Need Help Setting Boundaries at Work? Try These Tactics

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When you’re an employee it’s in your best interest to perform well. After all, the company you work for pays your salary and benefits. Plus, many competitive workplaces have a culture of being “always on.” With those pressures, you may find the boundaries between your personal life and work life eroding.

In typical times, this might mean staying late at the office or responding to work emails on the weekend when you’re trying to spend time with your loved ones, but the current global context makes things a little more complicated. This lack of work boundaries can lead to burnout, a form of chronic emotional exhaustion.

Those who previously only worked remotely on occasion may have fantasized about a relaxing workday responding to emails from the couch in PJs. Many who recently experienced working from home full-time for the first time quickly realized it’s no walk in the park and can make it harder to set boundaries. Here’s why setting boundaries at work can be so difficult — especially right now — and how to put some in place to protect your mental and emotional health.

Blurring boundaries

Even pre-COVID, many workers struggled to turn off work after official business hours, but the new norm of working remotely adds challenges. Now that you’re in the same space all day, every day, there’s less of a physical boundary, made even harder if you share a small space with a partner or roommate who’s also working from home. It also takes effort to create mental, emotional, and temporal boundaries without the social cues of an office.

According to the Harvard Business Review, this sudden switch to working from home, especially for those who aren’t used to it, can easily lead to blurring of boundaries and burnout if workers don’t learn how to set boundaries and take time off. “To signal their loyalty, devotion, and productivity, they may feel they have to work all the time,” HBR says.

And people are working more. A lot more. In April, Verizon company Blue Jeans surveyed nearly 300 remote workers and discovered they were working three to four hours more per day when at home rather than the office.

Why create boundaries?

A lack of boundaries around your work can lead to burnout. Creating boundaries is helpful for everyone, though we’ve learned that for people who are suffering from burnout, especially due to lack of boundaries, setting boundaries at work is one of the most effective solutions. Though we know it can also be one of the hardest to implement.

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The word “boundary” might imply a rigidity, but creating and setting boundaries that work for you can actually give you freedom. Creating boundaries can help you be more productive when you’re in work mode, and more present and happier when it’s time to relax or be with loved ones. Plus, creating boundaries with work can improve your relationship.

You may not feel the need to create boundaries if you’re planning to work from home temporarily, or if you’re young and don’t have many major commitments outside of our work life. But as Harvard Kennedy School points out, many employers plan to keep working from home the norm after the pandemic ends, and we don’t know when that will be. So it’s smart to learn how to do it effectively and in a way that helps — not harms — your well-being.

How to create work boundaries

Here are some tried-and-true ways to create boundaries to separate your work life and personal life. It can be hard to implement them at any time, let alone during a pandemic, but doing so can help you prevent or eliminate burnout.

Create workspace boundaries

If you have room in your house, carve out a physical space just for work. Setting up a home office is ideal, but it could even be a little desk nook in another room. The point is to carve out a place where you can mentally check into work mode, then check out of work mode when you leave the space. While it’s tempting to work from the couch or bed, it will make it harder to shut off work when it’s time to rest and relax since you’ll be in the same physical space.

Get dressed for work

This may sound silly, but switching into professional clothes — even if nobody outside your family will see you all day — can help you mentally switch gears into work mode. Studies have shown that doing this can help you transition from one role into another even if you’re in the same space. You don’t need to put on a suit, but changing into nicer clothes, running a comb through your hair, and even putting on a little makeup can help you feel like you’re starting the workday.

Create temporal boundaries

Also known as time boundaries, this means separating your personal time and work time. It helps to come up with a daily routine to reduce decision fatigue and clearly define the start and stop of your workday. You could set an actual time, or use actions to send the signal to your body and mind. For example, maybe your workday starts after you meditate or have a cup of coffee, and maybe it ends when you put on your workout clothes to go exercise. You may have to be flexible, especially if you have kids home from school or daycare; just be mindful and find times when you can fully shut off work. Once you shut off, it’s ideal to stay off and not check email or Slack messages again before bed.

Set boundaries with colleagues

We know, this can be really uncomfortable, especially if you’re concerned it could make you look like you’re not dedicated enough to your job. But it’s smart to come up with some limits, such as not checking work emails on weekends or not answering work texts or Slack messages past 6 p.m. Let your team know your boundary to set expectations, and consider blocking time off on your calendar if needed. It’s scary to ask for what you need, but we’ve found colleagues often respect when people create boundaries, and it may help encourage others to do the same.

Just make sure you live your boundaries so you continue to set the right expectations. For example, say you had a great idea and want to send a work email on the weekend, but you’ve told everyone you don’t check work email on weekends. Use an app like Boomerang to schedule it to send during work hours so it appears to others that you didn’t do it off-hours.

Set expectations with your loved ones

If you have a significant other and/or kids at home when you’re working, you may need to set some boundaries and expectations with them too. For example, if a loved one continuously comes into your home office space and disrupts you, you could make a boundary that if the door is closed, you’re not to be bothered except for emergencies. Or you could set time-based rules, like that you need privacy each day from 2-4 p.m. to get work done.

Adhere to your boundaries

If you let people break your boundaries over and over again, they’ll learn you aren’t serious about them and will keep pushing you. It’s human nature. But if you stay consistent and stick to your boundaries, your colleagues and loved ones will know you’re serious and respect them.

Extra considerations for managers

Have you ever been at a new job where there’s no hard stop time at the end of the day, and you wait and watch to see when others leave to determine what’s appropriate? Or maybe you don’t want to check your work email on weekends or respond to Slack messages at night, but you do it because your coworkers do it?

It’s important for managers to be aware of how their perceived boundaries — or lack of them — affect a workplace culture and those under them. Harvard found that in five different studies, workers who send emails after-hours underestimate how compelled employees feel to respond immediately, even if it’s not urgent.

If an employee sees that the norm is to have no or few boundaries between work and personal time, they may feel pressured to go along with this as well, which can create a culture of overwork and burnout. You may think, “This is just my preference, they don’t have to do it.” But your team is watching you and taking cues from you, and they want to make a good impression.

Keep in mind that when managers create boundaries for themselves, such as ending the day at a reasonable hour or not checking in as much after-hours, it can help shape a culture where it’s acceptable to have boundaries. If you tell your team, “Just a head’s up, every Thursday I have to leave by 5 p.m. for my daughter’s piano lessons,” they may feel more comfortable setting similar healthy boundaries for themselves.

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