Setting boundaries in the workplace

It’s great to love your job but your job won’t always love you back. It won’t go to your favourite restaurants with you, hold you when you need a good cry or surprise book a vacation for you.

Grind culture, the deeply held belief that work is the most important thing in the world, has been embedded in collective psyches. We ask children what they want to be when they grow up, normalise working outside of working hours and consume self-made billionaire narratives in the hopes that we can labour our way into wealth. Nevertheless, until some drastic political changes are made, most of us need jobs to survive. 

What is a boundary?

A boundary is a rule you set for yourself and the commitment not to break it. If you’ve ever spent time in the self-improvement corner of Instagram, you’ll get a lot of jargon like “cut people out who don’t respect your boundaries” and “know your worth” with few real insights on what that means.

Boundaries are about your behaviour, rather than anyone else’s. It’s about what you decide is ok with you and acting accordingly. It’s not even strictly necessary to state them to other people, although this can be useful in your relationships. For example, say you state a boundary that you don’t want to work more than you’re paid for. It then becomes up to you to keep that boundary, not for the sake of others, but for your own peace of mind. 

Ok, but what about the fear?

The fear is part of it, boo. A lot of us are taught in subtle and overt ways that our boundaries aren’t important, that we can cross them and let others do the same for the sake of keeping the peace or saving face. With the baggage of people pleasing and overachieving, setting boundaries in the workplace might dig a particularly deep pit in your stomach: what if my commitment to my job is thrown in question? What if the thing I care about doesn’t get done if I don’t do it? What if I don’t get a promotion or a raise if I don’t say yes to everything? These might be some of the questions swirling around anxious minds at the prospect of setting boundaries. 

The reality is that if you’re not used to doing it, setting boundaries is going to feel like your heart is going to fall out of your bum at any minute — at least, at first. With more practice, you’ll start to see that the world doesn’t come crumbling down when you protect your peace. 

Be clear from the outset

I once started a communications job at a small organisation. I was passionate about the position and the work we were doing and the role was only 8h a week that I could allocate as I pleased. Knowing that there was more work than I was paid for, I made sure to be clear about when I was working and what I could achieve during that time. 

When asked to do extra tasks, I would consider whether I could really do them within the hours they’d given me. I would say things like: “I work between x-x hours.. I’m more than happy to take this on provided that I have time. If you need extra hours from me, let me know and we can work something out”. Another way to phrase it is saying “I can’t do x because I’ve made myself a promise to leave on time today”. 

Have grace for yourself 

Now, this wasn’t a perfect process. Sometimes I would get stuck in tasks but starting each day, I would promise myself not to work beyond the hours I set for myself. In the beginning, I allowed myself a half-hour grace period that got shorter and shorter the better I got at keeping promises I made to myself. 

Prior to this, I’d been working in journalism — an industry notoriously difficult to keep and set workplace boundaries because of its instability and fast pace. I’d be working on stories into the wee hours of the morning, constantly scrolling on my phone to keep new pitches in mind and checking my email every 10 minutes for commissions or edits on articles I’d written. 

At some point, I decided that this wasn’t the life I wanted to live. I was burnt out, tired and didn’t see the return on my sacrifice in the way I’d hoped. At some point, I had to put my big girl panties on and say: “This is not the life I want to live. My peace is more important than getting ahead in this industry and I need to make a shift.” The benefit of hindsight allows me to put this into a clear narrative, but it took months of relapses and sleepless nights to fully accept that this was the change I needed to make. 

Fast forward to the communications position, I could be clear about my working hours. I didn’t think much of it until my boss noted it as positive during our three month check-in. “It’s professional. You should only work the hours you’re paid for and that’s a precedent I wan’t to set in our organisation.” 

Saying yes to all things work is a sure-fire way to leave our brains fried and bodies exhausted. To prevent burn out, we can take precautions to keep a balanced work life and setting boundaries is a helpful tool in doing so. It’s not a quick fix to toxic workplaces, poor working conditions or low wages. The more blurred the lines become between our work and personal life, however, they can help us separate one from the other. They allow us to think intentionally about our priorities and set important precedents in our lives. 

Photo of author Rosel Jackson Stern
This blog was authored by Rosel Jackson Stern, a journalist and artist whose work primarily covers culture, politics and art. They are currently based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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