Work does not define us

Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

We may love the job we have but it’s not the be all and end all of who we are.  So many during this pandemic have worked so hard for so long, sacrificing time with their own families to put the needs of others first, working long hours and without boundaries.

I used to work for a financial services company, and I did enjoy my job.  This was partly due to the fact I also had a side role within the organisation as Charity & Community Relations Manager, which meant I got to go out and meet people, represent the company at events, sponsor both large and small things.  Often it meant attending events in the evenings or at weekends. I didn’t get paid for this job, but it came with it’s own perks. I would regularly work from 6am to 6pm, only restricted by the hours my daughter’s nursery was open, and then attend something of an evening.  My work boundary was not clear.

Sadly, this didn’t help my employment status there as when we were taken over by another company, they reviewed all the staff and all they saw was me going off to other events, without knowing anything about what I was doing or why.  I was made redundant and when I asked what would happen to the secretarial support, I had for this other role they had no clue.

From that point on I decided that work was a means to an end and that I would not let it invade my life to the same level again.

Fast forward to the construction and commissioning phases of the new hospital wing and I’d doing long hours and unsociable things, but it had a specific timeframe.  I knew it wasn’t going to be every day or week.  There would be the odd occasions where work/life boundaries would be crossed, but I also knew that I’d get that time back either in hours or cash. And once the project had finished and the new building opened, that would be it.  Since then, no role has made me feel I must be there all hours.  I know when to stop and I’m quite clear on that.  If I do extra, I take that time back.

Having boundaries helps safeguard our time, energy and purpose, and how fulfilled we are.  That doesn’t mean we don’t think about work when we’re not working, or we don’t think about personal stuff during the working day, it’s not that black and white. We can’t just switch from one thing to another.  However, boundaries help us dedicate our mind and energy to work time and gives us time to set aside to recharge.  There can be a palpable shift moving from work time to home time. 

But in a time of more working from home, it can be difficult to see those boundaries and stick to them.  Jayne Hardy wrote six ideas on how we can achieve that balance:

  1. Understand your worth – if we never feel we’re enough we can throw ourselves into work in order to gain some of that enoughness, to make us feel useful and have meaning.  In doing so though we can move further away from being enough as we tire and burnout.  Those around us will start to expect a level of output, or if you always answer the work phone late at night, the expectation is that you’ll always do that. Understanding your worth and value gives an awareness and appreciation of our achievements and what we can offer, underlining how and when we communicate, what we might be willing to do, our motivations and how we react when our boundaries are crossed. We become a bit more particular about what we taken on.
  2. Be clear and concise – when we communicate honestly and clearly, we leave no room for uncertainty about our meaning. It encourages others to do the same and leaves little room for misinterpretation. Its ok to be to the point, follow up on missed deadlines, check in and share our perspective.
  3. Manage and negotiate expectations – when we start work, we have a job description and contract that sets out the basis for mutual expectations that come with expected compensation (pay, holiday etc). If we don’t want to accept those terms, then don’t accept the job, or if we disagree there might be room for negotiation.  However, we all know that the reality is often different, roles evolved, and skills and experience draw us into other things and before we know it what we do has no bearing on our official job description.  When expectations are not met this can lead to consequences and outcomes that may make us feel threatened.  It is good to talk through changes as they arise and reset those expectations on both sides.
  4. Identify your non-negotiables – we often have to trade of a late meeting with clawing an hour back here or there, but there are things in life that should be set in stone.  My example earlier about finishing at 6pm because that’s when the nursery closed.  It could be something that takes us away from our loved ones that we are not prepared to do on a regular basis.  I make sure that any evening meeting I have during the working week doesn’t start before 8pm.  This is because I don’t finish work until 5.30pm then I have to get home (about half an hour), then I’d like my dinner and spend some time with my husband. I make it very clear that I cannot start meetings any earlier than that. Other non-negotiables may be to support our own mental and physical wellbeing, like attending an activity or club, but it could be that Tuesdays is always the day you put aside to have supper with your elderly parents.
  5. Remote work needs boundaries too – Over the last couple of years it has been difficult for many having to work from home.  Particularly if you have children or partners that were also having to stay home. Not only does it make it harder to step away, but also puts additional strain on those home relationships. 
  6. Beware of burnout – burnout is described as a “syndrome conceptualised as a result from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”.  This usually manifests as loss of energy, exhaustion, increased distancing from activities, negative feelings and cynicism and reduced efficiency. The more passionate we feel towards our job the easier it is to justify long hours, because we derive pleasure from what we do.  That’s why so many NHS staff are now suffering the aftershocks of the pandemic.  They’ve been on full throttle for so long that they are quite literally worn out, and now starting to resent it.

Hardy suggested we must cultivate that laser focus, compassion, tenacity and drive but in order to do that we need something outside that we can derive pleasure from. Burning the candle at both ends is does not do anyone any favours. No one aspires to be the frazzled person who has no respite and no boundaries.  There is a need for space between self and work. Taking the breaks (coffee breaks, lunch breaks, holiday and sickness when we’re unwell) we’re entitled to is a good place to start.

This is why now, I have quite fastidious in my time keeping.  That’s not to say I watch the clock, I often do extra, may not get a lunch break if I have back-to-back meetings, but I do try to make a point of going out for a walk at lunchtime, whether I’m at the office or working from home.  I do turn my laptop and phone off at the end of the working day.  My boss is aware I have many commitments outside of work, and sometimes I have to put those first.  I will take the annual leave I am entitled to even if I don’t go anywhere or have anything particular to do.

What are your non-negotiable boundaries?


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