Setting Boundaries Can Help You Manage Your Mental Health as You Return to Work — Here's How to Do It

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From being able to see a therapist virtually from the comfort of your home, to having extra time during the day to exercise and spend time outdoors, some people have had an easier time managing their mental health while working remotely during the pandemic.

With more people getting vaccinated and returning to physical office spaces, those individuals might be dreading the transition — and that's where boundaries come in.

Setting boundaries in your personal or professional life can be a challenging process. As a society, there's a lot of emphasis on working hard, "hustling" and sacrificing your personal life in order to achieve a level of success, Shaakira Haywood Stewart, a psychologist in New York City, tells CNBC Make It. "But we don't really talk about flexibility, boundaries and what that means."

Many people have experienced "a taste of freedom" while working remotely during the pandemic, Debra Kissen, clinical director of Light on Anxiety, a cognitive behavioral therapy treatment center in Chicago, tells CNBC Make It. "People now know what it feels like to have flexibility and to have work on their own terms," she says.

Here are four ways to set boundaries so you can be comfortable and calm returning to work:

Reflect on what you really want and need

The first step in setting boundaries is to figure out what it is that you need or want to get out of a conversation, Haywood Stewart says.

Pause and reflect "on what it is that you know that you'll need to be able to be successful and to maintain mental health equilibrium," she says. It can be helpful to journal or write out your thoughts if you're having trouble pinpointing it, she adds.

Do you want to work remotely part-time? Do you need to cut back on meetings in order to be more productive in your day-to-day? What would your "best day" look like? Clearly articulating what you need will help you feel secure and confident going into a meeting with your manager or HR representative.

You can also ask others how they and their workplaces are handling the transition. You can use information gleaned from others as examples of strategies that you think might help you.

Be transparent in your explanations

While some stigma still exists around seeking mental health assistance, it's a good idea to be as transparent as possible about your current mental state and the accommodations you need, says David Rosmarin, assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and founder of the Center for Anxiety.

For example, if you have a regular therapy appointment that requires you to leave work early some days, tell your manager or HR representative, Rosmarin says. You can say something like: "I'm trying to stay well and ensure that I'm able to do my job right. Therapy is something that helps me to do that. My clinician is only available at 4 p.m. on a Wednesday, which means have to leave the office an hour early, can we work on that?"

"Covid pushed us into a new era where it's actually okay to say that, in almost all industries," Rosmarin says.

(Keep in mind: Many clinicians are keeping virtual appointments, so if you're not able to meet in-person, it's worthwhile to ask if you can continue teletherapy, Haywood Stewart says.)

Or, if the idea of coming back to work is too daunting or anxiety-provoking, consider asking for a remote work extension, and be clear about what steps you're taking to address your own concerns in the meantime, Rosmarin says.

For example: "I like working here, and I think I can do the work from home to a decent degree. I'm hoping that you can support me and be patient with me as I gain an increased level of comfort with the idea of coming back to the office."

"The more people are transparent about their mental health journey, and the more folks see that it's everyone who needs help, the more it de-stigmatizes mental health," Haywood Stewart says.

Come with solutions in mind

Approach the conversation with your manager or HR representative with "solutions instead of complaints," Kissen says. "Instead of, 'I'm nearly burned out and I'm having a hard time feeling empowered,' you could say, 'I read this morning about productivity at home. I'm wondering, is there room for some kind of work-life balance committee or ideas?'"

Volunteer to be part of the group making decisions about new protocols if you can, and come armed with information that supports your suggestions, Kissen says. "Even if it doesn't work, it's hard to not respect someone who's coming with information, suggestions and not complaining," she says.

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