Setting boundaries at work and with supervisors has always been a contentious subject. We’ve been told, conditioned even to believe that we have to give work our everything. Boundaries? That’s meaningless. It’s all about being connected 24/7, giving work your everything, never saying no, always willing to stay late, taking on extra work to show that you’re committed…the list is, quite honestly, never-ending. We’ve essentially told ourselves that work is everything, and anything less is unacceptable.
Just typing that was exhausting.
But that’s not how it should be. This working style has led to increasing rates of burnout, the Great Resignation, and a general disillusionment with employment. And the main reason for a lot of this is a lack of boundaries and being able to say no without fear of retribution or retaliation from supervisors and managers. Off-color jokes and remarks have to be tolerated; we can’t quite speak up…it’s just not pleasant. In fact, there’s even a term for it now, boundary predators. That’s how pervasive it has become.
But establishing boundaries is easier said than done, especially in a workplace context and especially with higher-ups. But as difficult as it is, you have to do it. Knowing what you’re okay with and not okay with is crucial for your mental health and well-being – and generally for navigating workplaces as you move up the ranks.
Establish boundaries for yourself first
Before you can tell others what your boundaries are, you have to figure them out for yourself. And the truth is, if you’re reading this, then you already have a few in mind. So before you start to have chats with managers or speak up in meetings, you need to be super clear about what you want.
The better you articulate what you want, the better results you’ll see when you communicate. Think about the last 1-3 months of work as a starting point. List some of the incidents that made you uncomfortable, whether it was passing remarks, work overload, or longer conversations. Pinpoint exactly why it made you uncomfortable and how long it’s been happening. What kind of emotions do these incidents make you feel? Guilt, resentment, fear, stress, anger, discomfort – it could be a mixture of the above, and it takes a toll.
The more you start to put the pieces together, you start to identify behavior patterns to make your case. If you have emails and texts from your supervisor to bolster your case, even better.
So now that we have a starting point, how do you actually communicate these boundaries? It can be an uncomfortable conversation, leading to a lot of anxiety and fear – which might be a reason to put it off or just go with it.
You can take a few different approaches, depending on your relationship with your supervisor and company hierarchy and the appropriate approach will depend on the boundary you are setting. If you feel comfortable enough to discuss the issue with your supervisor directly, that should be the starting point, it will be easier having the conversation knowing you have management support. Other people to approach can include senior team members, and if that is not possible, go directly to HR.
It can help to rehearse what you want to say with a friend or write down your side of the conversation beforehand to help keep your thoughts straight.
Depending on what the boundary is that you need to set will depend on how you should deal with it. If you are boundary setting for a work based request an email may be sufficient. If so see the Top Tip below and draft template responses to requests you can anticipate.
Top Tip: Draft responses in advance and use them as the template for when you have to push back. Think of the areas where you want to set a boundary, anticipate some of the requests and draft template responses. When you need to set a boundary copy and paste the appropriate response and send it. You may have to customise it a little, however, removing the block of having to think of what to say and how to say it, will help you overcome any anxiety in setting that boundary and helps you to develop the muscle of boundary setting!
A more sensitive topic may require you to have a conversation to establish your boundary or raise your voice. It is harder to maintain your boundary and express what you need to when you have to have the conversation face to face or in person. Again preparation is key. Define your boundary and think about what you want to say, and how you want to say it. Think about what you want to achieve from the conversation. Write out what you want to say and practice saying it until you feel confident that you can deliver what you want to say and maintain your boundary without backing down. Remember to focus on being clear, firm and direct.
Top Tip: It is perfectly acceptable to state exactly how an inappropriate incident has made you feel. You can be direct and state “I’m uncomfortable about some of the sexist jokes that were made earlier. They made me feel degraded and embarrassed and it was not respectful or appropriate.”
When you’re having the conversation, have 1-2 incidents prepared as examples, and if appropriate offer to follow up in an email with other incidents and follow-up points from the discussion. Having it in writing is important, especially if you need to escalate the complaint in any way. You’ll have written proof that you tried to set appropriate boundaries and what outcomes you expected. If you decide to escalate your complaint, we have a Workplace Reporting playbook that can help you throughout the process.
Tech can be your friend or foe
Unfortunately, the likelihood is that you might need to have several conversations about boundaries and what is expected before any change takes hold. While that isn’t always the case, you have to be prepared to take small steps in the midst of it all to make your boundaries clear. But, again, workplace tech plays a big role in that. The way you communicate via email, Slack, Teams, Zoom – all of it has an impact, and you can decide where to set those boundaries.
For example, if it’s boundary predatory behavior such as contacting after hours, there are steps you can take. For example, during conversations and discussions, you can voice that you won’t be answering emails or Slack after a certain time. Or that you’re pausing notifications to get work done so that team members can expect a slow response. Another way to stave off boundary predators? Block your calendar out for at least an hour for lunch, and in 30-45 minutes blocks throughout to get work done. That way, meetings are scheduled between working blocks, and you have some breathing room to get tasks done without people eating into your time.
Prepare for negativity
Boundary setting can trigger those who benefitted from you not having any! Supervisors may find it difficult to receive and may react. It can be exhausting to have to deal with pushback or negativity, but it shouldn’t force you to back down. You are making a compelling argument, and you know it. You may have to renegotiate responsibilities and have solutions ready to go so that there is less to fight back against. There is always the worry of retaliation or negativity that will pervade these interactions, especially initially. Keep pushing on knowing that you are doing this for you. For your wellbeing and also your sense of self and self worth. You may feel anxiety at first [completely normal] but the more you flex the muscle the easier it will become.
However, a key thing to remember is that the workplace should not make you feel unsafe or uncomfortable. If your supervisor responds to your requests for boundaries with anger or begins to create a toxic workplace environment, you need to escalate. You should not be made to feel this way, and that kind of behaviour will continue to get worse if it is not reported.
You may need to be ready to compile evidence and keep a log of interactions, including conversations and threats, so that you can escalate to HR if necessary. If you need help putting your complaint together, we’ve created a range of documents, including a workplace reporting playbook plus templates like an evidence log and fact pattern to help you construct and present your complaint accurately and effectively.