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Employee Engagement

How to set healthy boundaries at work—and why it's critical

Boundaries are hard. Especially at work. Especially in this current moment. Especially for folks in HR.

Thanks to hybrid work and new collaboration tools, many of us can now work anywhere and anytime. But for people who struggle to set boundaries (e.g. most of us), this flexibility can have negative consequences. 

Without a physical office space or a commute to separate work life from personal life, your job can quickly seep into, well, everything. And it can feel almost impossible to say, ‘No,’ or, ‘Not right now,’ or ‘Not like this.’

And setting boundaries is that much trickier for HR professionals. Similar to fields like nursing or education, your work often requires you to put other people’s needs ahead of your own. But as the common saying goes, you can’t pour from an empty cup. When your job revolves around serving others, it’s even more important to take care of yourself first.

But that’s so much easier said than done. So, in this article, we’ll answer common questions around how to set boundaries at work, like:

  • What are healthy boundaries and why do they matter?
  • Why do we often struggle with setting boundaries?
  • How do you get better at setting boundaries?

And we’ll give you concrete tools that will help you approach boundary-setting with confidence and commitment in 2022.

What are healthy boundaries in the workplace?

Boundaries are those invisible limits you set for yourself that help you prioritize and focus on what’s most important to you. You can’t say ‘yes’ to everything, and boundaries are essential to helping you protect your time, energy, and sanity.

A healthy workplace boundary might be clocking out at 5pm, so you have time to decompress from the day or take care of your family. Or having a meeting-free day every week so you can have dedicated focus time.

Why is setting boundaries at work so important?

Simply put: you have to put your own oxygen mask on first.

People who struggle to set boundaries are often incredibly empathetic and generous. You care a lot for the people around you and want to do your best to support them. You have good intentions, but if you don’t take care of yourself, the overwork, exhaustion, and feelings of resentment and frustration will build up and into burnout.

Setting healthy boundaries can help you avoid this fate.

“When you decide to stand firm in your boundaries, it sends a message that, ‘my wellbeing matters and it will no longer be compromised,’” explains Hakemia Jackson, Executive Coach and Cultural Strategist, in a recent webinar

You can watch the full webinar recording here:

Boundary setting is perhaps more important for HR leaders because you play a critical role in supporting your company’s people and building and defining the culture. You have the opportunity to set an example for the entire organization by modelling these positive behaviors for your workplace.

You’ll likely have to have multiple boundary-setting conversations with employees and teammates to enforce these boundaries in the short term. But the long-term gain of protecting your wellbeing will lead to more sustainable working—which is good for you and your company.

So, why is it so d*mn hard to set boundaries?

This is the million-dollar question, isn’t it?

Most of us get the what and the why of boundary setting, but, nonetheless, there are forces that may be keeping you stuck. Here are a few reasons why you might have a hard time setting boundaries at work:

  • Guilt and shame. Nobody wants to let people down or be perceived as ‘not a team player’. If the whole company is logging 80-hour weeks, you might feel bad if you don’t follow suit or guilty for clocking out ‘early’ when everybody else is still plugging away.
  • Your culture and identity. Those feelings of guilt and shame? Marginalized folks often feel them even more because they may feel like they need to overcompensate for the stigmas or misconceptions people may have about people like them.
  • Impostor syndrome. We know impostor syndrome has been talked about to death, but when you feel like a fraud, you’re more likely to stay in overdrive to try to prove yourself wrong.
  • Toxic workplaces. Even if you’re usually pretty good at advocating for yourself, it can be tough to enforce boundaries if people keep overstepping them. Your boss keeps texting you after hours, or coworkers schedule meetings outside of your work hours, for example. In this environment, you may feel pressure to just go with it instead of pushing back and setting firm boundaries with other employees. 
  • Power dynamics. Setting boundaries with your superior can feel especially intimidating since they have power over you and can have a lot of influence over your day-to-day work and overall career trajectory.

All of these are real, valid reasons why setting boundaries at work can be really difficult. The trick is to distinguish between the perceived consequences and real consequences of standing firm in your workplace boundaries. Then, use that information to evaluate when and how to set a boundary at work.

4 strategies to help you set boundaries at work.

Like so many things in life, setting and enforcing boundaries is like building a muscle. It’ll probably always feel a little uncomfortable, but it does get easier with time and practice. 

Here are 4 ways you can strengthen your boundary muscles:

1. Define the 'why' behind your boundaries.

Setting a boundary can feel arbitrary when you don’t have a ‘why’ behind it. So before you start communicating your boundaries to your colleagues, make sure you understand why they’re important to you and your work. 

You don’t need to write an essay. But being able to articulate your ‘why’ will help you explain your boundaries and get buy-in from your teammates.

Let’s say uninterrupted heads down time (2 to 3 hours) is important for you to do your job, and you decided to block your calendar. Your ‘why’ might be: Meetings really distract me and make it difficult for me to do the deep work I need to do in my role, so I’ve blocked these times in my calendar to ensure I can get that work done on a weekly basis.

2. Challenge negative self-talk.

Feeling that you deserve to set boundaries and executing them are two different things. If setting boundaries triggers a lot of shame or guilt, you may want to dig into those feelings and try to unpack them. Boundary work is often personal, healing work.

A helpful way to do this is to talk to yourself as you would a friend. Would you feel that a friend let you down if they couldn't take your call one day or didn't respond to a text right away? Assuming your answer is no, you should practice extending yourself the same grace.

3. Influence your workplace status quo.

“Businesses are historically organized to run as machines—a group of people operating as a system. But there are people in that organization,” Blueboard COO, Kevin Yip, explains in the webinar above. 

Remember: setting boundaries at work is a fairly recent conversation. While part of boundary-setting is personal work, it’s important to acknowledge that some of this is systemic. Many of us are still working in corporate spaces that prioritize aggressive growth targets and revenue goals over people’s wellbeing. 

If this sounds familiar, part of your boundary work might be showing leadership that healthy boundaries are actually critical to sustainable work and long-term employee happiness—which impacts retention, engagement, and productivity. 

Boundaries require collective effort. Managers and leaders need to give permission, be vocal, reinforce positive behaviors, and put people first

At Blueboard, for example, employees need to take a minimum number of vacation days to get their annual bonus. We also support many organizations in creating spot awards programs, which People teams can use to celebrate healthy employee behaviors, like culture building, living company values, and more.

4. Use your collaboration tools to support boundaries.

Let your digital tools set boundaries for you. You can set ‘away’ statuses on Slack, put your pronouns in your Zoom name, set up an auto-responder when you can’t respond to emails, or put communication expectations in your email signature. 

If face-to-face boundary talks make you squirm, leveraging your collaboration tools can make boundary-setting feel a little less intimidating.  

Your workplace boundaries don't just benefit you.

Setting boundaries requires both internal and external work. No two individuals have the same boundaries, and discussing those differences helps all parties understand each other better. Doing this work will help you show up as your best self, while inspiring others to do the same. 

Still, while building confidence and self-awareness is key, it’s also important to remember that not everyone will respect your boundaries. If that’s the case, you’ll eventually need to assess whether or not this is an environment in which you want to remain.

Keep in mind that you can always start small. Even something as simple as taking a real lunch break every day and closing your laptop while you do can help you open the door to healthier habits. 

As Kevin says: “Momentum is created from tiny steps.”

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