Why You Need Boundaries at Work

By Mel Sim

Because sometimes there needs to be a separation between work and life for you to be successful.

If you ask those who are working, one of the most important things they value is this balance between work and life. Granted that you spend 40 hours a week from Monday to Friday at work (sometimes more, no thanks to WFH!), having a clear cut between the two can help you be more efficient and more importantly less stressed.

Enter workplace boundaries. What exactly are they? There are a few things you need to know about boundaries. Simply put, it is a threshold of how much you are willing to accept, whether it is about how much work or the kind of relationship you want to establish with your colleagues and your boss.

Explained further, these are two major types of boundaries at work:

Physical Boundaries
This defines your personal space in the workplace; ie if you are comfortable with a colleague taking up space close next to you. Some people value their personal space to help them think and focus. If this personal space is “invaded”, they will feel uncomfortable maybe even annoyed that work can’t be done. So your physical boundary will establish how close you want people to be physically near you. FYI – it can also refer to whether you are OK with colleagues being touchy-feely (unfortunately, we have one or two of those in the workplace) without feeling completely weirded out or if you are allowed to put on headphones when you need to focus without feeling like you’re offending someone.

Emotional Boundaries
Are you willing to take on work that’s not yours to begin with? Do you mind coming in over the weekends to work? At what stage can you say no to a boss or colleague? Can you turn down work? These are example of emotional boundaries in that it can affect you emotionally. Different people may have different boundaries set but ultimately, it’s all about being comfortable doing something until you’re not. Take not that it can also involve relationships with the people you work with and the kind of boundaries you should set in respect to their actions, whether they make you feel uncomfortable emotionally – like a colleague who likes to tell dirty jokes that passes off as offensive most of the time.

Why is it important to set these boundaries? Easy – it will dictate the kind of experience you’ll have at work! For starters, setting the boundary on when to say no to extra work will protect you from burning out or being the person EVERYBODY goes to whenever they need a hand (simply because you don’t know how to say no). Setting boundaries on how close you want to be with your colleague can help prevent uncomfortable, unprofessional situations and interactions between you and a colleague. Boundaries are there to make sure you feel like you are in a safe zone and that you are respected as an individual. These boundaries ultimately tell those who work around you how much you will tolerate.

Naturally, your boundaries should be realistic as well. You can’t exactly say no all the time to extra work simply because “oh it’s not what I do, sorry.” Nor can you get ultra-sensitive over a harmless remark because others will feel like they are always walking on eggshells around you!

How do you set these boundaries? Here are some tips.

#1 Communicate them upfront
This is whether you actually say it out loud or through your actions. You can tell your boss that while you don’t mind working overtime when needed you’d appreciate being told in advance so that you can arrange your time as you have other family commitments. Your boss can’t fault you for this (because truly, nobody pays you enough to own your personal time). But it doesn’t make it seem like you’re being hard; you just want enough notice to reschedule things, which is perfectly OK.

Uncomfortable around colleagues who act in ways you don’t exactly like? Walk away from the situation. That’s “communicating” using your actions. Soon enough, they will know that they can’t just barge into your personal space and get too close or use your things without permission. Or that their sexist remarks aren’t exactly funny.

#2 Be strictly professional
You want boundaries? Be professional. That’s the first and easiest way to set your boundaries with your colleagues. It’s sometimes important to separate work and fun at the office because if you don’t, that’s when boundaries become blur. Like how do you say to helping out a colleague when you’re completely swamp, especially if that colleague is someone you hang out with regularly after hours? It’s ok to expand the boundaries once in a while but at all times, reel it back in when work is involved.

#3 Let technology do the work
Don’t really want to communicate your boundaries verbally? Let technology do it, ie notifications. If you don’t appreciate getting emails after hours, put up an Away Notification that says “Thank you for your email. Please expect a reply during office hours.”. Soon people will get the idea that they should respect your after-hours personal time.

#4 Respect boundaries yourself
Want people to respect your boundaries? You need to do the same for your colleagues. If your colleague doesn’t appreciate being disturbed while she’s working, don’t go to her workplace to start chatting. Other things to take note off: Don’t send emails or text messages at 12am, avoid dragging your colleague into your love-life drama, stop oversharing every detail of your life, and oh another, don’t assume that everyone is free to pick up your slack simply because “that’s what team members do!”

Talk to us about the kind of workplace boundaries that are important to you by tweeting us at @graduan.

Photo by Héctor J. Rivas on Unsplash.

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