I recently asked Google what the definition of a boundary was.
It returned several responses since the meaning of a boundary depends on the context in which it’s used—physical, emotional, geographical, conceptual—you get the drift. I narrowed my search a bit.
‘Define workplace boundaries’, I keyed in.
It threw some results, but I still didn’t find what I was looking for, until I stumbled upon a little paragraph in an article, which I’ve rephrased:
No matter the context, a boundary is a defining line that helps us maintain order, structure, and clarity in various aspects of our lives. Setting and respecting boundaries is vital if we want to maintain healthy relationships and take care of our personal well-being.
Bam! There it was. A boundary is a line, visible or invisible, or even a circle, that we need to draw ourselves to protect our interests.
Why understand what boundaries are?
Now you may wonder why I was looking up the definition of something as simple as a boundary. Brace yourself for a little story.
Recently, I quit my job. Let’s just say that it wasn’t the right fit for me. I’m a firm believer in work-life balance, and the job severely lacked this aspect. Part of the reason this happened was because I failed to set professional boundaries early on. I said yes to every request, every task, and every project that was thrown my way, regardless of whether I had the time for it or not. This quickly led to burnout. Because the management was used to my ‘yes’, they refused to believe that I couldn’t take on more work. Soon, I was labelled ‘lazy’, ‘lax’, and ‘disinterested’, when in reality, I had run out of fuel.
Although this experience left me with burned hands, I learned a valuable lesson in setting workplace boundaries early on. In our fast-paced and demanding workplace environs, maintaining a good impression commands top priority for most of us. In our eagerness to be helpful and accommodating, we often unintentionally allow ourselves to be taken for granted. And might I add, blurring the line between productivity and toxicity.
It’s essential that we recognize the value of creating and asserting professional boundaries. These boundaries not only protect our mental peace and personal space but also contribute to a more balanced and fulfilling work life. After all, we are way, way, WAY more than our work identity.
What are professional boundaries in the workplace?
Let’s get a bit imaginative. Think of a beautiful garden with clear-cut pathways and carefully tended boundaries. These boundaries are built and maintained to protect the garden’s delicate flora. Similarly, establishing and exercising clear boundaries safeguards our mental and emotional well-being in the workplace.
Workplace boundaries are the invisible lines that establish what is acceptable and unacceptable in our interactions with colleagues, supervisors, and clients. While some professional boundaries with respect to workplace interaction and behaviours are set by the organizations themselves, we also need to define our own boundaries. That way, we create a supportive environment where mutual respect thrives, fostering healthy and productive relationships.
This isn’t to say that we ought to build walls or be unapproachable! It’s about drawing a line that helps us function optimally without compromising our well-being. When we set boundaries, we are simply conveying our priorities and limits.
6 Strategies for setting professional boundaries
1. Be assertive at the workplace
This one goes a long way!
Assertiveness is a valuable skill when it comes to setting and maintaining boundaries. It involves expressing our needs, opinions, and limits in a confident yet respectful manner. Being assertive means communicating our perspective from a first-person perspective, or using ‘I’ statements. This way, we take ownership of our feelings and experiences without sounding accusatory.
For instance, instead of saying, “You always interrupt me”, try, “I feel more valued and heard when given the opportunity to speak (without interruptions).”
Assertiveness is empowering. It allows us to say no when necessary and express our boundaries without guilt or fear of rejection.
2. Manage expectations
A leading cause of boundary violations is unclear expectations. It is therefore best to manage expectations effectively and as early as possible. Ask questions and seek clarity about your roles and responsibilities. Most importantly, communicate what you can realistically accomplish within specific timeframes. This way, we set ourselves up for success and prevent stress caused by unrealistic demands.
When discussing expectations, be open and transparent about your availability and capacity to take on additional tasks. If a new assignment exceeds your current workload, express your concerns, negotiate a realistic deadline, or consider delegating some responsibilities.
3. Set the right precedence
‘Don’t work late regularly, else you’ll set the wrong precedent with your clients, and they’ll think that they can reach out to you at any odd hour, is what one manager told me.
First impressions matter, especially when it comes to setting boundaries. During initial interactions at work, exhibit professionalism and communicate your boundaries clearly and confidently. Demonstrating your commitment to personal space and work-life balance from the outset sets the right precedent for future interactions. People treat us the way we allow them to, so set the standard early on.
4. Communicate clearly and respectfully
Crystal-clear communication is what setting workplace boundaries hinges on. When communicating your boundaries, do so clearly and respectfully. Be direct about what you need and expect while maintaining an approachable tone. A passive-aggressive or ambiguous language will not help in any way. Instead, be assertive and confident.
For example, if a colleague frequently stops by your desk for non-urgent talks that disrupt your workflow, say something like, “I appreciate our chats, but I really need some focused time to complete my work right now. Let’s catch up during our lunch break instead?”
5. Say ‘NO’ when needed
Saying ‘NO’ can be uncomfortable and feel downright wrong. But learning to decline requests that exceed your capacity is crucial for maintaining work-life balance and preventing burnout. Politely decline by explaining your current workload and suggesting an alternative solution, if possible. Saying no doesn’t make you unhelpful; it shows that you value your time, prioritize your responsibilities, and are self-aware.
6. Learn to delegate
Delegating tasks not only empowers others but also relieves you of unnecessary burdens. Identify colleagues who can handle specific responsibilities and trust their capabilities. This fosters teamwork while giving you the bandwidth to focus on tasks that align with your expertise. This way, you can prioritize high-impact tasks while allowing your colleagues to grow in their roles.
Creating Work-Life Balance Through Boundaries
Work-life balance isn’t just a buzzword! It’s essential for our overall well-being and workplace performance. Setting boundaries helps us strike a healthy balance between our professional responsibilities and personal lives. When we draw a clear line between work and personal time, we recharge our energy and leave little to no room for those dreaded burnouts.
The best way to do this is to start by establishing set working hours and adhering to them as much as possible. Avoid taking work-related calls or responding to emails outside these hours, unless it’s critical. Setting automatic email responses for off-work hours or when you’re on leave is the way to go.
I know, it’s hard to let go of our habits, especially the one where we over-work ourselves. But we must let go of habits that harm.
Maintaining personal space at the workplace
Just as important as building a work-life balance is establishing personal space at the workplace. This helps us maintain focus and reduces stress at work.
In a busy office environment, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by constant interruptions and distractions. Pick a physical space for yourself that’s as distraction-free as possible, whether it’s a cubicle, an office, or simply a specific corner of your desk. Use this space as your zone, where you can concentrate on tasks without unnecessary interruptions.
Be open and assertive with your colleagues about the importance of minimizing interruptions during designated working hours, except for urgent requirements. This helps foster a respectful work culture where you and your team can value personal space and productivity.
Creating and maintaining professional boundaries is a powerful and essential act of self-care. Being assertive, managing expectations, setting precedents, and learning to say “NO”—these strategies help protect our mental peace and personal space at the workplace. Striking a balance between work and personal life is vital for our overall well-being.
As invisible as they may be, workplace boundaries have visible effects on our professional and personal lives. So, embrace the power of boundaries and watch your work life flourish! All it takes is the courage to draw those boundaries.