Setting Boundaries at Work

Woman of Color holding her hand up in a gesture to say no.

I remember my phone lighting up at about 10-11pm from an unknown number. Not knowing what it could possibly be, and thinking it could be an emergency, I decided to answer. I heard a voice asking for “Brianna,” and I said, “Yes this is she, who is this?” The person on the phone told me they were the parent of one of my students. I’d previously left a message to ask about their student and how they were doing grade-wise. Despite knowing it was way after business hours, I still answered the parent and gave them details on what was happening with their student.

This happened repeatedly and on my personal cell phone. 

I would also get many notifications from emails being sent at non-working hours, but they would want a response quickly. I thought that was the nature of my job, until my boss gave me some excellent advice. She said:

“When I’m off, I’m off. Whether I’m on vacation or it’s simply past 7pm on a business day, I don’t answer unless it’s an emergency. Remember, work, life balance.” 

That taught me the first of many times I would have to set a boundary. Now, I turn my phone to “personal” or “do not disturb” mode, and to make sure I’m being courteous to others. I also schedule my emails to arrive during business hours. The only time I allow phone calls and emails past business hours is when it’s an emergency. 

Setting boundaries is something that’s easily said, but not easily done. Setting boundaries allows for you to take care of yourself, let people know what you will and won’t do, and just take a step back from certain situations. 

The workplace is one of the most important places to assert your boundaries, but also one of the most difficult. It can be even harder now that some work environments are fully remote, or there’s a hybrid arrangement. People of marginalized or underrepresented backgrounds may find it even more challenging due to the stereotypes that follow us, so sometimes you allow things to “slide”. You may not speak up when you want to, let someone say something rude, or let your boss think you’re the person who can tackle everything, even things that aren’t your job to tackle. 

According to Elevate Medical’s article titled, “Setting Boundaries and Why It’s So Important to Your Emotional Wellbeing,” having firm, healthy boundaries in all of your relationships, work or otherwise, helps you excel in those relationships. Setting boundaries also is a form of self-care, which is something we all need, especially in the times we’re in. “Setting healthy boundaries can have many benefits, including helping people make decisions based on what is best for them, not just the people around them. This autonomy is an important part of self-care.”

This Forbes article, “ How To Set Boundaries At Work When It’s Hard (Especially When Remote),” says that setting boundaries leads to a lot of great things that will help you excel in the workplace, “Boundaries lead to confidence, emotional stability, and reduced anxiety—because they give you a sense of control. Psychology research is clear that one of the fastest routes to depression is when you’re responsible for something that you don’t have control over.” 

No one should feel that way in their workplace, which is where the majority of people spend their time throughout the week. Work should be a place where you feel safe and comfortable, can express yourself without fear of retaliation, and thrive. 

Here are some ways you can set boundaries in the workplace:

  1. “No,” is a complete sentence.

Saying no can be nerve-wracking sometimes, but it can be necessary depending on the situation. Of course, you have to be mindful of who you’re speaking to and sometimes a reason is required, but you have the right to decline.

  1. Be mindful of your bandwidth.

We all get busy, and every company has different busy times. Sometimes, when work is continuing to pile up, and one more assignment will be the straw to break the camel’s back, there are a few ways you can let someone know you cannot take on extra tasks. Here are some examples of what you could say:

  • “As of now, I do not have the bandwidth for this project/task right now.”
  • “Unfortunately, I cannot take on another project/task, however, I think ________ may be another person who can help.”
  • “Thank you for reaching out, but I have a full workload. Let me direct you to ______ who could possibly further assist you.”
  • “I really appreciate you thinking of me for this project. I don’t have the bandwidth right now, but _____ might be able to help.
  1. Set your work hours and stick to them.

The whole point of work hours is that they’re work hours. When that time is over, it’s time to take care of yourself and your other responsibilities. There are many ways to use technology to set your boundaries for work hours, like Apple’s new focus mode ability, or even putting it on your Google calendar. 

  1. Telling someone they’ve crossed the line.

One day, I sent an email in regards to Mandatory Title IX training for our faculty and staff members at my full-time job, and someone responded very abrasively to me and in all caps. The first step to responding to this is to take a breath and collect your thoughts, then assert yourself, your boundaries and state how it made you feel. Sometimes, something as simple as letting someone know that their comment was distressing can be helpful for you and the other party (so they know not to do it again). Obviously, encountering racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination will require you to bring in your higher up, and/or Human Resources.

  1. Remember, you come first. 

You can’t show up anywhere if you don’t show up for yourself first! You are your main priority, and to do your best work, you have to be your loudest advocate.

Hopefully, this helps you better understand and assert your boundaries at work so you can excel and show up and be the best version of yourself.

Remember, no matter what position you have in your company, to…

Lead with Equity

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