We hear a lot about establishing work-life balance. But in our always-on culture, striving for work-life balance can feel like teeter-tottering with a hippopotamus. However, if you want to be happier and more productive on the job then you need to learn to establish boundaries at work. Not sure where to start? Establish healthy boundaries by following these six steps:
- Understand the importance of boundaries
- Clarify your values
- Track your time
- Write down your boundaries
- Communicate directly
- Expect some compromise
Understand the importance of boundaries
It may feel like saying yes at work is the path to success. But it actually depletes you and prevents you from doing your best. Worker burnout is on the rise: 61 percent of Americans say work is the main stressor in their lives. While occasional workplace stress is normal, constantly feeling burnt out at work may have major health consequences. Work dissatisfaction is linked to weight gain, heart disease, and a reduced lifespan. Burnout is terrible for companies too. Approximately one million American employees miss work every day due to job stress. Globally, employee burnout costs companies $300 billion every year.
When employees establish firm boundaries, it’s good for both employees and companies. Employees who set boundaries are the happiest and most productive at work, according to management experts Ken and Scott Blanchard, who’ve worked with employees at hundreds of organizations. Happy, productive employees help companies thrive.
Consider setting boundaries such as the following:
- Stop work at a certain time every day.
- Leave your desk during breaks and lunch.
- Limit your accessibility on weekends.
- Limit who has your personal phone number.
- Avoid or limit romance in the workplace.
- Avoid gossiping about or criticizing colleagues.
- Ask for clear direction on tasks.
- Expect respectful treatment from colleagues.
Clarify your values
Different people are comfortable with different boundaries. Your age, family situation, temperament, job, and other factors shape your boundaries. Do some soul searching. What’s important to you? What are your needs? What do you deserve? Clarifying your values will help you know the areas in which you’re comfortable with more flexibility, and those in which you need firmer boundaries. For instance, if you value family time or a weekend volunteer job, you may need to establish firm boundaries about when you’re available for work. If you want to stay out of workplace drama, you may want to establish workplace romance guidelines and personal rules about gossiping at work.
Track your time
Laptops, tablets, and smartphones make work ultra-flexible. They also blur the line between work and home. Nearly half of American workers take work home with them, according to one survey, and many employees say it interferes with family, social, and leisure time.
Is work creeping into your personal time? It may matter more than you think. In a study published in the journal Chronobiology International, researchers interviewed 24,000 workers in 31 European countries and discovered that people who worked beyond their normal working hours were more likely to experience musculoskeletal, psychological, gastrointestinal, and cardiovascular ailments. In another study, adults randomly assigned to limit checking their email to three times a day experienced significantly lower daily stress levels than when they were allowed to check email whenever they wanted.
Before you make changes, assess the current situation. How much do you work after hours? Does it impact your relationships or keep you from pursuits you love? Also, determine why you work during personal time. Does your boss expect you to be available at all times or are you in the habit of responding to work emails at home?
Depending on your job, it may be impossible to disconnect from work entirely when you’re out of the office. If so, consider limiting after-hours work to certain times, and designate at least one day a week to completely unplug.
Write down your boundaries
Get out a pen and paper and write down your boundaries. Boundaries primarily focus on your relationship with yourself, and the act of writing by hand helps you clarify your thoughts and remember them better. Frame your boundaries in positive terms. For instance, focus on when you’ll be available to work instead of when you won’t be available. This will help you communicate your boundaries more effectively later.
When you communicate your boundaries, be clear, direct, calm, confident, and respectful, and stay positive when possible.
Sometimes you need to say no. If saying no isn’t easy for you, you’re not alone. Rehearse scenarios and possible responses until you get better at it. You don’t need to lie, but it’s okay to be vague. For instance, you may say, “We need to schedule that meeting for Monday morning because I have plans this weekend.”
Once you communicate your boundaries, remember that actions speak louder than words. For instance, only answer your phone during periods you indicated you will be available. If your boundaries are new, your colleagues may be surprised or disappointed. Be polite and consistent, and eventually they’ll recognize your new boundaries.
If you’re overwhelmed with your present workload, schedule a meeting with your manager to clarify your tasks and priorities. If your manager asks you to take on something you’re uncomfortable with, don’t panic. Instead, ask questions to make sure you understand the reason for the request. Then try to find a win-win solution that maintains your boundary and helps your manager meet the same goal.
Expect some compromise
Boundaries should be firm but not rigid. Once you set a boundary, be as consistent as possible at keeping your promise to yourself. But if you need to compromise occasionally, don’t feel bad. Some flexibility is healthy. Having boundaries in place gives you the opportunity to pause and consider requests before saying yes, which is something to celebrate.
Setting boundaries at work can feel scary, especially if you haven’t been firm about your expectations in the past. Remember, your health and well-being are important. You must recharge in order to be a productive and creative professional, which is good for you and your company. As Arianna Huffington points out in her book Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder, it’s a myth that you must trade off high performance for taking care of yourself. The opposite is true. You must take care of yourself to thrive at work.