A few months ago, I was going through a tough phase at work with the implementation of a project. One day after having lunch with my husband, I went back to my office corner at home and kept answering calls and working on some material. Something made me stop – do not remember exactly what – and look at my watch. It was when I realized that only 15 minutes have passed since I left my desk. In other words, I literally grabbed a bite to eat in merely 15 minutes or less and I was glued to my monitor again.
In that moment, I asked myself how many times the same had happened already during the week. I decided not to trust my judgement and asked my husband instead. He told me that it has been like that for quite some time, weeks even! – and I did not notice. I immediately felt disappointed in myself. I have promised myself a couple of years back that I would not reach that threshold again. And there I was, living it one more time. I cannot say I was doing it in complete oblivion; there were peaks of awareness now and then.
Despite being or not the job of your dreams, working with unclear or nonexistent boundaries is not a healthy choice. It may seem as you value your job as if your life would depend on it, as if you care more than others do, as if you were more professional and productive. What if I told you that this is not at all what others see? What if you were to ask yourself where does this boundaryless attitude lead you?
Establishing boundaries is showing that you care. That you care about yourself and about others. When you put in place clear boundaries is easier, not only for others to know what to expect, but also for you to know when and how to provide – your time, your resources, your expertise, your commitment. This is even more relevant nowadays working from home where boundaries can become extra blurred.
Let us look at 5 strategies to help you establish clear and healthy boundaries at work, regardless of where you work from.
1. Set a clear structure: You are the master of your own time. No one else should know better than you how to manage it. Putting in place a structure that works for you depends on your style and personality. However, I believe everyone has an agenda these days. Go ahead and block time in your schedule for your tasks and activities. And this is valid for both your personal and professional sphere. If having a longer lunch break is important to you or leaving work earlier to spend time with your family are a priority, then make sure it is visible in your calendar. Schedule check-in or review meetings in your calendar to talk to your boss or exchange with your team at a particular time where you can give them your undivided attention. If you have a task demanding extra focus, block your time to avoid interruptions.
2. Communicate with clarity: Being aware of what is a priority to you is key. Now, you have to let others know as well. Make sure you communicate your boundaries clearly. Clarify your own rules to others, including your non-negotiables. If you do not reply to emails after working hours or only answer calls if urgent, then make that clear and define what an emergency means to you. In case your boundaries are breached, address it to your colleagues or your team. You do not have to do it all at once; certain positions and companies make it more stressful. Although waiting months to communicate your boundaries is also not appropriate. Try to balance it out, especially if you were new in the company or in a particular role. Though do it as upfront as possible, as it will take a huge load from your back and set you free to focus on your tasks and responsibilities with the deserved respect from your peers and management. Not everyone has to agree with your boundaries, they are set by yourself for a reason.
3. Say No more often: When was the last time you said ‘no’ to something at work (also in your personal life for all that matters!)? I get it, saying ‘no’ sounds impolite and it makes you look like you are not up for challenges. Does it really mean that though? Try not to see it as a personal reaction to someone’s request, rather a decision you are making for yourself. You want to be the Good Samaritan or you are aiming for that promotion, when you should be asking yourself - can I really do this? Is it within my area of expertise? Do I have the time to take on this additional task without jeopardizing my responsibilities? At work, especially if it comes from your boss, do not feel the need to answer immediately. Take time to think it through and if the answer is no, make the case to your boss by exposing clearly and with confidence your questions and concerns. It may be tough the first time you do it, but it will definitely avoid unnecessary conflicts down the road.
4. Delegate work: Being a high performer there is a tendency to believe you can do everything on your own. You have the talent, the skills, the expertise, the will, the focus, the discipline. Yet you are only human. In addition, not every request that arrives at your desk or inbox means you have to take it. In case it is completely outside the scope of your responsibility, then refer to point 3. If not, you can delegate work to your team when you are a manager, but this is not the only alternative. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed and in need of an extra hand, why not ask a colleague or discuss with your boss the possibility of hiring – or scouting within the company – additional resources. Delegating tasks frees you up for other work where your expertise might be required, or where your skills can grow.
5. Take time off: Accumulating vacation days for the last 3 or 5 years is not a reason to be proud. Time off is well deserved when you get it, when you need it and when it is offered to you. Resting is key both for your physical and mental health. When it comes to your vacations, make it known by scheduling them beforehand, informing your colleagues and boss accordingly, setting up the usual out of the office message. More important, take this opportunity to fully disconnect from work and recharge your batteries. You are not doing anyone any favor by coming back stressed or still exhausted.
Boundaries at work – and in your personal life – are essential for your psychical, mental and emotional health. With that being said, it does not happen overnight. You have to start somewhere and the best place to start is by being aware of your values and your priorities. Knowing what you value the most, how that relates to your professional life, how and when is that reflecting into your work routine. As a last thought to take with you, if you feel your boundaries were constantly and abusively being disregarded, it might mean you are working in a toxic environment and you may want to change that reality.