3 Lesson for Leaders on Burnout and Boundaries

By Sheri Brake

Managing Director, AccessHR


Several years ago, I hit a wall.


Sure, I had been tired before, overworked, even bored, but this was different. The exhaustion, anxiety and general malaise that I experienced ground my work and life productivity to a halt. It was surreal. I mean, I was (am) a strong, confident, smart woman who did it all and could take on anything…until I couldn’t.


My burnout led to a process of discovery about boundaries and the critical role they play in maintaining mental health. In hindsight, there were many things that I could have done, or an attentive leader could have done, to prevent burnout. As they say, hindsight is 20/20 and as a result of my experience, I learned three important lessons that all leaders need to know about burnout.


Lesson One: Burnout is very real and very dangerous

In addition to decreased performance, productivity, engagement and retention in the workplace, burnout can also have a significant and long-lasting impact on physical and mental health. As I belatedly learned, healthy workplace boundaries are critical in preventing burnout. The physical and mental health impact of burnout exacts a high cost for employers and employees.


In fact, according to Mercer, “Canadian companies lose an estimated $16.6 billion in productivity per year due to workers calling in sick, as a result of mental health issues.”


Lesson Two: We teach people how to treat us.


Both employers and employees have a responsibility to set, maintain and respect healthy boundaries.  However, power dynamics dictate that it is the behaviour of the leader that ultimately sets the cultural standards that support or exacerbate workplace health.


Time Boundaries


For a long time, we had regular working hours and were not accessible once we left the building. Now, thanks to technology, we are almost always accessible. Leaders can set a healthy example by working within set hours and refraining from contacting others outside of those hours. Microsoft Office has a very handy “delay sending” feature. Use it.

I have also developed a love for the word “capacity” and use it in place of the word “time.”  For example, I now say, “I don’t have capacity for any additional meetings this week.” Or “I don’t have capacity to take on any additional project work this month.”  I don’t need to clarify whether my constraint is time, energy, interest or emotional capacity. 


Emotional Boundaries


A psychologically safe workplace will create a foundational boundary for all employees. Ensuring that the workplace is free from harassment, discrimination, bullying and violence is imperative. Creating a workplace where employees feel safe expressing themselves (and that their privacy is protected) is also important. 


Vulnerability displayed by a leader tells employees that it is ok to do the same. A leader who regularly checks in with the team to ask about capacity and time constraints will clear the path for employees to speak up when their boundaries are being challenged. 


Here are some questions to get those conversations started:

  • How are you feeling these days? What are you enjoying? What is concerning you? On a scale of one to ten, can you describe your stress level?
  • Have you scheduled your vacation time yet? When can we talk about how the team will back you up so that you can really take a break?
  • What one change would make life better for you right now?


Physical Boundaries


The current global pandemic has emphasized the importance of respecting physical boundaries. Some of us are huggers and others most definitely are not. Heck, it will be a while before many of us are even comfortable shaking hands again! Having your physical boundaries respected starts with asking for what you need.    


  • We need to make this meeting virtual. The boardroom is not large enough to accommodate everyone.
  •  Please don’t be offended. I am substituting waves for handshakes for a while longer.
  • I realized during the pandemic that I like more personal space, could you please back up?


Lesson Three:  Boundaries work.  


Imagine a workplace free from the stress caused by a lack of boundaries. Boundaries give employees the opportunity to thrive and be more fully engaged. Establishing healthy workplace boundaries is a skill that can be modeled, taught and learned.


An Organization Assessment is a great way to assess workplace boundaries in your organization. To learn more about how AccessHR can support strong mental health in your workplace, contact us today.  

AccessHR Inc. provides professional HR consulting services with exceptional quality, creativity and ethical practice. When it comes to supporting clients, we focus on doing the right thing.