I once coached a woman who suffered a stress-induced stroke, which was followed by an aneurysm. If that wasn’t enough, she was so stressed out by work that the following week, her heart failed, which resulted in her requiring heart surgery. She took exactly one week off of work to heal and rest because she was worried that taking more time would look like she didn’t take her job seriously.
One week. For major heart surgery! After suffering a stroke. You read that right.
Now you might be saying, “That could never be me.” But in today’s fast-paced culture, it can be challenging to find the right balance between work and your personal life or ask for time off to take care of something as fundamental as your health. Combine that with the expectation for women of color to always have it together, show up perfectly, and never make a mistake, and you may very well find yourself in the same boat as my client and so many other Black women who work themselves into the ground.
However, taking care of yourself is crucial to your ability to function and your overall well-being. Practicing self-care, especially at work, is essential to maintaining your well-being while improving productivity and longevity in your career. One way to promote self-care at work is by setting boundaries. Here are 15 boundary-setting ideas that you can implement to reduce stress, promote self-care, and in the end, do your best work.
1. Block your calendar
Don’t let colleagues access your calendar without your permission. I learned this tip after becoming a first-time mom in law. Partners often expected me to jump on client calls at a moment’s notice and the only acceptable excuse not to was if I had another client meeting. Initially, I started blocking time on my calendar to give myself time to pump uninterrupted at work. When a partner asked if I was available for a call, I responded with “I have another meeting at that time.” It was true. I had a meeting with myself. And if they checked my calendar, they could see the time was taken. Pumping was important enough to me to actively block time. Once I knew that folks respected “other meetings,” I utilized the practice of keeping meetings with myself even once I was out of the nursing phase. If a task was important to me, I blocked the time for it on my calendar.
2. Tell your boss you will no longer take calls during your kid’s morning routine
This is one of the biggest complaints I hear from my coaching clients who are typically moms working in professional, high stakes, corporate environments: I’m so stressed out every time I have to handle a conference call while getting my kid ready in the morning. Research has shown we don’t really know how to multitask. Splitting your attention among two stressful situations will almost always lead to feeling frazzled, which is never a great way to start your day. Communicating that you are not available for calls until a certain time in the morning, barring emergencies, is a simple way to alleviate possible stress-inducing situations early in your day. If you don’t have kids, this also applies to your commute time.
3. Or bedtime routine, for that matter!
If you are in a profession where evening work is not expected, count your blessings. But if you are in such a profession, the same advice above holds true. A boundary I had to establish early once I became a mom was communicating to the partners I worked with that if they wanted same day turnaround on any document, they had to get it to me relatively early in the day so I could turn it around before close of business. Otherwise, they would have to wait until I was available again after 8:30 p.m., which was after my daughter went to bed.
Pro tip: your boss doesn’t need to know why you’re unavailable – just that you are in fact unavailable.
4. Learn the art of saying “No”
Repeat after me: “I will be happy to get to ____ after my immediate priorities are finished. If you need an urgent turn-around, please help me prioritize ___.” Learning to say “no” without actually saying no is the number one way to both have the bandwidth to produce great work and also not overwhelm yourself. By placing the onus back on your manager, supervisor, or partner to help you prioritize, one of two things will happen: They will either decide you are at capacity and give the work to someone else, or they will take work off your plate so you can prioritize the new task. Either way, it’s a win for you.
5. Suggest deadlines first
If you can’t avoid the work altogether, suggest a deadline that works for you first. “I’d be happy to take on ___ . I can get that to you by _______. Does that timeline work?” More often than not, most tasks aren’t an emergency and if you ask your manager when they need it, they will likely give you an unnecessarily tight and arbitrary deadline (who doesn’t like to receive work before they actually need it?). But, if you suggest a reasonable timeframe, it usually still works for them and they’re likely to accept it. At that point, if it is a true emergency, they will let you know.
6. Ask for help
Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. Reach out to colleagues, supervisors, or support groups. Put down the cape. You know the one I’m referring to – the superwoman cape so many women of color wear. Let’s normalize women of color being vulnerable and knowing that they’re deserving of receiving help. We arrive at the right answers much quicker when we ask for help, which opens up our schedules and reduces stress.
