Setting boundaries at work 

a male smiling
In the quest for ever better work-life balance, how can we begin creating the boundaries necessary at work?  
All the way back in 1856, the as-yet undefined concept of work-life balance started in Australia with Melbourne stonemasons downing tools over their employers’ refusal to accept demands for shorter working hours – eight hours to be exact. This dispute was a defining moment in Australian workplace relations, and yet, more than 150 years on, work-life balance remains a contested topic.  
The increase in hybrid-ways of working has helped move the needle towards a better sense of balance for some, but for others, turning off has become even harder. Employees used to be able to leave the computer behind in the office, walk out the door and hop on the evening commute, and most of the time, that was the last you had to think about work until the next day. But now that the work is just a click away wherever you are. In Microsoft’s recent Future of Work report, it has been shown that workers are feeling an overwhelming sense of being ‘always-on.’

Why is setting boundaries at work so important

Establishing boundaries when at work is gaining traction as a step towards achieving the desired balance between work and life. Boundaries are the limits and rules that individuals set for themselves in order to maintain healthy relationships and protect their health and wellbeing. By having boundaries at work, you can establish effective communication patterns to help avoid burnout, benefit your mental health and increase work satisfaction. In fact, some governments have stepped in on behalf of employees to establish boundaries – France, Belgium, Portugal and other European countries prohibit managers from contacting employees outside of working hours.
Ensuring clear boundaries are set at work can also have the following benefits: 
  • A reasonable workload can be maintained – You are able to set healthy boundaries that let you accept only a reasonable amount of work, allowing you to prioritise tasks and stick to your set hours
  • Increases productivity – If you set boundaries, you limit the number of potential distractions which allows you to focus on your own tasks 
  • Lower stress – Issues that crop up in the workplace can usually be better managed by setting boundaries, in turn decreasing stress levels, as well as lesseningreducing the risk of burnout 
You can start to take control of your workload by creating boundaries that will help you, now, and in the long term. In addition, be sure to read our tips on how to maintain your wellbeing while working from home

Ways to set boundaries at work

Open a dialogue with your manager 

First, talk to your boss. If you’re being overwhelmed by work extending beyond what you feel is reasonable you need make sure your manager understands the challenges you’re facing and how they are affecting you. Try to quantify the volume, extra or inconvenient work hours that are needed to complete your tasks– and then offer some possible solutions. With your manager, agree to the work that needs to be set as the highest priority, while also identifying the team members that need to be communicated with to help reset expectations.

Prioritise tasks 

Instead of making every new task that comes across your desk the number one priority, start communicating internally regarding the urgency of each task. This will help better prioritise tasks on your to-do list and reign in any expectations that may have already been set. Simply asking about the urgency and will help you structure your day.  
Consider reviewing how to best get a clear picture of the priorities with the relevant stakeholders – what’s the best way for them to communicate tasks with you? How do you get it on a schedule that you’ve set out for yourself? Starting this conversation will help you start to redefine what the team expects of you. 

Create time for focus

Creating time so you can focus, instead of being interrupted by notifications all day is an important part of setting healthy work boundaries. It might be as simple as creating your own meeting in your calendar to block out time in the day so you can focus on the work that you need to get done and lessen the chance of being disturbed by co-workers. 
Also take a moment to think about and communicate how you best receive requests and questions from your colleagues. Establish expectations on what types of communications are expected through which channels to help reduce constant requests coming through multiple channels. 

Start setting expectations 

If it’s not a requirement of your job, start to set some defined boundaries, such as not working weekends or late at night, but ensure these are communicated to your colleagues. Reassure everyone that you’re still fully committed to the team and what it’s trying to achieve, but you need to do so within a tighter definition of when work gets done. Communicating with the team and getting their buy-in will help alleviate any potential pushback from co-workers.

Communicate regularly

You need to maintain boundaries, so ensure that they are continually communicated and why they are necessary in your role. Constant communication can solve any issues that may crop, so if you’re facing a problem, ask for help and don’t let it take your attention away from other priorities. Other workers can also be a great source of information on how they establish boundaries and can recommend steps you need to take.

Take your annual leave

You will be entitled to a certain amount of annual leave each year. Instead of doing what many of us are prone to doing and banking your annual leave – use it. Taking breaks from work during the year allows you to relax and recharge and is an important aspect of establishing work boundaries. Strategic use of annual leave around public holidays can even net you even more time off to help you rebalance.

Establish healthy boundaries at the home office

With hybrid working, boundaries also need to extend to your home and personal life. There are several ways this can be implemented. After your working hours, you can set your boundaries at home by not checking your emails outside of those set hours. A dedicated space or room at home for your WFH setup can also help to keep work separate from your daily life. 

Ambition doesn’t have to be abandoned  

Setting boundaries doesn’t mean that you are abandoning ambition – but how you direct your ambitions. Creating boundaries shouldn’t be taken to mean that you’re not as passionate or motivated about the work you’re doing, it should instead be seen as a way to deliver the best work you can in your role. 

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