Over the course of my career, I have sat in many hours of training on boundaries, and even delivered training on the subject.

Working frontline with vulnerable people, much of the training I attended included information around appropriate places to meet clients, ensuring no accidental touching occurred (knees under the table for example) and maintaining ‘professional friendliness’ at all times. All good stuff.

In my role now I support lots of employees who work frontline with vulnerable people and the issue of boundaries comes up quite a lot. Often the conversation goes like this:

Me: How are you?

Them: Pretty stressed, actually. Work is so busy, and I feel like I am not getting any downtime.

Me: Do you feel like the boundaries you are putting in around you are working for you?

Them: Oh yeah, I have always had really good boundaries, I don’t have an issue with that.

Me: What do your boundaries look like, day to day?

Them: I always make sure I am clear with clients about what I can and can’t do, I meet them in suitable places and I have very clear boundaries about how we work together.

Me: Great! Are you switching your work phone off when the working day is done?

Them: Ermmm, yeah mostly. I do have my work emails on my personal phone though, just so I can stay in the loop about anything that might happen after 5pm.

Me: Okay. But your work phone is off?

Them: Most of the time. But now I have two clients that are in really terrible situations and they have nobody else supporting them, so I don’t mind taking calls from them after 5pm or sometimes on weekends.

It is not my job to tell people when they should or should not working – they have organisational policies and line managers for that. My job is to 1) create a person-centred space for them to feel supported and 2) help them to reframe thinking or behaviours for them to become unstuck from things that are negative in their lives.

And, I am not against people working flexibly to suit the way they live their lives. 

But it is imperative that, alongside the flexibility there is also an understanding of boundaries and a willingness to implement them.

Four things to know about boundaries:

  1. Some boundaries are easy to implement. Of course, I am not going to have my knee touching my client’s knee – why would I??
  2. It is not the easy boundaries that are the most important for our mental health.
  3. We consistently relax the harder boundaries because they are hard to implement.
  4. It is easier for us to make excuses as to why we need to relax our boundaries than it is for us to hold them.

Boundaries are not just about physical space or location, they are about saying no, putting yourself first, holding your red lines and potentially risking making someone else feel uncomfortable or upset.

The reason boundaries training even exists is NOT for the easy ones. It is for times we feel we should take that call, we must say yes to that extra bit of work, we ought to agree to meeting that person on our day off – all the things we find it much harder to say no to.

So why should we have boundaries? Why can’t we work the way we think we should work?

Well, we can. There is no prescriptive way of working within boundaries that is going to work for everyone. And you will certainly never catch me telling someone to turn everything off at 5pm and never ever go above and beyond for someone in need. But what you will catch me doing is asking three important questions:

  1. Is it working for you right now? 
  2. Are you prepared to accept the consequences of working this way? Including stress, fatigue, overwhelm, getting in trouble with your line manager?
  3. What are the consequences of inaction for you? What happens if everything stays the same and you carry on working this way?

It is not up to me to tell them to stop, but it is important that they implement boundaries that are going to support them and work for, and not against them.

So how do we know when we are not holding a healthy boundary? It is when we feel we cannot say no. When we are asked to do something, and we feel we have to say yes. When we find that we are routinely prioritising work over our own time, wellbeing, or activities. When we hesitate to switch our phones off and feel bad when we do. 

When we find ourselves working on Christmas Eve when we promised our family it would be a day of fun, love, and Christmas magic. Which is what I am remembering I promised as I sit here, on Christmas Eve morning, working away.

It is a learning journey for all of us and we will each find some boundaries more difficult to hold than others. But for our mental health and wellbeing, as well as our ability to remain effective in what we do, it is imperative we find a way to do so.

My laptop is being shut down now and I am off to find some Christmas magic with my family.

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