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Here’s how you can set professional boundaries in the workplace

It's time to switch off your work notifications over the weekend.
Ezra Bailey

It’s a common occurrence to find yourself in a space where the lines between work and life are a little blurred.

Your eagerness to excel may see you accepting extra tasks, or jumping on work calls out of office hours. Small additions that may ultimately result in burnout.

It’s easy to get stuck climbing the corporate ladder. But there will come a point where what is expected of you will far exceed your specified role.

This is where setting professional boundaries becomes crucial.

While these conversations can be difficult and often a cause of major stress, continue reading for expert advice on how to correctly set boundaries at work.

professional boundaries

What are professional boundaries in the workplace?

Personal boundaries are considered the physical and emotional limitations within your personal relationships. Whereas, boundaries at work are the legal and professional parameters you place around your role and your capacity.

Generational trends within the workplace have resulted in different approaches to setting boundaries. The most recent being “quiet quitting”.

“Quiet quitting” is the act of working exclusively to your job description without communicating your professional needs with your employer.

“I’m personally not a fan of quiet quitting. It is much healthier and respectful for everyone involved if an employee can sit down with their employer and discuss what they are willing to do outside the bounds of their job description,” says therapist, author, and founder of BARE Therapy Tammi Miller.

“With the power imbalance between the two, that can be difficult, and so finding other people to advocate for and with you (i.e. an HR representative or a senior colleague) can help.”

How to set boundaries at work

Flagging with your superior that your current workload and expectations are unmanageable can be confronting.

“It’s not until we start to set boundaries that we realise how helpful they can be. The first one is always the hardest to set.

“Don’t bring it up in a time-limited space. For instance, you don’t want to chat about boundaries while you’re in line for the morning coffee. Give the conversation the space and respect it deserves.”

According to Tammi there are a few distinct ways you can walk away from a meeting feeling positive and productive.

  • Set a formal meeting with your manager and let them know what it’s about.
  • Understand your desired outcome. This will benefit any discussions around compromise.
  • Come prepared with evidence and a solutions-focused approach that honours your capacity.
  • Follow up in writing to confirm the results from the discussion.
  • Set a meeting in the near future as an option for both you and your employer to reassess.

How to deal with a coworker who doesn’t respect boundaries?

In some cases it can be easier to identify and address professional boundaries with a manager. They understand your overall workload and quite often your personal experiences.

It can be quite easy for a colleague to deduce that their workload far exceeds your own, and pass on work without a second thought.

While your first response may be to say ‘no’, sometimes this may result in an uncomfortable office environment to work in.

“Instead of just saying ‘no’ and leaving the tension of a task unmanaged hanging, you could say, ‘not right now, but…’. The ‘but’ doesn’t have to mean your boundaries are disregarded, though instead can help reiterate how your capacity is already full.” Explains Tammi.

If this is something you find yourself having to do often, and your collegues continue to disregard the boundaries you have set, Tammi suggests engaging with the systems in place there to help you.

“You can remind the person of the conversation you had previously and the boundaries they agreed to, or you can engage an external support to advocate for you, such as an EAP / HR provider or a line manager.”

Why do women struggle with setting professional boundaries?

In the grand scheme of history, women in the workplace is still a relatively new phenomenon. Just look at the still very prevelent gender pay gap.

“We have been taught for years to be smaller, but also to fight for the seat at the table. That means there’s an innate risk of speaking out against a person in an authority position. So of course it can be hard for us to set boundaries.

“Many women are innate people pleasers, because we’ve needed to seem amenable to advocate for equal pay and equal opportunities. That’s why we can be first to order the office cakes or stationery when asked, even if it’s not actually our job. We can fill our time with tasks that make it harder for us to later set those boundaries.”

For more tips on managing personal and professional boundaries to protect your mental wellbeing, you can purchase Tammi Miller’s book Paperback Therapy, here.

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