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How To Set Boundaries With Your Co-workers, Boss, AND Yourself

Updated: Dec 21, 2020

Setting boundaries is the first step towards achieving a healthy work-life balance.

Need some more time to yourself? Experts share tips for setting boundaries at work. [Illustration / Getty Images]

Do you find yourself working longer days than ever during the pandemic? You're not alone. According to a new Staples survey, the average number of hours Americans work in a day has increased by 6.1% in 2020. That breaks down to 8.61 hours a day on average, compared to the 8.11 hours we were working in 2019.

Creating work-life balance isn't easy in general and it seems harder than ever these days, so TMRW was curious to know: How do you set healthy boundaries? We reached out to HR pros and mental health experts to get some much-needed insight.

There's no simple answer to this question, but there are a few key contributing factors. For starters, if you've been working from home during the pandemic, odds are you're using the time you once spent commuting working instead.

Avoiding traffic and getting right to business can help you feel more productive, but many Americans are working extra hours because they feel like they need to be “on call” more than ever before.

"People are worried about losing their jobs during this time of great financial uncertainty. With many of us working remotely, we're very concerned that we will be perceived as lazy, slacking and uncommitted if we're not available 24/7 and that will put us on the downsizing hit list," said Andrew Shatte, chief knowledge officer and co-founder of employee digital resilience platform meQuilibrium.

Employees are understandably feeling anxious and are more willing to put in extra hours in exchange for job security. But many companies have also come to expect that their workforce has extra time since they're not traveling into the office each day.

"For those who have children at home, there is less time, and tremendously more burden. Prior to the pandemic, we were already overworked in the U.S. The prolonged reality of not having access to typical social outlets contributes to poorer performance and less overall productivity," Rheeda Walker, University of Houston professor of psychology, told TMRW.

Every profession has its own set of busy periods, but you can usually see a light at the end of the tunnel. But during the pandemic, we've all been working in overdrive with no end in sight, and the reality is, we simply can't keep up at this pace for too long.

"We have to be able to disconnect. Psychologically, the mind needs downtime to reset. Most people are able to recognize that when they go on vacation, they can return to work with more clarity and focus," Walker said. "Without opportunities to reset, we begin to see difficulties with concentration and more impaired memory because the brain is simply overworked."

Sick of your co-workers sending "urgent" emails at 9 p.m. expecting an immediate response? It can seem intimidating to set boundaries at first, but it doesn't have to be.

"When it comes to communicating at work, clear is kind. Set a clear boundary with your team and with yourself by kindly saying you have a hard cut at 5 p.m. each day (or whatever your agreed upon work hours are)," SoFi career expert Ashley Stahl said.

Just make sure you practice what you preach and stick to your guns once you've communicated your boundaries.

"The important thing is to not waiver on the expectation you set, so if you say 5 p.m. every day, don’t be available on some days, sending mixed messages and lowering your accountability," Stahl said.

Opening up to a trusted colleague about the boundaries that you're trying to set can actually help keep you accountable.

"People who commit their goals to another person are more likely to follow through and complete them, so it pays off to clearly share your intentions. This also helps alleviate any looming chatter that would have otherwise popped up about your changes," Stahl said.

Whether you're working for a micromanager or have the best boss ever, setting boundaries with your manager can feel a bit awkward. After all, this is the person who's in charge of your performance review and determines what kind of a raise/bonus you can get each year. But if you're going to have a healthy work-life balance, clear communication with your manager is key from the get-go.

"If signing off work  every day  at 3 p.m. to coach your child’s sports league is important to you, bring that up in the job interview before you even get the position," said Sirmara Campbell, chief human resources officer at LaSalle Network, a national staffing, recruiting and culture firm.

On the other hand, if you've been working for your boss for a while and find that you need a bit more flexibility in your role, it's OK to broach the subject of boundaries at any time. Just make sure you're in good standing with your boss before you do so.

"Try saying, 'Our pace of work was OK in April and May, but I am finding that when I have to respond to emails around the clock, I am not as effective as I used to be. Can we have an agreement that I will be responsive up until 5 p.m. and check back by 8:30 a.m.?'" Walker suggested.

If you go into the conversation with a flexible mindset and reason with your boss rather than vent or complain, they're much more likely to see your point of view.

"You want this work-life balance to be not only a plus for you, but clearly a perk for your manager and the organization as a whole. Come to the conversation with an energy of collaboration, asking them if they can help you assess the solutions you’ve come up with and possibly add to it," Stahl said.

If you have young children and are working from home, setting boundaries is particularly important right now, and most managers will understand that.

"Many expectations that were reasonable before COVID-19 no longer are. Many of us are working remotely while monitoring our kids - many of whom are being taught online or in hybrid models. We can't be present 9-5 or 8-6. But we can make those hours throughout the day. Bosses need to be receptive to these changing demands," Shatte said.

Maintaining a standard with co-workers and your manager is only part of creating a healthy work-life balance; you play another key role. So if you've been a workaholic for years and are finding it difficult to step away from the computer — even when your colleagues give you their blessing — you might need to address why this makes you feel so anxious or guilty.

"Rather than looking at this as 'I’m leaving work early,' look at it as though you are moving toward something else: You’re going to spend time with your family, you’re going to (work out) to stay healthy, you are heading to your kid’s athletic event to support them," Stahl said. "When you can look at the reason you are leaving work as a positive and necessary component in your life it’s clear and understandable why you must leave on time."

If you find yourself feeling constantly "on call" while working remotely, create new habits to help break old ones.

"Set up a designated workspace in the house that you can leave once the work day is over, in order to better separate the two. If your computer is in your office space, you will be less likely to send emails while eating dinner or watching a show with your family," Stahl said.

If all else fails, you can try to trick yourself into signing off on time.

"Start by putting blocks in place that make it more difficult to continue working. You can set an automatic timer on your WiFi to turn off after a certain time, or you can use application blocking software that times you out of programs at the end of the day," Stahl said. "While it is possible to undo these blocks, they will put a barrier between you and your work long enough for you to pause and then create new habits."


By Chrissy Callahan


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