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How Boundaries Can Prevent Burnout

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When we don’t set boundaries, we overcommit ourselves and say yes to things we don’t want to do or aren’t able to do. We neglect our needs in favor of trying to make other people happy. Inadequate boundaries lead to burnout.

We all have limited amounts of time, energy, and money. Therefore, we have to make mindful decisions about how we use our resources. Boundaries help ensure that we don’t deplete all of our resources—spending our time, energy, and money on things that aren’t priorities for us.

We also have to replenish our resources or we’ll become drained, burnt out, and resentful. We refill our “tanks” through self-care activities such as getting enough sleep, eating healthfully, exercising, practicing our spiritual beliefs, socializing, having fun, asking for what we need, and setting limits on things that drain us.

It’s impossible to please everyone

As people-pleasers, we spend most of our time meeting other people’s expectations. This increases the chances that others will be happy with us, but it doesn’t necessarily mean our own needs are being met.  

Signs of burnout

We can’t neglect our own needs indefinitely. If we do, we’ll end up burnt out.

Burnout is a chronic form of work-related stress. We experience it when the demands of our job exceed our ability to cope. Researchers identified three main components of burnout: physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism or lack of interest in your job, and feeling ineffective or like you aren’t accomplishing anything (Maslach & Leiter, 2016).

Other signs of burnout include:

  • Feeling unappreciated
  • Dreading what’s on your calendar
  • Not wanting to get up in the morning
  • Feeling resentful or angry
  • Apathy or no longer caring about things
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Physical aches or pains (like headaches or stomachaches)
  • Pessimism
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling ineffective

If you’re a people-pleaser or perfectionist, you may be particularly vulnerable to burnout because you have a tendency to overwork and sacrifice your well-being for the benefit of others.

Burnout is a difficult experience. However, the good news is that burnout can often be avoided or it can be remedied if you’re already suffering from its effects. Learning to set boundaries is an important tool when you’re dealing with burnout.

Boundaries protect us from burnout.

Weak boundaries often contribute to burnout. Boundaries are limits that we set to communicate how we want to be treated and what we’re willing to do. They are important because they protect us from being mistreated.

At work, boundaries are a way to assert our needs and rights. These include a need for fair compensation, time off, and to be given credit for our work. They also include our right to work in safe conditions, to be treated with respect, and paid for time worked. If your needs are consistently unmet or your rights are violated repeatedly, you’re likely to experience burnout.

Overworking is one of the most common boundary-related problems people have at work. Technology and global marketplaces have made it possible and often expected that we’ll work beyond the traditional 9-5 schedule. You may take work home with you, work on weekends and holidays, or take on too many clients or projects.

This may initially be acceptable or even feel good because you’re making your supervisor or clients happy, but it’s not sustainable. You’ll end up exhausted and grumpy. Your family and friends will miss spending quality time with you. And over time, your work may suffer, you’ll resent your coworkers or clients, and your enthusiasm for work will dwindle. In other words, you’ll be vulnerable to burnout.

How to set boundaries at work

Saying no or setting boundaries at work means you’re less likely to get burnt out because your needs, such as your need for time off, fair compensation, safe working conditions, and respect, are being met. As a result, you’ll be more engaged in work, feel good about your accomplishments, and feel capable of overcoming challenges that arise.

Examples of boundaries that can help you prevent burnout

  • Not checking work email on the weekends.
  • Taking a lunch break.
  • Telling your boss that you need more time to complete an assignment.
  • Asking for help.
  • Closing your office door to avoid interruptions.
  • Calling out a colleague for taking credit for your work.
  • Speaking to your boss or HR when you experience workplace discrimination.
  • Leaving work on time.
  • Clarifying what’s your responsibility and what isn’t.

Setting boundaries at work can understandably feel vulnerable. You don’t have as much power as your boss or employer—and most people don’t want to risk being fired, even from a job they dislike.

These tips can help make setting boundaries at work easier and more effective.

  • Be clear about what you need and what you’re asking for.
  • Be consistent. For example, if you ask your boss not to call on your day off, but you pick up when she does, your boundary will never work.
  • Be professional and polite.
  • Seek outside help if your health or safety is in danger and your employer will not rectify the situation.
  • When possible, change your own behavior rather than expecting others to change. For example, if you’re uncomfortable with your coworkers gossiping over lunch, you can choose not to have lunch with them; perhaps, listen to your favorite podcast or eat your lunch in another location.

For a fuller description of how to set boundaries at work, please see Chapter 7 of The Better Boundaries Workbook.

You can experience burnout at work and at home.

Burnout doesn’t just happen at work. A similar phenomenon can happen in your personal life. If you’re doing and giving all of the time (housework, carpool, volunteering, etc.) and not refilling your tank, you’re also going to get burnt out. And if you’re like me, reaching your boiling point at home isn’t pretty! Most of us do a better job managing our emotions at work, but are quicker to anger, protest, and yell at home. When this happens, we’ve let our need for appreciation, rest, or connection go unmet.

overwhelmed mother and her baby

Boundaries may seem unkind. It would be nice if we could say yes all the time and never disappoint others. But no one has the ability to meet everyone else’s expectations all of the time and take care of our own needs as well.

The secret to being able to continue to help others, be a good employee, or take care of your family for the long haul is to set boundaries when needed. Boundaries safeguard your resources and your physical and emotional well-being. Without these, you’ll inevitably burnout.

©2021 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.
photo courtesy of Canva.com

Reference: Maslach, C. & Leiter, M. P. (2016). Understanding the burnout experience: Recent research and its implications for psychiatry. World Psychiatry, 15(2), 103–111. 

Read more about boundaries

How to Set Boundaries with Kindness

5 Tips for Setting Boundaries Easier

7 Types of Boundaries That You Need to Set

Better Boundaries Book

Learn to Set Better Boundaries

This evidence-based workbook will show you how to set healthy boundaries across all aspects of life—without sacrificing your kindness or compassion for others. You’ll learn to define your boundaries and discover why they’re so important for your emotional well-being.

Sharon Martin, DSW, LCSW is a licensed psychotherapist specializing in codependency recovery with an online practice serving California residents. For the past 20 years, she’s been helping perfectionists and people-pleasers overcome self-doubt and shame, embrace their imperfections, learn to set boundaries, and reclaim their self-worth. Sharon writes the blog Conquering Codependency for Psychology Today and is the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism and The Better Boundaries Workbook.

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