Working Too Much Is Genuinely Unhealthy—Here's How to Set Boundaries

woman working from home


From a work perspective, the last year has been weird, to say the least. If you were lucky enough to have a job that allowed you to work from home, you probably spent a lot of time in sweatpants (or pajamas, no judgment), taking lots of Zoom calls from your bed or couch.

Sure, there are some perks to this life—no commute, no uncomfortable clothes, the list goes on—but you're also probably working more: according to recent research, working at home has led to a 2.5-hour increase in the average workday. This number may not seem harmful on its face, but a new study from the World Health Organization (WHO) found a link between working more than 55 hours a week at a paid job and early death—yikes.

But if you know you struggle with work-life balance and work more than you should, worry not: setting better boundaries is more than achievable with a few smart strategies. We went straight to the experts to find out exactly what we can do—keep reading for everything you need to know on how to work less while still having a productive, fulfilling career.

Meet the Expert

  • Fatemah Dhirani is a licensed mental health counselor who specializes in anxiety and depression. She's a counselor at Humantold in New York City.

Create a Routine

If you've worked from home over the past year (or still are), you know how easy it is to drag your laptop into bed and start working the moment you wake up. But according to Fatemah Dhirani, a licensed mental health counselor at Humantold, it's crucial that you create a structure around when your workday starts and ends. "This prevents you from overworking and improves your work-life balance. Make sure you stick to the same time every day," she explains.

It's important to implement rituals, too, to break up the workday. "Ways to implement rituals include going for a walk, going to the gym, taking your dog out for a walk, or meditation," Dhirani explains. "Practicing these rituals daily informs your mind that you are transitioning from one activity to the next."

Make Time for Yourself

According to Dhirani, one of the biggest misconceptions we had during the pandemic was that we had more time than usual because we were home. "This has led to people overextending themselves at work and in personal settings, which has left us more mentally drained than before," she explains.

So how do we solve this? The short answer is to take more time just for yourself, and this can take many forms. “'Me time' would include resting, taking a shower, reading a book, limiting your time on social media, going for a walk, etc.," Dhirani says. "This can also include letting people know that you are not emotionally available to talk on the phone and/or socialize."

Communicate Boundaries

If you work at a company where the lines between home and work are blurred, it's important to let your manager and colleagues know when you will be online and when you won't be. If you don't, they may expect you to be on all the time.

"Implementing boundaries can be scary, but it's important. This would be like when you showed up to the office at the designated time," explains Dhirani. "Being clear about your expectations takes away the pressure of always being 'on' and reduces the stress of checking emails during after hours."

Set Mutual Expectations

When you are given an assignment, make sure to discuss the turnaround time, the priority of the assignment, and the resources you may need to complete it. "If at any point you realize that it may take longer than expected, make sure you communicate your needs to your boss as soon as possible," says Dhirani. "This gives them the opportunity to provide help, and they are aware of the new deadline."

Pay Attention to Your Energy Levels

We all have different energy levels throughout the day. Some people are more productive at night, while others are more productive in the early morning—and many of our energy levels have changed due to the pandemic and working from home. Working smarter, not harder (and longer), is key to working less, so figure out when you're most energetic and productive and capitalize on that. "If you know you are the most energized in the morning, plan for the difficult tasks to be done at that time," suggests Dhirani. "Save the easier tasks for later in the day when you're feeling more tired."

Create Small To-Do Lists

How to Work Less To Do List

Getty Images/Design by Cristina Cianci

Have a miles-long to-do list? Try cutting it down to just a few items, if that's possible. "A smaller list is more achievable, less intimidating, and more motivating once you're done," explains Dhirani. "You can prioritize the tasks that are the most important first."

Figure Out Where You're Wasting Time

We all waste at least a little bit of time during the workday, so try tracking your time. "If you are unsure of how or where you are wasting your time, write down everything," Dhirani says. "This will help you identify patterns and figure out where your time is being allocated.  This can be reviewed once a month and reprioritized to use your time more efficiently."

Look Out for Yourself

When you're working hard, it can be tempting to always look out for everyone else and their expectations. But make sure to take care of yourself first. "You are your greatest asset," Dhriani says. "Get enough sleep, take breaks, exercise, and socialize. All of these things will give your mental health the boost you need to be more productive."

It might not always feel like it, but you do have what it takes to create better boundaries and work less. With the right tools, you'll be thriving at work—and in your time away—before you know it.

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