How to set better work boundaries

08 April 2024 Sharyn Waterworth

How to set better work boundaries

​Does setting boundaries at work feel like a continually out-of-reach pipe dream? After all, how could you possibly:

  • Not be available 24/7?

  • Not smile and accept every new task and project?

  • Not push back when your boss or a colleague keeps stealing all of your time?

Boy, oh boy, do we get it. Setting work boundaries is no easy task. If only it could be as easy as the often-given advice: ”’No’ is a complete sentence.”

But, we’re in the business of being honest with our candidates and employees so we’re just going to say it: Unfortunately, it’s not.

Thankfully, setting boundaries at work isn’t an impossible task either. In fact, it’s widely recognised that establishing expectations for what you will and will not tolerate at work is key to increasing your productivity and well-being - something all managers and employers should care about for their employees.

Setting boundaries requires self-awareness and a willingness to have some (potentially) uncomfortable conversations but with practice, it’ll become second nature.

Before we dive into some tips for getting started, we’ve got some good news!

Trending now: The “Right to Disconnect” and what it means for you

Employees' rights (and work-life boundaries) are set to improve as a new set of “Right to Disconnect” provisions have been added to the Fair Work Act.

The “Right to Disconnect”, set to take effect in six months, is an amendment to the Fair Work Act, focused on granting employees the right to refuse to respond, monitor or engage with any work-related communications from their employers or third parties outside their working hours. The employer may not instigate any negative consequences following such a refusal.

The purpose of the amendment is to further the work-life balance of employees by effectively limiting the excessive intrusion of work into personal time. It outlines:

  • Employees can refuse to monitor, read, or respond to any contact or attempted contact from their employer or related third parties if it occurs beyond their assigned work hours.

  • Exceptions include where the refusal is considered unreasonable. Considerations here include the contact’s intended purpose, the method of contact and the level of disruption it causes for the employee, the extent of compensation provided for remaining accessible outside regular work hours or working additional hours, the nature of the employee’s role and level of responsibility, and any personal circumstances, such as family or caring responsibilities. An employee’s refusal to respond to contact outside work hours will be unreasonable if the contact is legally required.

Where an employer or their representative breaches these provisions, the affected employee may lodge an enquiry with the Fair Work Ombudsman, or initiate a dispute.

The Fair Work Commission may then issue a fine and/or a legally enforceable “stop order”. If a dismissal accompanies the breach, employees can bring the case before the Fair Work Commission as an unfair dismissal claim.

Above all, the right to disconnect will serve as a legal buffer for employees, allowing them the right to unplug and separate from their work responsibilities after hours. A huge win for safeguarding mental health and promoting healthy work-life balance!

How to start setting work boundaries

Acknowledge your worth

We’re all brimming with value, even if we can’t always see it. Your experiences, skill sets, expertise, energy, insights and perspectives have a unique value that only you can offer.

When you don’t feel like you’re enough as an employee, it’s common to throw yourself into your work to try and ascertain “enough-ness” from things like your output and how useful you can make yourself. But doing this is often a one-way ticket toward burnout.

The more we do, the further away being enough feels. If approval temporarily feeds our feeling of “enough”, then that’s what we’ll continually seek. And, those around us will grow used to a potentially unsustainable level of output from us. We’re more likely to say yes to what’s asked of us even when we know we should be saying no.

Acknowledging your worth and value means having an awareness and appreciation of your achievements and what you can offer. When you value yourself and your time, energy, skills, and expertise, you’ll become a bit more particular about what you take on and communicating your boundaries will become a whole lot easier.

Identify your non-negotiables

Every decision you make - at work or otherwise - is a compromise. If you’re asked to work overtime, there’s a trade-off that occurs somewhere else - you can’t be in two places at once, right? If you’re not conscious of what the trade-off is, you might not have considered the things you’re giving up.

That’s why it’s helpful to know your non-negotiables. If you’re saying yes to overtime, what are you saying “no” to and what are you saying “yes” to? Perhaps overtime takes you away from your loved ones, but it’s helping you to save for a house deposit or a big holiday you’ve been dreaming about.

Non-negotiables might be that you don’t want to miss a parents’ evening, a school play or activity, or taking care of your kids when they’re sick. It could be that you have a book club, a tennis match or a support group that you really don’t want to miss.

Regardless of what your non-negotiables may be, creating a list of them helps uncover what’s important to you, and makes it that much easier to create, communicate and negotiate boundaries that support and shield your priorities.
Keep it clear and concise
When starting a conversation about work boundaries, it can be easy to let apologies creep in. We’ll say things like “I hate to be a pain, but…” or, “I’m so sorry to bother you, but…”

Unfortunately, being apologetic makes it sound like you’re expecting a big, fat “no,” which in turn, makes it easier for your manager to say “no.”

Instead, when you communicate clearly and concisely - without apologies - you’re leaving no uncertainty behind your intention or meaning.

It’s OK to assert your boundaries. It’s OK to change your mind. It’s OK to share your perspective on a situation. It’s OK to be assertive and to the point. It’s OK to follow up on missed deadlines, to check in and to ask for adjustments, tweaks and changes.

Start with one

As they say, “practice makes perfect.” Those uncomfortable conversations will get easier the more you have them. You will more confidently be able to protect your boundaries once you start doing it.

So, now that you’re armed with your list of non-negotiables, pick one and start enforcing it. And when you’ve done so, ask yourself:

  • What positive outcomes have come out of a boundary I have set?

  • Did I feel more or less productive at work?

  • Do I feel better in my role as a partner, a friend, or a parent?

  • What negative outcomes occurred from a boundary?

  • What do I need to change or adjust to stay on track and address the negative?

When you step back, reflect, and evaluate your desires, you may discover that boundaries don’t limit you. They give you the space to create the life you want to live.

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