Healthy boundaries at work
Do you feel overworked and underpaid? Maybe you feel that your good nature is taken advantage of? Or you are fed up with always being the one who stays late? It may be that you have a problem with your boundaries at work.
What are boundaries and why do they matter?
Just as a country has its borders or 'boundaries', each of us also has boundaries. They might be invisible, but they are just as real. There are lots of different kinds of boundaries: time, personal, sexual, intellectual, spiritual, emotional… the list goes on.
In a work context, you communicate and protect your boundaries to protect your own time, energy, and sanity. You may well spend much of your waking hours at work, so you want them to be comfortable, right?
Without boundaries, you could end up exhausted and eventually burn out. That’s what I did. I want to give you some practical advice to avoid boundary problems and so be your most effective, balanced, energy-full self for both when you are working and when you are not!
How to establish boundaries with colleagues
First of all, decide what boundaries you need. Boundaries with colleagues can look like:
- Saying "no" to requests for after-work gatherings
- Not doing work for others
- Not participating in office gossip
- Not sharing your social media handles with colleagues
You will then need to communicate your boundaries. Sadly, other people are not mind-readers, and whilst your boundaries might seem obvious to you, they probably aren’t to your co-workers.
When communicating a boundary, be direct and keep it simple. For example, if a colleague keeps asking you about who you live with and you want to keep your personal life private, you could say something like "I don’t talk about personal matters at work. It makes me uncomfortable."
By setting boundaries with your colleagues, you are making it easier for them to relate to you and you ward off any danger of building resentment towards anyone.
What about boundaries with your boss?
Your boss may expect you to have boundaries based on what’s okay for them. For example, if they check and send emails when they are on holiday, they might expect the same from you. It’s up to you to advocate for what you want. This doesn’t mean you have to attack your boss for their choices.
You don’t need to say "your expectation of me is unreasonable because you are a workaholic." Instead, you could say "it’s important for me to have time away when I can totally switch off and recharge. That way I will be productive when I am at work. I’d like to switch off my work emails when I go on holiday."
Make your boundaries about you, not about them, by using ‘I’ statements.
For example, don't say "you always give me too tight a deadline!"
Instead, "given the size of this project, I will need some assistance to meet the deadline, or be given an extension."
How to handle a broken boundary
When a colleague pushes or breaches your boundary, all that might be needed is a reminder of your boundary, for example, "I said can’t work late." If you are challenged, you don’t need to provide an explanation for your boundary. The exception to this is if the issue is about a piece of work – ie: you can’t work on their project because you are working on this other one.
With a domineering manager, you want to be extra clear about your boundaries. The more ground you give, the more they will take. Be direct and to the point. One of your boundaries may be about how they talk to you. For example, if they get very loud when they are unhappy about something, you may want to say to them "I want to understand what you are saying. When you speak loudly I can’t stay present. Please could you lower your tone?"
Document any issues that come up. Seek out colleagues who will back you up.
If you can’t talk with your manager, speak with Human Resources. You may also want to find additional support from a trade union, employee support service, or coach/therapist.
How do you honour your own boundaries?
This is a big deal. No one will honour your boundaries unless you do too.
This is where you want to slow down. Notice when you say "yes" to things and how you feel. See if you can catch yourself before the "yes" comes out of your mouth – and pause. Breathe. By taking a pause you are giving yourself a chance to evaluate what you want your response to be. If you can delay giving an answer, even better. "I need to check my calendar" or "I’ll call you back" are really useful.
You might think that saying "yes" to every request simply shows you are keen and hard working. The problem is that when you say "yes" to everything, your "yes" has no value. People will expect you to say "yes" all the time. And you can’t do everything, honestly. You will burn out.
Consider whether you might suffer from the ‘disease to please', where your need for external approval overrides you looking after yourself. If so, you might want to get some professional support in understanding and unpicking people-pleasing patterns.
And be kind to yourself. Automatically saying "yes" to everything is a pattern, like walking down a well-worn road. Beginning to say "no" and establishing boundaries is a skill that takes time and practice to learn. It will feel awkward at first, just as any new skill does.
For all the time you spend at work, you want that experience to be as pleasant as possible. By establishing and maintaining your boundaries, you will make your job, working relationships, and environment manageable. You will feel more at ease, and have energy and time for what is important to you. You will feel more peaceful and joyful about life.
Boundaries are essential for self-care in action, whether that be in the workplace, at home or beyond.