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Why it’s so hard to put boundaries on our time
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Man checks his phone while riding a bike
Even before Covid-19, the lines between our work and private lives were blurring. As we edge out of the pandemic, why does setting better boundaries still feel so tough?
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One of my most vivid pandemic memories involves hurtling angrily down a hill on my bike. I was desperately late to meet friends for a run because I’d been caught up chatting to a colleague on a messaging app. It was a Saturday morning. He’d pinged me to ask questions about a project the following week, and I’d responded. 

According to psychotherapists including Alivia Rose, a spokesperson for the UK Council of Psychotherapy, many people have been struggling with defining boundaries between home and work, especially as the pandemic has raged on. After years of being “already very attached to our phones”, she believes lockdowns, office closures and more limited social lives added fuel to the norm that we’re “always available”. “It’s been building... and I think the pandemic brought something to a head.” 

A poll from UK professional trade union Prospect showed more than 30% of remote workers say they have found it harder to switch off from work during the pandemic, and a similar proportion are working more unpaid hours than in pre-Covid-19 times. According to one global study, the average daily working time increased by 30 minutes a day in 2020, compared to 2019. 

As we transition into a new post-pandemic working world, there’s no shortage of discussion about the impact all this has had on our mental health. But although most of us are increasingly aware of the dangers of blurred boundaries, figuring out how to create healthier ones seems to be much trickier. Psychologists and career coaches alike say understanding why it’s so hard is a vital step toward a more balanced future. 

Technological convergence 

Maya Middlemiss, who’s written books about remote working, says it’s important to take a step back to acknowledge just how much technology has normalised the lack of boundaries in our lives. As recently as 15 years ago, commuter trains were typically packed with people reading books and newspapers, rather than checking their mobiles, while fewer people took their work computers or phones home. 

“It’s only in the last four or five years that there’s been this technological convergence where every messaging application is available to every device,” says the British writer, who’s based in Valencia, Spain. This, she argues, has obviously created more freedom and flexibility around where and when we work. But it’s also “really blurred the boundaries for knowledge workers in every location”.

Work is never ‘done’, [so] it's really difficult often to know when you're finished for the day, when you've done enough – Maya Middlemiss

As we all know, this situation became more exaggerated as millions of people began working from bedrooms and kitchen tables on a daily basis last year. 

Anna Vogel, a career coach from Stockholm, argues that even before the pandemic, having our work phones next to us on the sofa in the evenings, or even choosing to check office email on our personal devices, was an automatic reflex that had “crept up” on many people. “Just having the access [to technology] like that, the feeling that ‘we can do it’, made it easier for people to accept that ‘we are going to do it’,” she says. “And now we're kind of there and we don't really know how to get back.” 

Meanwhile, digitalisation itself has shifted and sped up the nature of our work, with many of us tackling a quicker and more constant flow of new tasks and information, in contrast to the analogue era, says Middlemiss. This means “that work is never ‘done’, [so] it's really difficult often to know when you're finished for the day, when you've done enough.” 

The challenge of corporate norms 

Some businesses and even national governments are starting to tackle these challenges head on with specific policies, for example banning emails out-of-hours, or encouraging staff to turn off notifications at weekends. But in many workplaces, says Vogel, the shift towards “limitless, boundaryless” communication possibilities has created strong corporate norms that are tricky to untangle for those craving a better balance. 

That was the case for Angelica Sykes, 28, who, until recently, had worked in marketing for tech and finance firms in Europe and Asia since leaving school. “One boss would call me at 5 a.m. and I would be expected to answer. I worked during my annual leave, and there were always emails coming in,” she reveals.

Anna Vogel argues that having our work phones around, or checking work email on our personal devices, became an automatic reflex that “crept up” on us (Credit: Anna Vogel)

Anna Vogel argues that having our work phones around, or checking work email on our personal devices, became an automatic reflex that “crept up” on us (Credit: Anna Vogel)

With many colleagues working similarly hard, she describes the situation as “very normalised to the point I didn’t see an issue with it”. It was only after she switched to a job at a consultancy firm with a much bigger focus on boundary setting that she realised how “bonkers” and “unhealthy” her routines had become. She still sometimes gets messages outside standard working hours, because her team is encouraged to work flexibly, but knows she’s no longer expected to respond immediately. “When I see an email now, I'm not filled with dread.” 

