Who among us isn’t guilty of checking their emails on the weekend, bringing their work laptop with them on vacation or ducking out of dinner to pick up a call from a client? In the modern workplace, it’s becoming more and more difficult to shut ‘er down and clock out at the end of the day.
So, in a world where we’re constantly connected, is it possible to excel in our careers while avoiding burnout and maintaining a healthy work-life balance? You bet it is – and it all starts with setting clear professional boundaries.
What are professional boundaries?
Sometimes called “self-care in action”, boundaries are clear lines that you draw, communicate and protect in order to safeguard your time, energy and wellbeing.
When proper boundaries are established in the workplace, it eliminates any question or confusion around who’s responsible for what, clarifies management expectations and gives employees the ability to create space for themselves to do their best work and, as a team, function more effectively.
How can you establish healthy boundaries in the workplace?
Okay, full disclosure, it’s going to be a lot easier to do this if you’re just starting a job – at that point, nobody knows you yet and you’re able to make it clear from day one how you work and how you prefer to communicate.
That being said, if you’ve been in your role for a while and don’t plan on making a change any time soon, don’t worry – as long as you’re diligent about communicating and reinforcing your boundaries, you’ll be able to teach your colleagues and manager your limits and learn to work together within them.
Figure out what matters to you
Boundaries differ significantly from person to person – your coworker may love having people pop by his office to hash out a work dilemma, while you prefer to have meetings scheduled in advance so you have time to prepare. With that in mind, before you can communicate your boundaries, you need to figure out what matters to you and what lines you want to draw.
If you’re not sure what exactly your boundaries are, you can start by asking yourself some simple questions:
- Are you overwhelmed by any particular aspect of your job? (Eg. unreasonable deadlines, an expectation that you’ll be available outside of work hours, last-minute meetings.)
- What’s preventing you from being as productive as you’d like to be?
- At the end of a tough day, what do you find yourself frustrated about?
- Imagine your perfect working environment – what does that look like?
Communicate your needs clearly
Once you’ve determined what your workplace boundaries are, the next step is to communicate them to your coworkers. Actually, you’ll probably have to communicate them quite a few times – but we’ll get to that.
In order for people to respect and work within your boundaries, they first need to know exactly what they are, right? Right, so don’t expect them to figure it out on their own, be up front about what you need from your team in order to work most effectively.
Take time to respond
Ever say yes to something and immediately wish you’d taken a second to think it over first? You’re not alone. Saying yes becomes an automatic response because we don’t want to be seen as difficult, or not a team player – but it’s completely okay to take a second to pause and think.
If you feel awkward about it, you can fill the silence with a quick, “Possibly! I’ll just check my calendar to make sure that works and get back to you.” Easy, professional and buys you the time you need to give the ask some real consideration.
Get comfortable saying no
If you’re not used to saying no, it’s uncomfortable at first – it just is. Like anything else, it’ll take some getting used to before it feels natural, but, like any skill, you’ll build your confidence with practice!
Keep in mind that saying no isn’t a bad thing – it doesn’t mean you’re a bad team mate, or a terrible employee or anything like that. In fact, saying yes to everything, overwhelming yourself and failing to deliver would be a far bigger workplace faux pas.
The best way to say no is to be clear, direct and professional. For example, if you’re asked to take on additional work unexpectedly, you could say, “I’m right in the middle of [X ASSIGNMENT], so if you’d like me to switch my focus to [NEW PROJECT], we’ll need to deprioritize [X] for the moment.”
Reinforce your boundaries as often as needed
And as soon as the incident occurs! Some of your colleagues may catch on right away, while others will probably need a bit more reminding. The same way you’d say no in the first place (as touched on above), you can reaffirm the boundary you’ve set firmly and confidently.
Even though it can be frustrating when someone oversteps or doesn’t seem to respect a line you’ve drawn, remember that the goal here is to come to a mutual understanding allowing you to work together better, so try not to let it get to you too much! Simply remind them of your boundary, politely and professionally, take a deep breath and know that your efforts will pay off in the long term.
Use your calendar
Your Outlook calendar? Your new boundary-enforcing BFF. Block off time every day for specific projects, assignments, meetings, breaks – whatever. Note when you’ll be unreachable or OOO for any length of time.
If you’re constantly being interrupted during your work day, an easy fix is to direct your team to check your calendar before swinging by your office or calling you out of the blue on Teams.
Take a vacation already
And don’t feel bad about it! Whether it’s at an all-inclusive resort in Los Cabos, visiting your family’s lakefront cabin or having a staycation at home curled up with a great book and your cat, it’s important to prioritize rest and relaxation, and that means taking advantage of your PTO – that’s what it’s there for, after all.
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