Positive boundaries to support your return to work wellbeing

When it’s a busy time of the year, it can be easy for overwhelm to take over and balance to disappear, whilst trying to stay afloat amongst the sea of planning, family and caring commitments. It can be very tempting to put anything non urgent to one side such as your return to work plan or, looking after yourself. Instead, take a moment now, before the mayhem begins, to plan what you can do to create some positive boundaries to maintain your wellbeing over this period and beyond!

What are boundaries and why do we need them?

Boundaries are healthy positive parameters which you set for yourself to help others understand your limits and your expectations. Boundaries are the foundation of good relationships and help to preserve your mental health and wellbeing.

Everyone will react differently to varying levels and types of stress, so understanding what is normal and healthy for you can help you avoid tipping over into stress or overwhelm. And the earlier you can identify your stress signals the better!

Physical boundaries

Let’s start with physical boundaries, those which relate to your body and health. How have you been feeling lately? Take a moment to check in with yourself scanning your body for areas of tension.

What are you missing right now? What have you been neglecting? And what do you need?

· Is it some regular exercise each day, getting outside in the fresh air? Maybe it’s stretching you need, with some yoga or pilates?

· Do you need to find some space for calm to help reset your mind? Some meditation, mindfulness or breathwork could help you to rebalance.

· Sleep. Does your bedtime routine need a tweak away from scrolling and towards winding down with a good book?

Mental boundaries

Mental boundaries relate to where or what, you give your energy to. If you feel mentally drained, then this is a clear sign you need to pull back and set some boundaries in place.

· Resist the urge to be instantly accessible and responsive. You don’t need to answer messages straight away and especially if you are relaxing in the evening. Consider muting WhatsApp groups if they are stressful or turning off notifications.

· Determine the best time of day to complete tasks, when do you have most energy? If you are at your best first thing, then you could schedule some time to keep moving forward on your return to work plan – update your CV, polish up your LinkedIn profile, research companies you are interested in.

Emotional boundaries

Emotional boundaries are about taking ownership for your own feelings and not taking responsibility for other people’s feelings. Emotional boundaries are a must for healthy personal and professional relationships and your wellbeing.

· A protective bubble image is helpful here. Imagine your own thoughts and feelings protected within your own personal bubble boundary.

· Avoid engaging in some else’s bad mood or energy. Choose to separate your thoughts and feelings by physically moving away or mentally visualising your bubble.

· Steer away from unhelpful conversation or negative talk. Well-meaning family or friends may offer return to work advice that isn’t supportive or helpful, remember that this is their view only, you have a choice not to take this on.

Moving forwards with a plan

You might be caring for elderly parents, relatives or children and juggling many commitments but it’s up to you to take responsibility for your wellbeing and prioritise it. When you have healthy boundaries in place you will feel and function much better – for yourself and for others.

Now is always the best time to take action and it doesn’t need to a grand plan! If you can create some small consistent steps each day to honour your boundaries you will be doing well. Here are some examples:

· Take some exercise every day, 15 min walk around the block or 15 mins of yoga. Pop reminders in your phone, diary or on post it notes around the home.

· Swap 30 minutes of your evening phone scroll to read, watch or listen to a helpful or inspiring resource. For your return to work listen to our Career Returners podcast or read our many returner success stories.

· Switch off some of your phone notifications, as many as you dare. Mute busy WhatsApp groups and know that the messages will still be there to answer when you are ready.

Take a moment now to jot down some positive boundaries for your wellbeing. Make them personal and specific to you and your needs and commit to taking action.

How to navigate hybrid working

The landscape on flexible working, and in particular where we work, has changed enormously since 2019. During the pandemic, city centres emptied out and workers across the country and beyond navigated how to work from home. Nearly four years on, where have we landed after this enforced experiment in remote working and how can you set yourself up well for the new way of working?

How organisations have evolved

Organisations have had to balance a new dynamic of differing employee expectations and demands in order to retain staff and attract new talent. Many employers which previously expected employees to be on site 5 days a work, such as professional services firms, have realised that it is possible to accommodate more flexibility. Although some organisations are now championing an ‘everyone back in’ policy, many are choosing to operate a policy of ‘hybrid working’, where staff come into the office or onsite 2 or 3 days per week and work from home for the remaining days.

