Establishing Healthy Boundaries at Work

Prior to the pandemic, one in six workers were struggling with work-related stress, anxiety or depression, leading to sleep disturbance, headaches, gastrointestinal problems and elevated blood pressure or risk of cardiovascular disease. During the pandemic, this has unsurprisingly spiked, with 60% of UK workers reporting symptoms of burnout during the pandemic.

Refinery 29 caught up with Evelyn Cotter, CEO and Founder of SEVEN Career Coaching, about the best way to set those boundaries, whatever your work situation.


Boundaries are the invisible lines we draw, mostly between ourselves and others but also within ourselves. Where those boundaries lie will always vary from person to person. As Evelyn says: "They are entirely individual to you, your comfort levels and often come from what you're familiar with." As such they can be completely different in different contexts. "They can evolve and change as you evolve and change," she adds, "and you may have different boundaries at work and at home and with different levels of friends."


We usually only become aware of boundaries when someone has overstepped them, so Evelyn advises prioritising working out your boundaries within the workplace.


"Take some alone, quiet time and define what your boundaries are. [It can be helpful] to write them out." It's worth revisiting this exercise every once in a while as your boundaries are likely to evolve. "For example, behaviour you accepted as an intern may not be what you'll accept now."


Evelyn adds that it might suit you better to introduce a change in boundaries incrementally if you've been at a company for a while. "Changing how you assert your boundaries can ruffle some feathers because typically, human beings like others in their 'tribe' to stay the same. Change disrupts, so go easy and assert yourself incrementally, so it doesn't feel abrupt."


By setting boundaries with your colleagues and adjusting them as and when, you are making it easier for them to relate to you and you ward off any danger of building resentment towards anyone.


Boundaries with bosses can feel more intimidating as the way your boss works can often be used as a benchmark for how you should work. If, for example, they are always responsive on email no matter the time of day, they might expect the same from you. However, establishing these boundaries is particularly important to avoid expectations of overwork or burnout.


Evelyn emphasises the importance of having consistency and conviction in the need for this boundary. "Saying the right words isn't enough with boundaries," she says, "you need to back it up with the belief that you have a right to that boundary." In addition, consistently defining that boundary is key "because it's essentially training others how you will and won't be treated."


Of course, your ability to establish boundaries is not always dependent on you. If you have a demanding job or a particularly difficult boss, it can feel futile to even begin to try.


In these situations, the first step is to get clarity on what is being asked of you and why. Are these exceptional circumstances or are they cultural norms? How often will it be expected of you to prioritise work beyond your comfort level? "Understanding what the norms are in your organisation or industry is important," says Evelyn. "If for example you're working in fashion and everyone works 12-hour days leading up to fashion week, asserting your boundary around working less at those times of year is unlikely to help you progress or get along with your colleagues." If these demands aren't something you can ever reasonably manage, it may mean the industry isn't right for you.


In the case of a difficult boss, Evelyn advises getting used to being uncomfortable by being assertive and having conviction in your boundaries. She adds: "Another tip I've given some of our clients over the years is to watch how others assert their boundaries. Study good examples of people working around you and see how they deal with the same manager and take what works for you."


If your boss is reasonable you may want to talk with them to sort through any problems. In most cases, communicating face to face is preferable. If that isn’t possible, communicate your boundaries by any means necessary – by email or text, even.


If you can’t talk with your boss, you can raise issues with human resources. And if you do not have a reliable HR department, or your assertions have been ignored, it's always wise to join your workplace or industry's trade union so you have support if your boss's demands escalate.


Dealing with a broken boundary depends on the scale. If it only happens once, you might just need to issue a reminder that you can't work late or won't take on an extra project at this time.


Again, if you cannot communicate with your boss, turn to HR and seek additional support from a union or employee support service.


Perhaps the most important element, especially for people who are prone to stress and overwork, is establishing your own boundaries with how you want to work. Learning how not to say yes to everything can be a crucial factor in shifting how much work impacts your life.


"I would say, never say yes to everything and never say no to everything," advises Evelyn. "Treat everything on a case-by-case basis and have a practice of checking in with you, on that day, in that moment, before answering. If possible, delay answering if you need time to feel into what you really want to do." She recommends simple exercises like body scans to see how you're feeling and what you are capable of taking on. She adds: "Resentment can unconsciously build when we're not looking after ourselves and have unknowingly placed ourselves last in the queue of life."



It's worth considering if this impulse comes from a need for external approval, which can override our ability to care for ourselves. If so, you might want to get some professional support in understanding and unpicking people-pleasing patterns.


We spend so much of our time working. You want that experience to be as comfortable for yourself as possible. By establishing and maintaining your boundaries, you will make your working relationships, environment and job requirements manageable. You will feel less stressed, have energy and time for what is important to you. You will feel more peaceful and joyful about life.

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