3 Simple steps to setting boundaries at work

Jul 18, 2014 at 1:03 p.m. ET

Photo credit: Morsa Images/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Having to stay at the office late on a Friday third time this month? Spending more time on the weekend dealing with work issues than relaxing? Frequently getting stuck doing the work of other people in the office? You may be suffering from the absence of clear and healthy boundaries at work.

One of the most important components of a healthy and fulfilling work environment is the presence of clear boundaries. When you set boundaries with your coworkers and supervisors, you’re telling them how you expect to be treated, and the behaviors you will and will not tolerate.

As a coach, I can always tell when I'm working with clients without healthy boundaries, because they feel that they're being taken advantage of left and right. They often stay late at the office because they can't say no when a coworker asks for help or when their boss springs some extra work assignment on them at the last minute. They receive work-related calls at all hours of the day and night. And they're continually bombarded with work issues even when they're supposed to be on vacation or enjoying time with their families.

If that sounds like your experience at work right now, know that the only way for it to get better is for you to speak up and set some clear, definitive boundaries about how you expect others to interact with you. Here are three steps to get you started.

Step one: Set your career non-negotiables

First, list out how your coworkers and your boss would interact with you in your ideal world. For example:

  • No phone calls past 8 p.m. unless it's a true emergency.
  • An expectation that emails received past 8 p.m. will be answered the next morning.
  • An expectation that when you're on vacation, you're only contacted in the event of a true emergency.

Step two: Plan a way of communicating these new boundaries in a non-threatening way

Once you know the boundaries you'd like to set, it's time to communicate them to the people at work, and especially to your boss. You might try saying something like:

"I'm working on creating a strong work/life balance. When I'm at work, I'm fully invested and I'm doing my best, and when I'm home I want to do the same. I'm hoping you can support me in that by not calling me at home after 8 p.m. unless it really is an emergency. Instead, you could send me an email and I can address the issue as soon as I get into the office the next day. What do you think?"

Step three: Stick to your guns and reinforce your boundaries

This is the most important step of all because setting boundaries is a training process. You wouldn't teach a puppy to sit once and expect him to do it all the time, would you? You have to reinforce the behavior, and the only way to do that is to stick to your boundaries as diligently as you'd like others to stick to them. That means if your boss calls you at 8 p.m., don't pick up the phone. If it's really an emergency he'll leave a voicemail, but chances are it's something that can wait until the morning.

Although setting boundaries may feel scary and intimidating at first, know that the risk is worth it. No job is worth spending your life in misery, so speak up for yourself, communicate your boundaries and watch a more fulfilling work environment unfold.

To your success!

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