first as a response to Covid but later as a strategic workforce decision. As such employees have a responsibility to pick up the habits and skills needed very quickly. 

A tool that is earning its place is the humble boundary. The American Psychological Association describes a boundary as a psychological demarcation that helps a person or group set realistic limits on participation in a relationship or activities. This definition is true in the context of an evolving and dynamic working space. The application of a boundary can enable employees to achieve success in all aspects - both personal and professional. Before delving into boundaries and the relevance for employees it must be clarified that a healthier workplace is not defined as a traditional work environment, i.e. a physical space provided by an organisation but more to the contract of employment (which can be enacted in one’s choice of environment, i.e. remotely). 

Sauter, Lim and Murphy (1996) define a healthy workplace, as an organisation that “maximises the integration of worker goals for wellbeing and company objectives for profitability”. My challenge for employees is that it is not just the company that is responsible for creating these goals, but rather that the shift towards remote environments allows for a shared responsibility between employees and organisations in establishing a healthy workplace (where one physically and psychologically connects to the employment contract). Adkins, Quick and Moe (2000) refer to organisational health as a quest for an abundant life. It is a wonderful idea that work life can be an abundant life, made more empowering is that as an employee one is fully empowered to co-create and live that abundant life.   

Setting the framework

Let’s explore where an employee can set practical boundaries:

  • Start and end times

I have heard employees tell me that they find themselves working longer hours to “finish up that last email” or “have the last say on a project” which means finishing two or three hours later than usual. I have heard managers say “but I didn’t ask for that”. So let us begin with setting a realistic limit of when to start and when to end. How does sticking to your contractually agreed working hours sound to you? My invitation is for you to bring back a start and end time. Begin the day with breakfast, say goodbye to the family and start work. To help with “shutting off” of work at the end of the day, start a task list, or “today I will achieve” list. Be committed, tick off or follow up on the dependencies. Putting down a task list helps you set your pace and gives you a sense of accomplishment. It gives you permission to “leave” work at the end of the day and gives you clarity on when to “start” the next day.

  • Break, breathe and eat lunch

At the office, we had stops to eat and unwind with colleagues. I remember seeing some employees enjoying my company’s beautiful gardens while sitting outside. Why did that stop? I have heard employees say “I worked the entire day, there was no time to eat, take a break or breathe”. I believe the connections between breaking, breathing and eating is linked to a healthier you and a healthy you is a healthy workplace. If you have a highly structured role, taking a lunch break is possible – eat, go outside or sit near an open window for 15 minutes. If you work in a more ambiguous role you need to create the breaks you need. Pack a lunchbox and take it with you for the day, so you can have moments of breaking from work. 

  • Flexibility

I personally love the flexibility of time in a remote environment. At first, though, I ended up having my attention split into many aspects because, well, it could be done. I can work and sign for a delivery. I can work and quickly dash off to the shops because I forgot to buy that important grocery item on the weekend. I can work and have my children sit with me while they finish up their homework with me coaching, correcting and being firm with them while I was reading that crucial email, or responding to my manager’s WhatsApp message. How wrong was I? Flexibility comes with responsibility. The result for me was not being fully present in anything I did. I was always sharing my focus with everything – flexibility doesn’t work for me without boundaries/limits. I was stressed. I was getting short tempered with my kids, starting to blame work for so many emails and WhatsApps. The power for change was with me. I needed to define reasonable flexibility for myself and I have become fiercely protective of my time. After all, time lost is never gotten back.

  • Connections with your organisation

Physical distance can lead to one losing connection with work, the responsiveness needed, communicating face-to-face verbally and non-verbally. It is the sum of all the aforementioned that helps solve issues, motivate oneself and ultimately to find abundance in the workplace. As an employee you have the responsibility to read the organisational newsletter, be curious about your company website, set up meetings with your manager to talk about your challenges with your deliverables, attend communication sessions. If you have check-ins with your manager or your team, participate, switch on your camera, show up. Seize the day.

Setting yourself up for success

I mentioned earlier that I had allowed flexibility into my life with all its wonderful promises of being able to control my personal and work space but found it not serving me or my responsibilities. The lesson for me was that you can be wrong with boundaries that end up working against you and not for you. The good news is that you have the power to re-establish them so that they serve you better. How can you recognise if a boundary has been poorly set up?

  • Heightened stress (emotional outbursts, inability to sleep, short temper at home or work).
  • The intended use of the boundary does not give you the desired results.
  • The boundary makes you miss important deliverables (perhaps you have applied too much  structure and not enough room for change, if the context warrants it?).

The above is not an exhaustive set of warning signs but a few of the big ones. If you find yourself saying “yes” to any of the above. Pause, reflect on the boundary and reimagine it practically!

Remote working has created a range of possibilities for us. Some good, some bad and many opportune areas for reimaging our world of work. Being a co-creator of one's workspace and having the ability to allow abundance into work is simply wonderful.

Atasha Redhi is a clinical psychologist whose passion is connecting people with and to the workplace on a human level to ensure the workplace is one of dignity, respect and ultimately transformation.