Eight years ago, I left full-time journalism for one simple reason: I was burned-out. Bad. After covering back-to-back police shootings of Black people, I was starting to feel desensitized to the news: another name, another city, another shooting. I never took time to fully process the trauma that was happening, and instead found myself using work/busyness as a coping mechanism. I was stressed. I was anxious. I was unhappy, so I switched careers.
According to a recent survey from tech firm Cengage Group, 89% of workers have left jobs because of burnout, which was classified as an “occupational phenomenon” by the World Health Organization in 2019 and is defined as a “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
I vowed that if I ever returned to a newsroom, I would do things differently—not only for my well-being, but for personal job satisfaction. So in addition to therapy and morning workouts to relieve stress, I knew I needed to implement better boundaries in the workplace as well.
“Boundaries are practices that make you feel safe and comfortable in your relationships. They can be verbal statements or they can be behaviors that you’re requesting and/or demonstrating in your relationships,” explains Nedra Glover Tawwab, licensed therapist and author of Set Boundaries, Find Peace. “In the workplace, boundaries are really important because that is where we spend a significant portion of time…and hopefully these environments can be comfortable, satisfying, and bring us some level of fulfillment, pleasure, or ability to take care of ourselves without burning out.”
While it’s never too late to implement boundaries at work, doing so at the onset of a new role is an excellent opportunity to give yourself a fresh start and do things a bit differently than you’ve done before.
“When you start a brand-new job, that is your opportunity to teach your supervisors and your coworkers how you need to be treated and how you can do your best work if you’re treated this way,” says Camesha Jones, founder and executive director of Sista Afya Community Mental Wellness. “Sometimes when you start a new position, there’s this anxiety of wanting to do well and be liked, but that can cause a vulnerability where people will go above and beyond their limits because of that.”
To combat that anxiety, Jones encourages people to remember to take comfort in knowing they deserve to be in the space and what they bring to the table is sufficient.
“It’s also important for you to set realistic expectations that you can sustain over time. How you perform in the beginning can set the stage for an employer of what to expect from you in the future,” she continues. “You can have what I would call a ‘well worth ethic’ where you can provide quality work and perform well within the bounds of those realistic expectations you set; in addition to working in ways that promote a healthy, thriving lifestyle that is not consumed by work, but rather complements it.”
The following expert-backed strategies can help you set healthy boundaries at work.
Identify (and communicate) your availability
As a recovering workaholic, I’ve been known to do “just one more thing” for hours on end. Now, as a new mom, I’ve implemented day-care pickup as my hard stop for the day. One of the first things I did was update my working hours on my Outlook calendar and Slack to easily let colleagues know when I’m available for meetings. But you don’t need to be a parent to set boundaries around your time.
“In one instance, I remember working full-time while going to grad school and having an internship so it was very important I left at five o’clock because class was at 5:30, so I had a built-in boundary,” shares Glover Tawwab. “Whatever it is you need to trick yourself into thinking, make it a priority to leave that space by a certain time. The boundary is really based on what you’re able to do and what you need in this moment.”
Use technology to your advantage
Back in 2020, I deleted my work email from my phone before a much-needed staycation and never looked back. Occasionally I’ll need to check for messages after hours, especially when coordinating interviews for stories across time zones, but in those instances I’ll access my inbox from a web browser, send the message, and immediately close out of it.
“I used to be a compulsive email checker with Gmail, so I just took it off my phone,” says Jones. “Things like that can help you disconnect from work, as well as taking actual breaks and not filling them up by doing more work.”
While I have the Slack app installed on my phone because it makes it easier to check and send messages on the go, I’ve set a notification schedule so I don’t get messages outside working hours. I’m also a big fan of using the status update on Slack to let colleagues know when I’m taking lunch or deep in the zone writing, so they can anticipate a delayed response and I don’t feel pressure to be on all the time.
Honor your true capacity
There was a time when I said yes to everything and everyone (and truthfully, I’m still working on that in my personal life, but that’s another story for a different day). I’d often wonder why I was feeling so overwhelmed and realized I only had myself and my people-pleasing tendencies to blame.
“Sometimes with burnout we think, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re making me do all of this stuff,’” says Glover Tawwab. “But sometimes it’s us making us do all of this stuff.”
Guilty as charged.
My desire to be well-liked, especially when starting a new job, leads me to take on too much too fast. These days I’m learning to slow my roll, take an honest look at my to-do list and (gasp) ask for help when it comes to prioritizing projects knowing that doing so won’t make me look bad or incompetent, but rather the opposite—I’m taking the initiative and being proactive around finding solutions to potential issues.
“Boundaries help us to know what our true capacity is,” says Glover Tawwab. “They really help us stay well within what’s comfortable for us instead of pushing ourselves to the total limit. When we think about work and burnout, a lot of it happens because we’ve pushed ourselves all the way to the limit.”
In order to find your limit, Jones suggests paying close attention to what your mind and body are telling you.
“When it comes to burnout it is prolonged stress over a period of time, but there are mental and physical indicators that you’ve pushed yourself to the limit,” she says. “For example, if I start to feel a tightness in my trap muscles, I know I’m working a little bit too hard. Or if I’m not eating throughout the day because I’m working consistently, that’s an indicator that I’m not taking care of my basic wellness.”
As our lives change, so do our workplace needs. What may have served you at one stage in your career may not serve you well as you take on more responsibilities outside of work, such as caregiving.
“You may need to have a conversation with your supervisor or colleagues and say, ‘There was a time when I was able to do X, Y, and Z, but now things have changed, and I’ve realized I can’t really be my best while working in that way. What does it look like for us to adjust this?’” Jones says. “It’s okay to acknowledge that sometimes the things we were able to do no longer serve us, or that we just can’t work in that way anymore.”
We’re roughly a month in to my new experiment with workplace boundaries, but so far I’ve noticed I’m not as fatigued at the end of the day, I have more energy to pour into my family and my personal projects, and I return to my laptop in the mornings with a renewed sense of ambition and determination. Perhaps this will help me set better boundaries in my personal life…only time will tell.