Setting boundaries is important for leaders’ well-being

By Dr. Bill Howatt and Louise Bradley

It’s been over seven months since the onset of the pandemic. As a leader, how concerned are you about supporting your employees through the next seven? How are you going to support yourself in the process?

COVID-19 has had a negative impact on most employees. On top of fear of getting the virus, and uncertainty about job security and financial health, your employees, like all of us, are coming to terms with the fact that there is no end in sight.

While it appears scientists are making progress towards finding vaccines and therapeutics to reduce the impact of COVID-19, no one knows when we will turn the corner. That’s tough enough, nevermind the fact that restrictions are being reintroduced, and we are preparing for the long, cold days of a Canadian winter, and, with it, cold and flu season.

When employees are feeling this level of stress and worry, many look to leaders they trust for support.

Some may assume that you have more control over their experience than is realistic. You might not have full decision-making authority or control over operations and finances, for example. On top of that, the pace at which you’re working and the expectations placed on you as a leader have likely been amplified 10-fold by the crisis. You are trying to do much more with limited resources in tandem with managing and supporting a workforce that is feeling the weight of a protracted global crisis.

Remember that your energy is finite

You may be overextending yourself to compensate for what you can’t control. If you don’t set healthy boundaries, however, it could impact your ability to do your job. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, your leadership skills suffer and employee and productivity issues can escalate. If pressure continues to mount, you are likely to become more fatigued, and, eventually, burn out.

At the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), many leaders have learned this the hard way. The unbeatable level of passion and dedication from managers and directors has sometimes led to an unsustainable pace of work, particularly during this pandemic period.

Even when our colleagues are willing to go the extra mile, it’s essential as leaders to remind employees and each other that it’s okay to say no, and it’s important to recharge. At the MHCC, setting boundaries is an ongoing process, but one that we will continue to promote.

Tips for setting boundaries

  • Recognize that setting clear boundaries is a good thing - When you set boundaries, you are making a conscious decision to prioritize self-care. Not only does this ensure you are prepared to show up and give your best each day, it sets an important example for employees.
  • Protect valuable resources - Setting boundaries ensures that you are protecting and  preserving finite resources like time and energy. You need time to turn off, rest and recharge.
  • Be open and specific in communicating boundaries - Set specific boundaries and communicate them to your employees. For example, you might set a time to eat lunch when you turn off your cellphone and listen to music, or you may decide that you won’t take calls after 6 pm unless there is an emergency. Setting and being transparent about boundaries between home and work will ensure employees have realistic expectations of you.
  • Saying no is not a bad thing - It is important to realize that it is okay to say no. To build trust, explain why you’re saying no, and, if possible, try to figure an alternative that works for you and the other party. There may be times when there are no alternatives, and this is okay, too.
  • Step back and assess -  When you’re contemplating saying no, especially if you’re feeling tired or depleted, pause for a moment and consider the unintended consequences. Stepping back allows you to screen for risk and avoid saying no too quickly.
  • Encourage employees to set boundaries - One of the ways you can support employees during these trying times is to encourage them to set their own boundaries, and commend them when they do so. They will be more inclined to do this if they see that you are walking the talk.
  • Self-evaluate - Check in occasionally to ensure you’re sticking to your boundaries. Boundaries are of little value if you don’t adhere to them consistently. And be honest about whether the boundary you set is having the desired effect. You may need to make some adjustments.

In order to be there for employees who need you, it is essential that you find a way to prioritize self-care and create space to manage your own energy and emotions. You need to be realistic about what you can accomplish in a day and mindful about setting a pace that is sustainable. By setting healthy boundaries now, you can promote a psychologically safe workplace for the remainder of the pandemic and beyond.


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