How to set boundaries at work

One of the topics raised by our clients everywhere we go is work-life balance  – or perhaps more aptly, a lack of it.

It’s a perplexing dilemma. You want to prove your worth and reliability and being indispensable is certainly a good thing during economic downturns.

Many employers (perhaps unwittingly) reward “face-time” or time in the office and connected over productivity, failing to realize people who work smarter and have rich personal lives can be far more effective on the job.

The end result is feeling that you can’t ever accomplish what you need to do during a standard workday  – or quite possibly that nine to five has become seven to nine or midnight. Oh, and weekends and holidays? Those are opportunities for catching up on work, right?

Why do we need boundaries at work?

It’s a slippery slope to burnout if your boss and team members rely on you constantly and you feel you cannot ever unplug from work.

Now is the time to start setting some boundaries that let you work smarter, not endlessly. You have been hired to do a job, not give up your personal life.

If you feel like you’re doing the work of two or three people it can be gratifying, but maybe your role has ballooned so much that it is actually time for the company to hire someone to share the workload.

Consider, too, that there is something incredibly wrong with a workplace that could not function without a particular team member present. What if there is a tragedy? Will work grind to a halt and the workflow falter because one person is not available? That’s a problem –  and not being able to have evenings, weekends, and vacations free from the office is often an indicator of that problem.

Taking steps to set limits on your availability can feel uncomfortable, even scary when you’ve agreed to long hours and constant contact in your efforts to achieve career success.

Why is setting boundaries at work so difficult?

It’s hard to change what has become routine, and there are different reasons why folks feel stretched too thin.

Sometimes we start work at a dream job with a demanding employer and work very hard to impress and gain respect. Volunteering to take on more responsibility or demonstrating loyalty can quickly end up with feeling overcommitted.

Other times we’re excited to do more and help, and don’t notice right away that the pressures are building and not stopping until it’s really close to the breaking point. It can feel so rewarding to be needed and appreciated that we don’t realize that, perhaps, we’re becoming the office pushover.

To be fair, if you are always willing to do more and don’t ever say no, your employer may not even think whether the demands are too much. It’s much easier to assign work or delegate responsibility to someone who is reliable and keen than it is to find someone else.

Unfortunately, dialing back the workload can feel like admitting you can’t cope. Some of us might worry we’ll be judged harshly for any refusals. In a culture where long hours and time-in at the office is the norm, and even rewarded, it can be hard to be the team member who asks for something different.

When is it okay to set boundaries?

Realizing that there are sometimes that it’s actually wise to set boundaries may help you set limits at work.

Here are some examples of when we think it’s perfectly okay to set boundaries:

It hinders your ability to accomplish your responsibilities: Those times that you ordinarily say yes to extra duties to show you’re a team player can sometimes leave you scrambling to focus on your primary role and deliver on your required work. It’s tricky to say no, but if you really feel reluctant to take on more because it’s going to make your regular work harder, focus on the need to deliver well on your main duties. Give your boss the “why” to your no by outlining that you’ll be working on X this week and can’t take on Y unless the boss prefers that Y is completed instead of X. This way, the boss can decide either X or Y after considering the options. This is more of a “yah, but” than a “no,” and protects your work time while allowing you to be the best you can be on the chosen project.

It doesn’t align with long-term and short-term organizational priorities: When you’re working in an organization you will, undoubtedly, have your own career and organizational goals you are expected to help deliver. When someone comes to you with a request for help, consider your priorities. Remember that the organizational goals should always come first. If the request doesn’t align with those priorities, then you have your reason not to agree to do the extra work.

When you disagree with the decision: This can be tough. You may face a situation when your peer team (your first team) or your boss make a decision after you’ve had input and offered up good conflict around the idea – now the decision maker is going in a different direction and it’s important for everyone on the team to commit to the decision and hold each other accountable for delivering it. But, if you weren’t part of the decision-making process, “no” might be an option for you. Framing it as, “no, but let’s see if we can find a better way” can work well when you weren’t part of a decision-making process that directly affects you or your staff  – or for those (hopefully rare occasions) when you overrule your staff.

When you can’t deliver: If you know you won’t be able to deliver the results required in the request, it is crucial that you say no – or no, but. This is not only important for your sanity, but also because it’s not good for anyone to say yes if it’s not going to happen. Explain the no with a reason, such as “I won’t be able to deliver the results you need in that timeframe and I don’t want to leave you hanging at the last minute” or “I’m not the right person to get that accomplished, we could check with IT for someone with that expertise.”  Many of us who hate to say no will face this situation and forget that it’s usually worse when you fail to achieve the goal, or fail to achieve it on time, than just having said “no” upfront.

