Setting Boundaries at Work
Spoiler alert: the only person who has the ability to set and enforce your boundaries is you.
I remember starting a job where I felt like I needed to be ON 24/7. At first, it was exciting. I was always on call, always needed, always in on the action. But after a few weeks, it became overwhelming. I couldn’t sleep, and found myself reliant on NyQuil or Benadryl to get even a decent night’s rest. I was constantly on edge. Every ping of my phone or buzz of my watch made my heart rate soar. The constant availability was taking a toll on my health. But I was new in the job and I’d already made myself completely available – wasn’t it too late?
While setting boundaries at the outset is, by far, the most effective way to set the tone at work, it’s never too late to start setting up some parameters with colleagues. If I continued at that breakneck pace for a year, I would have completely burned out and probably quit. Working 24/7 is not sustainable, and in the end it hurts everyone involved. By being thoughtful and intentional about my own needs and the responsibilities of my job, I’ve been able to find a much better work/life balance that has served me especially in the time of Corona.
Here are some simple ways that you can begin to develop boundaries around work:
1. Provide Context for Your Own Life
When my boss would text on a Sunday morning while I was getting coffee with friends after mass, I would reply with just that: “Hi! I’m at mass now, but I can take a look when I get home.” Providing a little color for your own life (only as much as you’re comfortable with) can help your colleagues understand your values and how you spend your time outside of work. If I get a hurried emergency text while I’m out on a run, I respond with that, “Oh no! I’m out on a run, but will happily help when I’m home in 20 minutes.”
Sharing not only what you’re doing, but also that you’re going to solve the problem isn’t slacking: it’s honestly sharing that you have activities and priorities outside of work that fill you up, and that you can’t always be on your phone or computer waiting to deal with issues.
2. Find the magic point where your needs for boundaries and the needs of your team intersect
There’s the magic place where our bosses and colleagues might want us (maybe all the time, 24/7?) and the magic place where we feel refreshed, renewed, and able to perform our best (available for work 8-6 weekdays, an hour with notice if needed on a weekend, not on Sundays). How can we marry the two expectations while achieving balance for both? I know that my effectiveness and attention to detail decline substantially after nine hours of staring at my computer screen solving issues and managing projects. That exhaustion, compounded by dealing with crises every evening, can affect my ability to contribute at my best.
So how do you find this magic place? I’ve found it through trial-and-error. I used to work very well in the early mornings – my brain is on, I can crank things out, and I love the silence. In my current role, things are much more busy in the afternoons and evenings. I’ve had to shift my “me” time to the mornings. I take time to wake up slowly, pray, make breakfast, read, exercise, and respond to personal email. By the time I get to the “office” (right now, my couch) I’m zen and relaxed and fed and content. It allows me to tackle the craziness of the day from a place of peace.
I also took off my Apple watch (a controversial opinion, I know!) because the constant pinging was going to give me a full-on heart attack. Although I always have my phone with me, it feels a bit more separate from my body than it did when I wore a watch everywhere.
3. Learn how to fill up quick
In times that are crazy, have a list of ways you can fill up quickly. Have your favorite coffee order saved in your Peet’s app, a cafe down the street with a go-to meal, and an outfit you can throw on at a moment’s notice to look presentable. Decision fatigue is real, and it’s something that can exhaust us before the day has even begun. When things are crazy at work, having little routines and hacks can make us feel better quickly. I love the Calm app, and when a day is getting too wild, I pause for ten minutes and just breathe. Even three deep breaths (in through my nose, out through my mouth) can do wonders. If there’s more time, a prayer walk around the block does the trick. Moving our body in a new way can help release all the cortisol shooting through our bodies and bring us back to a place of balance.
4. Be careful about one-offs
One Sunday, you might be sitting at home cleaning and the next you’ll be out with friends at a park (socially distanced, of course). Quick actions and responses on Sundays can show our colleagues that, in fact, we’re able and willing to get stuff done on the weekends – but what happens next week when it happens again and you’re not home? Be thoughtful about your responses during your “down time.” This is an especially sneaky trick when you first start a job. The excitement and our desire to impress can push us to work at all hours. Don’t fall into the trap! Be consistent about your needs and your boundaries will fall into place.
5. Take. Your. Time. Off.
It’s yours. Take it. I’ve had friends say “Well, I can’t go anywhere anyway, so what’s the point?” I promise you, a week of sitting on your couch not working is going to feed your soul like nothing else. It’s been four very long, very hard months. Use the time you’ve earned. I beg you!
6. Find Perspective
We live in a culture that worships “busy.” Don’t fall into it. Work is a good thing, it can even be a great thing, but it’s not the only thing. When I look back on the last three years of my professional career, the moments that stand out are the adventures I went on with friends and family, the moves I made to challenge myself, the moments of connection with people who shared valuable advice and insight, and the strange opportunities outside of work that I said yes to – not the stress and anxiety of every day. Honestly, I had a very stressful week last week and I can barely remember what happened!
“The day are long, but the years are short” is a favorite adage from Gretchen Rubin, and it’s true. Don’t fall into the worship of hurry. Disconnect your value from “busy.” The most joyful people I know are the ones who prioritize their faith, health, family, friends, and relationships – and they’re pretty dang successful to boot.
If these suggestions feel overwhelming, just take one step. Turn your phone off at 7pm one night a week. Leave your phone at home on a Sunday. Sign up for a yoga class one night a week and put your phone in the other room. When you get an emergency weekend text, provide context of your life to your boss.
I know this is hard to hear, but you are not as important as you think you are. None of us are. (I mean, we’re exceptionally important to God, but you get my point). The world will not fall apart if you take a day off. It will not be set on fire if you put it on Do Not Disturb. It will be okay.
Build those boundaries. Free yourself from constant stress and worry and overwhelm. God is with you, and He’ll give you every grace you need to get out. But He also loves you too much for you to stay there.
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Jane Kennedy lives in Washington, DC. She is a graduate of UC Santa Barbara and works in criminal justice reform. When she’s not working or writing, she’s probably catching up with friends on FaceTime, getting lost in Rock Creek Park, quoting C.S. Lewis, or trying to recreate Salt and Straw ice cream at home.