In most parts of the country, some elements of normal life are starting to improve, and many organizations have moved to a hybrid approach of remote and in office work. While life may be edging toward normalcy, many professionals are still feeling overwhelmed, burnt out, and exhausted. The past two years have taken a toll on people’s mental and physical health, and adapting to the changes in how we work and how we lead has taken a significant amount of time and energy. The pandemic created many challenges for professionals, and there is one lingering issue impacting professionals negatively at work—lack of boundaries.
During the pandemic, when most employees found themselves working exclusively from home, the normal boundary of leaving the office to drive home was eliminated, which caused many people to work even longer hours than before. Research shows that most people work more hours when they work from home. It can be challenging to separate work from personal when working from home, as life tends to be more blended.
Couple that with many people working odd hours as they tried to balance having their kids home, virtual school, and keeping up with work priorities. Before you know it, emails and texts are being sent at odd hours and your scheduled vacation includes checking email and staying connected. This past week, one client shared with me that she has been working from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. for almost a year and a half and is at the end of her rope. She described a culture of constant connection; where leaders are expected to be available at all times and it’s unheard of to not check email several times a day while on vacation. Another client shared that it’s not unusual to be getting emails from her manager at 9:00 p.m. and she feels pressured to answer immediately. Operating a culture that lacks standard boundaries creates stress, anxiety, and exhaustion on your team.
Boundaries are an essential part of leadership, and allow you and your team to focus and work at your peak. The purpose of boundaries is to protect your time and energy so you can work at your best. Without boundaries, our days become a haze of activities without any focus. We end up feeling busy all day without accomplishing anything of value. In addition, every human needs time to rest and rejuvenate physically and mentally. Consistently working long hours and constantly being connected to work keeps employees in a reactive state and hinders their performance.
I’ve struggled with boundaries in the past, and once I created more consistent boundaries for myself and my company a few years ago, my productivity and energy increased dramatically. Although I generally didn’t take calls or do “real” work on vacations, I still checked my email several times throughout the day. Four years ago, one of my mentors challenged me to take a vacation and completely disconnect from work. The first two days were hard; I was so used to opening my email multiple times an hour, that I physically felt anxiety and withdrawal by not being able to check email. Day three of my vacation was the first time I felt a sense of peace and relaxation. I was able to be present in the moment and truly enjoy the experience instead of worrying about work. Now when I go on vacation, I put on my autoresponder with my assistant’s information if someone needs help. I can trust that urgent emails are responded to.
Consistent boundaries are not only crucial for you to work at your best as a leader, but they are just as important for your team. Many organizations don’t even realize that the lack of standard cultural boundaries, as well as the lack of boundaries by leaders, has a negative impact on employee productivity and engagement. One CEO shared that she gets her best work done in the early morning hours between 5:00 a.m. and 7:00 a.m. before she goes into the office. This was great for her own personally productivity, but it wasn’t until two of her vice presidents let her know that her 5:00 a.m. emails were stressing them out, that she realized the impact of sending emails during off-hours. Her staff felt anxious from the moment they checked their email in the morning because they felt pressure to answer emails immediately. The CEO continued to work in the early hours, but instead scheduled her emails to go out after 8:00 a.m. so as not to create stress on her team. Becoming more aware of how your work style or patterns impact others can help you to work at your best, while considering the impact on your team.
Below are some examples of leadership boundaries that can help protect your time and energy:
- Closing your door to work on an important project
- Telling your employees you are not available for the next two hours so you can work on a project
- Taking a lunch break every day to give your brain a rest
- Not accepting a meeting request without an agenda
- Protecting the first half hour of your workday to get focused and review your priorities for the day
- Having a standard time to leave the office each day
- Not checking email on weekends or vacations
- Not working at all on vacation
- Not sending emails during odd hours (unless it’s a true emergency)
As a leader, you set the tone for your department. If you consistently work late, check email on vacation, answer emails on the weekend, send messages during off hours, and never take a lunch, you are setting these as standards for how your team works. People don’t follow what you say, they follow what you do. Not only will creating personal boundaries increase your own productivity and focus, but it will also demonstrate to your employees that you value their well-being and personal life.
Create boundaries for yourself and encourage your employees to do the same. Share with them your best practices for creating balance in your life. Encourage employees to take physical and mental breaks so they can avoid burnout.
Below are a few ways you can create standard boundaries in your department (I suggest discussing this at a team meeting and have the team create these together):
Create standard work hours. This may look different for each person on your team, but encourage them to create standard work hours that includes a hard stop time each day.
Encourage breaks. Getting outside for a short walk or stepping away to have a half hour lunch can be a great way for employees to boost their energy and stay engaged.
Create an email and phone policy. On your team, create a list of boundaries such as a cutoff time for emails and phone calls. For example, no calls or emails after 6:00 p.m. on weekdays, and no work communication on weekends.
There may certainly be occasional exceptions when a big project is being implemented or there is an emergency. But it shouldn’t be the norm if you want to create a healthy and productive work environment.
An important part of leadership is being able to keep yourself—and your team—focused. In today’s world, it’s challenging to keep your mind focused on what’s important. Without boundaries, you end up wasting your hours and ultimately your days. Developing boundaries creates the structures you need to keep your leadership—and your life—on track.