Creating a Culture of Healthy Boundaries

Recent research examined the correlations between work pressure, relationship breakdown at home and productivity in the workplace. The results confirm that high-pressure jobs have a negative impact on home relationships; when home relationships break down, performance on the job is affected.  What we didn’t know was the stark reality and the extent of the issue. 

High-earners are three and a half times more likely to experience challenges in their marriages and partnerships than the national average.

A whopping 69% of high-earners confirmed they had experienced significant relationship difficulty compared with 20% for the national average.  This has significant implications for senior leaders, for dual income professional couples and for City type professionals – all of whom are likely to have household incomes upwards of £100,000.  

What do these three cohorts have in common? Millennials.   

Roughly defined as those born between the early 1980’s up to 1996, predictions are that millennials will dominate the workforce over the next ten years.  Millennials are known for their drive, ambition and high levels of education. These are the individuals most likely to rise quickly to senior management positions, who tend to be dual income professional couples and a percentage of whom will be the high-powered, high-earning City professionals.  According to the research, this means millennials will be most at risk of experiencing relationship breakdown – yet these are the ones who, unlike their parents and previous generations, are not willing to sacrifice their work/life balance for the sake of a pay cheque. 

And it’s not just about the millennials…

Millennials are the forerunners of a permanent tide of change in employee attitudes around the integration of life and work in the future. Work and life have always been inextricably linked. However, an always-on digital culture now demands that we develop new norms for employee engagement and work/life balance.  Much has been written around the need for more flexibility, commitment to wellbeing and work that is purposeful, and these themes remained constant in the research findings.  Beyond the need for changes to policies and procedures, the research results highlight changes in cultures, mindsets and behaviours that must occur for any of the changes in policies to genuinely take effect. 

There are three key areas for culture/behaviour change in order to engage future talented employees, improve their work/life balance and future-proof businesses for success.

The three areas for fundamental shifts are around creating a 1) culture of healthy boundaries 2) creating a culture of collaborating more effectively across those boundaries and 3) creating a culture of supporting people through their “real life” cycles.  This blog is one of three blogs looking at the three culture shifts / behaviour changes required for success in the workplace over the next decade. The focus in this blog is on creating a culture of healthy boundaries. You can find the other two blogs here – creating a culture of collaboration across boundaries and creating a culture of support for employees’ real-life cycles.

Creating a culture of healthy boundaries…

Gone are the days when employees could leave the office and leave all their stresses behind.  Mobile technology and flexible working patterns have invaded the “safe space” of home. Half of the high-earners who reported significant relationship difficulties said the general high pressure and stress of the job had a negative impact on their relationship.  Over a third of respondents (38%) said work pressures actually caused their relationship difficulties.  

The changing global landscape and the need to work across multiple time zones contribute to the long hours and invasion of private lives.  Stories of having to take refuge in the car to deal with out-of-hours work calls rather than having to face the wrath of a partner are not uncommon.  The technology is there to enable flexibility in managing the time and place of work in an attempt to create more work/life balance. What is missing is the ability to create and manage our own boundaries well so we can each live to our core values and make space for the things that truly matter to us – our health, our relationships, our contribution/legacy.

Busyness is a fact of life that is not going away in a hurry, but busyness in and of itself is not the problem.

There are many people who are terribly busy but still hugely successful in life – across business/finance, relationships, health etc – Bill Gates, Barack Obama, Helena Morrissey come to my mind. Being busy is almost inevitable in a 24/7 culture. The challenge is our ability to choose the right thing to be busy doing at any moment in time and to create cycles of “sprints” and “recovery” in the busyness that has become our culture.

The culture shift, the new mindset and the behaviour changes required for the future is not so much about finding a balance for a juggling act of home – work – life, but more about finding your rhythm of “sprint and recovery” or “work, rest and play” in a way that keeps you energised and fully present for the people and things that matter to you in life. It’s about identifying and putting boundaries around the relationships and things that are important to you and defending the space – physically, mentally and emotionally – to attend to these priorities in the rhythm that works for you. It’s about learning to develop schedules based on values rather than on to-do lists.

Boundaries will be different for different people. 

Some people need a complete escape from everything that reminds them of work in order to be replenished and this alone creates stresses for them in the current 24/7, always-on culture.  Millennials and later generations seem more comfortable with blurred boundaries and expect to live far more integrated lives.  But while they might not be stressed by being “always on”, they will get stressed by being busy without being purposeful. Never before has there been a more urgent need for us all to learn how to lead ourselves in order to stay focused on “first things first” in the midst of the noise and clamour of all things digital. 

As individuals, we each need to get better at creating healthy boundaries in order to respect and give space to other aspects of life (key personal relationships, diet/exercise, faith, contribution etc) that help us replenish our energy, feed our souls and give attention to the things that matter to us.

Companies have their part to play in this culture shift to healthier boundaries for a brighter future.

Employers need to pay more attention to the demands they place on their people, through ever increasing targets and bonuses and a top-down culture that seems to reward results at any cost.  That might have been a strategy for success in the past, but it is no longer applicable for the future of work.

For example, the prevailing corporate assumption that productivity means being present in the office has a lot to answer for.   A recent BBC Comres Survey, found that 30% of employees arrive early and stay late just because their colleagues do and 40% said they would “pull a sickie” just to have a break. Another survey by the Chartered Institute for Professional Development (CIPD), UK Working Lives Survey – an annual assessment of job quality – reported that one in four workers experienced intense and stressful working conditions – including feeling exhausted, miserable or under excessive pressure – and that “work acts as a considerable stressor for a worrying proportion of us”. The way we work is creating its own cycle of stress and ill-health and current cultures prevent us from even talking about it for fear of not seeming committed or “hungry” enough.

This goes some way to explain the conundrum that the UK works the longest hours in Europe yet lags behind in productivity. 

Not only are we less productive as a nation but our personal wellbeing, home life and relationships are being severely impacted as well.

Despite policies, job redesigns and other attempts to improve flexibility and quality of life for employees, the workplace culture will only change when leaders change what they say and do. The future of work demands leaders who demonstrate commitment to, and respect for, their own values and priorities, set their own healthy boundaries, share openly about the non-work aspects of their lives and empower employees to do the same.

Millennials are the generation that will not sacrifice personal relationships or other life priorities just for perks.

Both companies and individuals need to examine their current working practices, cultures, expectations and values, and (re)establish healthy boundaries that give people the time and space to attend to the relationships and things that matter to them. This is one of three culture shifts required to create a thriving workforce and a more sustainable, socially responsible “future-proofed” work environment.

To find our more, check out our flagship workshops: The 4 Habits for building Great Relationships at work AND at home and Creating Health Boundaries.

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