How to Set Boundaries to Create a Healthier Workplace
Do you always say “yes” to new projects? Do you work longer hours working from home than you do in an office? Are you overwhelmed by your workload on a day-to-day basis? Chances are that you have a boundary problem at work.
Setting boundaries is part of gaining work-life balance and self-care. A balanced work environment is one that recognizes peoples’ need to juggle the demands of work, family, and personal life. Being constantly connected to work and overwhelmed by work can lead to stress, burnout, anxiety, and depression, which not only impact employee health, but overall organizational and financial health.
According to Lifeworks’ most recent Mental Health Index report, 27% of Canadians surveyed work more hours at home than they do at the worksite, and this group had the lowest mental health score compared to those who worked less or the same amount at home (Lifeworks, 2022). Lifeworks also reported that managers are 40% more likely to work more hours from home than non-managers.
A healthy culture starts with a strong foundation of psychological health and safety, which includes balance, clarity of expectation, and the right to disconnect. Respecting employees’ need to set boundaries can lead to a happier, healthier, and more productive workplace for everyone – saving businesses time and money.
What Are Organizational Boundaries?
Clear expectations for jobs allow for clear boundaries to be set. Once the organization knows the job expectations, there can be discussion on appropriate hours of work, outcomes, and productivity measures. Managers should also set clear behavioural expectations to identify the appropriate course of action when boundaries are not being respected.
Any policies and procedures employers create should speak to their culture, rules, and boundaries. Policies that consider boundaries and work-life balance could include the following:
- Code of Conduct – How are courageous and respectful conversations conducted?
- Right to Disconnect – What does this look like within each job?
- Hybrid work policies – What are the expectations for time/productivity and accountabilities?
Five Crucial Boundaries at Work
Employees should determine the boundaries that keep them feeling safe and well. Here are five crucial boundaries to identify.
- Enforce physical boundaries to ensure that privacy and personal space is maintained. This may include a request to knock on the door before entering, space for decompressing after a meeting or session, and letting others know your personal comfort level with hugs or handshakes.
- Intellectual boundaries that you set might include how your views and your ideas are used by others. Do others have permission to share your work or things you’ve said? This boundary will help keep you safe when sharing ideas.
- Emotional boundaries include knowing where you end and other people begin. Emotions should not define you or overtake your decisions. Practicing self-control and self-regulation will help create this boundary so you can avoid feelings of guilt or shame.
- You might have a cultural boundary that is set to preserve your differences in the workplace. Having an inclusive communication style that acknowledges these differences will build a foundation of trust and ensure that others are not offended in a certain way.
- In the workplace, financial boundaries might include clarity over wages and expectation for salary growth. It might also include an understanding of how money is allocated to different departments and who is able to spend it.
Steps to Set Boundaries
Once the job expectations, the structure of the job, and the job hours have been identified, employees can begin organizing their work in meaningful ways. Employees should prioritize the projects and tasks they need to work on each day and answer the following questions:
- What are your goals? What are you trying to accomplish that day?
- What are the projects and tasks that you enjoy doing?
- What are the projects that drain your energy?
- What times during the day do you feel most productive?
- What do you need to do during the day to feel most fulfilled?
- What are your biggest distractions?
- What do you want your day to look like?
Employees should communicate their boundaries directly and honestly with their colleagues. If the needs are not discussed, then the boundaries can not be respected. Clarity should be provided on how the boundary should be set, including the what, when, and who. Saying “I don’t” instead of “I can’t” can help enforce the boundary. For example, if working after 6:00pm is not part of your role expectations, you can say “I don’t work after my scheduled office hours because that is when I spend time with my family.”
Discuss and compromise
Find ways to ensure that you have considered everyone’s boundary needs. Be open to other ideas on ways to manage the boundary or expectations.
Recognize that you are not responsible for other people’s feelings
Stop trying to keep the peace by allowing people to intrude on your boundaries. Honour your needs and you will be a more engaged and productive employee.
Delegate work or just say “no”
Do not apologize or make excuses for setting boundaries. When you are overloaded with tasks, just say no to new work or delegate work to others, if needed. If you are delegating work, make sure to outline the expectations clearly.
Examples of Workplace Boundaries
- Take your breaks – let your team know you will be away for break or lunch.
- Do not respond to emails after work hours – say goodbye when you sign out.
- Establish focus time boundaries – set your status to “do not disturb.”
- Educate others on contact criteria for emergencies when you will not be available.
- Not feeling the need to reply to messages straight away
- Choosing not to attend everything you are invited to
- Feeling comfortable expressing your opinion
What Can Employers Do?
Create a culture
- Lead by example
- Examine workload issues
- Have courageous conversations about expectations and deliverables
- Teach others how to communicate boundaries
- Correct where boundaries are broken
Commit to a boundary plan
- Create a habit of enforcing boundaries.
- Choose one thing that you want to be able to do to set your boundaries. Be specific about the boundary, identify how you will communicate it, and figure out the challenge that is keeping you from adhering to your boundary.
Provide Success Coaching
Consider taking Success Coaching from our Occupational Therapists to help you with creating and communicating boundaries. These confidential, work-focused sessions can help you develop mental health strategies so you can stay well at work. Set up a consultation with Nancy Gowan to discuss your current strategy and determine if success coaching is for you.
“Mental Health – Psychosocial Risk Factors in the Workplace”, Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, https://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/psychosocial/mentalhealth_risk.html
“The Mental Health Index report: May 2022,” Lifeworks, June 23, 2022, https://lifeworks.com/en/resource/mental-health-index%E2%84%A2-report-may-2022