Feeling burned out at work, overwhelmed by your inbox, or undervalued by your colleagues? I feel for you, and that’s why I’m checking in to see if it might be time for you to set a few healthy boundaries.
It might be helpful to think of a boundary as an imaginary line that separates you from everyone else around you. This emotional, physical, or mental limit is intended to protect you and tell others how they can or cannot treat you. Pretty powerful stuff, right? And, if we don’t have boundaries in place to protect our time, space, and energy, it’s easy for others to take advantage of us or treat us in a way that feels pretty terrible.
People may not even know that their actions are causing stress for those around them until we set a boundary. For example, your colleague may not realize that sending you emails on Sunday evenings leaves you feeling anxious about the week ahead.
Identifying your needs and mapping out your personal parameters can be tricky. And it can even seem scary or lead to feelings of guilt. It’s normal to have a tough time setting solid boundaries at, and outside of, work, especially if you tend to put others needs before yours or lean towards perfectionism. As a mental health coach, it’s my job to help people set solid boundaries so that they can feel respected and even happier at work. Read on for helpful strategies to start putting your own boundaries into place — guilt free.
Why boundaries at work matter
For many of us, technology makes it so that we could lead 24/7 work lives, without any downtime. That’s why it’s tempting for so many of us to avoid this tough topic altogether and just keep saying “yes” to everything that comes our way, or starting every email with “My apologies…” or taking time away from family to begrudgingly answer another after-hours email, once again.
But, setting boundaries doesn’t have to be a big, dramatic thing. You can start small and still see big results. Setting clear, self-affirming limits at work allows you to build positive relationships with co-workers, feel valued in the workplace, and preserve the energy necessary to focus on your tasks. Boundaries can also improve self-confidence and enhance productivity. Plus, people who set limits often gain respect because they show respect for themselves.
To get started, it’s important to determine what is and isn’t acceptable for you in a workplace environment by taking into consideration the type of work you’re doing and the various dynamics that exist.
For instance, if your job responsibilities include being on-call anytime throughout the day and well into the night, it may not be convenient, but it’s not necessarily crossing a boundary. If you’re exposed to uncomfortable conversations, inappropriate behavior, or forced into taking on responsibilities that fall outside of your job scope — those are strong examples of having a boundary crossed within the workplace.
That said, some scenarios have clearly defined lines about what is acceptable and what is not such as there should be zero tolerance for sexual assault, harassment, or discrimination. In situations where the lines aren’t as clear, trust your judgment and communicate your experience to your companies’ human resources team or a trusted person in a leadership position.
8 ways to set healthy work boundaries
- Take an internal inventory. It’s not always obvious where and how we should start to set limits, so it can help to first take a look at how our own behaviors and other people’s actions have been affecting us. To get clarity, start by noticing when you feel stressed, anxious, guilty, resentful, or overwhelmed on the job. You can write them down (here’s a journaling tool if that helps) and start to look for patterns — maybe it’s interactions with a specific person, a particular time of day, or a certain environment that is constantly draining your energy. This is great information and a pretty clear indicator that a boundary is needed.
- Remind yourself of your worth. Feeling as though we constantly have something to prove or that we’re not enough can drive us to put others’ expectations before our own needs. When you notice yourself spinning out, giving too much of yourself, and struggling with how to say no, try to remember that your enough-ness is not tied to your output. When we value ourselves and our time, energy, and talents, we become a bit more thoughtful about what we can realistically take on. Setting boundaries takes courage, but it’s also a tremendous act of self-love. After all, we’re modeling for others how we deserve to be treated.
- Set your personal limits. Being attuned to and honoring your needs can help you to create boundaries within your limits. This will look different for everyone, depending on the type of work you do and the people who surround you, but now is the time to pick one area of focus and really commit to doing things a little differently. For instance, if you’re a working parent and maintain a hard and fast rule of leaving the office at 5 o’clock on the dot so you can focus on your family while everyone else is going out for happy hour or staying late at their desks— that’s your limit.
- Communicate clearly. While we know it’s not always easy, this isn’t a time to mince words. When we communicate honestly and clearly about what is acceptable for us and what isn’t, we’re leaving no uncertainty behind our intention and our meaning. And we invite other people in to treat us respectfully. When our expectations are not clearly expressed, it can cause quite a bit of stress and frustration for everyone involved. It’s also important to speak up when a boundary is crossed because if we don’t take it seriously, it’s unlikely that others will too. For example, if it’s important for you to completely unplug from work while you’re on vacation, try respectfully letting your boss and colleagues know that you won’t be reachable during this time and set the expectations upfront. Then, if the line is crossed, you can circle back to the boundary that you clearly expressed.
- Prep for when boundaries are crossed. Sure, you have boundaries in place, you’re doing all the things necessary to uphold them, but inevitably at some point, a line will be crossed. Now what? Planning what your response will be and the most effective way to handle it ahead of time is key. It’s understandable to have a knee-jerk reaction, especially depending on the circumstance, but try to lead with fact rather than emotion. A benefit of having clearly established and communicated your limits from the get-go is that when they are crossed, you have leverage. It’s easier to come from a place of reminding people of your boundaries rather than having to explain yourself and announcing your boundaries along the way.
- Take time to recharge. Even though switching off can feel counterproductive, it’s all about playing the long game. There needs to be space between your personal life and work. Taking the breaks we’re entitled to is a good way to have respite and create space — the coffee breaks, the lunch breaks, the vacation time and (if we’re unwell) sick leave. Creating space by taking breaks doesn’t mean that we’re no longer passionate, dedicated or motivated — it simply increases our capacity to keep harnessing our passion, dedication and motivation.
- Maintain healthy work-from-home boundaries. Working remotely can be a wonderful privilege, but it also comes with its own set of unique issues. Because many of us are living where we’re working and vice versa, remote work requires that we diligently make space for ourselves and our lives outside of the “office.” For myself, relying on my calendar has been helpful. I block out both “away” and “do not disturb” time for breaks. I also adhere to my set office hours. Once the work day is done, I step away, which isn’t always easy. But I’m comforted by the fact that I’m guarding myself from getting completely burned out.
- Model healthy boundaries to others. Want to do your part in not creating a toxic workplace culture? Try showing others around you how healthy boundaries work by setting them, honoring them, and encouraging your employees to do the same — especially if you’re in a leadership position. I’ve had supervisors initiate inappropriate work banter and when I didn’t partake, I was the problem. This type of behavior can create an uncomfortable environment where everyone is walking on eggshells. If you’re a supervisor, it’s important to do your part in making your employees feel heard, validated, supported, and appreciated.
While it’s not always easy to advocate for ourselves, setting work boundaries helps us to protect our time, energy, relationships, and well-being. Remember that you don’t have to justify or apologize for knowing and establishing your limits. It’s okay if it looks messy and imperfect — we’ll be here to support you along the way.
By Natalie Septer, Mental Health Coach
As a Sanvello Coach, Natalie is passionate about supporting people as they navigate life — in the good times and the bad. Her role is to help enhance self-awareness and equip clients with the tools necessary to live their best life. When she’s not seeing clients, Natalie is a yoga instructor, a podcast aficionado, and a mom to three boys. For self-care, she loves to read, journal, and exercise.