Work boundaries: how to set them and keep them
For employers only
With hustle culture taking over, how should you move forward to create work-life balance? Read Erika Boissiere's piece from Forbes to learn more.
In today’s ever-moving, practically non-stop working world, many people struggle with setting healthy boundaries. With working from home the new norm for so many, it’s easy to start your workday right from your bedroom—maybe even from your bed—and work well into the evening. Each day blends into the next, and before you know it, you’ve inadvertently created ten-or-twelve-hour days for yourself, with the expectation that you’ll be reachable and available for several hours daily beyond that.
It’s hard not to complain about this non-stop grind, isn’t it? Many become resentful, claiming a toxic work culture. Others will fall victim to this new, always-available standard, believing they have little to no influence over managing the demands of their job—after all, if you don’t stay ahead of those emails or respond to that Slack channel, you’ll only be creating more work for yourself later, right?
To complicate matters, your job is likely deeply important to you, not just for your identity and sense of self-purpose, but also for financial security; fear of losing your job if you can’t keep up or aren’t available 24/7 looms large. All of this makes setting up work boundaries for yourself feel like a nearly impossible task. Or is it? Here are three things to keep in mind as you build your own boundaries:
You And Only You Are In Charge Of Your Boundaries
As easy as being in charge of your own boundaries sounds, this is a tough one to execute on a daily basis. No one is going to create (and enforce) boundaries for you, so it’s up to you to honor the boundaries you set. If you find yourself in a situation that isn’t working for you, you must decide how you want to initiate change.
How does this actually translate? Typically, work boundaries are about how and with whom you spend your time. One of the simplest steps you can take toward honoring the boundaries you set is cleaning up your calendar by reviewing your work hours and carefully assessing how you’re spending them. Remember to schedule in mental health breaks, meal breaks, exercise breaks and similar. Building time into your calendar for your own well-being is crucial for your overall health and job satisfaction, even if your boss questions why you need a break at 3:00 p.m. each day.
However, boundary work is not as simple as just putting tasks on your calendar. Real boundary work is about keeping the limits you set, especially when they are being encroached upon by a demanding coworker or department head. It may take some practice, but if you stick with your guns, others will soon begin respecting your needs.
Get Better At Sitting With Anxiety
The uncomfortable part of boundary-setting is the anxiety that often lurks as we enforce our limits. Sometimes our anxiety can be so strong that we will override boundary after boundary just to rid ourselves of that terrible, nervous feeling. In fact, the hardest part about boundary-setting is managing the feeling of being uncomfortable, however it manifests. While your worries are important to acknowledge, it’s equally important not to let fear of catastrophe guide you.
To critically address your anxiety, ask yourself this: What story do you weave in your mind when you say no to a request? Or when you need to leave a task unfinished for the weekend? Or worse, let someone down when you’re swamped with projects? That story is not fact: it is subjective and unique to you. Acknowledging this will often guide your future decisions.
Boundaries are the place where taking care of yourself and potentially disappointing someone else (or even yourself) intersect. Mastering sitting with anxiety is a life-long journey, but simple steps like communicating with your teammates or boss, creating working hours that are realistic and manageable or allowing a routine project to go unfinished until the next morning are all ways to start making a dent in your anxiety.
Boundaries Are Not Walls. They Are Flexible, Not Rigid
While we may aspire to have big, beautiful, strong boundaries, there is an important word that we need to add into the mix, and that word is nuance. Because boundaries are not walls, they are flexible.
Life and work are full of complicated choices, and nuance plays an important part in that which you choose (or choose not to) do. If your boundary is no emails after 6:00 p.m., you can still choose to occasionally work late if a colleague is out sick or other unforeseen circumstances arise. However, for every nuanced decision you make, you also must make a clear, conscience pledge to take responsibility for your choices and stay squarely in the driver’s seat. You must also be brave enough to ask yourself if shifting your boundary is truly your choice or if you’re instead avoiding the discomfort of letting someone else down.
Boundaries Protect You
Without boundaries, we become unstructured. We run from task to task, exhausted, tired and—at our worst—resentful. Our creative energy dries up, and we can become angry, irritable and difficult. Others won’t know what we are (and are not) able and willing to do, nor will they know when they’re abutting our limits. (And how could they? If we don’t articulate our needs, we can’t expect others to fulfill them.) By creating clear limits and enforcing them, you’re letting your boundaries protect you—which is exactly what they’re supposed to do.
Boundaries are necessary for your psychological health, but it’s up to you to define them. No one will put them in place for you, and certainly no one is going to protect them on your behalf. And while there might be some anxiety involved when you first begin setting up limits, it’s important to understand that this difficult feeling is a normal part of the boundary-setting process. Be brave and look deeply into your own situation, knowing that you do hold the keys to wrangling in those sprawling workdays and the always-available culture that’s so common today.