Many of us spend the majority of our days at work. That work also can bleed into our life at home. So creating boundaries around our workplace is critical.
It also shows your boss, clients and colleagues that you have a backbone, said Melody Wilding, LMSW, a therapist who works with young professionals and business owners.
When you respect your personal boundaries, others typically will, too. Remember that “you teach people how to treat you.”
But creating boundaries at work can get tricky because there’s the real worry of being demoted or fired. Yet with clear communication, practice and preparation it can be done.
It’s often easier to set boundaries when you first start a job, said Julie de Azevedo Hanks, LCSW, founder and executive director of Wasatch Family Therapy, a private practice in Utah.
For instance, when defining your boundaries, she suggested considering these factors: the number of hours you’ll work; under what circumstances and conditions you’ll work overtime; which people, if anyone, you’ll give your personal cell phone number; and if you’ll date co-workers.
If you’re not planning on switching jobs any time soon, here are seven tips for setting boundaries and navigating violations at your current workplace.
1. Know your values.
Understanding your values helps you figure out where you’d like to set boundaries. In other words, by first knowing your values, you’re able to then set up systems that help you get those needs met, Wilding said.
For instance, you may have several side passions that are important to you, such as volunteering and running races. Because you want to make time for those passions, you have strict boundaries around working overtime or being available at all hours.
2. Communicate clearly.
Lay out your limits very clearly. For instance, if you don’t want your colleagues and clients to contact you at all hours, “verbally tell them the hours you will be available for work-related conversations,” said Hanks, also author of The Burnout Cure: An Emotional Survival Guide for Overwhelmed Women.
In the same scenario, it’s also important to figure out what constitutes an “emergency,” and clearly communicate that as well, she said.
3. Bring up a boundary or violation right away.
When their boundaries are violated, it’s not uncommon for people to get upset, ruminate about the situation for days or weeks and then bring it up a month later, Wilding said.
However, so much can transpire during that time that the person may not understand where you’re coming from. Instead, “it’s important to reinforce and exercise your boundary in the moment or very close to it.” Because if you don’t, it simply loses its power, she said.
For instance, if a coworker wants to gossip about another coworker – and you don’t want to get roped into the drama – tell them clearly and politely in that moment that you don’t want to participate, she said. This is much more effective than having your colleague spill the beans, and then telling them two weeks later that you wish they hadn’t told you, she said.
4. Create structure.
One way to create structure – and thereby establish a boundary – is to have an agenda, even if it’s a meeting between you and your manager, Wilding said. An agenda is more efficient, and positions you as a professional, especially if that person is treating you as an inferior in some way, she said. When setting an agenda, include a start and end time along with topics to discuss.
Another way to create structure is to hold a meeting. For instance, let’s say your boss has a habit of coming over to your desk for 30 minutes at a time to chat, she said. Instead, suggest having a weekly 15-minute check-in. “You have to present a compelling case that shows the benefits to them.” You might mention that this check-in is more efficient and saves them time with less back and forth, she said.
5. Set boundaries at home.
For instance, you check email before dinner, and then put away your devices so you can spend the rest of the evening eating with your family, watching TV and reading bedtime stories to your kids, Wilding said.
It’s also important to have one day when you’re completely offline, so you can replenish your mental, emotional and spiritual reserves, she said.
6. Focus on concrete explanations.
When you’re setting a boundary at work, it’s not necessarily productive to talk from your personal perspective, Wilding said. In other words, if your boss makes an unreasonable request, avoid statements such as “I’m really stressed” or “I have too much to do.”
“It sounds like it’s all about you, and like you’re whining.”
Instead, frame your explanations in something concrete, in terms of how it’s going to affect other projects, clients or your bottom line. “Make it relevant to your boss.” For instance, “If I spend my time on X, we’re going to lose this big client,” or “there won’t be enough time to do Y.”
Also, if your boss makes an unreasonable request, it’s important to first clarify what the request is really about, Wilding said. “Think about why your boss may be making this request.”
Instead of turning inward and catastrophizing, turn outward, she said. Engage your boss. For instance, you might say something like: “Tell me more about why you need this done.”
Doing so helps to diffuse your anxiety response, which sabotages your ability to think rationally, she said. And it opens the door to negotiating a more reasonable and mutually beneficial option.
7. Prepare for violations.
It’s helpful to visualize your boundaries getting crossed, and how you’re going to handle those situations, Wilding said. For instance, imagine your boss emails you on Saturday, visualize processing your reaction and creating a plan of action, she said.
Will you reply right away? Will you respond Monday morning, apologize and say you were with your family?
This way, when a moment like this comes up, “you won’t be hijacked by your emotions. You’ll be able to handle it much more rationally” and refer to the protocol you already have in place.
Building boundaries takes time and practice, Wilding said. And your boundaries will get crossed. Instead of viewing violations as taking a step back, see them as something instructive, and an opportunity to gain insight and improve on your boundary setting, she said.
However, if your work environment is completely toxic and you don’t see light at the end of the tunnel, it’s time to start thinking about leaving that situation, Wilding said.
Wilding suggested these other resources on drawing boundaries between your personal and professional life and navigating relationships at work:
- The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz
- Getting Things Done by David Allen
- Toxic Workplace! by Mitchell Kusy and Elizabeth Holloway
- Emotional Blackmail by Susan Forward
- Failure to Communicate by Holly Weeks