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Is There a Polite Way to Set Healthy Boundaries for Work-life Balance?

Balance – it’s the modern-day path to happiness. In Singapore’s fast-paced work culture, it’s reassuring that more and more people are daring to take action to pursue work-life balance. In fact, two in five Singapore workers say they would leave their jobs to improve work-life balance, ranking it more important than an attractive salary.

In the most overworked country in APAC, finding that elusive balance is no easy feat. When seven in 10 Singapore workers suffer from poor work-life balance due to an overwhelming workload, odds are good that you’ll need to set and protect your own boundaries to avoid getting overwhelmed.

Wondering how to draw the line without rubbing any of your colleagues the wrong way? Here’s our four-step playbook to setting healthy boundaries for work-life balance.

Step 1: Identify your priorities and define your boundaries

There’s no cookie-cutter model of work-life balance – we all have different ideas of what makes the perfect balance. That’s why it’s crucial to start off by sitting down and getting clarity on how you want your working life to look like.

First, set your priorities. Reflect on the personal and professional priorities that are important to you.

For example, you might rank spending time with friends as a top priority, closely followed by having enough energy for your hobbies. On the professional front, you may have the goal of earning a promotion or taking on more leadership responsibilities.

Next, zero in on your pain points. What are some frustrations you face in how your time currently gets allocated? Are you constantly having to work overtime and skip your post-work gym time? Do you get bothered by work emails when you’re out on weekends?

Try delving into the root causes behind each issue as well. For instance, you might be struggling with overtime because you’re often given last-minute tasks with tight deadlines.

Brainstorm boundaries to tackle these problems. Finally, think about concrete steps you might take to build boundaries around your priorities. Many of your solutions can actually be self-directed – for example, you can simply silence your inbox with a tool like Quiet for Gmail, rather than relying on your teammates to stop sending after-hours emails.

On the other hand, some boundaries are trickier and will require cooperation from your colleagues to succeed. In this case, what sorts of team rules do you think should be put in place to make everyone’s lives easier?

Source: Pexels

Step 2: Reach out to a workplace mentor for guidance

Career mentors are an invaluable source of wisdom when it comes to navigating office politics. In “The New Gen Worker” Report 2023 by Young NTUC’s Youth Taskforce, 1 in 10 Singapore youths cited career mentorship as the top resource they needed to support their transition into the workforce.

In this situation, having a career mentor in your own workplace will give you better insight into your company culture and processes. If your company doesn’t provide formal mentoring support, consider turning to someone more experienced that you’ve connected with (and isn’t linked to your direct supervisor).

Your mentor should be someone who can help you foresee and avoid any minefields as you set boundaries. In addition, they should be able to give you honest feedback on how realistic your boundaries are, and suggest ways to compromise.

Invite your mentor out for a 1-on-1 coffee chat, and pick their brains on some of these questions:

● What’s a good way to open a conversation on work-life balance with my boss?

● How can I bring up my need for better work-life boundaries without coming off like a ‘snowflake’?

● Looking at both my personal and professional priorities, do my new boundaries strike the right balance? Is there anything I’ve overlooked?

● Realistically, what kind of pushback should I prepare for, and how can I deal with it?

Great mentorship can be a game-changer, and to give fresh grads the support they need, NTUC is launching a Career Starter Lab pilot. This three-month career trial offers a chance to explore a job fit with a range of progressive employers, before entering full-time employment. Each hosting company will provide a structured training programme and match you with a workplace mentor, who will guide you through the tricky transition to the workforce.

Step 3: Discuss your boundaries with your boss

Now you’re ready for the toughest bit: communicating your boundaries to your boss and team. It’s a risky move because, let’s face it – there will likely be people who disapprove of your priorities or view you as less of a team player.

When setting boundaries with your manager, it’s important to make the conversation less about your needs and more about the impact on your work. You need to reassure your boss that these changes will not negatively affect your productivity – in fact, they can even boost your quality of work.

Here’s a quick example. Rather than telling your boss that last-minute tasks are affecting your post-work gym routine, say:

“I’ve noticed we get better feedback from clients when we have more time to work on a deliverable, rather than rushing it overnight. How about setting a rule that we have at least two working days to deliver a task, so that we can improve our quality of work?”

Another key tip to bear in mind is listening to your manager’s perspective. For instance, your boss may be facing client pressures that you weren’t aware of. Turn it into a discussion on how both of you can problem-solve to meet all the equally important needs involved.

Source: Pexels

Step 4: Learn how to say no (tactfully)

So you’ve negotiated healthy boundaries at work, gotten your team on board, and even secured written confirmation from your boss. Congrats! But the very next week, your manager asks you to stay a little later to rush some edits on a report.

Enforcing your boundaries is a never-ending process, and the only way to do it is to get comfortable with saying no. ‘No’ doesn’t have to be an unpleasant word – the secret is to offer a clear alternative.

When your manager asks if you can stay back late, reiterate your boundaries while showing your willingness to help: “I’m afraid I have other commitments as we previously discussed, but I’ll get this done first thing tomorrow morning.”

That said, don’t forget to be flexible. Every workplace has its crunch times and emergency deadlines, where you may need to hunker down and pull long hours with your team. As long as it’s the exception and not the norm, adaptability is key to striking a realistic balance.

Every couple of months, sit down with your mentor to review how you feel. You can reflect on tricky situations where you felt unable to say no, and come up with new strategies to protect your mental health. You can also review whether your priorities have shifted and discuss how to adjust your boundaries.

Setting healthy boundaries with the right support

Nailing your work-life balance and learning to say no is seldom easy, especially when you’re new to the workplace. During these times, having a mentor at your back will help you navigate your workplace dynamics and advocate for your well-being.

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