Rituals For Creating Healthy Work-Life Boundaries
By Dr Kate Owen
Clinical Psychologist and Family Therapist
A common theme amongst those in the helping profession is to carry the burden of work home. There are many reasons for this. Some of the reasons relate to the caring and compassionate nature of those in the sector, high expectations placed upon oneself, commitment to serving others, invitations to over-function in the workplace, patching up an often broken health system, striving for the next pat on the back for a job well done, and running on adrenaline in a fast-paced and anxious work environment.
My hope is that this article will help you pause and reflect on this dynamic so that you can evaluate your level of comfortability in taking work home with you. Taking work home can come in many different forms, including physical tasks and mental energy.
For some people, they gain energy and inspiration from work-related activities after they have officially “clocked off”. Perhaps there is a project they are excited about, a workplace opportunity they are considering, or they enjoy problem-solving challenges. Some people might say that these activities don’t even feel like “work”.
Other people might have a different experience. Perhaps they find themselves ruminating about work when they really want to be focused on their family, sleepless nights thinking about all the tasks that weren’t completed and will be there tomorrow, or feeling pressure to complete tasks while at home.
Each person is different, and it is helpful for you to reflect on what your boundaries are when it comes to separating work and home life. Is your philosophy that “work is life and life is work”, and you are happy having the freedom to blend these two domains? Is your philosophy that work and home are two separate domains, with your preference to keep them compartmentalised? Or somewhere in between?
Fundamentally what is important is how you FEEL. When your philosophy feels “good” then you know that it is working for you, your central nervous system, and your relationships. When it feels “stressful” or “resentful”, is impacting your mental health and physical health, as well as your relationships, then it is helpful to understand the situation and make some adjustments.
One idea for those who want to keep their work role separate from home life is to create rituals for leaving work and rituals for arriving home.
Leaving Work Rituals
In the 1920s, British coal miners won the right to wash off the grime of the job while in work time, rather than going home to their families still dirty and having to wash it off there (Hawkins & Shohet, 1989). This concept fits with the idea that helping professionals should have the right to go home and leave any “residue” from work at the door.
If leaving work at work is important to you, then try these different rituals to help establish an end-of-day routine to symbolise that work has come to an end.
1. Choose an action to use each day when you finish work to symbolise the end of the working day. For example, taking off your name badge and placing it in a drawer, letting out your hair, or watering the office plant.
2. Take 10 minutes at the end of your shift to decompress and feel grounded before finishing work. You might try sitting in a quiet room (or the bathroom!) doing deep breathing, light stretching, or a short 5-minute meditation.
3. Choose a positive and helpful mantra to repeat to yourself. Saying the mantra out loud would be ideal, but in your own mind is ok too. You will know what mantra will work best for you. If you are stuck, then try saying “I have done a great job today. Now I am finished work. I choose to leave work here and come back to it tomorrow.” Repeat this 5 to 10 times.
4. Use the travel time home to shift your senses and thoughts. For example, drive in silence, listen to music, make a phone call to a friend (hands-free of course) and talk about positive things, listen to a podcast, or take a different route home so that you have to be mindful of where you are traveling.
5. Get into the habit of creating a gratitude list before you finish work. Every day write down three things that you are grateful for in your workday. State what they are, and then describe why you are grateful. Gratitude is proven to be beneficial for wellbeing and is a great way to end the day.
6. Visualise placing all the demands from the workday into a box, knowing that you will come back to the box tomorrow.
7. Set your intention for what you want after work. Setting intentions will keep you future focussed and will help you to consciously and unconsciously take proactive steps towards that desire after you finish work. For example, “My intention when I finish work today is to pick up the kids, talk to them about their day, and then cook dinner all together. My intention is to be present and to have fun”.
8. Release muscular tension by jumping around or dancing. Literally “shake off” the day.
9. Turn off all notifications from work if possible – email, phone, social media related to work, etc.
10. If you receive a text or phone call outside of work hours, send a message saying you can be contacted during work hours. Once others know your boundary, then there is no need to continue to send this reminder.
My own personal leaving work rituals include packing away files into a drawer, filling up the water cooler, turning off all the lights, and as I lock the office door I mentally run through all the events of the day like a movie. All movies have an ending and that is why I do this visualisation. During the movie replay, I focus on all of the highlights, successes, and feel-good moments from the day.
Arriving At Home Rituals
If being fully present at home is important to you, then try these different rituals to help establish an end-of-day routine to symbolise that you are choosing home life to be separate from work.
1. Choose an action to use each day when you arrive home to symbolise the return to your personal life. This could be having a shower, changing your clothes, packing away your work bag, or lighting a fragrant candle.
2. Make it difficult to access any work-related devices (e.g., phone, email, etc) by placing these objects in an inaccessible place.
3. Make a plan for you, or with your family and friends, so that everyone has something to look forward to. These plans can be as simple as watching a movie together on tv or trying a new recipe for dinner.
4. Mentally shift what “hat” you are wearing. Remove your “work hat” and mentally put on the “hat” you want to wear. This could be your parent hat, partner hat, healthy-self hat that goes to the gym, or chill-out hat. Choose whatever role you want to actively engage in.
5. Create a home life that brings you joy and will be more inviting than thinking about work.
6. If work worries or tasks pop into your mind, allow yourself 10 minutes before bed to write down these thoughts, knowing that you can take the list with you to work the next day. However, make sure that thinking about work is not the last thing on your mind before you go to sleep.
My own personal home life rituals include a long hot shower and allowing myself 10 minutes before bed to write down any insights or actions that will help me in my work role. Once these are written down, I feel that they are out of my head, and I know that I will not forget them by the morning. This definitely helps me sleep better.
Hopefully, by the end of this article, you are reflecting on where the boundary lies for you in terms of your work and personal life domains. Do you feel happy and content with some overlap, or is your preference to compartmentalise these different roles in your life? The lists above are a starting point for you to consider what rituals would work best for you. Create your own list and see what works best. As with any ritual, you have to choose one that makes sense to you and suits your lifestyle, body, mind, and relationships.
My Gift To You
If these ideas resonate with you and you feel as though work is impacting your wellbeing, then please accept this gift of my free online course ”Self-Care and Protection from Burnout for Counselling and Mental Health Professionals”.
Although originally created for counsellors and mental health practitioners, feedback from many participants suggests that the self-paced program can benefit anyone in the helping profession.
So sign up today. It’s totally free. My gift to say “Thank you” for all your hard work.
Keep Calm Cards
For those wanting additional practical, simple, and effective strategies to combat stress, worry, and anxiety, then my Keep Calm Cards is an excellent resource to help regulate your central nervous system and help you think clearly at times of stress.
Bio for Kate
My mantra is helping people find calm, clarity, and connection. Being a Clinical Psychologist and Family Therapist gifts me the appreciation of you as an individual as well as your relationships and context; whether that is family, friends, work, or community connections. Variety is what sustains me in my practice, and so you will find me doing a mixture of all things that I love: supporting clients and families in my clinic, mentoring and supervising other health professionals to strengthen their clinical practice, teaching and guiding whole health teams, running workshops around Australia, and teaching the next generation of Family Therapists in my training company at The QLD Institute of Family Therapy.
This article is educational in nature and does not constitute therapeutic advice.
Please seek professional support if required.