Are you struggling with keeping your work and home life separate and preventing burnout? I share my top 9 strategies to help you create strong workplace boundaries to help maximise work-life balance and prevent burnout.
You face numerous stressors as a psychologist. These include administration overload, isolation, compassion fatigue, Imposter Syndrome, dealing with grey ethical issues and workplace bullying. However, you can minimise the risk of burnout and create a sustainable, thriving career using an intentional self-care approach. One powerful self-care strategy is having clear work-life boundaries. Staying in control of your work-life balance and protecting your time, energy and values is an ongoing process. The following strategies can help you create boundaries to maximise your work-life effectiveness and prevent occupational burnout.
9 Strategies to help you confidently create your work-life boundaries.
Strengthening work-life boundaries requires you to take a mindful approach. The 9 strategies below challenge you to examine your current situation and take practical steps. Let's get started.
1. Identify what matters most to you
Finding the confidence to set and protect your boundaries is difficult, particularly for early career psychologists. Certain boundaries in a work setting are clear. These include legal, professional and some ethical boundaries. Other boundaries are more flexible and negotiable. Where you choose to place these boundaries is influenced by your needs, beliefs, resources, and intentions
After you consider legal and ethical requirements that come with being a psychologist, it’s time to consider your values. As a professional you have many decisions, including who you work with, what you charge, when you work, what modality you use, what resources you buy, how you want to work.
If you’re not clear about your boundaries, spending time reflecting on your value is an important step.
2. Identify recurring stressors
Make time for regular reflection and bring awareness to your current work situation.
How do you feel when you:
The above are some potential areas of recurring stressors that contribute to workplace burnout AND opportunities or threats to your boundaries. Identifying recurring stressors are a good place to stop and think about your boundaries.
Too much incongruence between your values and those of your workplace will create a situation where your boundaries feel under constant attack.
3. Clarify role expectations
It’s clear from my conversations with other psychologists that role expectations vary, often dramatically, between workplaces. And the lines between being a subcontractor or employee can be blurred. One clinician stated that at "My other clinic I feel confused by, in terms of am I an employee or a contractor. It feels quite grey, rather than black and white, which leaves me at times confused as to accountability and responsibility and who is managing the risk".
Legal advice on whether you are an employee or a subcontractor is recommended. And then this helps the next step, of fully clarifying your contract details. Read your contract and position description. Write down your interpretation of what the contract means. Check your interpretation with your employers understanding. Work through ambiguities. If you are employed, check it with any relevant legislation including workspace, and think about asking a lawyer to check through it as well.
Areas to ensure you understand include who is responsible for areas such as
Outside of work, do people in your life understand what you do?
My other clinic I feel confused by, in terms of am I an employee or a contractor. It feels quite grey, rather than black and white, which leaves me at times confused as to accountability and responsibility and who is managing the risk".
4. Set realistic expectations of your time and energy
Remember that drive to impress when starting out? The need to do more to quiet you inner Imposter Syndrome? It’s not sustainable. Do you want to be working these hours, taking on these responsibilities in two years’ time? If you don’t, stop setting up unsustainable expectations.
Whilst flexible boundaries are important in helping you adjust to the changing demands that are part of managing the ebb and flow that is work-life balance, there comes a tipping point. This occurs when your mindful decision to do more, to bring work home, to talk about work at home, becomes less of a choice and more of a reflection of a loss of control about keeping work-life separate. This seepage is an indicator that you are slipping towards overwhelm and burnout.
Think about your current individual situation.
The digital time black hole
The time spent reading, organising and responding to emails is estimated to take hours each day It is a big productivity drain. If you want to check for yourself you can track your time and see for yourself how much time and energy you take with this task.
Digital time drains include engaging in tasks such as responding to emails / phones and texts from your workplace and/or clients outside of hours.
If the digital world is overwhelming, a regular digital declutter can help.