Technology has been a key enabler in this changing landscape, equipping staff with the tools they need to work productively and effectively from home. Platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom have enabled people to continue to collaborate whether working from home or in the office.

An opportunity for returners

Looking at it through a returner lens, we have heard many anecdotes on how the ability to work remotely for some of the week has helped smooth the transition back to work. There are many barriers to getting back to work after a long career break, and navigating a long daily commute while continuing to manage caring responsibilities at home can be a significant one. Partially removing this barrier is helping many returners to focus primarily on the learning curve that comes with returning to work, while only having to manage the associated logistics a few days a week. In a recent article with Fortune magazine, returner Melissa Schofield shared her story of returning to work at Gallagher Re after an 18 year career break. Living 2.5 hours away from her London based employer, the option of being able to work from home 3 days a week was a game changing enabler for her return, “I think if I hadn’t got that flexible working, I wouldn’t have come back”.

However, remote working isn’t for everyone, so think if it will work for you. You may be keen to get out of the house. Maybe you don’t have a dedicated space to work well from home or you prefer to have a clear work-home boundary. You may have missed the social dynamic of being in an office and want to maximise the opportunities to network, learn and collaborate in person.

Making hybrid working work for you

How can you set yourself up well for hybrid working on your return?

Before you join:

  • Understand from your Line Manager what the hybrid working norms are for the team
  • Find out whether there are core days when you are required to be in the office or onsite. If not, explore which are the best days for you to be around for regular team meetings and collaboration opportunities
  • Plan any childcare/eldercare around your agreed days. However, build in flexibility -do have backup support (and backup for your backup!) in case you need to come in on another day for an important meeting or networking opportunity.

Working from home:

  • Create clear boundaries between work and home. Dedicate a specific working space if possible, free of clutter, where you feel happy to take professional calls.
  • Make best use of quiet time working from home by planning focussed tasks such as research, reading documents and drafting
  • Ensure you set up video calls with your team on days working from home to stay connected and lessen any isolation from working solo
  • Remember to take breaks – get some fresh air during your lunch break and remember to eat lunch!
  • If possible, close the door on your working space at the end of the working day, or close your laptop and pack things away, to enable you to signal to yourself that you are switching off

Working in the office:

  • Make the best use of being in person, by planning meetings with team members and networking conversations when you’re on site
  • Don’t miss the opportunity for informal conversations – these may need scheduling more than previously, if your team doesn’t have core days when you’re all in
  • Process the day and find a way to help yourself to switch off on your commute home, maybe by reading or listening to music or a podcast.

It looks like hybrid working is here to stay. We welcome this development, as it is helping to open up opportunities for more returners to kickstart the next chapter of their career! See previous post: Flexible Working – The Where, When and How

How to Prevent Return-to-work Burnout

This guest blog is by burnout expert Cara de Lange, who offers advice on how to prevent burnout when you’re returning to the workplace, particularly if you’re working remotely.

If you are returning to work after having been away from the work front for a while, it can feel like you are stepping back into a different world of remote or hybrid working. Without the ‘switch off’ time of a commute, it’s easy to fall into using that time for extra work or to keep working late into the evening. The feeling of being always ‘switched’ on and not able to disconnect can contribute to feelings of tiredness and fatigue, and may lead to burnout if not addressed. The great news is that, if you are aware of all of this before you get back into work, you can set up some boundaries and habits for yourself to make sure you can switch off and maintain your energy levels.

What is burnout?

The World Health Organisation defines burnout as “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

The symptoms of burnout are:

  • A continuous feeling of exhaustion or lack of energy
  • Negative feelings and a distancing from the job role
  • A reduction in professional efficacy.

As well as the three recognised symptoms of burnout, there are a few other signs that may indicate you are heading towards burnout. Things to look out for include a general dissatisfaction with your working environment; regular headaches, stomach aches or issues with your digestion; a constant lack of energy; insomnia and a lack of motivation in all areas of life.

