Lesson 5 – Workplace Boundaries
I learned a valuable lesson in setting boundaries at work myself when I had a career change in 2003. I left my corporate career in the private sector and took a public sector job teaching at a local college. I left home at 17 determined to be independent and building a successful career in a corporate workplace meant putting yourself out and going the extra mile. Your career progress, promotion and pay depended on performance and I was brought up with a work hard for your money mentality. My father was a workaholic and didn’t spend much time at home when I was a child, my mother also worked so I was left to my own devices as a teenager much of the time as a ‘latch key kid’ as it was termed in those days. It didn’t do me any harm, just gave me a level of independence that backfired on my parents because I had learned to take care of myself and as a sixteen year old I didn’t need to be told what to do so, as soon as I could, I left home and started work.
My parents were my work role models, they were always at work, so that’s what I learned.
In the private sector, it worked well for me (except I didn’t have much of a social life – I’ll come back to that) and I was very successful in IT sales, however, the overwork and lack of downtime, relaxation and balance in my life did catch up with me and eventually I crashed and burned with stress and depression. That’s when I changed career and went into education.
I was a fish out of water, I loved the teaching and I loved working with teenagers, but the culture was a mystery to me, I didn’t understand that it operated in a completely different way, it turned what I was used to on it’s head.
Your pay and promotion wasn’t directly performance based as was my work experience, you were put in a ‘grade’ according to your role and job title and then your pay could be topped up by additional responsibilities that were formally assigned to you. Your salary had to stay within your ‘grade’ pay scale and the only opportunity to change this was to go up the ‘ladder’ into management. When I was in IT sales, I earned commission as well as a salary, so the harder I worked and the better I became at my job, the more money I directly earned.
So, I went into what seems to me a topsy turvy culture of Public sector with my private sector mentality and that’s where I was taken advantage of by my colleagues in the department.
I say ‘taken advantage of’ because that’s how I saw it at the time, but now I understand that I just didn’t put the boundaries down I needed to.
Which, incidentally, before you start thinking, ‘yes, I have to work extra long hours as well’ is also exactly where I also went wrong with my corporate career that ended up with me being written off with stress and on antidepressants.
Working in the public sector was an eye opener and I started going down the road of overwhelming myself with work again. There was always something extra that needed to be done, so keen to impress my new bosses, I put my hand up and volunteered – trips to be arranged, risk assessments, social activities for the students were just a few of things I took on – until I noticed no one else seemed to volunteer. I was used to a culture where everyone pitched in and helped and I didn’t understand why my colleagues didn’t volunteer for things as well, in fact they seemed to have ‘sloping shoulders’ and would ditch any extra work onto my plate if they could, or so it seemed.
In reality as I understand it with the brilliance of hindsight and training in helping other people with occupational stress, they were just better disciplined with their work boundaries than I was. Their salary was not affected either way – they couldn’t get demoted for not doing extra and wouldn’t be paid extra for working more, they just didn’t say ‘yes’ and I did.
But I was also missing this bigger picture when I worked in the corporate world, something I later understood as a hypnotherapist when I treated a client who wanted help with erectile dysfunction. This chap, who will remain nameless for obvious reasons was in his mid 40’s and worked for one of the local corporate organisations. He revealed that he wanted to start having a social life, meet someone and hopefully have a family, but was worried because he didn’t ‘work’ properly and wanted to get it fixed. The doctors had told him that it was not a medical problem, there was nothing physically wrong and advised him to seek psychological help.
John (not his real name), turned out to be the most extreme workaholic I had come across professionally or personally. He was working until 3am every day before going home and collapsing exhausted, then he would have to be at work again for 9am. Because he wasn’t getting enough sleep, his mood and his performance at work was severely affected. He found it difficult to concentrate and would get angry with himself and others when he had to repeat work because there was a mistake – as a computer programmer, tracing and rectifying a mistake was time consuming. As a result, he was always behind with work, putting the extra hours in to catch up and often went into work weekends, but never did seem to catch up.
He recognised that it was a vicious cycle, the more he worked, the more behind with work he became and he was constantly worried that he was going to get sacked for not doing his job properly – so he put in the extra hours to show that he was conscientious.
