Why Do You Need to Set Boundaries in the Workplace?
Have you ever received an email at 11 pm and still felt the urge to respond?
Or been contacted whilst on holiday?
For a lot of the workforce, it can seem impossible to do anything but say ‘yes’ and go along with taking on additional responsibilities, being contactable 24/7, and staying late.
In fact, employers and managers can often present these behaviours as reflective of the ideal employee.
We’ve got bad news, though…
Without boundaries in the workplace, you might be on track for burnout, and if you’re a manager or employer, you could be unknowingly shooting your company in the foot.
Why do you need boundaries and how can you set them?
More than half of UK employees agree that the boundaries between their work and home life are becoming increasingly blurred.
Additionally, 84% of employees say that they would carry on working if they felt unwell.
The two might not seem correlated, but they can both be related back strongly to poor boundaries in the workplace.
If employees feel unable to take time away from work (also known as presenteeism), it is usually due to the perception that their employer values their work over their wellbeing.
An employee coping with presenteeism is usually also working through breaks, leaving work late, and replying to work-related communication out of working hours – all of which are key markers of a lack of boundaries.
What are boundaries in the workplace?
Firstly, it’s important to note that a great work ethic and a lack of boundaries should not be the same.
Though we might assume that saying yes to everything and working outside of our regular hours is a sign of our work ethic, it isn’t – it’s a lack of workplace boundaries at play.
Boundaries at work are a way to set limits that define you in relation to someone or something.
These boundaries help to protect our time and wellbeing and to clearly define responsibilities.
Boundaries can cover job responsibilities, interpersonal boundaries, and personal boundaries.
– Job responsibilities
These boundaries can be set by the employee or manager, with the intention of clearly defining roles and responsibilities for the purposes of accountability.
This could cover:
– Who an employee reports to
– Who manages an employee’s workload and what they should be working on
– Contactable hours for work
– Guidelines for email communications (e.g., telling employees there is no obligation to reply to emails that they receive during non-work hours)
– Clear processes for when workload is too excessive (e.g., how employees can say no to tasks they are unable to complete)
– Interpersonal boundaries
These boundaries function between co-workers and between employees and managers.
This could cover:
– The type of communication in the workplace (e.g., a respectful tone of voice)
– A mindfulness of respect for conversations around ‘sensitive’ topics
– The ability to resolve conflict without letting it impact work
– Personal boundaries
When many of us think of boundaries we think of work-life balance – these are personal boundaries.
This could cover:
– Taking holiday time and staying away from work during that period
– Not accessing emails or work-related communications at home
– Offline periods from social media and emails
– Taking time off when unwell
How do you set boundaries?
Now you know what boundaries are… how do you set them in the workplace?
Though it’s generally easier to set boundaries when starting a new job, given that much of the routine (working hours, overtime, processes of communication) is discussed during this stage, boundaries can still be set later in a job.
For employers, boundaries can become more ingrained into the workplace culture through a range of methods.
For employees, it begins with establishing what they value most.
Some employees will greatly value exercise time, whether they are working remotely or in an office – this gives you a boundary to set, as if you leave work at a certain time every day to account for this then you will have to clearly define your availability.
Similarly, if you don’t want to ‘take your work home with you’ then switching work devices or lines of communication off when at home is important.
Top tip: setting boundaries immediately when they are ignored is important to avoid confusion later down the line – if, for example, an employee is chastised for not replying to an email sent to them outside of their working hours, they should explain that they are only contactable between certain hours.
Boundaries are usually broken in the workplace due to unnecessary expectations and workloads, so this should be where employers start to address boundaries in the workplace.
Managers and employers should be mindful of employee workload and communication processes which are reliant on creating a culture in which employees can discuss their boundaries and enforce them.
Do employees know:
– Who to speak to if their workload is excessive?
– How to communicate/who to communicate with when boundaries aren’t respected?
– Their working hours and how flexible these are?
– What constitutes as an ‘emergency’ when it comes to out-of-hours communication?
– The responsibilities of each team member and therefore who to delegate to?
– That they can say no?
Boundaries are completely necessary
Boundaries are absolutely essential for all workplaces, as a lack of boundaries doesn’t just impact individual employees, it impacts the business at large in terms of productivity, turnover, motivation, and mental health and wellbeing.
For businesses looking to tackle burnout, setting clear boundaries and opening up a culture of communication is absolutely essential.
Whilst it may not always be easy to set boundaries, having a workplace culture that is flexible and respectful of them will make it easier in the long term as more employees become comfortable with the process.
Taking breaks from work and having a clear separation between your work life and home life can create space that, in turn, can be hugely beneficial for your wellbeing whilst working.