Why You Need to Set Boundaries at Work & How to Do It
The average fulltime American employee spends 47 hours a week at work, according to a 2014 Gallup pole. That translates to being at work for more than a third of the 120 hours from Monday to Friday. Given that work is such a huge part of most peoples’ lives, setting boundaries at work should be a big priority because it leads to people being more efficient and confident as well as less stressed. To reap these benefits and others, we’ll look into not only how to set boundaries but then also how to stick to them.
What Are Boundaries and Why You Should Set Them at Work
Boundaries can call to mind giant fences or “do not enter” signs. In relation to setting boundaries at work, however, what a boundary looks like is typically a bit less obvious.
There are two basic things to know about boundaries, according Dana Gionta and Dan Guerra, authors of “From Stressed to Centered: A Practical Guide to a Healthier and Happier You.” First, a boundary is a limit defining you in relationship to someone or to something. Second, boundaries can be physical and tangible or emotional and intangible. In most scenarios, the boundaries you’ll set with work fall into the “emotional and intangible” category.
There are many ways in which boundaries function and reasons why they’re important. For starters, boundaries help to protect us by clarifying what is our responsibility and what is another person’s. They serve to preserve our physical and emotional energy, to help us stay focused on our values and standards, and to identify our personal limits.
All these things boil down to a simple truth: Setting boundaries at work leads to a more efficient, pleasant experience. “Learning to set and keep clear boundaries with your boss and colleagues is essential if you want to remain happy and productive at work,” says best-selling author and productivity coach Valorie Burton.
Blurred lines with management expectations, job responsibilities, communication, or other areas of work can be stressful and frustrating. Setting clear boundaries, on the other hand, helps to maintain good productivity and social dynamics in the work place. When professional boundaries and priorities have been clearly defined, everyone is able to function more effectively. Without boundaries, there are no firm guidelines for behavior.
Examples of Boundaries
As Penn Behavioral Health Corporate Services explains, there are three main areas in which to set boundaries at work:
- Job responsibilities
These include boundaries a manager needs to set for his or her employees and boundaries a person needs to set for themselves.
Manager-set boundaries involve clearly defining the employee’s role and responsibilities, which establishes accountability and leaves little room for blame or excuses.
Employees should be able to answer the following questions:
- Who do you report to?
- Who provides you with feedback?
- Who decides what you should be working on?
- Who assigns you work?
Once manager-set boundaries are in place, employees can establish and maintain the boundaries more effectively.
Examples of this include:
- Asking people not to call at home after a certain time
- Telling people you’ll only check work email between certain hours
- Saying no to projects you are unable to take on due to a full workload
- Approaching your manager about situations you feel violate your boundaries and working together toward a solution.
These are boundaries between co-workers as well as between employees and managers.
- The tone of voice used in the workplace
- Peoples’ attitudes toward one another
- The ability to focus on work even with people you are having a personal conflict with
- Limiting work conversations to certain topics (i.e. nothing offensive, religions, super personal, etc.)
Interpersonal boundaries are integral for co-workers to be able to work together productively. Weak interpersonal boundaries can lead to bullying; an individual may be constantly taken advantage of because he or she has not created boundaries.
These are boundaries that help you to keep a healthy work-life balance. They can include:
- Limiting access to your work email or voicemail while at home
- Leaving a work laptop at work
- Taking vacation time and leaving work at work during that period
- Taking time to actually be offline: no social media, no email, etc.
How to Establish Work Boundaries
Setting boundaries at work is a step-by-step process. It’s easiest to set boundaries when you first start a job; that’s when the basics are up in the air in terms of start and end times for the work day, overtime circumstances, working from home, etc.
If you’re already at a job and don’t plan on changing anytime soon, not to worry: these five steps to establishing work boundaries from PsychCentral apply to you, too.
- Prioritize your values
Knowing what is important to you is the first step to knowing how and where to set boundaries. Start by asking yourself what boundaries you need to protect your own happiness at work. Ask yourself: “What does that give me? How does it feel when I am operating at my optimal potential?” Also be sure to take the time to notice the times you feel frustrated, stressed or overwhelmed—indications that a boundary is being violated or needs to be established.
For example, if physical fitness is important, block out clear times for exercise. If family dinners are a priority, set a boundary that you leave work at a certain time every day. You want to make time for the things that are important to you, therefore you need to have strict boundaries around working overtime or being available at all hours.
This especially applies to leaving work at work. Make rules for yourself: for example, you can check email before dinner but then have to put away your devices so you can spend the rest of the evening being completely offline. Not only does this help separate work and life, but it also allows you to replenish your mental, emotional and spiritual reserves.
- Communicate your boundaries clearly
Be open, honest, and clear with coworkers and managers about your boundaries. Don’t, however, try to set all your boundaries at once. Take it one conversation at a time. Practice identifying, asking for, and keeping a boundary. Keep track of what works, change what doesn’t, and keep moving forward.
Example: If your rule is to not gossip with coworkers, tell them clearly and politely that you don’t want to participate before it happens. Don’t let them spend an hour gossiping over lunch while you listen then tell them weeks later you wish they hadn’t said those things. That is passive and unclear, and therefore ineffective.
- Bring up a boundary or violation right away.
When a boundary gets violated, say something. Clearly state the ways in which you are seeking to maintain the boundaries you’ve set to ensure you can successfully support yourself, your team, and your organization. Do this as soon as possible following a violation so it maintains its poignancy and the person violating it understands its importance.
Concentrate on being compassionate when telling people you feel your boundaries are not being respected. Most people are likely unaware of how their actions impact you, and will appreciate being told they crossed a line so they can avoid making that same mistake.
- Focus on concrete rather than personal explanations
For work boundaries, try to avoid talking from your personal perspective. For example, if your boss makes an unreasonable request, instead of saying, “I’m really stressed” or “I have too much to do,” which sound whiny, instead, frame your explanations in something concrete. Explain your objection in terms of how it’s going to affect other projects, clients or your bottom line: “If I spend my time on X, there won’t be enough time to do Y.”
Another thing to keep in mind with these situations is to engage the person requesting something that feels overwhelming to you. Ask him or her to tell you more about why they need you to do the work. Dialogue about it. Doing this helps to diffuse anxiety and opens the door to negotiating a more reasonable and mutually beneficial option.
- Be ready for boundary breaches
It’s inevitable that at some point, someone will violate your boundaries. Be prepared for this by visualizing a boundary getting crossed, then decide how you’re going to handle that situation.
Imagine, for example, your boss emails you on Saturday. Visualize what your reaction will be, then create a plan of action. Will you reply right away with the answer he or she wants? Will you reply and say you’ll respond Monday, at work? Will you respond Monday morning and remind him or her of your boundary?
Having a game plan in place helps you to be prepared and avoid being hijacked by emotions.
Building boundaries takes time and practice. Boundaries will get crossed. Side steps will be taken. Instead of viewing violations as negatives, though, see them as opportunities to gain insight and improve on your boundary setting.
As you set boundaries at work, also consider the following ideas for streamlining and improving your time and relationships at work: