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01 Dec 2022
by Dr Sophie Dix

3 ways to reduce holiday stress by building work boundaries

Koa Health’s Dr Sophie Dix on how having work boundaries in place helps create a more healthy workplace for everyone and not just at Christmas

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As a single mum of three and a team leader in a busy corporate environment, what I enjoy most about the festive holidays is spending time with people I care about. Despite the expense and hustle-bustle, I look forward to gazing at twinkling lights and snuggling up with my daughter to watch post-apocalyptic movies (it’s our long-standing tradition).

But the holidays can be emotionally, physically and psychologically taxing – especially for carers and parents.

All the things my family loves the most about this time of year require extra work from me – buying and wrapping gifts, cooking special food, my kids’ school events and the list goes on.

And as a team leader, I also have additional work-related responsibilities – coordinating team members’ holiday time, negotiating what the team wants to do to celebrate and when, and let’s not forget end-of-year deadlines.

Without healthy boundaries in place, this combination of end-of-year work dynamics with holiday-season stress can be a recipe for disaster. Building better boundaries can make holiday stress easier to handle. However, many of us need help extending boundaries at all, especially at work.

So what can managers and team leaders do to help? Here are three ways to incorporate healthy boundaries into your workplace:

1. Reframe how you think (and communicate) about boundaries

Many of us (parents, carers and managers especially) have trouble extending healthy boundaries, even when they’re for our own — and, really, everyone’s good. We feel guilty being unavailable or even just expressing overt preferences.

This is unfortunate because healthy boundaries (in both our professional and personal lives) are put in place for a reason, a key piece of establishing order.

They help protect us from task overload, mark acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, and generally enable us to avoid stress in the short term and burnout in the long term.

And they’re vital to conserving your mental health during hectic and high-pressure times (like the winter holidays). As a leader, you play a crucial role in this – not just by clearly communicating about the need for healthy boundaries but also by modelling what this looks like.

2. Model healthy boundaries

This step is the hardest for many leaders. But leading by example may make the most significant impact on ways of working for your team. If you, as a team lead, are confident and kind and clearly communicate your needs and take action to protect them, your employees will notice.

For example, by saying you won't respond to non-urgent messages on days off and following through (by not responding), you’re sending a message to your employees that they can take time off without checking in and responding to emails, either.

You may also want to consider making when you are and aren’t working more visible. When I’m out of office, even for just a few hours for a school thing or medical appointment, I mark it on my calendar. My hope is that this, along with how I communicate to my team about work-life more generally, shows them that it’s okay (given we work flexibly) to have non-work commitments and they don’t need my ‘permission’ to have work-life balance.

3. Empower your team

One way to make extending a boundary feel less intimidating, especially for more introverted or junior team members, is by integrating boundaries into your ways of working.

Request that all team members (this means you and any other leaders on your team, too) fill out a standardised form. It should include their time zone, typical start and stop times, how they prefer to be reached for different sorts of projects (chat, email, phone), how they like to collaborate (asynchronously, in-person) and how they like to receive praise (individually or publicly).

You’ll also want team-wide rules around communicating time off and best practices for handing off responsibilities when needed. Remember to remind everyone regularly that these boundaries are key to working well together and protecting everyone’s mental health. The main point here isn't to ensure compliance: it’s to maximise understanding, consideration and empathy.

Boundaries are essential to supporting mental health and helping employees handle stress year-round, not just during the hectic holiday season. For more ideas on how to help your team deal with workplace stress, download our pocket guide, The Science of Stress.

In partnership with Koa Health

At Koa Health, we believe digital mental health solutions are the answer to mental health issues.

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