Your Ultimate Guide To Setting Boundaries At Work
Which of these sounds better… Living life on your own terms? Or following someone else’s script? I know which one I’d choose. And that’s exactly why setting boundaries is so important. Especially at work.
In 2019, the World Health Organisation included burnout in its International Classification of Diseases. The culprit? Work stress that hasn’t been managed effectively. The “cure”? Protecting your mental wellbeing in the workplace.
And setting boundaries at work can be one of the best ways to do that. Here’s how you can get started.
7 types of boundaries
When you start to understand the practice of setting boundaries, you’ll notice that they can actually be used in any area of your life. Here are some of the most popular types of boundaries:
- Physical boundaries – to prevent other people from entering your physical space
- Emotional boundaries – to shield your emotions from undue influence from other people
- Time boundaries – to limit the amount of time you spend at certain events or on particular tasks
- Energy boundaries – to control the impact of other’s actions on your own energy
- Financial boundaries – to request that other people respect any financial measures you have in place
- Personal boundaries – to set parameters around personal relationships in your life
- Professional boundaries – to maintain your work-life balance and protect your mental wellbeing in the workplace
Examples of boundaries in the workplace
Before you can start setting boundaries at work, it helps to understand what a boundary is and how it might be helpful to you. That way, you have the right boundary on hand, exactly when you need it.
Here are some boundaries examples that are popular with my corporate coaching clients:
- Saying no to working on the weekend
- Not having your work phone turned on out of hours
- Limiting the number of meetings you take each day
- Only booking meetings during certain times
- Blocking off your calendar to protect your lunch break each day
- Not accepting last-minute projects
- Taking a vacation to spend time with your family
- Finishing work at a set time each day
- Limiting your projects to those listed in your job description
- Requesting time to work on your professional development
How to start setting boundaries at work
The best way to set boundaries between you and your work is to simply leave the office and go home at the end of each day. That way, there’s a door between your work life and your personal life.
But let’s be honest. That door isn’t always there. And even when it is, it can be hard to keep it shut.
What do you do when your office is your living room? When the emails won’t stop flying in? Or when your vacation time is always cancelled in favour of last-minute meetings?
Setting Boundaries Step 1: Get clear on the right boundaries for you
Begin by keeping a diary to tune into your emotions. Those knots in your stomach. The butterflies that linger long after you’ve turned your computer off. The struggle to make even the smallest of decisions. Write them all down.
Start to look behind these emotions for their triggers. Note down when each emotion appears, how it feels and when it happens.
You’ll soon start to detect patterns in how these emotions arise. Those patterns are your sign that a boundary needs to be set.
Setting Boundaries Step 2: Prepare your script
Setting boundaries is easier when you’ve prepared what you want to say in advance. Now that you know where your boundary needs to be set, you can start to lay the groundwork.
Here are some of my favourite scripts to help you put those boundaries in place.
“I can’t do this right now. But I could do this on [insert an alternative date/time] or [insert another alternative date/time] instead.”
When you’re new to setting boundaries at work, it can feel easier to suggest an alternative that works for you. That way, you’re not giving an outright “no” but you’re still the one in control.
“I don’t work on weekends. But I will get to this during my work week which is [insert your chosen workdays].
This boundaries script reassures the colleague that the work will still get done, whilst making it clear that you’re not available to them seven days a week.
“I’d be happy to schedule a meeting once you’ve provided me with the proposed agenda that you’d like to discuss.”
This is a brilliant option to reduce the number of unnecessary meetings in your calendar. Use it with the people who request meetings but then show up unprepared, wasting everyone’s time!
Setting Boundaries Step 3: Put your boundaries into practice
Now’s the time to start your dialogue. If you think you’ll feel more confident announcing this new shift, book a meeting with your boss or arrange a coffee with your colleague to communicate your intentions.
But remember… the more you set boundaries at work, the easier it’ll get.
In fact, you might even find that your career starts to benefit too. Your coworkers will always understand where your responsibilities lie (and where they don’t). You’ll stop doing extra tasks for free (so that pay rise might finally happen). And you’ll perform better. Because you’ll be reducing the chances of burnout.
Setting Boundaries Step 4: Stick to your “no”
From time to time, you’ll notice that your boundaries are pushed.
You’ll sense it before you see it. That feeling of discomfort and unease, as something just doesn’t quite sit right with you.
This is when you’ll need to stick with your “no”.
You don’t need to apologise or justify your actions. But, sometimes, offering an alternative solution can help you feel a little more confident.
When his boundaries are pushed, a client of mine likes to say “No, I won’t be able to do that. But here are some other things that might help you instead”. That way, he is still able to help his colleagues out but without their needs encroaching on his own. Give it a try!
Stay polite but firm. Give your coworkers alternative solutions to their problems if it’s appropriate, but remember – it’s not always your job to solve their problems. Then, wrap up the conversation and wish them well.
Setting Boundaries Step 5: Remember your motivation
I find that the best way to set your boundaries and stick to them is to remember your motivation for setting a boundary in the first place. How will this boundary help you?
For example, I recently took time off to settle my daughter into her new university overseas. This was a non-negotiable for me. Not only is it an experience that I’ll only have with her once, but it’s also a time where every child needs their parent with them. And for me, family comes first.
So that was my motivation for setting boundaries at work during this season. It’s what kept me on track when I was tempted to bypass my own boundaries in favour of someone or something else.
You can do it too.
What if you could set boundaries at work, whilst keeping your career on track?
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