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Boundaries and School Staff Wellbeing




Setting and maintaining boundaries is an important way to protect and maintain our wellbeing as school staff, and reduce the potential for burnout. The American Psychological Association defines boundaries as psychological borders, or dividing lines, that (i) “protect the integrity of individuals or groups, and/or (ii) helps the person or group set realistic limits on participation in a relationship or activity.”[1] Maintaining our wellbeing isn’t just important for our effectiveness at school, but even more importantly it enables us to participate and thrive in our own lives outside the school gates.


Boundaries are interesting as they are so personal to each of us. Herbst and colleagues[2] name a range of differences including our level of comfort with setting boundaries, and how ‘porous’ or solid our borders between our personal and professional lives are – which can depend on how we see ourselves and our relationships. For example, some teachers like to keep their work and home lives separate, and others (for example, if their professional and personal identities are intertwined) may share stories of their personal lives and/or socialise with other staff regularly. There is no right or wrong way – as we know, school workplaces are unique communities.


Schools *are* workplaces, though, and this means they share a range of contexts similar to other organisations, with some unique considerations too. Power dynamics, years of experience and team structures are shared considerations in setting boundaries in all workplaces, whereas working as a staff team supporting children and their families (and each other) through great times and challenges is unique work, and can leave any school staff member vulnerable to exhaustion.


Add a personal tendency for conscientiousness, high levels of empathy and personal purpose, and a willingness to help and care, and school staff often bring their very best efforts to their school workplace, with less thought about what efforts are sustainable over time. In addition, as Herbst and her co-authors point out for doctors in hospitals[3], many schools often have historically had very few boundaries and have become accustomed to self-sacrifice as the norm. The paradox here is that we know boundaries can help individuals stay well and avoid burnout. So what do we do?


Firstly, we can accept that boundaries in schools are possible, although they are a process not a one-off event; they may need to be flexible at times; and they take work to maintain. We all know that schools are based on relationships. Setting and maintaining our boundaries doesn’t have to be detrimental to these, but instead actually allow us to stay in authentic relationships with both the people we work with and the young people we teach, while keeping ourselves well.


Herbst and colleagues[4] suggest a three step process to use when one decides a boundary

is needed, and state that that each step requires skills and attitudes that can be learned:

(1) assess your comfort and confidence in setting this boundary (consider the benefits and costs, what you are valuing eg family time, who the conversation is with eg a colleague who is also a friend)

(2) develop your skills in setting boundaries (start with low-stakes boundaries for practice, and consider reflecting back requests, stating your boundary without undue detail, and explaining a shared value it relates to)

(3) reflect and act to maintain boundaries, revising when necessary (consider a kind and benevolent interpretation at first if people forget your boundary, and regularly reflect on what your boundaries are achieving).


It can be good to check in with a trusted peer or senior staff member at our own school or another school if we are new to setting boundaries, to sense-check our plan and ask for support.


Our wellbeing is worth protecting - it is a precious resource that takes longer to restore than to maintain. Within work boundaries enable us to work sustainably, and work-life boundaries can allow us to prioritise our self-care and relaxation, which in turn can reduce emotional exhaustion and promote happiness.[5] Collectively, the outcomes of these boundaries enable us to enjoy and take satisfaction in our unique and important work supporting students, staff and families.

Melinda is the Principal Psychologist at Compassionate Schools/Compassionate Self Psychology and Coaching, and offers coaching and therapeutic services to individual school staff, and professional learning workshops and planning for teams and whole school staff. She can be found at http://www.compassionateschools.com.au


[1] American Psychological Association (n.d.). Retrieved from https://dictionary.apa.org/boundary

[2] Herbst, R., Sump, C., & Riddle, S. (2023). Staying in bounds: A framework for setting workplace boundaries to promote physician wellness. Journal of Hospital Medicine.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Pluut, H., & Wonders, J. (2020). Not able to lead a healthy life when you need it the most: Dual role of lifestyle behaviors in the association of blurred work-life boundaries with well-being. Frontiers in psychology, 11, 607294.


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