There is so much overwork, it’s easy to get lost in it. Depending on your employment, how you defend work boundaries might look and feel different. But it’s helpful to remember that work-related lack-of-boundaries crises are often structural, not personal. In other words, many people wouldn’t overwork if they weren’t forced to do so. (It is the single-largest risk factor for occupational disease, and has harmful impacts on physical and mental health.)
To that end, there’s an urgent need for structural policy that reimagines the workplace to ensure workers have access to paid leave and sick time, fair and flexible scheduling, and reasonable accommodations for pregnancy, disability, and caregiving needs, Racklin says. Those policies will benefit all workers in all industries, making it possible for people to set boundaries in the first place. (While we’re here, this is also a good list of reasons to unionize your workplace. Collective power for workers means more control over our schedules. We don’t need only individual boundaries; we need structural, collective ones.)
Relatedly, it’s important to point out that there is a distinction between someone who is considered a “workaholic” and someone who has to work an extreme amount of hours. A workaholic, according to research by Malissa Clark, Ph.D., tends to feel compelled to work because of internal pressure, performing beyond what’s reasonably expected of the worker (beyond the requirements of the job or the worker’s economic needs), and has persistent thoughts about work when not on the job. Maybe you have felt this personally already, but research has also found that “some of the strongest negative relationships were found between workaholism and job stress, work-life conflict and burnout.” According to Dr. Clark’s findings, workaholism isn’t significantly related to performance. Though you might spend more time thinking about or engaging in work, it doesn’t necessarily make your work performance better.
If you’re someone who feels your identity is interwoven with your work, you might fall into this category — no shame, it’s something I work on unraveling all the time. If you’re working because of internal pressure, better protecting boundaries can look like what Maryana Arvan, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychological & organizational science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, calls “psychological detachment,” or refraining from work-related thoughts.
“Most of us don’t just have work as an identity. We have many identities,” Dr. Arvan explains. Prioritizing recovery means centering those other identities. While Dr. Arvan and I chatted, I considered all the times I thought of my own rest or recovery as things that had to be earned. The endless churn of capitalism turns output and performance into placeholders for self-worth, and warps the very things boundaries are often set up to protect — personhood, free time, fulfillment, caretaking, rest — into luxuries rather than necessities.
It’s easy to let the people we work with believe we’re available at any time, so adjusting expectations is one of the other ways to protect boundaries, says Dr. Arvan. This could look like: