Setting boundaries at work

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?