Creating mental boundaries between work and life can help us to cope with work-related pressures and prevent chronic stress. As the new work year begins, protect your wellbeing with these simple tips.
Responding to emails on your phone after dinner. Hearing that dreaded ‘ping’ during the weekend. A call from a colleague while you’re at the supermarket. Since the advent of smartphones, the work day no longer ends when we leave the office. And while it may feel productive to work around the clock, the lack of down time and boundaries between work and life can have the opposite effect.
The expectation to be ‘always on’ can compound work-related pressures, causing a sense of suffocation that may result in chronic stress and diminished wellbeing. According to research at the University of Illinois, workers with greater boundary control over their work and personal lives are better at creating a stress buffer to prevent them from mood disturbance and negative rumination (or getting trapped in a negative, self-perpetuating thought loop).
In addition, exposure to the light from screens in the evening may interfere with sleep hormone melatonin, resulting in poor sleep or insomnia, which further exacerbates daytime stress. It’s that much harder to cope when you’re sleep-deprived.
The good news is that there are simple measures you can take to protect yourself.
Tips for boundary control
- Define expectations. Clarify expectations with your boss or HR, colleagues, associates and clients. Depending on your role, it may be reasonable to say that you’re unable to respond to non-urgent work messages after 6pm. You may say that you’ll check work emails once over the weekend and respond to anything pressing on Monday morning. This relieves the sense of obligation or guilt for not responding immediately each time you receive a message outside of work time and may deter others from contacting you out of hours.
- Switch off. Consider turning off work email alerts when not at work or putting your phone on silent after hours.
- Remove cues. Whether you work from home or take your work laptop or tablet home with you, consider removing your devices from living spaces after hours. By removing this work-related cue, you’re less likely to be reminded of work and tumble into thinking of all the things you need to do tomorrow. If the computer is out of the way, you’ll also be less tempted to ‘quickly check your emails’ in the evening or on the weekend.
If you frequently feel overwhelmed by work or experience symptoms of chronic stress or anxiety such as fatigue, headaches or low or erratic mood, consider consulting a psychologist who can help you to gain skills and techniques to manage stress while maintaining personal wellbeing.