Avoid burnout: Set boundaries, start saying no and other tips

Psychologist Siobhán Murray details her 12-week plan to a calmer you

Burning the proverbial candle, or match, at both ends?

Burning the proverbial candle, or match, at both ends?


Adhering to your personal boundaries can be difficult unless you are very clear about what they are and are committed to them in order to protect your self-care. There will always be situations and events that will pop up unexpectedly, in your personal and work life, that will challenge you and cause you to forget your boundaries, in turn risking taking on too much and creating unnecessary stress. That is why knowing what your boundaries are, why they are important to you and how you are going to implement them is essential. Knowing what your personal boundaries are is all very well, but having the confidence to implement them can be difficult.

Personal boundaries

Personal boundaries set the tone for what we allow to happen (and participate in) with our own and others’ behaviour. Personal boundaries define how we allow ourselves to be treated (by others, and by ourselves). Setting personal boundaries is intrinsically linked to our self-esteem. If we feel disempowered or taken advantage of by the relationships around us, our self-esteem is impacted. Low self-esteem can impact our health, our stress levels, our personal relationships, as well as how achievable we feel our goals are.

Professional boundaries

Setting professional boundaries can feel more daunting due to the hierarchy of authority and structure of most workplaces. There is a phrase I hear more and more often in relation to how people work – the “instant work environment”. A good example, which I think most people can relate to, would be if you were in the middle of finishing off a task for someone else and you received an email with a new request, which was followed by a text message with another request, and at the same time your phone rang. This type of working environment makes us feel that we need to respond immediately to all the requests that cross our path. If you are not adhering to your boundaries, you can become overwhelmed by the constant demands and it can also create an environment that allows the “instant” demands to continue.

Setting your professional boundaries, and communicating them, allows you to take control of your time at work. Be clear in what you are able to do. For example, if you’re in the middle of finishing an important task and you are asked to do something else, explain that you are willing to do it but that either (a) you have to finish the task at hand first or (b) if you start working on the second task, it will mean the first will not be finished in time. Be clear in communicating your boundaries. It gives you control.

Learning to set healthy personal and professional boundaries puts you on a road to better health and wellbeing and can help decrease the chances of burnout. Just think about this – 80 per cent of chronic illnesses are caused by lifestyle-related issues. Setting personal and professional boundaries is a simple way to empower yourself, take control of your life and protect your self-care.

Siobhán Murray, author of The Burnout Solution, advises setting clear personal and professional boundaries in your life to avoid burnout
Siobhán Murray, author of The Burnout Solution, advises setting clear personal and professional boundaries in your life to avoid burnout

Steps to setting better boundaries

1. No boundaries = little self-esteem
Having a strong set of personal and professional boundaries gives you the power to strengthen your self-esteem. Your boundaries are based on your values. Boundaries define how much or how little you respect yourself. Boundaries are your friend.

2. Use your core values
I don’t like to talk on the phone after 9pm, so when I’m at home I set my phone to “do not disturb” from 9pm until 9am. This allows me to spend time after work with my family, which is one of my personal values. Once you are clear on what matters most to you by understanding your personal values, you can then start setting your boundaries. Just make sure that you communicate this to other people! This is key. Don’t focus on setting your boundaries around other people in your life; your boundaries are about you.

3. You can’t change others, but you can change you
We cannot change other people. Much as we would like to think we can, we are also not responsible for what they say, the choices they make or their reactions to life events or things we’ve said. Since you can’t change other people, learn how to change how you deal with them to reduce your stress.

4. When someone else pushes your boundaries
Knowing what your boundaries are allows you to plan how to manage yourself when others try and push yours (and they will, because that’s life. The best way to figure out how to manage yourself when people cross or push your boundaries is to spend some time asking yourself how you will respond, what exactly you will say. Don’t leave this part to chance as it will result in you reacting rather than responding and maybe even compromising your boundaries.

5. Let your behaviour, not just your words, speak for you
As I’ve said, it is hugely important to communicate your boundaries clearly to people and then let your behaviour around those boundaries do the talking. So if anyone calls me after 9pm and I answer the phone, I am clearly saying “It’s okay to call me after nine” when it is not! By not sticking to my boundary through my behaviour, I am saying one thing and doing another. People will respond to your behaviour, not just your words.

Saying no

If you are someone who feels the need to please others and put their needs before your own, it can be a very daunting thought to assert yourself to say no. However, saying no is powerful and for those who are people pleasers it can be a game changer. Reclaiming your voice and using it with kindness and self-respect – what could be better?

Top tips on how to say no without feeling bad:

Be polite
Just because you are saying you are not going to do something does not mean you have to be rude about it! A simple, “I’m sorry, I’m not able do this right now” is perfect. You don’t need to be overly apologetic or defensive about it, either. Once you start learning to say no, you will reduce the stress and the likelihood of burnout. Remember what I said about the way you think about yourself reflecting how you feel about yourself? Well, the same is true here – you teach people how you want to be treated. Standing firm and saying no is a way to show others you’re not at everyone’s beck and call, both at work and at home.

You can think about it
If you are uncomfortable with the idea of saying no immediately, take your time and think about it. If you want time to think about the request, or just simply have some time to see if this is something you want to do but you don’t have the time right now, simply saying, “I need to check my diary (with my partner, boss, dog, cat...); I’ll get back to you.” Remember, though, you need to ensure you don’t start spending too much time overthinking it; get back to the person as soon as possible with your decision. If you must decline in an email or text, that’s okay. This tip helps you avoid getting pressured into over-stretching yourself and taking on too much.

Establish your priorities
Knowing what your priorities or goals are provides you with the strength and focus to decide whether saying yes will distract you or inhibit you. I work from home and when I am seeing clients, my door is closed and my family know I’m working, however, there seems to be an unspoken assumption that when I’m on my laptop working, I’m free game for “chats”. My darling mother has the key to my house and regularly lets herself in to “drop something off”. This, she feels, entitles her to a cuppa and a chat. If I worked in an office environment I’m not so sure how often she would visit me like this! Previously I would allow myself to be distracted or let her presence inhibit me from getting through my work. Now I have clear priorities for my day and am politely able to say no to her requests. Don’t get me wrong, I’m always happy to see her and have a cuppa, but when saying yes to her puts stress on my workload, being able to say no without guilt means that I get my work done and she doesn’t feel rejected.

Be fast and firm with your response
Although I suggested earlier that you should allow yourself time to think, if you feel strongly about saying no, don’t hesitate about working up the courage to say no. If you know immediately that saying yes to a request is going to negatively impact on your time or will result in being over-stressed and overstretched, tell them. Don’t moan about it, just make sure your answer is clear and fact-based. This gives the person a chance to ask for help from someone else.

This is an edited extract from The Burnout Solution, 12 Weeks to a Calmer You by Siobhán Murray Gill Books €14.99

This book could be the solution to a calmer you in 12 weeks
This book could be the solution to a calmer you in 12 weeks
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