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How to Set Limits When People Demand Too Much of You

A new study shows people can regain a sense of power, even during COVID.

As you compare your life now to what it was like pre-COVID, it might seem as if you've entered a topsy-turvy new reality involving constant demands on your time and energy. If you’re in the position of being able to work from home, then you know already that your former work-life balance has taken on a dramatic new shape. Even if you’re not working from home, your children may have schedules that bear only a slight resemblance to their former six- to eight-hour school days. It doesn’t feel like time is on your side anymore.

It may be your boss, or it may be your partner, but in either case, someone may be taking advantage of your new and more flexible schedule to heap on a host of extra duties for you. Because you’re theoretically “always available,” this person can think of endless ways to fill your time in order to fill that person’s needs. Your boss, for example, sends you a spreadsheet detailing all the projects for which you’re now responsible, shifts due to the downsizing of the company. You don’t want to be one of the downsized, so you agree to take on duties that were formerly the work of others. That spreadsheet grows week by week from five very manageable projects to 20. Is there any end in sight?

Similarly, your partner may feel that, because you’re home now instead of at work, there’s no reason you can’t squeeze in an hour here and an hour there to have you fold laundry, supervise math lessons for the kids, or help clean out the closets. It’s not that your partner is slacking, but that with you around all the time, it gives the appearance that you should be able to take on some extra chores.

The experience of constant pressure to do more in the same amount of time can lead, according to occupational health researchers, to burnout. Add to this the generally stressful situation of life during a pandemic, and the mental health risks can be high indeed. According to a new study by the University of Southern California’s Eric Anicich and colleagues (2020), the chief culprit now is the perception that your autonomy, or sense of control, is under siege.

As Anicich et al. note, “Indeed, the uncontrollability of one’s economic future (e.g., layoffs, furloughs), looming threats to physical health (e.g., infection risk, inadequacy of medical resources), constraints on physical movement (e.g., stay at home orders, social distancing), and mandatory telecommuting arrangements all serve to threaten employees’ sense of autonomy” (p. 1). The question in terms of COVID-19 is whether you can ever get back to your former levels of feeling that you’re in control of your time. Setting limits on the people who pressure you with extra duties would seem to be one way that you can gain that autonomy back.

That idea of regaining your sense of control fits in with the theoretical background the authors refer to as “autonomy restoration theory.” Previous researchers, according to Anicich et al., have established the idea that after a stressor subsides, people can recover surprisingly quickly. The issue in COVID-19 is that the stressor does not show signs of subsiding very soon. How, then, can people restore their autonomy when there’s no end in sight?

The research team believes that, despite the unique nature of coping with COVID-19, there should be ways for people to rebound. In their words, “We propose that when employees’ autonomy is threatened by an exogenous stressor (i.e., the COVID-19 pandemic), they will immediately begin to restore their autonomy even as the stressor is ongoing and objectively intensifying” (p. 3). To test this proposal, Anicich et al. recruited employees from 41 community colleges to participate in a study examining their daily experiences of stress immediately following the onset of the pandemic (early March 2020). The final sample of 117 participants who completed the study rated their levels of stress, powerlessness, and “authenticity” three times a day during each five-day workweek.

The concept of “authenticity” is an important one when it comes to understanding how people respond to stressful events. Autonomy involves, the theory proposes, both a sense of freedom and a sense of connection when you engage in activities that are personally meaningful to you. With a sense of autonomy in a job, you feel you can control your job conditions, but you also feel that what you’re doing is consistent with your own personal strengths and values. The stress of a pandemic could mean that you don’t control your job conditions anymore, but also that your behaviors aren’t reflective of your own sense of self.

Consider now what your ratings would be on the momentary assessment measures used in the study. For powerlessness, you would rate the item “Right now I feel powerless.” For authenticity, ask yourself whether “I am able to be myself right now.” Finally, see how you would respond to the COVID-19 stress question by answering “What is your current stress level regarding the COVID-19 situation?”

The advantage of this daily momentary assessment method for studying responses to the pandemic is that participants are providing snapshots of themselves in the here-and-now. This method allows the research team to gather the feelings of participants as they ebb and flow throughout the day. Returning to the situation in which your partner hands you a basket of laundry to fold, at that moment, you might feel both powerless and inauthentic. Later in the day, when you have a chance to take a breath and do something you enjoy on your own, you might give yourself more favorable ratings on these scales, but your stress level regarding COVID-19 might actually remain high.

You might think that people respond differently to the stress caused by COVID-19 based in part on their personality. To test out this possibility, the authors also included a measure of neuroticism, or the tendency to worry in general. People high in neuroticism should be more reactive to stress and also take longer to rebound.

The findings revealed that, as the authors predicted, participants were able to recover their sense of power and authenticity, even as their stress levels remained stable throughout the two-week period. As a comparison, the research team was also able to examine similar ratings across the two-week period six months earlier (i.e., September 2019), before the pandemic. Across that relatively normal amount of time, there were daily fluctuations in both aspects of autonomy, but no particular pattern of recovery.

Turning to the question of neuroticism, the findings revealed that rather than being less able to cope with COVID-19 stress, people who ordinarily tended to worry actually showed a pronounced recovery response. On Day 1 of the pandemic, their feelings of autonomy were far lower than those low in neuroticism, but by Day 10, they had recovered and were equivalent to their less neurotic counterparts.

Returning now to the question of how you can facilitate your own recovery, it seems that a key is being able to set forth your own schedule and not buckle to the demands of others. Part of this is that you set boundaries on your time and effort. The other part is feeling that what you’re doing allows for your own sense of self-expression. You could, theoretically, feel just as authentic when folding laundry as when delving into an interesting problem at work. However, it’s the idea that you’re being handed a task not chosen by you that can erode your feelings of autonomy.

To sum up, recovery is possible even during the very stressful changes exacted by the pandemic. Letting others know the boundaries of what you can and cannot do can give you the internal resources you need to get through these very tough times.

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Anicich, E. M., Foulk, T. A., Osborne, M. R., Gale, J., & Schaerer, M. (2020, August 27). Getting Back to the “New Normal”: Autonomy Restoration During a Global Pandemic. Journal of Applied Psychology. Advance online publication.

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