Written by: Neela Pirwitz, Executive Contributor
Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.
Boundaries are important in any area of life and are especially relevant in the work context. Without them, we can easily fall down a slippery slope of overworking, exhaustion and even burnout. Enforcing boundaries, like sticking to working hours, learning to say ‘no’ and prioritising breaks can keep us grounded and help us to feel balanced. Hence, our work-life balance will improve, and the burnout risk will be reduced.
We have all experienced it before – work is piling up, and somehow there is no end in sight. Rather than our to-do list getting shorter, it is just getting longer and longer. There just never seems to be enough time to complete all of the tasks. As if that is not enough, colleagues and managers come along asking for favours and start adding tasks that should be on their to-do list to our own. Pressure is increasing and tension is building. We start to work longer hours and spend less time at home. Guilt can start setting in if you have a partner, children or a pet.
Thoughts like “I should really go home and spend some time with them, but I can’t leave my colleague hanging” may start to come up. At the same time, the time we get to spend on activities we enjoy, and that re-energise us is getting less. We might start eating in a rush, stop exercising, not sleep well and reduce the time we spend with loved ones, further increasing stress and decreasing the balance we (hopefully) once had in our lives. We can probably agree that this is not a desirable scenario in any case. To prevent this from happening, we need to be able to set boundaries and have the courage to say no.
What are boundaries and why are they important?
Boundaries are lines we draw to define which behaviours of others are acceptable to us, and which are not. While setting boundaries can be quite challenging, they are essential to our well-being. By setting boundaries we give another person a manual of how to interact with us, and therefore do what we can for our needs to be met. This might be especially challenging for those of us who were not encouraged to set boundaries during childhood or only to set them conditionally. If we learn that our boundaries should be in effect in certain situations but not in others, we might start questioning boundaries altogether. We might wonder if we are even in the position to set boundaries and worry about inconveniencing, or even hurting someone else.
However, setting a boundary is a neutral act and will only hurt someone if they decide to cross the boundary.
Since everyone is different, every person will have different boundaries. It is therefore important that we communicate our boundaries, and let the other person know, how we wish to be interacted with. This is important in both, our private, and our work life. While it might seem counterintuitive to set boundaries in the workplace, it is just as important as setting boundaries in every other area of life. Setting boundaries can help us to feel balanced and hence reduce the risk of burnout.
5 Boundaries To Set In The Workplace
Only work on what is in your job description
While the exact tasks of your role may change a little over time, it is a good idea to know what was written in the job description when you first applied for your role, and what you discussed with the manager during the interviewing process. The role might develop naturally while you perform it, and details can change depending on what is practical. This is not inherently bad and might actually save you time and allow you to be more efficient. However, not knowing which tasks are part of your role, and which are part of someone else’s can leave you vulnerable to colleagues and managers making their to-dos, your to-dos. Of course, being open to helping someone out and establishing good relationships with your colleagues is always a good idea.
Showing that you are helpful and reliable will absolutely help you in the future. But, if a colleague repeatedly asks you to take over tasks that are not part of your job description, it is important to draw a line and let them know that you have your own responsibilities.
Stick to your working hours
In many companies working overtime is expected, and not doing it can make you feel guilty for doing “less” than everyone else. The key here is balance. If overtime is paid, and it is beneficial for you to squeeze in a few extra hours, great. If you are working on a project that needs to be done urgently and the best way of completing it is to work a few extra hours, go for it. But don’t let it become the norm. Even though the general mindset in society might make you believe otherwise, there is no prize for the person who worked the most overtime. On the contrary, if done regularly you will pay for it with your free time and worst case, your health. To be able to enforce this boundary it is important that you set it from the beginning, and really stick to it. Once you start giving in, the threshold will be much lower and you are more inclined to work overtime again and again. Additionally, to be able to keep this boundary it is helpful if you can manage your time well so that by the end of the day you can leave knowing you did (most of) what you had to get done for the day.
Set expectations around response times
Setting expectations is a good idea generally. However, it can be especially helpful to set expectations around response times. We can’t check our email constantly and only react to what our colleagues need. At some point, we need to get our actual work done. One way of doing this is to set fixed times when you check your emails. For example, you could check your email once first thing in the morning, once after lunch and once at around 4 p.m., one hour before leaving. Letting the people on your team and people you work with closely know at what times they can expect responses takes away the pressure to constantly refresh your email. It also allows you to leave tasks that came in after 4 p.m. for the next day, further reducing the likelihood of you having to work overtime. If something is exceptionally urgent, your colleagues can always give you a call and ask you for immediate feedback.
Learn to say no
Learning to say no is common advice and yet it can be very difficult to implement. Especially for those of us who have a tendency to people-please or want to avoid confrontation saying no can seem like it will cause more trouble rather than putting us at ease. The key to saying no is to be conscious of how you say it. If you feel that a simple ‘no’ might not be met with understanding, try giving an explanation of why you are saying no. Not an excuse, but an explanation. If you can’t help out your colleague try to make them see why it is actually beneficial for them that you are saying no. You could tell them that you would love to help them out, but that you are very busy with different tasks and think that the quality of work that you could contribute to their task wouldn’t be up to your standard and that they should consider asking someone who has more availability. Alternatively, you might give them a choice. For example, you can tell them you are happy to help, but that you are only available in two weeks’ time. Let them know that you would understand if they ask someone else to help them instead. Learning to say no is all about finding a way of saying it that is helpful to you, personally. This can be a good way of showing you are cooperative and helpful, while at the same time drawing a boundary and not putting more on your plate than you can handle.
Make time to take productive breaks
While we may be so busy that it seems like all a break is going to do is cost more time, breaks are one of the key things that keep us going. Taking regular breaks can help us get some distance from the work we are doing and allows us to come back refreshed and with a new perspective.
What is important, is that the breaks we take are productive ones. First of all, define how long the break is going to be. This will help you to actually come back to the desk and not get lost in conversation, realising you lost a lot of time and then panicking. Secondly, try not to scroll through social media while taking that break. Instead, try to move around a little bit, hydrate and maybe strike up a conversation with a coworker, preferably about a non-work related topic. This can leave you re-energised and ready to get back to work. You will notice that after taking a break your concentration will be better and tasks will take less time to complete. Essentially, you save time by taking regular breaks, and you and your employer benefit.
Overall, boundaries are essential to lowering stress and raising productivity. As a result, you will have more energy that you can then spend on leisure activities that you enjoy. Rather than having just enough energy to watch a movie after work, you may suddenly feel like going for a walk or meeting a friend for dinner. Those activities will further improve your energy levels and can ultimately help you to establish a better work-life balance and reduce the risk of burnout.
Neela Pirwitz, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine
Neela Pirwitz, is a Jay Shetty certified burnout-prevention and well-being coach. She studied psychology and is now working for an international organization. Based in the Netherlands and coaching globally, she is working with professionals who want to become more efficient in how they work, create a better work-life balance, or restructure their routines and habits to prevent burnout. Neela’s mission is to help her clients to fit their work into their life, rather than life into their work.