October 23, 2021

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How To Set Boundaries At Work



Boundaries are your best friend.

Whether you’re setting a boundary with a friend, family member, romantic or sexual partner, boundaries set the basic guidelines for how you’d like to be treated.

Boundaries aren’t limited to our personal lives, however. Professional boundaries are vital in preventing burnout, managing stress, and ensuring your work life and home life are kept distinct.

Why are professional boundaries so important?

According to Dr Elena Touroni, consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic, “Boundaries help us understand where our limits are. In the work context, they help us protect and support our wellbeing and therefore also enable us to give our best.”

Neuroscientist and business psychologist Dr Lynda Shaw says that digital technology has blurred the work/home boundaries. With the likes of Slack, Teams, Zoom, you name it, it’s all too easy to hop back online after our working day has ended. But it’s also extremely easy for our boss, our colleagues to contact us outside of our working hours. “The stress we face because of the constant bombardment of information, over multitasking and the need to be available 24 hours a day is extraordinary,” says Shaw. “Even holidays can be disturbed by having smartphones on the beach and therefore employees can’t get away from work. We are more stressed than we have ever been, more unable to wind down, with stress, anxiety and depression behind one in five visits to a GP.”

With the likes of Slack, Teams, Zoom, you name it, it’s all too easy to hop back online after our working day has ended.

As well as protecting your mental wellbeing, having clear boundaries have a role in eliminating work practices that contribute to a toxic workplace culture. Professor Craig Jackson, occupational health psychologist at Birmingham City University, says, “Clear boundaries that set out behavioural standards can be used to stop the ambiguous interpretations of rules that can manifest in harmful or damaging behaviours that once could have previously been acceptable.”

Jackson goes on to say that workplace boundaries are necessary to ensure that inequality, power imbalances, and unfairness of organisations are eradicated. “Expectations can be set by companies that clearly tell everyone ‘this is how we behave here, and what we will not tolerate’, yet beyond that, boundaries are those interpersonal rules that dictate how such expectations are actually lived out in the workplace between people,” he adds.

Boundaries should be viewed as a positive step towards safeguarding yourself and your colleagues and fostering a positive culture. Cate Sevilla, author of How to Work Without Losing Your Mind: A Realistic Guide to the Hell of Modern Work, says she personally thinks it sends a really positive message when colleagues and especially managers have boundaries on their time and push back on their workload. “It sets a positive example and actually makes it easier for you to do the same – which all contributes to setting the tone for a more boundried working culture,” says Sevilla.

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How to set boundaries

Easier said than done, you might be thinking, and you’d be correct. We might be nervous about setting boundaries because we’re worried about being perceived as less available, less productive, or even less dedicated to your job. “Setting boundaries at work can be daunting as, understandably, people don’t want to be seen as inflexible or as a blocker,” says Sevilla.

Before you start setting boundaries, you need to figure out where your boundaries lie. Dr Touroni recommends getting clear on your values, what’s important to you, and where your limits are. “In order to set a boundary, you first need to be really clear on what you’re looking to achieve. What do you need in order to be happy and fulfilled in the workplace?” says Touroni. “Tune into your feelings. Notice times when you feel stressed, angry or frustrated at work. These are often red flags that you need to set a boundary.”

So, how should you go about chatting to your boss about your boundaries? Integrative counsellor Katharina Wolf advises broaching the topic of boundaries with a positive framing. “Instead of saying that you won’t be picking up emails after 6 p.m., it’s not in my contract, say: I give a 100 percent when I am at work and need to switch off once I leave the office so I am able to come back to work the next day fully recharged,” says Wolf. “Really drill down on your values and always ask yourself: what is the lowest/least/littlest I still would be happy with.”

Sevilla points out that while being firm on your boundaries, it’s also possible to be flexible and to offer alternatives when you say no. Making an introduction to a colleague or contact who would be a good fit for a project and has availability is an option.

Once you’ve set those boundaries, make sure you honour them. “It’s useful to keep in mind that in addition to setting boundaries, you have to actually enforce them. For example, you can’t say that you’re uncontactable from 12–2 p.m., but then send a bunch of emails and Slack messages during that time block,” says Sevilla. “Enforcing those boundaries is more uncomfortable than doing the initial work of setting them, but it’s absolutely crucial.”

Setting boundaries might sound like a daunting prospect, but they’re a vital act of self-care.

If you’re a manager and someone has communicated a boundary to you, consider implementing that boundary across the board. Jackson says, “For boundaries to be effective, they must be clear, understood and non-ambiguous. If a staff member has a boundary of receiving no physical contact from other staff, then this has to be applied evenly to all staff, on all occasions and contexts. Making exceptions weakens the boundary-effectiveness.”

Technology and working from home have blurred the lines between our work life and our home life. Gone are the days when staying late in the office, answering emails at midnight, and being ‘always on’ are celebrated signs of a job well done. Everyone has the right to switch off and rest. Setting boundaries might sound like a daunting prospect, but they’re a vital act of self-care.



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