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How Small Businesses Can Better Manager Boundaries

Small businesses across the globe are feeling the weight of the past year and a half. Burnout is on the rise and business owners are reporting feelings of anxiety and stress at high levels. In fact, seventy percent say this period has taken more of an emotional toll on them than ever before. Many small businesses in lockdown-affected areas have once again shifted their approach to operate online and are facing added pressures to stay up-and-running and connect with customers in new ways.

This means boundaries, the limits, and rules we set for ourselves in relationships, which were once clear can become blurred. What does that look like? It could be anything from the expectation to respond online at all hours to take on work beyond your usual scope. Even at the best of times, small business owners are familiar with the challenges of the intermixing of work and life. Setting and managing healthy boundaries can reduce stress, improve mental wellbeing and ultimately allow you to bring your best self to your work. But it can be hard to know where to start and how to communicate them.

Start by identifying your boundaries

According to behavioral psychology, Dr. Juliette Tobias-Webb, not everyone has the same needs, so it’s vital to take a closer look at where you require support. She says people can be grouped as integrators, separators, or cyclers.

Integrators prefer to blend work and non-work roles, as is common among small business owners passionate about what they do. Separators desire more of a divide between their work and personal life, while cyclers often have jobs with seasonal fluctuations, like an accountant during the end of financial year. Understanding your work-life style makes identifying and managing your boundaries clearer.

Boundaries in the workplace (including your own business) can be grouped into four main categories:

Physical boundaries relate to your body and space, but also includes physical wellbeing. This might include setting aside time in your working day for exercise.

Emotional and intellectual boundaries are to do with your feelings, thoughts and ideas. For small business owners, this could be how you separate between work and personal life or engage with customers and employees.

Time boundaries are one of the most important and also most easily crossed for small business owners. Managing a time-related boundary could mean not responding to customer messages past 6pm.

Finally, priority and workload boundaries are around how much work you take on and how important a task is. This could include whether you take on new customers, projects, or orders, or your role within the business itself – like if you choose to outsource order fulfillment and delivery.

Tips for communicating boundaries

Since boundaries relate to our relationships, communication is a big part of making sure you keep them. Here are a few principles to help:

  1. Transparency: Be open about what the boundary is and why you’re setting it. If you’re taking a few days off or closing your shop to rest and recuperate, let people know this is happening.

  2. Being human: Talk human-to-human and don’t be afraid to let your voice shine through. Most customers understand that small businesses are run by people just like them and relate to your experiences as an individual.

  3. Clarity: Be as clear as possible. It’s easy for boundaries to slip if they’re not specific. Instead of saying you won’t work in the evenings, set a timeframe – like after 7pm.

  4. Accessibility: Make it easy to find this information if it’s customer-facing. For example, if your business only delivers to certain suburbs, have the details on where and when available publicly, like on your website or social media pages.

  5. Ease: Make your environment work for you. Think of how shops used to always have an ‘open’ or ‘closed’ sign. In the 24-hour online ecosystem, you can use different ways to handle these boundaries instead. Tools like personalized auto-replies on emails can manage this for you and help customers feel seen.

Just like managing change, setting and communicating boundaries can be tricky, so go easy on yourself during this process. Practice self-compassion and allow for flexibility as you adjust. With time, this will all become second nature.


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