Boundaries have been a popular topic for a number of years and the idea of boundaries at work has become a crucial element of creating a healthy work life balance. This is especially relevant with the advent and spread of remote work and the increasing number of workers recognising just how many organisations are only able to function by stealing the labor of their workers.
This article provides clear and simple first steps for creating crucial boundaries at work along with some key boundary phrases you can use when you find yourself in situations at work that cause you the most stress.
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Boundaries At Work
Establishing boundaries at work is more involved and complicated than ensuring you take your lunch breaks, use your vacation time and log off at the end of your working hours.
Even if you are protecting your personal and family time from the intrusion of work emails or assignments, job stress can still creep into every aspect of your life, zapping your mental and emotional energy and creating both mental and physical health problems.
For a primer on boundaries, what they are and why they are important, read our earlier article “Setting Boundaries – A Simple Guide.”
If you have good sense of boundary setting in general – let’s jump into how to think about and create healthy work boundaries.
Often when we read or hear about boundaries at work, the concept is framed around:
Professional Boundaries – the importance of maintaining and expecting safe, respectful, and appropriate relationships with colleagues, direct reports and leaders
Time Boundaries – not allowing work to spill into non-work time
However, many hard working professionals who have nailed these two types of boundaries at work still find that their professional lives are causing undue amounts of stress and unhappiness that spills over into their personal life and, frankly, leads to fair amount of unhappiness.
Why is this?
Read Your Job Description
In many, many cases a lack of role clarity – and the resulting boundary-less chaos – is the main culprit of work stress and burnout.
One of the most important things to do if you are experiencing the vague unsettling dread that your job might be killing you is to read your job description.
Sadly – many people have never even been shown their job description!
If this is you – your first step might be to ask your leader where you might find a description of the job you’ve been hired to do. An extremely logical and reasonable ask.
Horrifyingly, though, many organisations have not completed the essential step of even creating job descriptions.
This is HUGE problem!
The lack of clear role description leads to many of the problems that cause job stress and dissatisfaction:
Unclear and changing expectations
Colleagues who think it’s their job to tell you how to do your job
Not being able to complete your work, because other people aren’t doing their work, or don’t seem to understand what their work is
Awkward exchanges with colleagues and supervisors where no one seems to know who is accountable for what
Simple – but seemingly never ending – requests that give you inexplicable rage
Simple problems that never seem to get resolved because no seems to understand who has the accountability or authority to address them
Continually elevating concerns about legitimate risks to the organisation, work, workers to leadership, but nothing ever being done to address those concerns
Honestly – I could go on. When accountabilities and expectations are unclear at work – misery abounds for everyone.
A lack of role clarity often stresses the leader-worker relationship which leads to people feeling like no matter how hard they work they are never succeeding (because no one knows how to define success). This far too often results in the burnout that comes from feeling responsible for things that you have limited control over. High responsibility and low autonomy are the perfect recipe for burnout.
Setting Boundaries When Job Responsibilities Are Unclear
If you find yourself in the ridiculous, yet shockingly common, position of not having a role description for your job, follow this step by step process for getting clear about expectations so you can set limits that allow you to prioritise your well being while avoiding workplace issues.
Meet With Your Leader
Have a conversation about what success looks like in your job.
What should each day look like? What would she expect to get accomplished in a day? What would she expect to get accomplished in a week, a month, a quarter as a successful worker in your role?
Bring some examples of specific accountabilities – ask for clarity on what is your accountability and what is the responsibility of other workers? What should you not do without checking in with leaders first?
Ask if there are other tasks she feels you should be doing as part of your day to day that you haven’t asked about.
Let your leader know that your plan is to take this info away and develop a plan for yourself to ensure you are meeting her expectations. Ask for a follow-up meeting to review that plan.
Develop Your Own Role Descriptions
Take good notes throughout your first meeting.
Take that info away and develop to-do lists for yourself – daily tasks, weekly tasks, monthly and/or quarterly accomplishments.
Be VERY realistic. Think hard about the amount of time it takes to complete any tasks and any dependencies there may be to finishing work, e.g., are certain outcomes dependent on other employees doing their work? If so, make note of that and be clear about what you do and do not have control over when describing your responsibilities. Don’t commit to completing full projects that you do not have complete control over.
Meet With Your Leader Again
Have your leader review what you’ve compiled. If you are able to send your lists ahead of the meeting, your leader may feel more comfortable providing definitive feedback during your meeting.
During the meeting, take any feedback and double check with your leader that you have come to a consensus on what your role is and what your work days, weeks, months should look like.
Make any edits to your lists based on the feedback provided. Take your completed documents, make them as clear and professional looking as possible and then email them to your boss indicating that you have incorporated her input, thanking her for her time in helping you get clarity on your role and letting her know that your plan is to structure your time and efforts to meet the expectations laid out in the documents.
