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How to Support Employees with Setting Boundaries in the Workplace

Establishing boundaries between work and life is essential for our mental health and overall happiness. But, it’s easier said than done. Why do we struggle with setting boundaries in the workplace? And what can organizations do to create an environment that respects employees’ boundaries? We’ll tackle these topics in this week’s blog.

We’ve all seen the statistics on rising employee burnout and declining mental health. And while adding services like more free counseling sessions and mindfulness/meditation programs is important, we can’t overlook the need to examine certain aspects of workplace culture that could be contributing to employees’ stress and burnout.

According to McKinsey, “research shows that, when asked about aspects of their jobs that undermine their mental health and well-being, employees frequently cite the feeling of always being on call, unfair treatment, unreasonable workload, low autonomy, and lack of social support.”1

Which is why it’s so important to examine the degree to which an organization encourages employees to set professional boundaries and respects the boundaries employees set.

What is a boundary?

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines a boundary as “a psychological demarcation that protects the integrity of an individual or group or that helps the person or group set realistic limits on participation in a relationship or activity.” In the workplace, that translates to the things we do to prevent work from encroaching upon the free time we need to stay mentally, physically and emotionally healthy.

Why do we struggle to set boundaries?

The reasons are many and vary according to the individual, but our reluctance to set boundaries has a lot to do with our unique personalities as well as the cultural norms that exist in the world of work.

For some people, setting boundaries goes against their inner “people pleaser”—a trait that might have developed during childhood. As a result, it just doesn’t feel right to say no, or to assert limits when it comes to work. Others may feel maintaining boundaries makes them appear weak or that they’ll be viewed as a failure. Or, we may simply feel guilty about taking time for ourselves or worry about overburdening co-workers.

And then there are the signals that workplace culture sends. Examples include the need to look or be “busy,” work long hours, or put in “face time.” It’s all part of our uniquely American work culture in which personal achievement and worth are often measured in terms of hours worked.

How the organization benefits when employee boundaries are respected.

When employers support employees’ efforts to create and maintain boundaries, both employee well-being and engagement and retention can improve.

The U.S. Surgeon General’s recent Framework for Workplace Mental Health and Well‑Being makes a clear link between boundaries and well-being:  “When workplace leaders set, respect, and model clear boundaries between time on and off the job, workers report a greater sense of well-being.” And we know that better well-being translates to greater productivity and reduced absenteeism/presenteeism.

Respect for boundaries and the ability to have a good life outside of work can also greatly affect engagement and retention. Younger generations value this even more than older generations. In fact, a Monster 2023 State of the Graduate Report found that among recent graduates:

  • 58% say the most important aspect of a job is work-life balance; and
  • 54% would turn down a job at a company that doesn’t offer work-life balance.

When the entire organization commits to boundaries it’s also easier for everyone to be their authentic selves. That means parents can feel comfortable discussing children, caregivers can be open about attending doctor appointments, and people will feel it’s ok to step away for some exercise during the day.

How a leader can manage team boundaries and create an environment that respects them.

Model the right behaviors.

If people see their bosses burning the midnight oil, they’ll feel they also need to maintain similar working hours to get ahead. Likewise, if leaders do not prioritize time off for vacations, exercise and family time, employees will feel less comfortable setting boundaries to protect these aspects of their own lives. Remind leaders of the importance of blocking time on their calendars to reflect their personal boundaries.

Clearly communicate organizational norms:

  • Expected working hours (including nights and weekends)
  • Acceptable response time for email, instant messaging, texts and voicemails
  • The best way to communicate for different purposes (for example, email for non-urgent matters and instant messaging for quick response)
  • Any restrictions around time off/vacation

Explore ways to increase flexibility.

Flexibility in how and where work gets done can help employees maintain their boundaries. Many companies are finding success in hybrid schedules; also consider the “core week” concept, where employees are required to be in the office during certain weeks—otherwise, they may work from any location.

What employees can do to begin establishing real boundaries.

Have a conversation with their manager and co-workers about their needs and preferences:

  • Preferred work style (night owl, morning person)
  • Work start and end times and days in/out of the office (especially important for hybrid workplaces)
  • Focus time
  • Meeting hours
  • Special needs (like support for child or elder care)

If an employee is a remote worker, they should pay particular attention to:

  • Creating a proper office space to mimic arriving and leaving work each day
  • Scheduling activities during free time to avoid the temptation to sit back down to work
  • Being clear with family or roommates about working hours and when it’s OK to interrupt
  • Sticking to set working hours
  • Creating routines to transition from work to home, such as shutting down the computer and going for a quick walk

Take advantage of available tools to clearly communicate boundaries:

  • Out-of-office email settings, reminders and automatic replies during non-working hours
  • Do not disturb setting on mobile phones
  • Turning off Slack, social media, and work email notifications during focused work time
  • Updating colleagues and managers about out of office times, vacations, etc.

Develop “scripts” to be able to respond quickly when a colleague or manager crosses a boundary.

  • Use statements such as “I would love to help but I’m busy with deep work until 2:00 p.m. I’m happy to discuss it afterward.”2
  • Be polite, but remain firm.
  • Above all, don’t apologize or feel guilty for having boundaries.

Set a good self-example.

  • If employee regularly respond to emails after their set working hours, that tells people it’s ok to disrespect their boundaries.

One last thought…is boundary-setting the antidote to “quiet quitting?”

We’ve all read the articles about quiet quitters, which describes employees who do the bare minimum at work and simply meet their job description.

Anita Williams Wooley, an associate professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University, has this take on quiet quitting: “When employees take a more active role in improving their work lives through better boundary-setting the need to ‘quiet quit’ effectively goes away.”3

Or, consider the words of Joe Sanok in Harvard Business Review about setting boundaries: “Boundaries as a solution sit right in front of us. When we define what we need to feel secure and healthy, when we need it, and create tools to protect those parts of ourselves, we can do wonders for our well-being at work and at home—which, in turn, allows us to bring our best selves to both places.”

Perfectly said!

If your organization would like help creating a workplace environment that prioritizes employee well-being by respecting boundaries and helping employees learn how to set them, contact us at connect@webmd.net.


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