The subject of boundaries in the workplace has been coming up for me quite a bit recently, especially with all of us a year into pandemic and all of the changes that’s made to every workplace. Whether you’re working the front lines of retail or service, the battlegrounds of health care or education, or a more office-type job, if you’re fortunate to have a job, you’re probably being reminded of that fact frequently by your employer – and often at the expense of that continually blurring line between your professional life and your private life. No matter where you work or what you do, it’s not unusual to be asked to do ever more at the expense of your break and vacation time or to make compromises to your health in the name of efficiency. Many employers are also not terribly sensitive to the increased household responsibilities many of us may have taken on during this time, including dealing with remote schooling for kids or caring for family members who have become ill. I’m sure all of you can share examples down in the comments. But what to do?
If you’re just feeling overwhelmed in general, start by reflecting on what it is that is making you feel that way. I know it’s hard when you’re feeling especially pressured, with your time and priorities under a cascade of demands, but carve out even just fifteen minutes to think about what the biggest issues are that are making you feel that way. It might help to make a free-form list of all of the little things, then start categorizing them loosely. Is it too many meetings? Being asked to do somebody else’s job more and more often? Told a few times too often to ignore safety and health practices? Have to put up with enough “friendly” teasing that it doesn’t feel so friendly anymore?
Once you know what it is, imagine in a perfect world what would change to make you feel less stress from that area. For just a few minutes, put aside all of the realities of workplace politics, keeping your job, and your own self-imposed limits on your willingness to speak up and object. Just figure out what would make it better. Then, after you’ve figured that out, starting bring your dream into what can actually happen in your workplace, now taking into account all of those realities. Be precise in what you’re wishing for, too. Instead of “no meetings,” maybe the answer is “no meetings before 11 AM and no meetings on Mondays.” Instead of “I’m never covering for that guy again,” maybe the answer is “I will only pick up pieces of his projects when mine are complete or currently on track.” Instead of “I will not go into any patient’s room without appropriate protective gear,” maybe the answer is…maybe the answer is just that, no matter what the professional consequences might be. Regardless, here and now is when you can weigh the pros and cons of what you need, what you want, and what you think you can get, and flesh out what you want your limit, your boundary, to be.
At this point, you’ve moved from a loose statement or vague thought, and you’re getting closer to creating an effective boundary. The next step is to boil down what you want into something a little more concise: a single sentence, maybe two. While boundary-setting can be done in more sweeping manners, in the professional environment especially, it’s helpful to be able to say or write down what you want as briefly and succinctly as possible. It’s a clearer way of communicating, and leaves less room for arguing. It also comes across as much more assertive when you start telling people what your boundary is. You don’t need to introduce it as “I am setting a boundary and it is…” but it could be. Either way, start telling people, including yourself. If it’s schedule-related, start putting those blocks in your calendar. Put it on a little sign that you hang above your work gear. Mention it in casual conversations with coworkers and friends outside of work. This has two purposes: one, to remind yourself and others that it exists, and two, to get practice saying it so that you can when it matters.
Because at some point, you’ll need to enforce your boundary. You’ll need to reject a meeting request, perhaps with a gentle explanation of why so that they don’t try to reschedule over your boundary. You’ll need to refuse an assignment because it will run over into time you need to take care of your child. You’ll need to say no, you’re not going to keep listening to those tired, awful, and mildly racist jokes your colleagues think are funny. And it might not feel very good in the moment. You might get that lump in your chest that says anxiety. You might worry about how it’s going to change how you’re viewed at work. You might face social consequences or even professional ones. You might consider letting your boundary go just this once and maybe it’s even a good idea that time, but only if you realize what it means to draw that boundary again for next time.
So it’s a good idea then, before, and after, to enlist some support. Remind yourself of the process you went through to create that boundary and why it exists. Talk with friends to help reinforce for yourself why it’s so important to have that line in place. Commiserate with colleagues about the pressure you’re all under, and tell them what you’re doing to deal with it. Maybe encourage them to follow your lead. Then celebrate with them when you’ve laid down that boundary and had it respected, even if you had to force that respect a little. Celebrate, too, if you’ve laid down that boundary and lost the battle in some way, because you did it, and that’s the most important part. Be proud of yourself for having and communicating the limits on what you’ll give to your employer and your coworkers. Then recommit to that boundary and doing what’s necessary to making it work for you next time it comes up. It’ll get easier every time. I promise.