The problem started with John working too hard, but he didn’t seem to be able to break the habit, be believed that if he didn’t work so hard, he would never get his job done at all and then, for sure, he would be sacked.
Any employer is going to take whatever hours you’re prepared to give them over and above your contracted hours. Private or public sector employers are not going to tell you to go home for working too much, especially if you’re doing an excellent job for them. The way most employers operate is to pile more work onto your plate until you say or demonstrate in some way, that it’s enough, that you can’t take on any more work, they rely on you setting the boundaries not them. An employer will want to get the maximum quality hours from you that it can and that is just the natural order of business.
John had become trapped in his own vicious cycle and the only person who could break that cycle and change the pattern of behaviour was John, however, the fear of losing his job held him back. Ironically Johns behaviour, although well intention, was the very cause of the breakdown he was heading towards, the same downhill spiral that I created for myself in 2002 when I crashed and burned. And we all blame the employer – but who is really responsible and who’s responsibility is it to make the change.
Yes of course your employer will experience the impact of the declining quality of work, but it is you who will suffer physical health, emotional health and mental health issues if you don’t make a change and put boundaries down around your work and personal life.
John’s case was much more extreme than mine and I have to give him credit for his resilience, it was his strength of mind that both kept him in that situation and kept him functioning (to a degree), if he hadn’t been such a strong person he would have had a breakdown long before he sought help and I met him.
A few weeks into treatment John began to understand how his behaviour was spiralling out of control and that he needed to do something about it, the problem was, he had been working in such an extreme way for so long, he had no life outside work to speak of, no family locally, no friends because he was working all the time and no hobbies so he didn’t know what he liked or where to start. He had also developed Social Anxiety and severely lacked confidence around people; he felt he didn’t have anything interesting to say and believed people would find him boring. He did want to meet new people who had common interests with him, but he had no interests to speak of, however, he came up with a plan.
John started enrolling on evening classes at the local college; not knowing what he liked, he tried different things, he chose a language, an art class and archaeology which meant three nights a week he had to leave work on time-ish and he paid for the courses up front. John wasn’t yet able to put the boundaries down directly, so initially he used something else to enforce those boundaries for him and give him a good enough reason to stop working in the evening.
The impact of his new actions were immediately positive in his life:-
After college, he arrived home at 10pm.
During the evening he switched from using the left side (logical side) of his brain constantly to the right creative hemisphere of his brain which meant his mind was able to relax.
Because his mind had relaxed, he was able to switch off mentally and was asleep by 11pm – the first time in years he had slept before 3am. Before that, he was running on adrenalin just to keep going and his brain was hyperactive and on hyper-alert.
He got a full 8 hours sleep and when he woke up in the morning he felt refreshed
Because he wasn’t so over-tired he was able to focus and concentrate at work
He completed his work in half the time it took him before, he was more proactive and he put more effort into the detail instead of just ‘getting by’.
He was more efficient and took pride in his work instead of dreading negative feedback.
He noticed a definite shift in attitude towards him from his work colleagues, they were more willing to stop and chat to him and he took the time to chat back instead of conveying his impatience and he started to receive invites to work social events.
His confidence grew, he worked less and was happier
His life improved beyond recognition all because he worked less.
For the first time in his life, John had put down boundaries and said ‘no’ to people who were making unreasonable demands at work. His employer expected commitment from it’s employees but wasn’t demanding John worked until the early hours of the morning and he discovered it was easier than he thought to leave work on time. His life didn’t fall apart, it improved, he was promoted, his self esteem improved and because the stress faded away the original condition he sought help for was no longer a problem.
John also discovered a love of archaeology and a social life outside of work.
John was worried people wouldn’t like him if he said ‘no’ to extra work, but the opposite happened, when he learned to say ‘no’ he became a more likeable person and gained respect from his work colleagues.
The workplace is a situation we can ultimately leave if it gets too bad and although it doesn’t break the behaviour cycles and you’re just as likely to end up in the same situation at the next place, we can walk away. We can’t however walk away from family takers, they can often be the most extreme of stressful situations, especially when it involves your grown up children. Tomorrow we look at a case study of a Grandma who became the unpaid full time child minder instead of enjoying the retirement she had been looking forward to for years.