Boundaries: The power of saying no and asking you for what you need

Jo Hooper

Boundaries. Does that concept sound woo to you? Something fluffy that doesn’t have a lot of relevance to your day to day life?

I get ya. I was that person. Too busy for all this woo shit. Too efficient to need or want to spend time thinking about this stuff.

But, actually I’ve figured out what boundaries mean to me and how important getting this stuff right is to helping me manage my mental health – especially when it comes to work.

So what are boundaries and why are they important?

To me, it can be super simple. 

Having clear boundaries is about knowing what you need and asking for it. And crucially, not being afraid to say no.

I realise that I lived without boundaries for…basically forever! And that led to burnout, breakdown and a huge reduction in my cognitive function that it took a long time to learn how to build back up.

What boundaries do you need to put in place to help you manage your mental health at work?

I think about this as setting your Service Level Agreement with your organisation. Boundaries are made up of expectations – those expectations can come from your organisation (you will be in the office for 8 hours each day, five days a week), or may have been set by you (I will always reply to my emails out of hours)

To set boundaries at work – you need to establish which expectations have been set by you, based on your behaviour, because these are the ones you can easily change. 

You don’t need to ask permission for this. Work out what you need and start making some changes to try and get more of that.

I can’t really tell you what your boundaries should be to help you manage your mind at work, as they will be different for everyone, so let me explain what boundaries I put in place and why – then you can work out what you need.

My boundaries include:

  • Knowing when I work best  – I am generally at my most creative and productive in the afternoons. So I protect that time and plan to do the majority of my writing after lunch
  • Knowing what uses the most energy – the part of my work that uses the most energy and is often the most emotional labour is running workshops and training, so I will only do two of these a week. This means I limit my earning potential, but for me, looking after my mind is more important as otherwise I wouldn’t be able to do any workshops!
  • Knowing what stresses me out – early mornings stress me out, having to get a particular train to get to a particular place. Ridiculous, I know, but it does. So I tend not to have meetings in town before 11am. Then I know I can have the slow mornings I need to make sure I’m at my best, which leads me on to…
  • Knowing how to replenish those energy reserves – I know I need a slow morning and often some time in the morning to fill up my creative energy reserves. I like to take a good hour in the morning to ‘come to’ – having a cup of tea, reading a book, getting ready and often taking some photos – I love this time and not having it can make me feel a bit out of kilter
  • Having strong boundaries around working hours – I know this doesn’t work for everyone – lots of people like the ability to work at evenings, weekends etc. But for me, I think because of my complete lack of boundaries over the past decade, I want and need pretty firm boundaries around when I will and won’t work. I don’t look at my emails, LinkedIn, Twitter in the evenings or at weekends. When I’m on holiday, I schedule content and then don’t look at my emails or social media channels. I need that separation, because if I give myself an inch, I’ll push myself a mile

How can boundaries help your people manage their mental health at work and what is your role as their manager or employer?

Treat expectations as boundaries and consider which can be flexed. You could think of this as implementing ‘reasonable adjustments’ to help your people manage their mental health at work – in a way that works for the organisation and them.

Here are a few tips for managers, leaders or employers to help you consider what those reasonable adjustments could be:

  • Hours – can you give someone the flexibility to work fewer hours for a short period to help them manage their mind? Obviously you then need to consider if this will affect the person’s contract and salary – this needs to be an open discussion with them to work out what will work for you and them
  • Location – could you allow the person to work from home for part of the week for a period of time? This could help ease them back into working their normal hours
  • Meetings – could the person sit out of certain meetings for a while? Meeting situations are often the most mentally draining part of working and reducing this burden for a while could help them build themselves back up to a new normal
  • Method of communication – are face to face meetings becoming really draining for that person – would phone conversations work just as well? Are emails becoming difficult to manage? Are there any email groups or distribution lists they could unsubscribe from?

In all of this, you need to have an open conversation with your people. Talk to them about what could help – give them some examples of what is possible – and have an honest conversation about how you can make that work for them and for the business. 

If you’d like support in doing that, please do get in touch – I’d love to work with you to help you put some of this into action.

If you’re struggling to manage your mental health at work and are unsure what support you need or changes you could make, take a look at my Inhale and Breathing Space packages. I’m here to give you room to breathe, work out what could help you manage your mind at work and ask for it confidently.

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