How do I create boundaries and not feel guilty for working shorter hours?

Our Spill therapists share some tips on how to set better boundaries and effectively seperate home and work life without feeling guilty

How do I create boundaries and not feel guilty for not working 40+ hour weeks? I've been at this company for years and never had proper time off until recently. I'm feeling burnt out, but I've developed a reputation for working long hours and always being available. It's a vicious cycle and I don't know how to break it.

First therapist's response

You need to accept the temporary (although unjustified) feelings of guilt in order to establish some healthy boundaries.

One of the reasons we fail to implement healthy boundaries having lived without them for a long time is that we wait to feel comfortable about pushing back before we make the changes but its only in the pushing back that we find comfort.

Think for a moment about this reputation you have built for working long hours and always being available on email, what does is actually say about the quality of your work? Nothing.

Wouldn’t it be better if you were able to demonstrate that you can do the same level of work by working reasonable hours and not being as available as a 24hr supermarket?

On the subject of being burnt out, if you let that continue you will make your body sick too and then you won’t be available at all on email or anywhere else.

It’s time to put yourself first and, paradoxically, you will find that doing so makes you more efficient and more respected by your colleagues without any of the perceived loss you worry about.

Make these two changes right now, and accept the discomfort that accompanies them because once you have walked through it you wil find that the world is still turning and that your company still rates you.

First, set yourself some clear working hours (fewer than you currently work) that will enable you to get some proper rest and stick to them religiously for a month. In your new spare time do things that you enjoy with people who you love.

Second, turn off all notifications when you are not within those hours and do not be tempted to do any work to maintain this reputation you have as a long hours worker, especially answering emails out of hours. Do that for a month too.

At the end of this time see how you feel. My bet is that your work will be as good if not better, you will feel properly rested, and your colleagues will think as much of you as they always did.

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Second therapist's response

First question: what’s important to you? Zoom out, take in your whole self. What do you truly need to attend to? What do you want to attend to? How might this look in terms of your time? You don’t need rigid, fixed time zones for different activities but you do need a boundary, e.g. if you want to make sure you get some quality social time in the evenings, then plan a realistic time to finish work…AND stick to it.

How do you mark the start and end of your working day? E.g. laptop away/change of clothes/change of room/commute/a walk – whatever signals the end of work means the end of work. It’s a boundary. Respect it.

Where is your attention? When you’re at work,choose to fully engage with work. When you're with your partner or friends (not at work), truly be with them. It’s very easy to let different parts bleed into one another (e.g. checking work emails whilst watching a film). Commit to where your attention is.

Be boundaried about what you are prepared to do/take on. Just because there are lots of things that need doing, doesn’t make it all your responsibility. This will create exhaustion, frustration and possible resentment. Set boundaries about what you can or can’t take on (emotionally or logistically). Ask for support where required.

What expectations have you created? Not every email is ‘on fire’ and needs answering, not every job must be done by you. There will be tasks you can actually delegate, reduce or stop. Your reactions may say ‘no’ but I invite you to explore the messages you carry about your professional self, e.g. “I must respond to emails immediately” “I must be seen to be available at all times” “I must keep going” “Only I can do this”. Sometimes, we behave a certain way due to the unhelpful thinking behind it.

You may want to look at this further with a mate, a manager or a therapist. Why, for example, do you feel guilty if you work less than 40 hours a week? Emotional rules or messages like this come from our own expectations of ourselves (“I must work long hours”), or expectations from the team or company. Check out what the company messages are with a line manager or appropriate senior colleague. They are often implied (late night emails from managers, no holiday taken in the company, “reputation”) and they need shifting in order for you to have permission to work in a healthy way.
Time is your most limited resource. Boundary it so you can use it wisely.

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Third therapist's response

This is challenging because you have a reputation for being an extremely hard worker however this is leading to burnout.

In the first instance take time off if you are able to so you can recover from burnout. Burnout in the workplace is common and it is important to respond to symptoms which may include fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritation and low motivation. Talk to your manager about how you are feeling and how they can support you. They may suggest temporarily reducing your workload or other changes that make work life easier.

Moving forwards make sure you schedule regular breaks into your routine. A 10-minute break per hour is recommended as well as time off for sickness should it occur and using all holidays. You can enhance relaxation further by scheduling regular relaxation strategies into your day such as deep-breathing practices, meditation, exercise, dance, listening to calming music or progressive muscle relaxation.

Ask yourself why you feel guilty for not working 40+ hour weeks. Is it because this is what other people do at work? Did you grow up with parents who worked this way or placed high value on productivity? Do you feel like your workload is too big? When we make changes to boundaries it is normal to feel guilt. This is not a sign we are doing something wrong. It’s a sign we are doing something different. Learn how to manage the guilt by acknowledging it is there and then either distracting yourself with something absorbing or doing something to help you relax. If the guilt is based on a cultural issue or a practical problem, brainstorm possible solutions. You may decide to decrease your hours gradually over time, so it doesn’t feel like such a dramatic change and raise questions.

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