Why Work Boundaries Are So Important + 5 Ways To Set Strong Ones
My sister, Kelly, was on her first real vacation in over a year. She was standing on her paddleboard, gazing out over the peaceful turquoise waters off the shore of Barbados, when she heard someone yelling her name. She turned to see her sister-in-law, Kara, running down the beach, waving her arms and calling for her. Kelly frantically started to paddle back—was someone hurt? Was there bad news from home? She finally landed on the shore and gasped out, "WHAT’S WRONG?!" To which Kara replied, "Matthew is on the phone for you."
Matthew, as in Kelly's boss. He had weaseled the name of Kelly's hotel from a reluctant co-worker, called her room, and persuaded Kara to track her down. On her vacation. In the ocean. For something that was absolutely not an emergency.
I'd gasp in disbelief, too, had I not already heard so many equally appalling stories from countless people who have asked me to help them establish boundaries at work. Turns out Horrible Bosses isn't just a movie title.
Boundaries at work have been a trending topic since March of 2020, when COVID forced work, home, kids, school, and leisure to run together like that time I washed an entire hamper full of clothes with a stray red crayon.
I have worked from home for the past 12 years, and I learned a decade ago that if I didn't set boundaries around what was "work time" and what was "home time," I'd literally never leave the "office." (See: me in 2010 responding to emails from bed at 11 p.m.) Still, during COVID, when I was running Zoom calls from the cleanest corner of my bedroom while managing my kid's Zoom classes in the dining room plus cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, and entertaining a bored 7-year-old, even my expert-level boundary skills were put to the test.
People will take as much as you will give.
Whether you're working from home or going into an office, serving customers or managing a job site, have a boss or are your own boss, the biggest lesson I learned when I first entered the workforce is that people will take as much as you are willing to give. That's not a judgment; it's just human nature.
I first discovered this in the earliest days of Whole30, when we were trying to grow the program, and I was the only one manning email and our Facebook page. If a question came in at 9 p.m., I felt like I had to answer it. If a workshop request came in on a Sunday morning, I'd stop my workout, brunch, or errands to reply. If someone sent in a question for the blog, I'd stay up until midnight writing the answer. I was running myself ragged trying to be in 10 places at once, feeling reactive instead of proactive, and fast approaching burnout...until a friend and fellow entrepreneur said to me, "Melissa, people will take as much as you are willing to give. You have to set some limits." This brings us to one of my principal tenets of boundaries:
It's not your job to guess my boundaries. It's up to me to set and hold them.
This applies to every relationship category, but it's often overlooked at work, especially if you work for someone else. We tend to assume our boss's expectations, workplace culture, or job demands all supersede our personal need for (and right to) healthy boundaries—but those assumptions are wrong. Yes, you accepted the job. Yes, they pay you for your work. But you have every right to demand a healthy, safe, respectful work environment, and that almost always involves setting boundaries.
The thing is, your company is not likely to proactively establish healthy boundaries for you. It's rare that a manager says to an employee, "I notice you haven't taken a vacation in a year—make sure you use the time off you've earned, and I promise we won't bother you at all while you're out." The truth is, if left unchecked, your company, managers, co-workers, and clients will hungrily absorb all of your time, energy, space, and attention. This doesn't make them evil; it's just the way the world works. Everyone is under pressure to do more, produce more, and make more money. (It's called capitalism, sweetie.) Which is why you need to create strong, healthy boundaries in the workplace.
Five tips for setting boundaries at work:
Automate your boundaries.
Automated responses (like a strong out-of-office message), clear habits (like leaving for lunch), and smart use of technology (like turning off notifications when you're out sick) can provide boundary-setting support and help you hold a boundary you've already established.
Look for the diamond in the rough.
Find the manager, shift leader, captain, foreman, director, or C-suite exec who actually takes time off, doesn't answer emails or texts from vacation, and politely holds their ground in meetings. These folks can offer you tips for navigating your workplace culture and can be powerful boundary allies.
Protect your bandwidth.
If you're struggling with too many deliverables, unrealistic deadlines, or pushy co-workers, communicate that clearly: "I can only take on this new project if you help me rearrange my current workload. What would you like me to de-prioritize, drop, or delegate?" (Pro tip: Get it in writing.)
Consistency is critical.
People will take as much as you are willing to give (especially at work), so if you want your boundaries to be successful, you have to hold them consistently. This also allows you to model the kind of workplace culture changes you're hoping to see–which is important if you manage others.
The best boundaries are firm but flexible. If you have more capacity next month and could stay late, take on that project, or skip lunch, you may decide the bonus points for going above and beyond just this once are worth it.
Adapted from The Book of Boundaries: End Resentment, Burnout, and Anxiety—and Reclaim Your Time, Energy, Health, and Relationships by Melissa Urban. Copyright © 2022 by Melissa Urban. Excerpted by permission of The Dial Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Melissa Urban is a certified sports nutritionist who specializes in helping people change their relationship with food and create life-long, healthy habits. She is the co-creator of the Whole30 program, the New York Times bestselling author of It Starts With Food and The Whole30, and has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Details, Redbook, and Woman’s World. Urban has presented over 150 health and nutrition seminars worldwide, and connects with more than 1 million people a month through the Whole30 website.
Photo credit: Taylor Gage