How to set boundaries at work

2022: The year of setting boundaries at work

In Blog, Community, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion by Rachel Murray

Have you heard of the days when an employee would work for a company for 30, 40 years and retire, never having job-hopped at all? How many people do you know have stayed with a company for 10 years or more? The days are long gone for most people. An increased ability to globally outsource, a decrease in unions, and removal of many of the benefits that would keep employees at a company for the long term have set up a system whereby employees understandably no longer feel loyal to a company.  They might have loyalty to a particular manager, a mission, or a salary and perks perhaps, but rarely to a company.

And yet for many, the pandemic has tossed the idea of work/life balance out the window. As more and more office workers began working from home, the lines between personal and professional became blurred, which understandably has caused a significant amount of burnout. We’ve read and heard countless stories of employees waking up, grabbing a coffee, and hopping on their computer to start the workday hours before they would if they had a commute…of sleepless employees reaching for their phones in the middle of the night just to check to see if any emails came in… of employees working an extra several hours at night because there’s no longer a commute and the work is never finished. 

It’s important to recognize that boundaries work in two ways – there are boundaries employees can set and boundaries that managers can support (or remove). Both parties should own and respect boundaries. Given the position of power that managers are in, it’s critical that whatever your boundaries are, they’re discussed and honored– especially now when most of us are burned out, fatigued, worried, and stretched thin, especially women.

Here are some examples of how managers may be pushing your boundaries at work:

  • Calling you during non-business hours, when you are on vacation, or sick
  • Expecting you to go above and beyond in your role without proper compensation, recognition, and/or support
  • Being denied vacation time without reason
  • Sharing too much or getting too personal without consent
  • Expecting you to attend events that you don’t feel comfortable attending (some examples include requiring attendance at: a happy hour when you aren’t comfortable being around alcohol, a holiday party when you don’t celebrate holidays, or a team sporting event when you’re not athletic or team sport oriented)
  • Being slighted, snubbed, or disrespected in any way when articulating your boundaries
  • Expecting you to ‘always be on’

How to set boundaries

Below are some ways you can set boundaries both as a manager and as an employee.

Managers, help your employees with boundaries to prevent burnout:

  • Model boundary setting behavior by taking recommendations in the employee section below!
  • Check in with your employees
  • Don’t overload your team with work that falls outside the scope of their role; if you do offer them stretch opportunities, make it clear what that means for their career growth
  • Be understanding and empathetic when boundaries are articulated
  • Offer wellness days
  • Be respectful of vacation and/or sick day requests
  • Please resist the urge to reach out to an employee when they’re not scheduled or able to work. Unless this person is literally needed to save lives, it can wait. If you find that you have one employee who is so important and can only do that one job and it’s urgent and time sensitive, consider hiring someone else in addition for yourself, your business, and for your unicorn employee. If they’re that mission-critical, you should be able to find the funds to hire another employee.

Employees, it’s time to set those boundaries:

  • Get clarity on your boundaries – be honest with yourself. Are you doing things because they feel good? Examine what ‘good’ means – does it mean that you feel comfortable? Comfortable might mean not rocking the boat or making others feel good. Is that okay? Hmm, maybe, but also maybe not. Think on it. Are you more comfortable being on your phone in the middle of the night checking email? Think on that. What else could you be doing (other than sleeping!) if you allowed yourself to step away from your work?
  • Write down your boundaries or commitments, and put them in a place you can visibly see them or access them. Examples might include:
    • I won’t look at emails (or maybe even any screen, gasp!) when I’m taking a lunch break
    • I will shut down at 5pm (or whatever time works for you)
    • I will block off time on my calendar for me so I’m not in meetings throughout the day
    • I will advocate for myself with my manager by clearly sharing and articulating my boundaries
    • I will understand that my boundaries may not be respected by my manager or my company and that may mean it’s time to look elsewhere
  • Practice!
    • This isn’t easy work, especially if you work for a company or for a manager who isn’t well versed in setting boundaries themselves, so take the time to practice. This could be as simple as reading your list of boundaries out loud to yourself
    • Don’t forget to be kind to yourself – ultimately that’s what boundary-setting is about. If you find that your boundaries are a little “leaky”, reassess and continue to practice

You will find that as you practice boundary-setting, you’ll start to weed out those people who cannot handle or respect your boundaries, and create space for those who welcome them. As that happens, you’ll likely start to appreciate the power you have within yourself and the value you contribute to the world.