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Boundaries in the Workplace: Why you need them and How to set them

Have you ever felt angry, stressed, anxious, or resentful at work? These feelings often indicate that we're over-extending ourselves and ignoring our needs.

This is why boundaries in the workplace are essential.

All healthy relationships require boundaries, and this includes professional relationships within the workplace.

Now, you may be wondering why you would need to think about setting boundaries in the workplace, but the truth is, those with traditional 9–5 jobs often spend just as much (if not more) time with their co-workers and bosses as they do with their own families.

Because of this, it's crucial to understand that the relationships built in the workplace require physical and emotional boundaries just as much as any other relationships. And ensuring that healthy boundaries are set plays a huge role in finding the elusive work/life balance we crave.

What is a boundary?

By definition, a boundary is something that sets a limit. Essentially, boundaries are established to indicate lines that are not to be crossed.

Physical boundaries tend to be the easiest to understand because they're tangible. A fence around a yard is a clear indication of the property's boundaries.

Emotional boundaries, on the other hand, can be a bit more subtle and a little trickier to spot. These are the personal boundaries that require both self-awareness and awareness of those around us.

If emotional boundaries seem a little foreign, think of them in terms of the times you've said "no" to something that wasn't in your best interest.

Maybe your best friend tried to convince you to steal a chocolate bar from the corner store. You knew it wasn't right, so you told them you weren't willing to do that. THAT was an emotional boundary, personal to you — a line you weren't willing to cross.

Unlike physical boundaries, emotional boundaries are different for everyone. No one can set your emotional boundaries for you.

Why are boundaries important?

Boundary setting is a way of telling those around us what our limits are and what lines not to cross. They provide the guidelines that help us communicate our needs to those around us, and they build trust within relationships.

When people are unable to set clear personal boundaries, this leaves them vulnerable to being taken advantage of.

Suppose you can think of a relationship that left you feeling uncomfortable, angry, or guilty (for seemingly no reason). In that case, there’s a good chance that you've had some trouble setting and enforcing boundaries.

This can be more difficult in the workplace because this is often where you'll find the most diverse environments. You'll discover different cultures, beliefs, and values housed under one roof that come together to help a company succeed means that all employees have to find a way to work together.

What are the consequences of not setting boundaries?

When we fail to set boundaries in the workplace, the consequences can manifest in different ways:

  • Stress from being overworked

  • Poor communication skills

  • Inability to create functional work relationships

  • Decrease in productivity

Learning to set solid emotional boundaries provides relief and can guide your workplace relationships to a place of contentment and peace.

How to set workplace boundaries

Find your limits

You'll need to determine your limits to help you identify where to set your boundaries.

To do this, you'll need to be self-aware and pay attention during your day-to-day tasks. Take note of workplace interactions that make you feel uneasy or uncomfortable and the frequency at which they happen.

If these feelings arise several times throughout a week, your best bet is to assess the situation and see if there's an opportunity to set a boundary.

When in doubt, ask yourself:

  • What is it about this interaction that makes me feel this way?

  • In the future, what can I do to prevent this from happening again?

It's important to remember that no one else can tell you what your limits are. It is up to you to figure out what lines you're not willing to cross and what you are willing (and not willing) to accept from others.

Evaluate your feelings

Negative emotions such as anger, stress, anxiety, and resentment tend to bubble up when you feel underappreciated or are being taken advantage of.

This often results from extending yourself beyond your limits to appease someone else.

These feelings are also tightly grouped with feelings of guilt. You get this feeling when you believe you should do something to be viewed as a better employee (or spouse, friend, daughter, son, etc.)

You may have to be flexible

While some boundaries will be non-negotiable, there will be times when you'll need to be flexible and make exceptions.

For instance, maybe you have a boundary that you won't check your work email after a specific time, but a client has requested to do an after-hours Zoom call. In this instance, you may choose to make an exception and attend the call.

Again, only you can decide when you're willing to bend.

Talk with your boss

In addition to creating boundaries that you'll implement with colleagues, you must also understand your role as an employee. Chances are that the boundaries you set with colleagues will differ from those you'll use with your company's leadership staff members.

The best way to determine how to implement new boundaries with management is to start with an open discussion.

Arrange a time to sit down with your boss to discuss your role, priorities, and the best course of action to ensure that you set your boundaries while still complying with the company's needs.

Communicate your boundaries

Now that you've gained clarity on where your boundaries need to be set, you can communicate them with your colleagues.

This doesn't have to be a grand announcement (it's probably best not to shout from your desk.)

In fact, it can look as simple as informing your team that you'll be unavailable after hours or that you'll only be checking your work email during work hours.

Whatever boundaries you've decided to implement, communicate clearly to allow your colleagues time to adjust.

What now?

Now that you know how to look for and create boundaries, it's crucial to understand that the work doesn't end here.

The truth is the most challenging part of learning to set boundaries is the need to enforce them repeatedly. For those who don't understand boundaries or thrive on taking advantage of people, encountering someone with healthy boundaries is often an upsetting experience.

You may receive a lot of pushback or negativity from those who once benefitted from taking advantage of you or using you to get where they wanted to go.

You will have to navigate the same feelings of guilt that put you in that vulnerable position in the first place.

But there is good news! When this happens, it means that your boundaries are working, and continuing to enforce them will only grow your confidence and lessen your stress.

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