7. Shift your workday
If you have the flexibility, shift your workday to accomplish the same amount of tasks in a manner conducive to your schedule. In the law field, associates and partners don’t have set work schedules, but generally operate on the same workday as the rest of the world. However, if you’re a mom who has to leave work to pick up your kiddos at 4 p.m., or you have another obligation that takes up several hours of your day, you may want to consider starting your day earlier or later as it works for you. For example, a lot of the moms I coach have adopted a schedule to accommodate family obligations. If work demands it, most get back online after their children have gone to bed.
8. Utilize all the benefits available to you in your company’s policy handbook
Feeling burned out? Check to see if you are eligible for a sabbatical or medical leave. Mental health suffering? Check to see if your company offers coaching or subsidized therapy. Are you a parent whose childcare occasionally falls through? See if your company offers backup childcare. The employee handbook is the most underutilized work resource. Most employees have no idea just how many benefits they are entitled to or even just available.
9. Turn work trips into personal vacations
If you have the bandwidth (aka, you don’t have to immediately jump on a flight for another obligation), add a day or two of personal time after each work trip/conference to enjoy the city for yourself. If you have a family, you can fly them out for those personal days. Sure, you may have to foot the bill for the personal time, but it’ll be a cheaper “vacation” and removes the stress of trying to accomplish work right after a tiring journey.
10. Develop a morning routine
This is less about your job and more about protecting your mental health. Take a break from your phone. It doesn’t have to be, and in fact should not be, the first thing you look at in the morning. Find an activity that is centering and allows you to think and prioritize what’s important for your day (e.g., yoga, meditation, having a devotional practice). Then pick up your phone to see if any emergencies arose. If not, carry on with your day as initially planned.
11. Get two phones
I recommend never downloading your company’s email or other apps onto your personal phone. Why? Not only does this keep your personal information private from your company, it creates a true boundary from work and personal notifications. And the beauty of it is that if it’s the weekend, you can leave your work phone on your desk. If a colleague truly needs to get in touch with you, they will find a way.
12. Turn off alerts
While you’re at it, turn off alerts on your work phone. Trust me, you’re going to check it often enough. You don’t need to hear it go off 100 times a day.
13. Teach people how to treat you
If you deal with screamers, walk away. Repeat after me: “I am not going to have a conversation with you when you are screaming at me. Let me know when you’re ready to have a respectful discussion.” Then leave (or hang up the phone).
If a colleague with the same seniority demands that you to do something outside your role, you have three options: respond with what you want to do, respond with what they want you to do, or ignore. I prefer to ignore, as that usually makes them return to the drawing board and actually ask if you would be available to, or be willing to, help them with a task.
14. Take breaks
I’m not just talking about a five-minute break during the day to do breathing exercises. While those can work, I don’t know many women who truly benefit from that. Instead, try taking several weekend vacations throughout the year, rather than focusing on just one or two big trips. It gives you a meaningful way to unplug and reset and you don’t have to exhaust your PTO to take advantage of it.
15. Set your response time.
You don’t need to answer emails as soon as they hit your inbox. Not only will you not be able to get any substantive work done, but it’ll also likely drive you insane. Instead, set windows of response time. For example, check your inbox on the hour and set aside 20 minutes to respond. It’s unlikely that not responding to someone for an hour is going to end the world. Unless there is an active emergency you are aware of, there is no need to be hyper-responsive. We’re not curing cancer (unless, of course, you are curing cancer – then disregard).
Implementing boundaries at work can help you prioritize your well-being and increase your productivity and job satisfaction, but it requires intention. In the beginning, enforcing your boundaries may seem unnatural or difficult, but once you practice setting a few boundaries, it becomes second nature. However, it is important to be kind to yourself and don’t beat yourself up for mistakes or setbacks. It’s an ever-evolving journey.
Priscilla Arthus is a mom, a law firm partner, a career strategist, and an identity coach who helps working moms – especially moms in the legal field, corporate moms, and moms of color – go from feeling stuck and overwhelmed to building careers and businesses that fit their lives, so that they can win at work and thrive in motherhood.