Economic insecurity 

Middlemiss says a core problem at companies where ‘always-on’ has become the norm, is that staff can be too worried to speak up in case of potential repercussions. Some are concerned about being viewed as less hard-working. Others – especially during the pandemic – daren’t speak up due to a more “general insecurity about the future of the job or their organisation”. 

“I was so scared of losing my job,” agrees Sykes. “The pandemic made that so much worse because the market was so volatile, particularly for people in marketing.” 

Middlemiss’ advice for those working for companies without a clear strategy for how and when it’s appropriate to unplug is to “start modelling the behaviour that you think would be ideal to iterate towards”. For example, using public channels like Slack to over-communicate what you’re working on, when you’ll be available and when you’re planning to go offline. She accepts, however, that this may be easier said than done. “I do appreciate that if you're not in that [managerial] position, it's much harder to initiate it and be the changemaker,” she says.

One boss would call me at 5 a.m. and I would be expected to answer – Angelica Sykes

If shifting your own communication style doesn’t help the situation, Vogel advises discussing your concerns directly with other colleagues and identifying whether there are common concerns that you can share with your manager as a group. “When we come together, that’s when we can make a change,” she argues. In 2021, “most people know” that unrested, stressed employees aren’t likely to perform at their best, she argues, but it might be worth reminding bosses of the evidence. That said, the Swedish career coach acknowledges that these kinds of open conversations might go down better in countries like hers, which have a long history of celebrating balance, than in parts of Asia or the US which have “a longer way to go” when it comes to embracing boundaries and flexible working. 

How we think about work 

While external factors like technologies, managers, business culture and even national norms clearly have a major impact, experts agree that the way we approach boundaries also has a lot to do with how we think and act as individuals. 

Alivia Rose at the UK Council of Psychotherapy says some of us simply feel more guilty than others about logging off and embracing our free time. That can make it harder to ignore notifications or postpone tasks, even if we know they’re not urgent, like I did when I spent that Saturday morning messaging a colleague. 

“People just immediately ‘become’ guilty and then act on it,” says Rose. “But the key is to start bringing some awareness to the situation.” She advises asking ourselves why we’re feeling guilty in that moment and who exactly is pushing us to react. “We tend to find out there isn’t anybody doing it, that is our own quite pushy boss that we have inside ourselves saying ‘work, work, work’ endlessly, and we have to interrupt that by questioning ourselves, how rational is this?” 

The next step, advises Vogel, is to “stay with the feeling of guilt without acting on it”. So, even if your colleagues have got used to you responding to messages late at night, “experiment and see what happens if you answer at nine o'clock next morning. In many cases, nothing will happen.”

Technology has played a major part in allowing our work lives to fuse with our personal lives (Credit: Getty Images)

Technology has played a major part in allowing our work lives to fuse with our personal lives (Credit: Getty Images)

Setting healthy boundaries is also strongly connected to how we value work, says Vogel. People who enjoy their jobs or see them as a core part of their identities can often be tempted to work harder and put in longer hours, and put less value on “rest, play, breaks, good sleep and exercise”. 

During the pandemic, she says, some of us also ended up with a skewed balance because we lost other aspects of our lives that added meaning and value. “I hear a lot from coaching clients that they don't find a place to really ‘refill’ outside of work because they don’t see people in the same way as before,” she says. “It’s like ‘why am I going to close the computer?’, ‘what am I going to do?’ ‘I don’t feel like watching Netflix so, okay, I might as well work’.” 

With mass vaccination programmes around the world now nudging many of us into a new normal and helping to bring back more options for how we spend our leisure time, her best advice is simply to keep reminding ourselves that creating – and enjoying – boundaries is good for us. “How (and what time) you re-charge and rest is very individual, the most important thing is that we get it in one way or another,” says Vogel. “It’s about allowing yourself to do that. To see that this is just as important as being productive.” 

As for me, I still sometimes struggle to take a breath before responding to every work message. But I’ve asked my clients to help me, by sticking to emails instead of the online platforms I also use for private socialising. Truth be told, I’m still sometimes in a rush for my Saturday runs, but these days that’s usually down to lingering over my morning tea, rather than responding to pings from my colleagues.