How Lack of Boundaries Leads to Burnout

As a coach I work with a variety of leaders (from mid-level managers to high-ranking executives), helping them to reduce their stress, recover from burnout, improve work-life balance and operate more effectively.

Time after time, after I do a little digging, a core problem emerges. Their lack of boundaries with coworkers or clients is stealing prime time and energy, blocking them from optimal productivity and effectiveness.

busy meeting burnout

If this is happening to you, the constant interruptions and demands for attention are relentless. They make your workday feel out of control. Stress gets maximized, and less “urgent” big picture progress gets stalled.

Workplace stress and workload are key drivers of burnout.

A lack of boundaries will cause you to take on workloads, priorities or burdens that aren’t yours to carry. The good news is that once you implement some strategic boundaries and practices, your stress levels will usually drop.

You’ll be more focused, and have more time and energy to get key things done. This will improve your confidence and dial back any fears about your productivity and effectiveness, providing further protection against burnout.

Here are some insights that may shine light on the core issues, helping you to set up the boundaries you need to reduce unnecessary chaos and do your best work:

1)    Set apart time to focus on your essential work, and protect it

First, identify what it is that you need to do, that you’re not getting done. Many leaders that I coach complain that they get constant, excessive demands for attention. Pleas for help and unnecessary interruptions from their team or other people in the organization drive them to distraction (literally!). They struggle to devote time to critical high-level thinking or planning.

Figure out what you need to get done. How many hours a week will you need to do it? Decide when you could fit it into your schedule. Implement it.

There are different ways to do this. One client I worked with found that closing her door, with a “Do Not Disturb” sign taped to it, helped to stop unnecessary interruptions. During that time, she logged off her email and the office chat system. She had also informed her team that she would be regularly setting aside a certain time of day to work on her own projects. No interruptions, except for emergencies.

Or course, she got tested. You will be, too. People will knock on the door. People will call. And they aren’t emergencies. Don’t teach people that your words don’t carry weight. Show them that when you set a boundary, you mean it. Be gracious, but make it clear that you need to do this. And tell them why.

In one case where people still wouldn’t respect the request, my client started going somewhere else in the building to do their key work. Sometimes you have to do what you have to do. This isn’t just for your own sanity and productivity, it’s for the benefit of the organization that hired you to do this work.

2)    Don’t create (or reinforce) unrealistic, unnecessary expectations

Are you a highly conscientious person? Do you work at a high level of excellence, always doing your best? Are you the person who everyone knows they can count on? This is a good thing. The personality trait of conscientiousness is directly associated with success in the workplace. Top leaders tend to be very conscientious, industrious people.

Unfortunately, conscientiousness has a dark side: it’s a significant risk factor for burnout.

Does your conscientiousness lead you to set standards for your work, that simply aren’t necessary?

In one case, an account executive who served a prestigious list of clients had “trained” them to expect him to respond to them immediately. To be available on weekends. To be available during vacations. It was clearly part of his success, but it was also unsustainable. He was dangerously close to severe burnout, so something had to change.

As a start, he forced himself to take longer to respond to people. He’d offer to do for them what was appropriate, but not over the top. Next, he turned off business phone and put it away, out of sight, on the weekends, not to be picked up until Monday morning. His clients and colleagues finally got an “out of office” autoresponder message when he went on vacation (glory hallelujah!).

The world didn’t fall apart. In fact, when he did this in conjunction with other positive changes (drinking less alcohol to cope, getting enough sleep, doing relaxation practices), he felt like a new person in a matter of months. He started to enjoy his work more again, too.

This might feel out of reach for you in your situation. I encourage you to smart small. Look for any opportunity to improve your boundaries and decrease unnecessary, unreasonable expectations in your work environment. You will find them, if you start looking!

3)    Know your personality needs and act accordingly

Are you an introvert or an extravert?

Extraverts are people who get energized by being around others. They love parties and social events. Chatting (about anything and everything) is their favorite pastime. They love open office designs, with no barriers between work spaces. What better way to find people to chat with?

Introverts get drained by social interactions, and need time on their own to recharge. Open office plans are a nightmare. Not surprisingly, introversion is a risk factor for developing burnout.

I had a client who felt extraordinarily stressed and drained by her work. She was a manager with excessive workloads that were difficult to modify, but we soon found a source of stress that she had control over.

“My coworkers continually come by my desk,” she told me. “They chat with me. I’m continually invited for coffee. They invite me to join them for lunch every day, and they won’t take no for an answer. On top of that, they love to gossip and complain. It’s totally exhausting”

She was an introvert, but hadn’t realized it. Her social coffee and lunch “breaks” were draining her more than her work was! She needed to have better boundaries, so that she could use those precious breaks to decompress and recharge.

Next, she designated “group lunch days” for Thursdays. That was the day, the only day, that she’d join her friends at lunch. On the other days, she’d have a blissfully quiet lunch on her own.

We also determined that she could use her train commute to recharge from the busyness of the office. She committed to putting her phone in “airplane” mode for the duration of the trip. No checking email. No unwelcome phone calls. Instead, she would listen to soft music or relaxing spa sounds and intentionally relax. With this in place, she wouldn’t spend the first part of her evening at home just trying to unwind. She would arrive home unwound!

Examine your work life closely. Weed out unnecessary drivers of burnout.

I encourage you to closely examine the things in your work life that frustrate you and cause you stress. What are you doing, or agreeing to do, that isn’t really necessary and makes your day exhausting? Where and how can you adjust people’s expectations? How can you set your day (and your boundaries) up so that what most needs to get done, gets done?

I would bet that there are a number of things that you can control and improve, simply by becoming aware of them and implementing new, firm changes. Changes that help you to do your best work, with much less stress.

If you’ve found this article to be helpful, here are some other articles I’ve written to help you understand and prevent burnout, and establish healthy boundaries with others:

Three Signs It’s Burnout and Not Just Stress

Self-Care Drives Leadership and Career Success

Stressed Out? You May Be Too Conscientious

Boundaries: It’s Time to Say No When You Need To

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