How can you prevent burnout?

The good news is that there are plenty of things you can do to help prevent yourself from reaching that burnout stage. Here are some useful ways to help you manage your stress and prevent burnout when you return to work.

  1. When you finish your working day at home, put all your work stuff (laptop, notebook etc) away in a drawer or cupboard. Out of sight really can help to make it out of mind!
  2. Be aware of the language you use and speak to yourself with – if you tell yourself you are burned out; the brain will go ‘ok I am burned out then’ and you will feel more tired. Try using positive phrases such as ‘I feel tired but I am working on ways to gain more energy’ or ‘I feel calm and have more energy every day’. Write out some positive affirmations and put them in places where you can easily read them and remind yourself during the day.
  3. Nature nurtures – trees are healing. Take yourself outside and do some ‘forest bathing’. Walking amongst trees can reduce stress and tiredness. If that’s not possible, at least try to get your feet on the grass for a few minutes a day.
  4. When working, make sure to take regular breaks in between meetings and tasks. Micro wellness – super short 60 second breaks – give your mind and body a rest. Something as simple as taking a deep breath before you join that next meeting, giving your toes a wriggle and feeling your palms, gets you back into your body and out of your head.
  5. If your work is consistently stressful, then it may be time to think about making some changes. Perhaps you need to reduce your hours or rearrange your schedule to allow for a little more breathing space. Discuss your feelings with your employer and try to work out a plan to stop yourself from reaching burnout.
  6. Stop wearing the ‘burnout badge of honour’. We are all human and deserve to rest and recover. Get a sleep schedule in place that ensures you get a full 7-9 hours a night and think about cleaning up your diet so that you no longer need to rely on sugar and caffeinated products to help you get motivated.

Try these tips for a few weeks and you will soon notice a change.


Cara de Lange is the Founder of Softer Success, an international burnout mentor, coach, speaker and mother. She is also the author of ‘Softer Success – Prevent Burnout, Find Balance & Re-define Your Success’, which details her own experiences with burnout and the techniques she used for her recovery. Cara runs workshops and talks focusing on compassionate leadership, relieving stress and changing people’s mindset to prevent burnout. 

Changing the image of work-life balance

What image comes to mind when you think about work-life balance? When I googled the term the most common pictures are 

… the Work-Life scales …

… and the Work-Life seesaw …

No question here that it’s a Work versus Life trade-off. If this is your mental view of balance too, it’s hard not to feel that going back to work will inevitably conflict with your family and personal life. 

In fact, as we’ve discussed before in this blog, work can be re-integrated into your life in a positive way, improving your life and family satisfaction. With this in mind, I’d like to suggest an alternative image. Think about your life as a jigsaw puzzle that you are in control of creating. The puzzle pieces are the different elements of your life: friends, parents, children, partner, community, hobbies, exercise, religion, voluntary work etc. It’s up to you to select the pieces you most want to include at this stage of your life. To incorporate a new piece – ‘paid work’ – you need to consider how large a piece of the jigsaw you would like this to be right now. Which other pieces are you going to put aside or shrink in size, to make space to slot the work piece in? Bear in mind an image of choosing and fitting together the pieces in a way that works for you – and be flexible to adjust the shape and form as your circumstances change. 

I really like the jigsaw image, as it reflects the way I integrate work within my life. If you can suggest any other alternative images to replace the scales/seesaw, do let us know!  

Related posts
Creating your own work-life balance

Posted by Julianne

Returning to Work – Is there a Middle Ground?

