How (and why) to create boundaries at work 

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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 adoption of remote working during the pandemic has helped move the needle towards a better sense of balance for some, but for others, turning off became even harder. While 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.’
Setting boundaries when at work is gaining traction as another 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 clear boundaries at work, you can establish effective communication patterns and help avoid burnout. 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.
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

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 hours that are needed to complete the work – and then offer some possible solutions. With your manager, agree to the work that needs to be set as the highest priority, while also identify the team members that need to be communicated with to help reset expectations. 
This is important, as unhealthy boundaries at work are developed through a cycle that’s very easy to miss. People ask for your help on something, you say yes immediately and do it straight away to please them, and all of a sudden, you’re that person who can get things done and the requests start rolling in. It’s ok to be a great worker and exceed expectations, but these expectations can spiral into unmanageable levels.  

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 and reign in any expectations that may have already been set. Simply asking about the urgency and trusting co-workers to give you a truthful answer, 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 aspect to setting 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 lessen 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 wholly 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.  

What about setting boundaries at a new workplace? 

How does this work if you’re applying for a new role? How can you communicate boundaries, without seeming to shirk responsibility and ensuring alignment between what you want from work and what work expects of you? The obvious place to start is by thoroughly reviewing the job description. Have a clear idea of what the role entails, so that if you get to the interview stage, you can put some questions together to confirm that the responsibilities outlined in the description are actually part of the role, and that there are no ambiguous or extended responsibilities. For example, you can ask what a day in the role would look like, or what success looks like for this position. If the results are still a bit too ambiguous, you can communicate the boundaries that you have, and ask if work-life balance is a consideration for the organisation. As always in interviews, it’s important to ask questions and leave no stone unturned.  

Ambition doesn’t have to be abandoned  

Setting boundaries doesn’t mean that you are abandoning ambition – but how you direct your ambitions is what matters. Try focusing projects and activities that are more intrinsically rewarding to you instead of extrinsic gains. While promotions and salary increases are critical aspects and benefits for your hard work, shifting focus towards activities that you find personally rewarding will help fuel your ambition and allow you to give attention to personal growth.  
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, which will do much more in the long term for your organisation. 

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