It conflicts with your values: This is undoubtedly one of the toughest situations. It requires consideration, but it also requires steadfastness and courage. In these days of anti-bullying and #metoo, it’s particularly important that we know our values and stand by them. Saying no in a values-based situation can be difficult and feel threatening, but it will also be the most affirming type of no you will likely ever use. If possible, talk through your approach with an ally or coach before you respond, but don’t hesitate to the point of ignoring the situation.

When you need to say no for now: Sometimes the task isn’t the issue, it’s the timing that is stressful. Don’t forget that you can say no, but make it a negotiation. For example, you can respond, “I’d be happy to put in some extra time on this, but I can’t this weekend (or this week or tonight). If it would help, I could set aside X next week and take this on and have it finished by Friday. Or, perhaps someone else could start it and I could take a look at it Monday morning before we send it out.” In this way, you’re protecting your personal time and ensuring your workload doesn’t become unmanageable, but you’re still offering to help and giving some solutions.

Saying no (without losing respect)

As you can see, it’s possible to say no without seeming obstinate and uncooperative. When there are reasons for saying no or not right now, it can be better not only for you personally but for the organization.

You do not have to agree to everything to be a good employee. In fact, you could be setting yourself up for a breakdown from stress and rushing to finish work that could be accomplished on a different (and smarter) deadline.

Saying no with grace, confidence, and reasons to reconsider the timing or the delegation of work can be better for the team. You could be giving other people opportunities to share their time and talents and it’s possible other people need to learn how to also set some boundaries by following your lead.

If you’re faced with a sudden and unexpected request and you aren’t sure what to do, remember that you don’t have to answer immediately. Buy yourself some time to think and strategize with a cheery, “Let me check my calendar quickly and I’ll get back to you.” This leaves you in control and protects your schedule (without feeling like you’re not a team player!).

Setting boundaries at work will soon feel empowering. Improved work-life balance leads to greater job satisfaction and improved well-being.

Coach’s Questions:

How is your work-life balance currently? What is your biggest challenge to setting boundaries at work? What is something you can try this week?


Achieving work/ life balance

There are times that balancing the demands of work and personal life feel impossible (even laughable!).

When we work with individuals and companies, we often hear from folks that they’re struggling to find a way to try to balance these demands, let alone actually achieve balance!

Advances in technology have changed workplace culture. I read an article in Time magazine that said from 1986 to 1996 there were only 32 references to work-life balance in the media. Fast forward a decade and it was a very hot topic (mentioned nearly 2,000 times in 2007!). Unfortunately, here we are another decade later and it feels like we haven’t done much to address the challenge.

But just because you can be reached 24/7, does it mean you should be available at all hours? If layoffs have decimated your team, does that mean you have to give up any claim to your personal life to stay employed?

As we delve into the idea of achieving work-life balance, remember to:

Think big picture: What are your longer-term family goals and work goals? What do you want at this moment in life and what do you want at this moment in work? Sometimes our short-term goal isn’t necessarily aligned with the long-term goal. For example, this week or month our family may need more from us even if our longer-term goal involves a strong focus on career. Conversely, this month I need to really contribute a lot at work, even though I have strong goals of family time while my kids are young.

Be flexible: It’s good to have goals, ideals, and values, but sometimes we have to remember that it’s big picture balance as well. Don’t beat yourself up if you feel you’re not giving enough to your family this week. Look at the big picture balance: The kids are going to remember the time you spent with them in summer.  Will that be negated if you get home at 7:00 p.m. instead of 6:00 p.m. for a little while? (Honestly, that’s a question for you. Maybe it will, but maybe it won’t).

Consider this a process: When we try to balance work and life, it may feel like we’re not giving enough to anything. It may help to think of managing towards the goals instead of balancing. Or maybe balance needs to be week to week or month to month and not necessarily day to day.

Be open to changing expectations: Remember, too, that where we are in life can determine what balance means. For example, our stage of life can make the right balance very different. The right balance when you’re single with no kids can change greatly when you marry or have children. Similarly, an unexpected illness or the death of a loved one can impact our priorities. Let your plans and goals morph when they need to.  In some of these situations, it might come back to that question of short-term vs long-term goals.

Why balance is important

The old adage that all work and no play makes Jack (or Jill!) dull has some truth to it. Living to work is not going to build meaningful relationships with friends, life partners, and family. And we all know the other adage, “no one ever lay on their deathbed and said, ‘I wish I’d worked longer hours.’”

Achieving balance is when we work to live – we’re busy, but have time for things both at work and in our personal lives. As satisfying as work can be, we need time to relax and rejuvenate. Some folks will feel their best when they volunteer in the community, play sports, spend time with loved ones, or pursue a hobby.

