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How small businesses can better manage boundaries

Small businesses across Australia are feeling the weight of the past year and a half. Burnout is on the rise, and business owners report feelings of anxiety and stress at high levels. In fact, seventy per cent 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 intermixing of work and life challenges. 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. 

A smoother way to manage expectations

This year’s lockdown has been more challenging despite being better prepared, according to Nina Lee, owner of Sydney-based hair salon Extra Silky. “It feels harder this year, and small businesses are feeling the burn when it comes to their mental health.” 

During the 2020 lockdown, Nina got requests to breach restrictions for a cut or colour. This time around, she says thankfully, people know she won’t break lockdown rules. While her business is in hibernation until Sydney reopens, Nina recently received an influx of messages for appointments from excited clients when the NSW Government announced the plan out of lockdown. But with no set reopening date at that time, Nina posted to Extra Silky’s Instagram (her main communication channel) about how they would navigate out of lockdown and asked people not to message about bookings yet. 

“Setting boundaries early worked – as soon as I shared the posts, people stopped and responded really nicely. We’re all excited about returning to our normal lives. Once you are clear and let people know why, they understand,” says Nina. 

While it’s been particularly important during recent times, Nina has learnt the importance of managing her limits over the four years she’s run Extra Silky. “Ultimately, it’s about protecting my time. When I started the business, I’d respond to customers at 10pm, or whenever a message came through. But that’s not sustainable, so I’ve had to re-evaluate and find what structure and time frames work for me so that I have a balanced lifestyle.”

Start by identifying your boundaries

According to behavioural 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 EOFY. 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 involve 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 fulfilment 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 straightforward 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 7 pm. 
  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 always to have an ‘open’ or ‘closed’ sign. In the 24 hours online ecosystem, you can use different ways to handle these boundaries instead. Tools like personalised 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.

If you’re interested in finding out more about how you can set better boundaries, register for our upcoming Business Chicks workshop on 9 November. If you’re seeking further wellbeing support that’s tailored to small business owners and employers, visit Beyond Blue’s NewAccess service for accessible mental health coaching and the Ahead for Business wellbeing plan for managing stress.

Read more: New mental health resources provide support to business owners

Read more:5 ways to support your employees’ mental wellbeing

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