A guest post for mothers looking for greater flexibility from Amanda Seabrook, MD of Workpond.
The frightening
thing about ‘leaving the workforce’, either when you have children or during
their early years, is that you know instinctively that things will never be the
same again. Even if you are able to return to your old company, the way that
you value your time away from the office will have changed and however much you
enjoy your job it won’t feel quite the same.
This may be because you wish you
could spend more time with your child/children or it may be due to the fact
that your disposable income isn’t what it was! Whether you have a’ babe in arms’
or teenage children, the demands are much the same and you just have to work out
a way to balance the two that suits you.
So is it worth
returning to ‘the same old’ or reinventing yourself to suit your new life
circumstances? Change is hard to achieve, until you know what options you have.
Many people assume that it is normal to work on a full-time employed basis. It
is therefore a surprise to many that, according to the ONS, only 46% of the
labour force are employed on a full-time basis. 27.2% are either self-employed
or working part-time – and this number is on the rise. A further 5.5% (2.3m)
are economically inactive (not paying taxes or claiming benefits) but at the
same time keen to work (largely mothers and early retirees).
So there IS a middle
ground –and this middle ground is growing. It is driven, not only by women
looking for greater flexibility to allow more time with their children, but by
a large number of people, both male and female and of all ages, who are
becoming self-employed and selling their expertise directly to businesses.
There are vibrant markets for Senior Interims (MD’s and FD’s that work for
typically 6-12 months for large corporates, often when specific projects need
to be sorted out). There are freelancers in the more creative sectors – such as
design, web development, branding, copywriting and journalism. There are
specialist consultants who can put together strategy, implement it and then
move on to their next project. Some of them work for single clients consecutively
and some have a portfolio of clients that they work for at the same time,
billing on an hourly or daily basis.
Interestingly, it is
the forward-looking businesses which are becoming more open to the benefits of
employing more flexibly. Some are going a step further by developing their
whole business strategy around it. They are also becoming more accepting of the
fact that professionals in all disciplines can be of use on a self-employed or
a part-time basis – great news for working mothers – particularly when it means
you can save on childcare costs and potentially work closer to home (or even
better, remotely from home).
Early stage and
owner managed businesses are particularly open to engaging talent in this way as
they tend to be much more cost conscious and need the best talent to enable
them to grow. The innovative sector is booming – not only at Silicon Roundabout
in the East End of London, but all around the country, and to work at a company
that specialises in emerging technologies (even for someone with no technology
experience) can be extremely stimulating. Some would balk at the lower
salaries sometimes offered , but others recognise that the cost savings of reduced
travel and childcare , the potential to grow with the business and the ability
to balance their lives makes up for the short-fall.
Finding work in
these companies may not be straightforward as many don’t enjoy parting with
their cash to pay recruiters. However, a simple five step process might suffice
in discovering potential flexible opportunities which may otherwise remain
1. Research your
local area to see what businesses there are close by that you would like to
work for – think broadly.
2. Work out what
service you could offer them – what you would like to specialise in.
3. Update your LinkedIn
profile and connect to everyone you know. Update your CV and send it through to
your target businesses explaining what you believe you can offer them.
4. Tell your friends
what you are trying to do and start going to business networking meetings.
5. Register your CV
with specialist recruitment consultancies, like Workpond, who may be able to
help you.
Don’t be afraid to
tell people that you are a mother. In our experience, as long as you are
realistic in your expectations of flexibility and are willing to offer
flexibility in return, it will garner a great deal of respect.
Amanda Seabrook is the MD of Workpond, a
recruitment consultancy helping businesses find professionals who wish to work
on an interim, consultancy or part-time basis.

Creating your own work-life balance: are you a separator or an integrator?

There seems to be a constant stream of articles dismissing work-life balance and saying that now we have to integrate our personal and professional lives. This is a confusing about-turn from the more traditional advice that drawing a clear line between work and home will bring you greater balance. So which is right? Is work-life balance a thing of the past? Blurring the boundaries between work & personal life seems to work for the home-based journalists & entrepreneurs writing these articles … but will it work for you?

If you’re thinking about returning to work and wanting to maintain your balance, do you need to focus on creating clear boundaries between job & home? Or do you need to be always contactable? Is it better to have fixed work & home time? Or to work from home when you can?

