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Expert Perspectives

Creating Boundaries

By Dr. Jack Muskat, Clinical Director of Mental Health

Feeling burnt out? Follow these reinvigorating tips for both employees and managers to encourage long-term rejuvenation.

Are you working long hours and lacking energy? Find it difficult to get excited about taking on projects? Dreading another video call? You may be experiencing burnout — a very real, very challenging work-related syndrome that the World Health Organization recently recognized as an “occupational phenomenon.”

And you’re not alone. Burnout is on the rise. In my own practice, I hear an increasing number of patients detailing their own symptoms. Earlier this year, a survey from the job-listings site, Indeed, found that 52 percent of respondents in the U.S. reported symptoms of burnout. (That same number was at 43 percent pre-pandemic.) In Canada, the situation is the same, if not worse: According to Microsoft’s annual Work Trend Index, 51 percent of Canadian workers feel stressed, while 47 percent report feeling exhausted while on the job, both of which are higher than the global averages of 42 percent and 39 percent respectively.

The problem, I believe, is that we aren’t giving ourselves time to rejuvenate—to recover from work. Recently I talked about burnout and the need for recovery with the journalist Celeste Headlee, author of the bestseller, Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving. Headlee argues that we live in a cult of productivity, constantly obsessing over the best way to get more done. The cycle of overwork exists at the expense of other aspects of our lives, such as health and happiness.

Historically, Headlee says, humans would work hard for short bursts of time. The classic example is the fall harvest. After, we would take time off to celebrate and recuperate—hence, the harvest festival. That pulse of hard work followed by rest no longer exists. Essentially, we’ve forgotten how to relax. Even during moments of leisure, we turn back to work — who isn’t guilty of answering a few emails while watching your favourite streaming service? The pandemic has exacerbated the problem. It’s difficult for many people to stop working when their home office exists just a few steps from the couch or bed.

In my experience, it’s helpful, and even crucial, to create boundaries that allow you the freedom to recuperate from work. These can be measures we put in place for ourselves, to look after our own well-being and overall happiness. Changes need to be made on the structural level as well. Employers can implement strategies to combat burnout and promote employee health. Here are some suggestions I’ve drawn from Headlee’s book:

  1. Reinforce your own hours. Think of yourself as your own personal shop with defined hours for opening and closing. When your shop is open, you’re available to your team and ready to work. When it’s closed, you are not doing anything related to work. At all. Don’t check your email, don’t send Slack messages, do nothing. The same goes for the breaks you take through the day. Corrupting breaks with work saps their restorative power.
  2. Stick to strict agendas and be intentional in meetings. Reduce the length of team meetings by creating an agenda and following it. If a work-related issue isn’t on the agenda, don’t bring it up. This method can also help you be more intentional about meetings, too. Think about it: Your entire team doesn’t have to be at every meeting. You know it, and so do they. Instead, determine who truly needs to sit in on a given session, and let everyone else carry on with their independent work.
  3. Improve your ability to delegate. Avoid micromanaging your team. Consider yourself a coach. Empower your employees to be in control of their own work and give them the tools they need for success. Good results will follow. And if you can’t trust an employee to work when they need to, then there’s probably a different problem that needs to be addressed.
  4. Stop multitasking. Multitasking is bad for you — seriously. In fact, Headlee found research that proves multitasking can damage our cognitive processes and even decrease brain density. Our brains simply aren’t designed to multitask. “It’s a bad idea to try and treat our own bodies and brains like a computer,” she says. “It’s much easier if you work with your body and brain instead of against it.”

Remember, boundaries can only work if you also get serious about rejuvenation. Leisure time can’t actually be relaxing if you allow work to infect it. Listen to your body and get comfortable with doing nothing. Trust me: You’ll be astonished at how much better it makes you feel.

Feeling like you need help to manage your burnout? Learn more about Medcan’s Mental Well-being program by calling 416.350.5900.

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