5. Make Imposter Syndrome your best business buddy
The imposter is that pesky voice in your head that tells you that you aren’t good enough, you don’t know enough, you can’t do that, even when there is plenty of evidence to the contrary
When that pesky voice is driving you to do more, to be more, this has a direct impact on your time and energy levels. It can mean putting your hand up to do things that aren’t your responsibility to prove something to yourself and others. It can mean putting in extra hours so you know just what to say and do in the next session with a particular client.
You can flip this though. When Imposter Syndrome is reframed to be the quiet voice of questioning and curiosity it can be your best business buddy.
Sit down and listen to it and let it guide you into doing a reality check.
As a bonus, the Imposter Syndrome can help test out the congruence of your workplace setting as well as strengthen your interpersonal boundaries. Identifying people you trust can result in lowering your boundaries in some areas and lifting them in others.
6. Own your diary
You are a limited resource. No matter how hard you work, there is still only 24 hours in a day.
Use your diary as a tool. Mark in your self-care time, and any other time that is important to you. Mark in your holidays. Don't let admin fill your diary out until the end of the year without breaks. Do that client audit and work out how many client hours you are doing a week. Is this sustainable? During times of crisis many psychologists report a need to ‘step up’ and do more for their community. Whilst this may be sustainable in the short term, it can create a chronic lack of control over work-life imbalance leading into burnout.
Whilst flexible boundaries are important in helping you manage the changing demands that are part of the ebb and flow of work-life balance, there comes a tipping point
7. Have clear work policies and procedures
Your work setting will have these policies and procedures. Official policies include, but are not limited to, missed appointments, working with separated parents, social media, how you communicate with clients etc. However, there are likely to be gaps. And if you are a solo psychologist, you will be creating your own policies and procedures.
Create your policies to not only include necessary legal, professional and ethical obligations, but to also prioritise your self-care. Think about:
Even though you are only one person, having established policies helps you create and maintain work-lifeboundaries. They add clarity for both you and your clients and help you avoid the stress of making decision making on the run). *As a note - people do sell their policies. They take time to develop and it is rude to ask people to share them for free.
8. Establish a work-life transition process
Having a mindful routine that helps delineate work from home is helpful in letting your mind know that work is done for the day. Being able to rest from work demands is essential in maintaining control of your work-life balance. Some strategies include:
Do you have a favourite transition strategy?
9. The five allies you need to defend your boundaries
After you have set boundaries congruent with your values and designed to honour your time, energy and what matters to you, it’s then up to you to defend them.
Broken boundaries can be subtle. Although the impact of stress is often cumulative it can take one thing to make you realise that you have lost that sense of control you once had over your work and home life, leading to exhaustion, resentment and burnout. Many factors go into why your boundaries become porous, why you say 'Yes' instead of 'No'. Interfering factors include Imposter Syndrome, compassion (and lack of self-compassion), overt and covert pressure, workplace culture, financial considerations, lack of clear policy and procedures, guilt, and an inability to prioritise self-care.
Your five best allies in defending your boundaries are:
Maintaining control of your work-life boundaries to avoid slipping into overwhelm and burnout takes effort. It means getting intentional about your self-care. The encroaching of work demands into your personal time, energy and what you hold important ranges from very clear breaching through activities such as workplace bullying and exploitation, to more insidious and subtle practices. Without a preventative and proactive self-care approach you are placing yourself at risk. Creating clear boundaries is one of the key self-care strategies. Use the questions and reflections in this article as a guide to help you prevent occupational burnout and improve work-life harmony.
OVER TO YOU
I’d love to hear your experience of work boundaries and burnout. Is it the digital time suck, the weight of Imposter Syndrome, or the exhaustion of trying to work out the essential from the non essential administration tasks? Or something else?
If you found this article useful please share.
If you want me on your side as you honour your own needs, so you can turn up as your best self for your clients without sacrificing your home life, I'd love to help. .
Until next time, take care of yourself
Are you loving and thriving in your work as a psychologist at the moment? Or are you struggling and feel like you're moving through quicksand? Or maybe somewhere in between?
Wherever you are, that's OK.
