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Have you come across that person in your workplace who seems to take more than their fair share? They need more flexibility, more emotional support or more reassurance than anyone else? Their ‘give and take scales’ are tipped decidedly towards the take!
With the onset of the pandemic, we have seen an avalanche of research and articles telling us how important it is to provide our staff with more flexibility, increased understanding about their personal circumstances and extra support for their mental health and wellbeing. Don’t get me wrong, COVID-19 has accelerated workplace practices I’ve been advocating for 20 years. However, one of the unintended consequences I’m seeing, is leaders and business owners becoming overly accommodating, to the detriment of themselves and the business.
It can be heart warming to hear stories of leaders helping staff to open their own businesses, providing support in the middle of the night when someone feels low and even helping a staff member search for a missing pet (all true!). On the flip side, I also hear how that leader hardly gets to see his/her own kids, is physically and emotionally exhausted, and feels out of their depth.
Whether the staff member has a sense of entitlement or is just needing extra support during this challenging time, we can put steps in place to manage the impact on us. I recently spoke to Ellen Jackson, Registered Psychologist and host of Potential Psychology Podcast, about establishing personal boundaries. Ellen explained that boundaries are on a spectrum between being overly porous and too rigid, and in the current climate she is seeing people move back and forth along the spectrum. We be ‘extra nice’, someone hurts us or takes advantage, so we distance ourselves or put up walls to protect ourselves. So how do we draw the line and maintain healthy workplace relationships?
Where do we set the limits?
What is stressful for me, may be a walk in the park for you. To know where to set our own personal limits, performance coach, Melody Wilding, recommends conducting a boundary audit. This involves paying attention to people and situations that cause you to feel distress or discomfort, usually in a pattern of three emotions – guilt, resentment and anger – which signal a boundary has been crossed.
Define what you need.
Your boundary audit has identified when a boundary has been crossed, now you need to determine what needs to change and where to set the limits. If someone is frequently in your office talking about their relationship issues, do you need to change the conversation to how you can assist them to get professional support. If someone refuses to work the afternoon shift because of their children, which means you never get to see your kids, can you come to an arrangement where they share the shifts.
Give yourself permission to set boundaries.
Often what prevents us from setting boundaries is our fear of how the person might react. Will they be angry, will they think I’m not a good leader/colleague, will they think I don’t care about them.
It’s important to remember that you are not responsible for the other person’s response or reaction. Boundaries are set to protect you and your wellbeing; it is possible to have a healthy relationship that meets both your needs. You have the right to set boundaries, so give yourself permission to do so.
I find it easiest to go into these conversations thinking of it as a negotiation. This isn’t about your needs over theirs or who is right/wrong. The arrangement should aim to be mutually beneficial, respecting the boundaries of both sides.
In her podcast, Relationship Boundaries and Self Care, Ellen recommends this approach to the conversation “I know this important to you, or that you need this or that from me, but what I need is time or space or to be ok with saying ‘no’ or for you to listen to my perspective, or whatever else it is that you need.” You might then ask them to describe the situation from their perspective and what they need.
Remember you are not responsible for their response. Pushback, especially if you are setting boundaries for the first time, is to be expected. Whilst you shouldn’t feel the need to overexplain or justify your boundary, it is important for you to explain the consequences for you, if you don’t protect it.
Continue to Set Boundaries
Often communicating your boundaries to someone once isn’t enough. People may need reminding of your boundaries, particularly if they have been engaging with you in a certain way over a long period. Whilst we will be understanding that they may slip up, it is important that each time your boundary is crossed, you remind them of what you need.
Do we handle mental health differently?
This is an area where we can easily get in over our head. I am an advocate for creating workplaces where colleagues feel free to discuss their mental illness or mental health crisis. However, we need to be clear on where our role in supporting them, starts and stops. If they came to talk to us about their collapsed lung, we wouldn’t grab a scalpel and start surgery. Similarly, if they are having a mental health crisis, we shouldn’t try to counsel them. Our role as a mental health first aider isn’t to know all the answers and solve their problems, it is to show care, listen and guide them to people or places where they can provide professional help.
Boundaries are the limits you set between you and other people in order to protect who and what is important to you. As a leader, you are not responsible for providing someone bottomless support. Good boundaries are a sign of emotional health, self-respect and strength. It is how we teach people how to treat us.
Claire Huntington has over 15 years’ experience in senior and executive level human resource management and strategic leadership positions. Claire learnt HR under the wings of great mentors and through trial and error. She has a very practical hands-on approach to HR and management, and isn’t afraid to look outside the box. Claire is also mum to three school aged firecrackers and is an avid photographer in her spare time.
Disclaimer: The material contained in this publication is of a general nature only. It is not, nor is intended to be, legal advice. If you wish to act based on the content of this publication, we recommend that you seek professional advice.