If you feel comfortable, ask for an emailed confirmation of her agreement with this plan. A simple “does that all make sense to you” will do. Invite her to follow-up if her expectations shift or change in anyway. This is a gentle way to remind a leader that they need to be clear and explicit about their expectations – especially if they change over time.
You now have a documented role description and written agreement from your leader regarding what you are and are not responsible for.
Now you have a sense of where your boundaries should be, so you can actually start setting them.
Fun Hard Part!
Start the work of letting go of feeling responsible for anything that isn’t listed on the role descriptions you have created
If a project isn’t going to get done on time because someone else didn’t do their work, let it happen
Ignore colleague “suggestions” that indicate you should use your time differently or do your work differently
Stop feeling responsible for work that doesn’t get done because someone else thinks it’s your role. Other people’s assumptions are not your responsibility
Shift your communication style to include being clear about what you will complete by when and ignore suggestions or requests to complete work that isn’t yours
If a different leader suggests you take on work that isn’t yours, refer them to your leader to negotiate this new expectation
If additional work gets added to your plate, ask your leader to weigh in on what work should be prioritised and what work will be let go off in lieu of these additional tasks or responsibilities
All of this is easier said than done.
You may have some internal work to do to convince yourself that you are not responsible for other people, or for tasks and outcomes that you are not getting paid to be accountable for.
This is especially difficult for high-performing individuals. However hard, setting healthy boundaries is absolutely essential.
If you don’t set your own boundaries and make mental space for work life balance, your brain will set those boundaries for you. Work related stress will eventually lead to burn out. It’s a matter of when, not if.
Burnout may seem like a modern buzzword to some, but it is, in fact, a serious and well documented mental health issue. If you burnout, you may find your career in your chosen field cut short – burnout can sour you on a specific type of work for the rest of your life.
Or, you may find yourself in active addiction, ruining your most important relationships, compulsively shopping your entire salary away, or otherwise just destroying your physical health to the extent that you are taking years off your life.
Set boundaries or perish! It’s just that important.
When you start trying to set boundaries at work, you will start to notice how almost everyone around you has absolutely no sense of their role boundaries. It will be shocking. Be ready for it!
This can make setting boundaries feel extra scary and lonely.
Just take it one step at a time.
The first step when it comes to setting boundaries is to articulate them. Because so few people have any sense of role boundaries in the workplace, you will find your boundaries constantly being crossed if you don’t articulate them clearly.
Here are some key phrases you can use to start to articulate your boundaries aloud:
When Colleagues or Leaders Ask You to Take on Additional Work
“I can help, but I can’t do this for you.”
“This does sound like a problem. Is it our problem to solve though?”
“That’s not going to work for me.”
“Thanks for thinking considering me. I do enjoy a stretch opportunity, however this is outside the scope of my role and my contracted duties/responsibilities. I would be remiss to accept this opportunity unless additional resource are available to ensure all other work continues to get attention.”
When a Colleague Offers Unsolicited Advice or “Suggestions”
“It was surprising to hear about these issues – being raised for the first time in a meeting in front of everyone.”
“I am confident in my decisions.”
“Interesting ideas. Could you put your thoughts in an email and send them to me. I will need to balance all of the varied opinions and perspectives.”
“You’ve given me a lot to think about. I better get back at it.”
“Thank you for offering your help, but I am confident in my approach.”
“I want to understand what you are trying to accomplish with this feedback.”
When a Colleague Won’t Stop Arguing or Trying to Convince You of Their Perspective
“I am done talking about this. I have given you an answer and I want to make it clear that you continuing to ask a question I have already answered is unwelcome and makes me uncomfortable.”
“I am not obliged to explain myself to you.”
“It’s ok if you don’t agree with me. That’s going to happen sometimes – it’s to be expected.”
“We are deadlocked. We need to agree on an approach. Your solution is for me to give-in. That is not collaboration and it will damage our working relationship long term. Continuing to argue will not be productive. What might be a fair, efficient way to figure out how we will move forward?”
“Thanks but I don’t need an explanation. I understand the situation. We just are not in agreement.”
When a Colleague has an Emotional Outburst or Makes you Uncomfortable
“I understand you are upset and I need to articulate clearly that I am not ok with being spoken to this way.”
“I am not responsible for your emotions.”
“What an odd thing to say.”
“I don’t think I’m the target audience for this.”
“This is not a topic I am willing to discuss right now.”
Start Setting Healthy Boundaries Today!
Setting boundaries is not easy – and setting boundaries in a professional context can feel intimidating at first. Hopefully this guidance gives you a place to start and makes it feel a little more doable!
You don’t have to do it all at once. Pick one work situation or one coworker that is causing you stress, and start to experiment with using some key phrases to articulate your boundaries.
Start today – and little by little it will get more comfortable. Once you set a few key boundaries, the increased clarity and calm that results will be all the motivation you need to continue your journey!