I know that prioritising yourself, making hard decisions around self-care and saying NO can be difficult. Particularly now where there is a continuing increase in demand for mental health services as people struggle with the ongoing impact of COVID19.
You want to be of service. You need clients and you need to work.
However, you also need a sustainable business. Squeezing in an occasional extra client or going without a lunch break once in a blue moon happens for many reasons. Doing this on a regular basis starts to add up.
Without appropriate counterbalances, work overload often catches up with people in the end. And then the overwhelming exhaustion, cynicism and poor productivity impacts on you, your clients and the profession.
You can come back from this, people do. But recovery time is not measured in days or weeks, it is sometimes measured in years. Depending on the source of burnout, it can be exhibited in leaving employment, career change, early retirement, retraining, and/or withdrawal from direct client services.
When you look at it like this, do you really NOT have enough time for self-care?
What makes taking care of yourself difficult?
There are many factors involved in making prioritising self-care difficult.
However, the reason most people give for not engaging in self-care is that they "ran out of time" or "I didn't have enough time".
Yep, no.... that's not it.
Here are four real reasons why you say you don’t have enough time.
1. Your current values and priorities don’t allow this task to fit. Life can become full of anything you choose. Work, study, children, children’s activities, gym, coffee dates, meetings, etc etc. There is no shortage of things you can do.
Hard question alert.
Q: Is what you are currently doing congruent with what is most important to you?
2. You're worried about looking stupid. It takes commitment to change your habits so that looking after yourself comes first. What about if you try this change and it doesn’t work out? Then you've wasted your limited time and resources. Your thoughts can also include self-chastisement in that you should already know how to look after myself.
3. You've bought into the busyness myth .
In a world where being busy is seen to be a badge of honour, “I’m just too busy. I don’t have enough time” has become a default. It’s easier than saying ”I know I should do that, but I actually don’t want to/it’s too hard for me at the moment/I don’t like it/I’m ignoring all things people at the moment/etc”
How about trying to be super honest (at least with yourself) about what you really want to say.
Here are some alternatives
4. You don’t love yourself enough.
This can be hard to hear.
Whether it is because you are putting your needs last out of habit, or, you genuinely believe you are not as deserving as others.
If you find yourself saying, Oh, I don't have time to sit and meditate for five minutes, I'll just take 10 minutes for lunch time because I have a report to write, I don't have time to prepare a healthy meal. I don't have time to go for a walk. I don't have time to journal. I don't have time to X, whatever it is. If these are common responses to decisions you are making, firstly look at the three points above, but then look at what you are saying about your relationship with yourself.
You are worth it. Okay. You need it. You owe it to yourself. You owe it to your family. You owe it to your clients.
What you can do about reducing your busyness.
You ARE a limited resource. No matter how hard you work, there is still only 24 hours in a day.
Shifting your boundary fences to extend your clinic hours, adding on a new extra- curricular activity for your child, taking on extra clients, volunteering, pushing through…..can be a slippery slope to burnout.
I've been there, I've said yes to doing more and more because my clients needed it. When what I needed was to say NO and spend more time with my young family.
Another hard question alert
Q: What do you need to say NO to?
When you investigate what's behind your claim of “I don't have enough time”, it can be confronting. However, it's a great place to start.
You HAVE to look at your priorities and values.
And if you don't, if you just keep saying it and not change anything, nothing's going to change.
You might find that you start to feel resentful and neglected. As the demands pile on and you are not taking care of yourself, you may start to hate your life, crave for things that just aren't there. Burnout may start to creep up on you.
So, take “I don't have enough time” as your cue to dig deeper, examine your beliefs, your priorities, to engage in honest communication, and to work on removing those barriers that stand between you and your self-care.
There is no doubt that some seasons of your life, some days, are much harder than others. Knowing what self-care you need and how to integrate it into your daily life can make the world of difference to you,
You're worth it.
Until next time,
* My aim is for these posts is meant to useful, interesting and/or inspiring. They are not designed to be used for therapy.. If you are experiencing stress please contact your GP or mental health professional.
Kim Ross is a Child Psychologist and Founder of Positive Young Minds.