Finding time to nurture your personal life is good for the soul. Finding a mental and emotional balance helps us to be more present when we are at work. Failing to do this usually ends in burnout or breakdown.

Our health and wellbeing also benefit from movement. Sitting all day can damage our health. Being active and practicing yoga or exercising also helps to manage stress and anxiety in healthy ways (and yes, for those who know me well, you’ll know this is an example of me looking out for you by saying “do what I say, not what I do.”).  #bestintentions

Setting boundaries

It’s okay to define some aspects of how you use technology. There are a number of ways to set boundaries without being unresponsive. Think of it as establishing rules for when you’ll reply quickly and when you’ll be away from work.

When you are given a work cell phone, for example, you can leave your office hours on your voicemail (just remember to keep it updated!). If you work 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., you can let them know when you’re in the office and that you’ll respond to messages left after hours within one business day. If it’s an emergency or you’re on holiday, let callers know who to contact in your absence for urgent matters. Otherwise, you’ll get back to them on X day.

Similarly, you could let your coworkers know that your home is tech-free certain times (perhaps the dinner hour or after 7 p.m. and on weekends). When people know they’re not going to reach you immediately, it’s amazing what can wait until you’re back in the office.

Do you always reach for your phone and check emails the moment you wake up? Instead, try to leave that for the first 30 minutes of your workday or the 15 minutes you’re on transit to get to work. One of the best moves I made was to stop charging my phone in the bedroom but rather to charge it by the front door.  It means I’m not taking it up to bed with me (and running the risk of being on it til the wee hours), or checking it even before I’ve brushed my teeth. Keep mornings for exercise, eating well, getting ready for your day, and seeing your loved ones off. Putting your personal life first can be extremely gratifying and leave you ready to tackle work during actual office hours.

Further, if you do check voicemail messages, texts, or emails from home, consider choosing which ones are a priority and which ones can wait. You don’t have to jump to reply to each and every point of contact – and you certainly don’t have to reply straight away. The “mark unread” feature on email helps a lot, or create a folder “stuff to do first thing in the morning.”  

If you’re on holiday, protect your time off by leaving your work cell and laptop at home (or at the office!). If you don’t have someone who can fill in for you and you have to be reachable on holiday, set certain hours to check messages and handle replies. Again, your personal time is important and your wellbeing is, too.

In many ways, as work culture has evolved into this constant contact, some of us have accepted the intrusion into our personal lives without question. Start setting some small limits and enjoy the freedom of unplugging regularly from work demands.

How to say no

Part of being able to implement some work-life balance is being able to say no gracefully.

It’s hard for some of us to say no. We might fear repercussions if we don’t take on more work, or guilty that we’re letting the team down.

It’s possible that saying yes all the time has become a habit (and it can feel so good to be needed!).

There are, however, times that you can and should say no. It’s okay to decline to serve on another committee or head to the pub with the team after work: “I’d love to but unfortunately I can’t make that fit in the schedule” is conciliatory but firm.

The thing many of us fail to realize is that personal life can be every bit as important as work. And what is urgent at work may not be important in the long run. We have to determine what deserves our focus and make some judgment calls about priority.

Tune in to our next blog in two weeks to learn more about ways you can say no without losing respect at work.

Keeping commitments to yourself

You don’t have to justify wanting to carve out uninterrupted personal time for yourself. It can feel odd not to give reasons why you need time unplugged from work, but do you really have to give details?

Focus on working efficiently, not slogging away for excessive hours. If you can meet your deadlines and work goals (for yourself and the company), then clearly quality is more important than quantity. Top performers typically face less resistance negotiating flex time or telecommuting.

Too often, employees (particularly women), can be judged harshly when childcare demands conflict with work demands. If you are able to telecommute or have a flexible schedule, you could request a day to work from home or flex your hours without announcing that your youngest is sick or your aging parent needs to go to the doctor.

Some folks share many details about where they’re going on vacation and how they spent their weekend. You are under no obligation to share all the details of your personal life with your work colleagues. Vague statements like, “We’re getting off the grid and away from it all!” are friendly, but send a pretty clear message that you won’t be reachable during your time off.

In short, you are entitled to live a personal life separate from your work life. Educate yourself regarding your company’s policies around personal days, flex-time, leaves, and telecommuting. Then, when you wish to exercise these options, build your case based on how this accommodation will help you achieve your work goals rather than the personal commitments demanding your time.

Changing the paradigm can be very freeing. You’ll feel more in control of your time and enjoy having time to focus on your family, friends, or what matters to you in your personal life. When you model this in the workplace, you may also witness a culture shift in time as others follow your lead.

Coach’s Questions:

What matters most to you? Where would you like to draw the line between work and your personal life? What’s stopping you from feeling balance in your life? And what is your plan to address it?