Commentary: Burned out while working from home? You should check your work-life boundaries
Remote working was supposed to help us work more productively and therefore lead to shorter hours so why has the opposite been true? Crystal Lim-Lange discusses how to re-establish boundaries.
SINGAPORE: “It’s gotten so bad that I don’t feel like I’m working from home, I feel like I’m living in my office,” said one of my clients recently over a Zoom call, complaining about the new world of virtual work.
We talked about the importance of good boundaries in preventing burn-out. Then I said goodbye, and without leaving my desk, wolfed down a bowl of ramen, replied to four emails, did my weekly grocery shopping online, WhatsApped my kids a couple of reminders and prepped for my next meeting. All in eight minutes.
This left me feeling bloated, slightly dizzy and stretched as thin as a paper prata. Not a good look for the workshop I was running that afternoon on Resilience and Well-being for Leaders.
So I made a decision to free up time by closing my individual coaching business last week. When I announced this, many people told me they too were struggling with balance and boundaries.
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WHY BOUNDARIES MATTER
In an age of coronavirus, Singapore’s always-on culture has reached new heights. We forget boundaries between work and life serve an important purpose.
Boundaries are a way of creating space, whether they be physical, mental or emotional space between you and others, that allows us to flourish.
Boundaries are also important signifiers that show the world how you expect to be treated. Boundaries are about self-worth and self-identity. And they make you more effective in every area of your life.
One pattern I’ve noticed in the course of my work is that Asians often struggle with boundaries, as we are a collectivist society.
It doesn’t come easily to us to express our emotions or set clear boundaries for fear of upsetting others.
Famed Dutch psychologist Professor Geert Hofstede has led extensive research on how values in the workplace are influenced by culture. His cultural survey suggests Singapore is a very collectivistic society, scoring just 20 on the Individualism scale, as compared to the US with a score of 91, Australia at 90, Germany at 67. Even Japan, a developed Asian economy, scores more than double at 46.
We are conditioned to talk in “we” terms rather than “me” terms, to do what others expect of us and comply to social norms for the sake of harmony.
One of the biggest problems leadership teams I coach say they face in coping with COVID-19 is staff burning out and quietly leaving, rather than asserting their boundaries.
“We only find out when it’s too late and they resign, because people are overworked but not speaking up. I’ve worked in so many countries in the world, and I feel people in Singapore are the most uncomfortable advocating for their needs or career aspirations,” said one senior leader to us last week.
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“Staff in Singapore almost expect their manager to be a combination of mind-readers and parents, and ‘take care’ of their needs and career progression. In the US and Europe, every day people let you know that they can’t join conference calls because the timing doesn’t suit them, or that they can’t take on more work, but I have almost never had anyone push back in Singapore in the years I have worked here,” another senior leader shared.
We need to be able to advocate for ourselves and create appropriate boundaries to function effectively.
We need to be able to say no. We must choose what is good for us and what to let into our lives, without fear of upsetting others or toxic guilt. Although empathy and consideration for others is important, this must be coupled with healthy boundaries for our well-being.
Even healthcare experts find this challenging. Suicide rates for physicians in the US are 40 per cent are higher for men and 130 per cent higher for women than the general public, with researchers concluding that this is due to physicians sacrificing their own well-being to help others and being reluctant to seek help.
One study published in the British Medical Journal in 2008 found 20 per cent of US medical residents met the criteria for depression and 74 per cent met the criteria for burn-out.
PUTTING YOUR VALUES BEFORE WHAT OTHERS THINK
Good boundaries signify self-respect.
Although people might not like them, what you may lose in cheap popularity points, you gain in the respect and dignity department, which lead to more effectiveness and ultimately, more success in the workplace.
When I was searching for a house, my property agent casually mentioned she lived in the neighbourhood.
“Oh? Which number is your house?” I asked her, and she said to me, very elegantly, “I’m sorry, I have a policy of not revealing where I stay because I value my privacy”.
Wow, that’s fair enough, I thought. My opinion of her actually went up a couple of notches. I liked her clarity and frankness. I ended up trusting her advice and buying the house.
HOW TO CREATE BETTER BOUNDARIES
How can we, living in the age of COVID-19, set better boundaries for ourselves, especially when it comes to work?
My husband is my role model. He’s a practising clinical psychologist who wrote a doctorate thesis about boundaries.
I’ve observed him like David Attenborough watching endangered species of animals during this crisis, trying to figure out how he copes so well, even though he spends hours a day counselling people, talking about heavy problems while juggling a whole other consultancy business. Here’s what I’ve learnt.
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First, get an early start to your day. You want to begin on your own terms yet most of us wake up, grab the phone and start the morning by looking at what I call “OPP” - Other People’s Priorities.
Emails from people who want things from you? OPP. Replying to WhatsApp messages? OPP. Being tagged in Instagram challenges? Definitely OPP.
Instead, carve out the morning and treat it as sacred time to define what your top three priorities are for the day. Do not neglect what is important but not urgent. Book some time in your diary to write that book, go for physiotherapy or work on a side project that brings you joy.
Second, be explicit about your work policy. Working from home can turbocharge presenteeism and leave people feeling like they have to up their visibility by scheduling back-to-back meetings or replying to emails late at night.
This is also where leadership can play a role. Leaders should set clear expectations and reassure their staff they are trusted to fulfil their work.
Tell your stakeholders how long your turnaround and response time will be. Help them understand how you work the best.
Workers too must be realistic about how much work you can handle and be comfortable with saying no, pushing back and prioritising where possible.
Some companies have started instituting “no meeting” days so people can get work done. Others have a policy of not sending non-urgent emails on weekends, or letting employees know they are not expected to reply on weekends and off-hours.
Third, create physical boundaries. If you’re working from home, try to create a separate space for your work. Even if you don’t have a dedicated office, can you move a bookcase to divide your workspace, and put your back against a wall to maintain privacy?
Studies suggest when we work with our backs towards an open room, some part of our brain is always alert and scanning for potential danger as we do not feel as safe subconsciously.
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Fourth, have a winding-down ritual. Signal that your day is done so your brain can start to relax and move into rest mode.
If your computer is on the dining table and always in view, cover it with a cloth when you’re done for the day.
Greg even also goes as far as to shout “Goodbye! I’m done!” when he wraps up.
Another hack I learnt from my therapist is to end off with a “Ta Da!” list - the opposite of a to-do list. Take a minute to jot down a few things you’ve achieved in the day, big or small, to give yourself a sense of closure.
Fifth, tackle over-functioning and “over-responsibility”. Another important boundary is knowing what your responsibility is, and when to support or coach someone instead of doing things for them.
We often see people who are stressed when they take on roles that aren’t theirs and try to rescue everyone else, instead of working in a way that helps and empowers others to solve their own challenges.
It is far better to support others by lending them a listening ear, and gently asking them what options they are able to think of, rather than jumping into problem-solving.
This mass migration to remote working was supposed to usher in a new age of flexible work arrangements that help us be more focused and less distracted at work.
We need to find new ways of coping to ensure burn-out doesn’t wipe out productivity gains from this effort.
Good boundaries don’t just make us happier, more resilient and effective in the long term. They also teach us and others who we are, and who we choose to become.
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Crystal Lim-Lange is co-author of the bestselling book Deep Human- Practical Superskills for a Future of Success and the co-founder of Forest Wolf, a leadership training and talent development consultancy.