It’s 10 p.m. on a Tuesday, hours past the end of your workday. You’ve made dinner and now you’re in bed unwinding with your pet and a good Netflix show, sipping some tea, catching up on texts and memes from friends, and you see a notification that catches your breath: an email from your boss. “Just noticed some last-minute updates needed on the project for tomorrow. Sorry it’s so late, but I know I can count on you to help out the team just this once!”
If you get up, turn the lights on, and crank out a few more hours of work, you’ll likely get praised for your sacrificing nature. But what about time to finally unwind?
The question of work-life boundaries has always been a hard one, but during a global pandemic that is shifting work from the office to the home (if you are lucky enough to still have work), sending kids home to do schooling via Zoom, and adding anxiety and stress to daily interactions, the daily negotiations of needs and limits have become even more fraught.
“These are times that put extreme challenges on our boundaries,” says Sarri Gilman, a psychotherapist and author. “Whether you had great boundaries or not before the pandemic, you’ve gone through some boundary collapse and this is going to be a time of rebuilding.”
On top of balancing regular boundaries between work and home life, now the domestic sphere has become a site of even more responsibility and management for many women.
There is an expectation, in the U.S. and countries around the world, that women will take on additional unpaid work—child care, elder care, housework—serving as a “backup plan” to fill unexpected needs that arise in a crisis (absent of broader social safety nets that might otherwise ease the burden).
“Women in general are just more conditioned to capture the overflow. When there's new stuff that pops up, there's oftentimes an expectation that she can absorb it,” says Jenn Kennedy, a marriage and family therapist who focuses on couples.
In fact, a recent Harvard Business School working paper found that women had less leisure time than men during initial weeks of the pandemic. And this reduction in leisure time led to decreased wellbeing one month later.
And in general, there are cultural norms and expectations for women and girls in the U.S. of being caretakers or people-pleasers in the U.S.
“Women are taught and expected to please, and that makes it very hard to deal with boundaries,” Gilman says. “You feel like you’re supposed to make everybody happy, but you feel like you don’t have permission to ask for what you need.”
But defining and communicating boundaries is a key need for working women in order to prevent burnout and promote sustainability, especially during an ongoing pandemic.
“Boundaries are our communication of our needs,” Kennedy says.
A good place to start, Kennedy continues, is getting to know what you need. If your job description has clear work hours, maybe that boundary is not answering work communication—emails, texts, Slack—outside those hours.
Communicating these boundaries with a supervisor is less of a wall and more of a conversation-starter:
You’re emailing me at 10 p.m., which is outside my work hours, and it makes me feel like I need to respond.
“It’s a crucial leadership skill, bringing boundary conversations to work and getting clarity with everyone. It’s really helpful, it’s often appreciated,” Gilman says. “It’s all about doing it in a way that invites people to share what they need. What’s working? What’s not working? What’s starting to overload people?”
While boundary communication can feel new and strange your first few times, it is worth setting up this practice in your life, throughout all types of relationships.
“Communicating boundaries feels very foreign to people who aren't used to doing it,” says Kennedy. “Especially for women who are conditioned to be accommodating, it feels like you are disappointing other people or being mean or unreasonable, but really you're taking care of yourself and helping that relationship to have integrity.”
After having an initial conversation about when and how you’re available to be contacted outside work hours, when you’re in bed watching TV on a Tuesday night and your boss emails you about a project, you’re better prepared to respond. You can hold your boundary:
I wish I could help, but I’m not available—you’ll have to call someone else.
“You have to be willing to stick to your boundary, not make excuses, not explain. When we give our ‘reasons’ for everything, that’s not saying no. Give people the actual boundary: ‘No, I can’t,’ Gilman says.
The practice of creating, communicating, and holding boundaries can bring clarity and openness to relationships, and prevent miscommunication or assumptions. Ultimately, they help you continue to live your life in a way that feels sustainable, global pandemic or not.
“You’re not superhuman,” Gilman says. “You’re not made of anything more than anyone else. You need recovery and restoration time. We all do.”
About our sources
Jenn Kennedy is a licensed marriage and family therapist working in Santa Barbara, CA. She specializes in working with couples and individuals around sex and life transitions. Find more information about her work at rivieratherapy.com.
Sarri Gilman is a licensed psychotherapist, author, and speaker. She teaches online workshops on boundaries and overwhelm recovery. She is a former nonprofit leader.