Boundaries Bring Balance: One IP’s Journey to Find and Implement Boundaries in the Workplace

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Setting boundaries becomes crucial as health care workers face rising demands and burnout. Learn practical strategies to protect mental well-being and prevent burnout in the workplace.

IP Lifeline From Infection Control Today.

IP Lifeline From Infection Control Today.

Once hailed as heroes during the height of the pandemic, infection preventionists (IPs) now feel left behind, with many facilities asking them to do more with less. While health care has long been a demanding industry, today’s expectations feel higher than ever. The COVID-19 pandemic has irreversibly changed our health care system, and we feel it. As a result of these increasing demands, there is now an urgent need to address the burnout crisis in health care that threatens the well-being and longevity of our workforce.

Have you ever seen someone overwork themselves? I have. I watched from the sidelines, wondering whether they could sustain this unreasonable pace over time. With the average person spending about one-third of their life at work—roughly 90,000 hours for the curious—the risk of experiencing burnout due to chronic stress is significant. In 2018, 32% of health care workers reported feeling burned out, according to the CDC. That concerning number increased to 46% in 2022 following the pressures of the pandemic. Burnout is not a new problem in health care; however, new stressors continue to create new challenges (eg, harassment, lack of trust in management, and turnover).

Burnout can be described as a prolonged state of physical, emotional, or mental exhaustion accompanied by a reduced sense of motivation and performance. It manifests in various ways and gradually intensifies over time, making it difficult to recognize. Burnout is truly insidious. To address the burnout crisis, we must learn how to prevent it before it takes root in ourselves without notice. One way we can accomplish this is by setting boundaries for ourselves in the workplace.

What are Boundaries?

Boundaries are personal rules that you set to protect your time and energy. They are the limits that we set for ourselves. As children, our caretakers set these limits for us. They determined how far we could go beyond the boundaries of our yard and how late we were allowed to stay out. As adults, we must determine how we interact with the world and the rules and limits we will set for ourselves. These are our boundaries. In the workplace, we cannot operate at 100% every day without being vulnerable to burnout—we need boundaries! Boundaries allow us to protect our mental well-being by limiting our exposure to chronic stress, which progresses to burnout if left unmanaged. Before you start thinking about what kind of boundaries you need to set in your life, allow me to share a few of my personal favorites.

Learning to Say No and Yes

A burned-out health care worker.  (Adobe Stock 397826992 by M-Production)

A burned-out health care worker.

(Adobe Stock 397826992 by M-Production)

Mastering discernment is an essential skill, and so is time management! You cannot possibly agree to everything, so it is crucial to learn when to say no and when to say yes.I schedule a meeting with myself at the start of each week to reflect, organize, and prioritize—I call this “Monday Meetings with Myself.” This self-meeting creates awareness around my existing commitments and serves as a compass for the week. After reviewing my priorities, I can better decide whether I can add more to my plate (ie, say yes and take on new tasks) or whether I need to guard myself from being overserved (ie, deliver a confident no to protect my bandwidth and support it with evidence).

When presented with an opportunity I need to decline, I might say “Thank you for this opportunity. Unfortunately, I need time to work on X this week, and I’m unable to do Y. Can we touch base next week?” or “That sounds exciting, but I have limited bandwidth this week due to X and Y. I’m happy to speak with my manager to help reprioritize my work if this is urgent.”

A well-reasoned no will help you save time and energy, protecting you from chronic stress and overworking. Additionally, working with your manager to reprioritize your plate or say no for you is a helpful tool to employ in the right situation. Make each no count to effectively manage your time, allowing you to say yes again. A committed yes will allow you to add value and collaborate more effectively, knowing you have the resources you need to complete the task.

Normalize a Lunch Break

I used to have lunch at my desk every day but quickly realized that this habit needed to end. What initially seemed like a mark of dedication was creating a culture that supported putting work above my well-being. I began getting up from my desk for lunch and found that it created an opportunity to refresh my focus, change my surroundings, and return rejuvenated. Now, I take scheduled breaks every day to help manage my energy levels and improve concentration.

I often remind myself that my workday is like a long road trip. I must pull off the highway every few hours (ie, get up from my desk) to reset my mind and body. We expend so much energy throughout the workday that we need to normalize a lunch break to maintain our return in productivity. Busyness does not equal productivity. Staying in work mode all the time is a surefire way to burn out.

If you feel that you need to take lunch at your desk to get a few more emails answered, I challenge you to take your lunch away from your desk for 1 week. This strategy has a minimal time commitment (less than 30 minutes) but will immediately impact your productivity for the remainder of the day.

Disconnect and Stay Unplugged

Do you find yourself talking or venting about work after hours? Don’t worry, I used to do this too. Most of us assume that “letting it out” offers relief like steam from a pressure cooker, but not for me. I’ve noticed over time that it’s better to refrain from talking about work after hours. While sharing our emotions and having them validated helps us feel closer to whom we share our feelings, it can also be counterproductive. It can increase rather than decrease your chronic stress by heightening the emotions you associate with being burned out. Talking about work at home blurs the lines between our professional and personal lives, creating a feeling that you are living at work by keeping it front of mind.

Health care requires significant physical, emotional, and intellectual labor, often all at the same time. How each of us recovers from exhaustion is uniquely personal, and it can take months to have a sense of renewal. There is no band-aid or quick fix for burnout. Taking time to disconnect and unplug makes it possible to reshape our relationship with work. Creating an end-of-day “shutdown ritual” can help shift your focus from work to personal time. This act can serve as a signal to separate yourself from the grind of the workday and marks the transition to downtime. My shutdown rituals include closing all open programs on my computer, playing an end-of-day playlist, or changing into comfy clothes when I arrive home. Think about what helps you unwind, but keep it simple so it does not feel like another task on your to-do list. It could be as simple as doodling.

If not talking about work after hours is not feasible, consider limiting how long you talk about work. Rather than accidentally spending the entire evening talking about work, allocate a set amount of time, such as 10 minutes. This approach encourages you to thoughtfully consider what is worth sharing during the set limit. Remember, life extends far beyond the confines of work, so prioritize creating space for the enriching moments of life and relationships.

Seeking balance is an everyday practice. Admittedly, I struggle to maintain some of these boundaries. During stressful days, I keep chugging. But those are the actual days I could benefit the most from my boundaries. We need to take care of ourselves. While setting boundaries may not eliminate burnout, it equips you with an additional tool to manage your relationship with stress more effectively until you recover. I hope my boundaries will help you as you begin brainstorming what boundaries you might need to set in the workplace.

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