I love working in higher education. It is a privilege to work for the greater good with people I respect and admire. My work gives me joy, energy, and a great deal of satisfaction. I’ve also seen higher education be a highly challenging place to work. Higher education inherently values “performance and delivery” as part of its culture, e.g. getting that big grant, working through the weekends, earning that award, and so on. This value can leave us with a feeling of stress that never ends because we may feel our work is never good enough and because we always have more to do.
One of the most important things I’ve learned is how to set boundaries for myself. As with any career, lack of boundaries can set yourself up for giving all your emotional and physical energy and leave you feeling like it wasn’t enough.
Before I understood this, every day felt like I was about to take a final exam for which I wasn’t prepared. I constantly felt this angst hanging over me, making me feel like I should be working on something. I didn’t know what this something was, but it was always there. I either had to understand this feeling or risk becoming burned out.
How do we find the balance between living a healthy and joyful life while also meeting the productivity and time commitments that higher education often demands?
Finding that work-life integration sounds simple, but identifying healthy boundaries at work and establishing them is not as easy. In fact, I’m still working on it.
Here are three steps I find helpful when setting healthy boundaries at work.
- Know yourself
How do you know that it’s time to set better boundaries? It is important to go the extra mile when needed. But with technology today, work can intrude on our lives 24/7 if we let it. When I can’t sleep because I’m thinking about work, or I’m responding to emails instead of attending to the present, missing important family activities, or starting to feel burned out, I know it’s time to reset my boundaries.
I have learned that these times are predictable. They include important family times (holidays, vacations, kids’ events), anniversaries of losing a loved one, and when I feel myself getting worn down. It helps to know in advance that being clear about protecting those times and taking care of yourself will help reset my balance.
- Set boundaries
Even when we know we must set better boundaries, it is hard to do. What if my boss asks me for something important? Will saying no mean I won’t get a raise or I’ll be passed over for a promotion? The Administrative Professionals Conference offers some excellent tips for setting boundaries in the workplace.
- Take care of yourself
It seems like everyone is more stressed these days and research suggests this is true. The cumulative effects of COVID-19, on top of our normal stressors, have led to more stress-related issues in the workplace than I’ve seen in over25 years. Knowing how to manage our own stress levels and executing a plan for self-care are important. For me, important considerations include:
- Getting seven to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep each night.
- Prioritizing aerobic exercise at least three times per week and lots of walking.
- Recharging by spending time outdoors helps ground and reenergize me. For others I know it is yoga, meditation, or biking.
- Prioritizing social time with friends to laugh and talk.
Over time I’ve come to realize how important it is to model and teach appropriate boundary setting. Others in the workplace, especially students, look to us to learn the unwritten rules of our performative culture. When faculty, staff, and administrators model setting effective boundaries, we also teach students and each other important lessons about living a healthy and productive life.
We are fortunate to work in a community that cares about well-being. The university offers excellent resources to help us manage our stress, exercise healthy boundaries, and navigate work-life balance.
As the end of the semester and winter holidays approach, I encourage you to take time to set boundaries for yourself that will help you enjoy the best parts of your work at Iowa and time with your loved ones.