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The Importance of Boundaries to Support Mental Health in the Workplace

By Kate Hayward - MHIR Ambassador

What are boundaries?

A boundary is an invisible line that you do not cross or a limit to what you or others find acceptable. Boundaries help us to feel safe, protected from potential harm and allow us to know what is expected of our actions or behaviours within those lines. If someone were to cross those boundaries there would likely be some form of consequence, depending on the type of boundary crossed. For instance, if a personal boundary was crossed you may no longer trust that person or even wish to spend time with them.

Boundaries appear everywhere, from personal, social, professional, or organisational. Personal boundaries can include physical, emotional, sexual, even financial, and intellectual are classed under personal boundaries. Personal boundaries come with us everywhere, we don’t leave them at home when we leave the house. They can complement or sometimes clash with boundaries in other environments such as professional or workplace. Although all these element’s work in tangent with each other, the focus we’re taking within this article is on workplace boundaries and particularly the impact of having boundaries within the workplace that supports the mental health of the people within it.

I have separated workplace boundaries away from professional boundaries because I feel that when we talk of professional boundaries, we talk more about how we interact and with colleagues and the service we deliver to the customer. When you ask people about professional boundaries things like not talking about personal issues, disclosing personal information, or talking inappropriately to co-works jumps to mind. Even though these are still important boundaries to instill and will likely go some way in improving people's job satisfaction. What I would like to concentrate on is more about how policies or processes can be implemented deep into the heart of a company, thereby changing how the system works from the inside out and from the top to the bottom. From this improvement can be made to overall employee mental health, performance, and job satisfaction.

Workplace boundaries are where a company or small business set out their visions, values and expectations defined by common boundaries. Some might say that giving workers expectations on how they should work or behave is just common sense, but vagueness allows for different interpretations based on their own perspective on what is right or wrong. Setting out clear and detailed expectations leaves no room for ambiguity and creates an environment that everyone knows what they are working towards, how they are going to achieve it and the boundaries they’re going to do it within.

Mental health in the workplace

The culture developed within the workplace can both contribute to good mental health but also be a factor for it deteriorating by exacerbating an existing issue or creating one. Depression is one of the most common workplace mental health conditions alongside anxiety and work-related stress (also known as burnout). The annual cost of mental health issues within the workplace in the UK alone is estimated at £2.4 billion per year which highlights just how prominent these issues are.

There is evidence that the absence of structures or boundaries plays a significant role in the development of mental health problems for staff. In a global survey looking at how to support employees amidst the COVID crisis, 40% of employees reported that their company had not asked them if they were doing ok.

There is evidence that the absence of structures or boundaries plays a significant role in the development of mental health problems for staff. In a global survey looking at how to support employees amidst the COVID crisis, 40% of employees reported that their company had not asked them if they were doing ok.

The World Health Organisation also highlights that the implementation of mental health policies and strategies within the workplace can both support the mental health of workers but equally they should aid the early recognition of mental distress and help people to get the treatment or support they need.

Can boundaries really help?

We know that the failure to prevent, recognize and support the treatment of mental health problems in the workplace has a huge impact on employers, productivity, and workplace culture, but can boundaries and processes really help that much?

The simple answer is yes, they can.

The implementation of boundaries underpinned by clear processes can first and foremost support the mental health of your team which can reduce the likelihood of mental health issues emerging. Alongside this it allows managers to be able to recognise signs of deterioration and know what to do in the event someone experiences mental health difficulties or illness. Forbes writes that motivational speaker Tony Gaskins says, "You teach people how to treat you by what you allow, what you stop and what you reinforce." They go on to highlight that employees that are the happiest and most productive are the ones that work within boundaries; both personal and those set by their employer.

What do they look like?

Workplace boundaries should align and support your values as a business. If you promote life/work balance but constantly expect your workers to work late or attend meetings outside of their working hours you start to blur the line of what is acceptable and not. This is only one example but once examples like this build it will reduce the trust your staff have in you to uphold the values and boundaries you try to set. Later down the line, this results in workers who are unable to speak up when their mental health declines and instead of being able to offer them support and help, you’re left with increasing absenteeism and insidious unproductivity.

Boundaries and processes to support mental health can come in many different shapes and forms depending on the different factors that make up your business. However, some great places to start including:

Set specific boundaries that specifically improve mental health.

This might be around enforcing no working after 5pm, including checking emails at home or it could be reducing workload to make sure staff don’t feel overwhelmed. If your particular workplace is one where overtime is a regular part of the job (so to speak), think of ways of capping the amount of overtime. For instance, making sure everyone has at least one full weekend off a month or at least 48hours away from the workplace each week.

Another known way of improving workplace mental health is by modelling positive behaviours towards mental health, this could be by checking in with staff on a weekly basis or bringing in outside services to discuss and promote mental health within the workplace.

Define the changes that need to happen.

Once you know what needs to change, write out exactly what that is and why it needs to happen. List out exactly what people can expect to see change and circulate it to everyone so there is no room for interpretation.

If these changes require the actions of other managers or team leaders to successfully implement, think about making it part of their job description or letting them shadow you to see how to enforce those boundaries or carry out a process (such as checking staff wellbeing).

Build on communication.

No one can enforce a boundary on their own, it must be a team effort and for this people need to be able to communicate with each other. This works in different ways; managers need to be able to effectively communicate to the team what the boundaries are and how they expect people to work within them. Equally there needs to be a culture of open communication where workers feel supported enough to speak up if they don’t feel these boundaries are being respected or processes don’t support their mental health.

Harvesting good mental health among workers can increase their tolerance to pressure, allow them to adapt better to changes whilst feeling happy, confident in their ability to carry out their role and enjoy better job satisfaction. All of this results in better team productivity and a higher quality of work.

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