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'Avoid burnout and maintain productivity you can be proud of by installing work boundaries'

‘Our boundaries need to be clearer than ever, with ourselves and with others’, writes Aoife McElwain.

Image: Shutterstock/Sam Aus

EARLIER THIS MONTH, the WRC ruled that a worker who had to check her email outside of hours and work more than 48 hours a week was entitled to compensation. This has kickstarted a conversation about working hours.

Aoife McElwain, freelance writer, creative events planner and author of Slow at Work: How To Work Less, Achieve More And Regain Your Balance in an Always-On World, argues that practicing reasonable boundaries between ourselves and our work is beneficial to our overall productivity.

The story of Gráinne O’Hara, a former Business Development Executive at Kepak Convenience Foods Unlimited Co who was awarded €7,500 after being required to respond to out-of-hours emails, could potentially burst the mindset bubble of toxic work cultures where employees feel under pressure to be on the clock all the time.

Whether you’re your own worst boss as a self-employed person, or you’re working in an environment where you feel the pressure to be on call 24/7, it can be very easy to slip into a mindset of feeling powerless to change. ‘If I don’t manage my email inbox during out-of-office hours,’ we worry, ‘I could lose my job or miss out on an opportunity that could further my career’. ‘If I’m not available to my boss at all times of the day and night,’ we fret, ‘they might find someone else who is willing to do so.’

But the fact is we are entitled to push back and protect our time off; it’s actually the law. In response to the O’Hara vs Kepak case, employment law expert and solicitor Richard Grogan said “the law is very clear”.

“Employees are entitled to an uninterrupted 11 hour break between finishing work and starting work the following day.”

Always On Call

Have you ever gotten a text, Facebook or What’s App message that says, “I got your Out of Office email message that says you’re on holiday” and then goes on to ask you a question about work that is 100% not urgent, by any stretch of the imagination?

Our access to connectivity is a truly incredible tool for developing our businesses. But cases like O’Hara’s highlight the downside of this constant accessibility. The pervasiveness of our emails, updates and pings bleedings into our downtime are showing no signs of slowing down.

Our boundaries need to be clearer than ever, with ourselves and with others, so that we can have both a physical and mental break from the workplace.

A False Sense of Urgency

Do you sometimes feel like you’re a prisoner of urgency at work? Everything is urgent. Everything has to be done right now. But, think about it; how on earth can we ever accomplish anything if everything has to be done this second?

In her book The Work Revolution: Freedom and Excellence For All by Julie Clow, the author makes the distinction between True Urgency and False Urgency, and the need to stay vigilant about whether the problem you’re facing in any given moment is, in fact, urgent.

If it’s urgent, well, then it’s time to put the head down and sort it out. That’s when our access to connectivity really comes into its own. But taking a moment to pause and ask yourself if this problem/email/spreadsheet can wait, and whether something else – like, oh, I don’t know, your personal life perhaps? – should be prioritised right now, is a huge skill in navigating the slippery slope of burnout.

Recovery Time

One of the most important mindset shifts I experienced from writing Slow at Work, which focuses on recovering from burnout in the workplace, was embracing the idea of recovery time being a part of my job. If we think of ourselves as athletes and of work as an endurance of high performance, then to be the best at work we’re going to need to take our recovery time a little more seriously.

One of the many diverse workers and busy people I interviewed for Slow at Work was the Irish sprint hurdles athlete and national record holder, Derval O’Rourke. “There are a lot of parallels between work and sports,” O’Rourke told me. “They’re both about performance. In athletics, you train really well, you eat really well, and you recover really well. In sport, you take the recovery time and you would never, ever feel guilty about it. It’s part of training.”

As O’Rourke puts it, everyone who is trying to perform at a high level should factor in recovery time to avoid burnout. It turns out that having clear, structured yet flexible boundaries at work can also help us be better at our jobs in the long run.

Slow at Work Boundaries

Here are three ideas of how to install some reasonable and achievable boundaries at work that can help you avoid burnout and maintain a level of productivity you can be proud of.

  • Have an honest conversation with your colleagues, supervisor and/or boss about the pressure you feel under to be on call 24/7.

Is the expectation of immediate response really there, or when your colleagues email you out-of-hours are they simply trying to get things off their own to do list?

Work with your team to set some clear boundaries around communication. If you agree that you can be contacted out-of-hours in the case of an emergency, clearly define what constitutes an emergency to avoid confusion.

  • Turn off your email notifications during out of office hours to give yourself a break.

Whatever your situation, you are entitled to do this. Resist the urge to check your emails; they will be there for you the next time you log in. Agree with your close colleagues, supervisor and/or boss the conditions under which they can contact you in case of an emergency.

  • Remember that recovery time is a part of your job.

Don’t ever feel guilty about taking a reasonable amount of time off work – you are entitled to this, by law. Think of work as a marathon that we need to be fit for. You can not be your best at work if you’re burnt out.

Aoife McElwain is a freelance writer, creative events planner and author of Slow at Work.


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