The answer from the psychology research, as so often in psychology (& life), is that it depends on you …

What do we know about balance?
1. Balance is an internal state of feeling balanced and energised not an externally-set recipe. I see this all the time in my coaching. Some women who work full-time in demanding jobs still feel generally balanced – often if they have high control over their workload and keep weekends mainly clear. Other women work 3 days a week in unstimulating roles and feel drained and out of balance.
2. Balance is completely individual – your balance is not my balance. I enjoy the flexibility of having my own business but that may well not work for you if you prefer more standard hours and structure.
3. Balance changes day to day & through the lifespan. I don’t need to tell you that what you need to feel balanced when you’re 20 & single is not the same as when you’re 35 with 2 children. Don’t try to evaluate your balance at a point in time; think about whether you’ve felt more or less in balance over the last month or the last few months.
Are you a separator or an integrator?
Psychology research* has drawn out important differences between individuals in terms of the boundaries we want between home and work:
  • Some people are naturally integrators. They will love the idea of work-life blend as they prefer blurred boundaries and changing roles through the day. You’ll see the integrators switching effortlessly from watching a sports match or cooking dinner to taking a work call. Many energised entrepreneurs and home-workers fall in this camp.
  • Other people are more naturally separators. They prefer a clear split between work & personal life, closing the door on their work life at the end of the day and focusing on their friends, family & leisure (& vice versa when they’re at work). They may prefer to go into an office rather than to work at home and to finish their day’s tasks at work rather than bringing them home to finish after the kids are in bed. One of my clients went back to full-time working as she found this was a better fit for her separator preference than blending the work/mum roles on her day off.
What does that mean for finding your own balance?

What’s important for balance is not whether you are more of a separator or an integrator, but whether you have a good match between the degree of separation you want and what you have. So ignore blanket advice about having to blend or to separate the personal and the professional and work out what suits you. You may not get to the ideal situation (often working mothers are integrators through necessity rather than desire) but you can consider what small actions you can take to bring your life more in line with your choices. Where you can, try different ways of working (eg. finishing work at home or in the office; working from home one day) and evaluate what works best for you.

And whatever your preference, don’t neglect setting some boundaries, such as not checking your emails at 11pm on Sunday evening …we all need time to switch off and recharge our batteries!

Leaning In or Hanging On?

There has been a lot of comment in recent months by senior women on how they balance a high pressure, big-responsibility role with the rest of their life.  It is a common, often internal debate, which professional women experience whether they are already working or thinking about returning.  Julianne posted about this previously and I’d like to add my own perspective.
Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, exhorting women to Lean In to their careers, has currently reignited this debate following Anne-Marie Slaughter’s contribution last summer (see links below).  Both Sandberg, COO of Facebook, and her counterpart at Yahoo, Melissa Mayer, profess to be able to have both a high profile career as well as a satisfying personal life. Sandberg’s book sets out what women need to do to follow her path.  She believes that women need to have more confidence to put themselves forward and push ahead with their careers.  She is also refreshingly candid about her own experiences and times of self-doubt.  Her response to her self-doubt seems to be to push herself even harder and achieve even more.  In the opposing camp are Erin Callan, former CFO of Lehman Brothers, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, Princeton professor and former first female Director of Policy Planning for Obama, who found that a high profile career did not suit the rest of the life they wished to lead.  It is of note that all these examples come from the USA, where perhaps there are more women in senior roles than here in the UK.
In any event, how is this debate relevant to women wishing to return after a career break who have nothing, as yet, to lean in to?  Returners can often believe that it will not be possible to combine their career with their other interests.   In my view, the question underlying the debate is how we define our success.  For women like Sandberg and Meyer, their sense of success is defined precisely as combining being a leader of a major international business and an influencer in their industry with being a wife and mother.  Callan and Slaughter, on the other hand, discovered that no amount of power, income and position compensated for the lack of balance they experienced in their lives.
For women thinking about returning to work, it is essential to be clear about how you will define your success.  Will it be getting back, as quickly as possible, to the senior level you previously occupied?  Will it be creating a portfolio of diverse activities?  Will it be working for certain defined periods of time?  Will it be turning a hobby or passion into a business?   The options are limitless while the choice of how to define your success is totally up to you: it is not for your peers, your social circle or your family to define success for you.  Getting the right the balance – for you – between work and the rest of your life is likely to be more important than your title or status.  Gaining a sense of control over your future career is a key factor in how satisfying you will find it.
For further reading:
Anne-Marie Slaughter
Erin Callan

Posted by Katerina