- Comments Off on How to set boundaries at work: manager, colleague, friend or counsellor?

How to set boundaries at work: manager, colleague, friend or counsellor?

In the current environment, our workplace is no longer somewhere we leave behind. Our work and personal spaces have merged, blurring the lines between our professional boundaries, work relationshipsfriendships and personal lives. We all need to rethink how we manage our own energy and wellbeing in this context.

The social and professional circles in which we live have shrunk. In 2019, if we missed our mum, we visited her. If we wanted to celebrate, we met a friend for a drink. If we needed to bounce ideas around, we booked in a coffee with a trusted colleague. If we had a bad day at work, clashed with our boss or didn’t feel heard in a debate with a peer we went for a run, vented to someone we trusted, felt lighter for the venting and left our work challenges in the workplace.

In August 2020, our workplace is no longer somewhere we leave behind. For many of us, our home, our personal space, is merged with our work, our professional lives. Our colleagues have met our housemates and our children, our pets, and have seen our dirty kitchen. Our most significant other has heard all of our workplace conversations (even if they have their earphones in and don’t really want to!) because they are sitting at the desk next to us. 

Depending on where we live and the current stage of Covid19 in our area, our non-work-related supports and relationships are no longer as physically available to us. We are relying on a much smaller circle of people.

The self-talk in our heads

The previously easy-to-understand lines of who we rely on for what have blurred, and we all need to rethink how we manage our own energy and wellbeing in this context. Here are two (of many possible) perspectives on the self-talk that may be going on in our heads:

No alt text provided for this image

Does this sound like anything that is going on in your head right now? It can feel like a bit of a minefield and let’s be honest, we are all trying to work this out and there is no magic wand or fairy dust that will provide perfectly-packaged answers. 

However, here are a few of my thoughts:

Blurred lines are okay

Less rigidity in the nature of our professional boundaries v personal relationships is our reality right now and it may be our new normal for a long time. 

One of the most controversial statements in any engagement survey I have ever run throughout my career has been “I have a best friend at work”. Global research from The Gallup Organisation indicates the most highly-engaged workforces enable close relationships to be developed and to thrive, and in doing so company productivity and team performance are enhanced. Despite this research, most people I surveyed adamantly said that ‘best friend’ was an out-of-work relationship. Now might be the time for all of us to rethink our stance on this; maybe my work relationships do have a greater role to play?

Building connection with others is such an enormous contributor to our mental health and given our pool of ‘others’ has shrunk, our work has a huge opportunity to fill that connection void.

I have two caveats to accompany this view:

1.    The normal, well established rules, behaviour and legislation around workplace relationships must be held sacrosanct and there is no blurring in relation to mutual respect and consent. 

2.    Everyone will have a different approach in relation to if they would actually like to cross that boundary between colleague and friend and everyone needs to feel it is their choice to make. If you (boss, peer, or employee) would like to seek support from a work colleague and would like to build a deeper and more personal connection and the other party does not. The answer is no, and that answer is to be respected.

Start a conversation

So, as a people manager how do you do what you need to do while respecting the caveats I just mentioned? The best advice I or anyone can give you is to start a conversation, to build connection and open dialogue. Ask these questions:

  • Are you okay?
  • How are you finding the work / home balance?
  • What impact is this having on you?
  • Are there things that we are doing that are contributing to this?
  • How can we (workplace) or I (manager / colleague) help? 

Be genuine, be honest and know that you don’t need to have the answers

So many of my clients say, “What if I ask, and they tell me something that I don’t know what to do with? What if I don’t have the answers? What if I can’t help and I’ve opened up something?” Most of us are not counsellors (me included) and while we want to create a genuine sense of belonging and openness in our work cultures, we do worry we may not be best placed to deal with what lands at our feet. Some well-intentioned managers, therefore, do not ask.

One of the most difficult lessons to learn and embrace throughout our career when it comes to managing people is that we do not have, and do not need all of the answers. In fact, we will be a better leader when we acknowledge this and when we acknowledge this openly to others. 

In completing my Mental Health First Aid certificate in 2018, the piece of advice that stuck most firmly with me was that asking someone “are you ok?” will not put negative thoughts into their head if they were not already thinking them. 

If, and when, a work colleague (or anyone in your life) shares something with you that you don’t know what to do with, be you; listen; don’t try and provide answers; don’t pretend you have them; and don’t back away. They have decided to trust you. Be genuine, show empathy and ask how you can help. When the other party says, “nope, nothing you can do thanks Jane”, ask the next question: “are you getting the help and support you need to work through this?” You’ll honestly be surprised how often the response is positive, and the person is open to getting support and help.  

Know that you still don’t need to be the person to solve it for them, your role is to help them to seek help – contact your Employee Assistance Provider if you have one, talk to a fellow manager (dependent on confidentiality and with permission of the person involved) or reach out to someone like us and they / we will be able to point you in the right direction. 

Listen and be present rather than tick the box

If you embrace this concept of conversation creates connection, and connection protects wellbeing, then your role, irrespective of where you sit in an organisation, is to be present. Actively listen, ask questions, stay present and you’ll create an environment that helps people to thrive. 

As a Boss, Manager, Colleague, Partner, Parent, Brother / Sister or Friend who may be, at this moment, trying to support someone in your life, please also remember to check in on and look after your own mental and physical wellbeing. Fit your own oxygen mask before you assist others. 

If you, or anyone you know is experiencing mental health or wellness challenges or could simply benefit from a qualified person to speak to, there are many amazing avenues to explore. Many of these organisations, including Beyond Blue have developed specific Covid support teams and tool kits for all of us to use for ourselves and our teams. 

Published by: Nicole Torrance in News

Comments are closed.