In the same way that guardrails and barriers protect us when we’re driving on the road, we need personal boundaries to keep ourselves safe. Personal boundaries help you maintain a level of control of your work life, your relationships, and what you give your time to. Boundaries you set for yourself help direct your energy on what matters most, what you can and should prioritise, what you’re able to do and help you avoid burnout. In this article, we give you guidelines on how to set boundaries at work and give you essential tips to ensure people adhere to them.

What are boundaries?

A boundary is a limit that you set up to help people understand how to navigate various situations and interactions with you. These boundaries can be tangible (physical) or intangible (emotional and mental).

Physical boundaries

Physical boundaries refer to your personal space and have to do with your body, and what you are comfortable with. An example of this is choosing to work in a conference room (away from people) if you want to focus on a particular task. This can also take the form of saying “no” to a late night out because you know how your body responds to a lack of sleep. And finally, this can also look like scheduling breaks in your workday to get fresh air, regroup, and come back fresh and energised to continue at work.

Emotional boundaries

Emotional boundaries speak to how you prioritise your feelings, thoughts, and ideas and have them respected. They also mean not feeling forced to adopt other people’s thoughts, opinions and struggles or challenges that you don’t have the capacity to take on or are comfortable with.  In the workplace, this can look like choosing not to discuss your personal life (or certain aspects of it) with colleagues, and not taking responsibility for other people’s feelings. You are only responsible for your actions. Stand up for yourself, defend your choices or say something if you are unjustly criticised.

Why are boundaries important at work?

To do the best at work, you need to be in the right mental space – which means setting healthy boundaries. There is only so much any one person can do and sometimes, your boundary will look like saying “no” to one thing so that you can say “yes” to another.

Boundaries at work help define the roles and responsibilities each person has. They also help you avoid burnout, feeling resentful, and unsatisfied in your job, and often have a negative impact on your mental health.

But boundaries help form strong and healthy relationships. And a happy employee who feels safe and respected at work is bound to want to do more.

Tips for setting boundaries at work

It’s one thing to know your boundaries. If your colleagues don’t know your boundaries, they will without malice or bad intention infringe on them because you didn’t communicate these ahead of time.

  • Prioritise your values

The most important thing you need to establish is what is important to you. Ask yourself what your boundaries are to ensure you are happy and productive at work. You need to know what is important to you. If family and personal time are important to you, set time aside for when you deal with work-related issues like replying to emails or taking calls outside of work hours. This helps you separate your work and personal life

  • Communicate your boundaries

Once you have set your boundaries up, communicate these with your team, manager, and other co-workers. This lets them know in advance what is acceptable and not acceptable to you. Have clear and honest conversations about these. And if you feel they are disrespecting your boundaries, be proactive. Have the often-difficult conversations explaining that they stepped on your boundaries, how that made you feel, and the impact of their actions.

Don’t wait for issues to pile up for months and then let them all out at once. Speak about it as soon as it happens and remind them of your boundaries

  • Create structures to support your boundaries and keep them in place

It can be difficult for people to understand your perspective on things. You are obligated to perform certain tasks at work. On other occasions, you may be asked to do more than what your role is. Explain your workloads, high priority tasks and explain that doing a new task will mean another will fall down the task list as you can’t do both. 

Clear boundary structures will allow for fewer infractions on your boundaries so your boundaries need to be strong, and you will need to ensure they are solid.

Have a game plan on how to respond to those instances when someone will cross your boundaries.

  • Delegate

Many people fear that if they begin setting boundaries for themselves, people will see them as not being team players, being rude, selfish, and not doing their job. You worry about the potential repercussions of saying “no” to certain tasks and requests. But, if something is outside your scope of expertise, this is when you need to say “no” and delegate that task to someone who is more adept at the work.

  • Practice saying “no”

“No” is a full sentence and doesn’t need an explanation. Decide who needs an explanation. It’s tough and you may worry about how you will be perceived, but if you say “yes” when you want to say “no”, people will keep asking. It will take time and practice but remain firm in your stance and make sure those lines do not become blurred.

  • Take time off

We are not robots that can work and work without breaking down. Even robots need regular maintenance to function. Likewise, take leave and time off when you need it. You’re entitled to take leave and have earned it. Make time for self-care. Take time off. Enjoy it. And set that out-of-office message and enjoy time away from work. Trust us, the building will still be standing when you come back.

Remember, boundaries are important and there isn’t anything unusual about having them and doing what you need to do to ensure they aren’t stepped on.

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