How to Set Workplace Boundaries
I’m an avid fan of boundaries. They keep me sane, safe and secure in my interactions, both personally and professionally. But boundary setting is a unique and often ambiguous process. Rarely are the parameters of appropriateness in a workplace setting neat and tidy. So, how does one navigate the terrain without a map?
1. Know yourself (and know your limits)
When establishing your boundaries in the workplace, it’s vital to practice introspection. Keep a notebook in your desk and give yourself a period of a few weeks to identify issues that arise, situations you wish were handled differently, and stressful moments. Write them all down in that notebook. At the end of your two- or three-week period, reflect on what you wrote. Do some issues appear more than once? Are these issues situational or in relation to a particular colleague? Are they easy to recall or did they quickly resolve themselves?
This exercise allows you to tally whether you’re in need of greater physical, emotional or cognitive boundaries. With this frame of reference, prioritize what limits need to be set as quickly as possible versus what can wait. You’ll likely find it’s not such a massive undertaking if you take small strides rather than commit yourself to solve every issue at once.
2. Establish your professional identity
Following that introspection, be intentional. Do you want to be the problem-solver everyone runs to in a bind? Do you want to be the one who’s totally unreachable once the workday is through? Do you want to be the collaborator? In 1968, it was psychologist Erik Erikson who stated that professional identities were a “systematic way of evaluating, identifying and organizing the perception of self.” In other words, know yourself, know your system. What do you value in a workplace, in your colleagues and in yourself? Once your professional identity has been set, you’ll have difficulty changing the minds of those around you without drastic action.
By establishing your professional presence, you’ll undoubtedly find that some boundaries set themselves. Whether you assert yourself as the leader of the pack, the dutiful worker, the “yes” person or the cynic, understand the parameters of that identify and go from there. As a result, if you struggle with the professional identity you’ve set (or perhaps the one that has been set for you), seek to influence every new interaction with your updated set of values and behaviors until everyone gets on board.
3. Create stability (where you can)
I’ve found that taking a few moments in the morning to schedule my day creates an impermeable sense of forward momentum; starting each day at square one, if you will. Whenever I feel derailed, I can reference what I set out to do when I was sharp and fresh, first thing in the morning. Knowing your schedule and setting deadlines allows you the freedom to not take on more than you can complete in the required amount of time. If you have a boss or colleague who’s asking too much of you, bring this to their attention when they give you another task. It could be as simple as saying: “In order to complete task A and give it the attention it needs, I’ll have to reprioritize and put task B on the backburner momentarily, postponing its deadline. Is that OK?” Now, everyone is on the same page.
4. Follow through
Don’t set professional boundaries just at work. If you need to get work done at home, set a time limit on it and be strict. Unplug your devices, place them in another room where they’re hard to reach and be present in your time off. Sometimes we’re a little too close to see a situation clearly; by taking a step back at the end of each day, we can return the next day renewed, maybe with a fresh perspective or something new to offer. The link between boundary-setting and reduced burnout is all around us, so take the hint! Use your time away from work to fulfill other aspects of your life. For me, this means not talking about work with my partner. When I’m off the clock, I have to be truly off the clock. My partner and I allow ourselves 30 minutes after work to decompress, share about the workday and air our grievances. Once those 30 minutes are over, so is the conversation.
This seems like a no-brainer, right? But communicating with those colleagues whom you feel are disrespecting your boundaries can be very stressful, communicating your needs as a young person in the workplace (especially as a woman) can award you the dreaded label of bossy or pushy. Instead, approach the issue as quickly and casually as possible. If it’s one colleague, find a time to communicate with just them, without extra ears present. If all your colleagues are ignoring your request to not be contacted after work hours, first, verbally outline the hours during which you are available to handle work-related matters. If they’re still not quite getting the message, try putting an automatic email response on emails received outside of work hours, or a voicemail that specifies when their issue will be seen and handled—and directions to send a 911 email or text for true emergencies.
When all else fails, speaking to your colleagues and clients quickly and matter-of-factly, as soon as the infraction occurs, often sets the right tone. If a colleague is chatting with you when you need to buckle down and focus, don’t humor them. In that moment, say you can’t participate. This may feel dismissive, but it eliminates the opportunity for issues to build up over time, leading to a much bigger resolution than is necessary for a minor issue.
Regardless of where you find yourself in the workplace, boundary-setting is a necessary activity to improve your mental, emotional and physical state. Take care of yourself and remember that setting your priorities isn’t a one-time event; it’s an intention you practice every day in pursuit of your best (work) self.
Kathleen received her Masters in Music Therapy in December 2018 and currently practices as a Board-Certified Music Therapist in her hometown of Tallahassee, Fl working with infants/toddlers, at-risk youth, adolescents with disabilities, veterans, and individuals with eating disorders. You can also find her on the mat, teaching hot yoga at Hot Yoga Tallahassee. A self-proclaimed cat lady, in her spare time you may catch her sipping coffee with friends, attempting to cook, or at a Kacey Musgraves concert. Follow her escapades @kat_grams.