How to Set Healthy Boundaries at Work

19 June 2019

white sports lined Photo by Robert Katzki on Unsplash

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With social media and emails making you available at all times of day, clients and colleagues working on flexible schedules, and the expectation that if you love your job you’ll go that extra mile, the feelings of never shutting off from work are all too common.  This article will give you 5 tips to enforce healthy boundaries in the office, winning your colleagues’ support and being more effective and less exhausted at work.

Setting expectations

The key to maintaining a healthy balance between work and the rest of your life is setting expectations.  It can be particularly tempting to drop everything to answer a client’s email if you know they are prone to chasing you.  One way to manage their expectations is to introduce an SLA (service level agreement). This can be as simple as informing them that every email they send will be acknowledged within two hours and an initial solution outlined within 24 hours on a workday.  This way they are unlikely to be phoning you half an hour later wondering why they haven’t received a response.  By setting expectations you are relieving yourself of the pressure to respond immediately.  If possible, including this SLA in the footer of your emails will remind your clients, colleagues and suppliers of your commitment.  

Part of setting expectations can be ensuring your email “out of office” is turned on when you are not available to answer emails.  This can alleviate the pressure to log on and check for urgent emails when you are supposed to be heading home.  You can also provide your colleagues and clients with a time when you will next be available to answer emails.  Working together this sets a clear parameter for when you will and will not be available to respond. 

Boundaries with holidays

Unwinding from work is imperative for maintaining a healthy and productive life.  At the time of booking, holidays can seem like a prize far off in the future for a hard job well done.  In practice, however, they can often result in hurried last-minute phone calls at the airport, checking your emails whilst sitting round the pool and in some cases, bringing the laptop abroad with you.  With technology freeing us from the confines of our desks, and more companies encouraging the flexibility of working from home, it can be harder to draw the line between work and play.  This makes setting boundaries with your holiday essential.  

Around a week before your leave let your colleagues and clients know of your upcoming vacation.  Inform them that you will not be available during this period and give them another point of contact who can assist them whilst you are away.  This week before your holiday gives them enough time to organise their thoughts and ask pressing questions ahead of your absence from work.

Make sure you give a thorough handover to your colleagues who will be responsible for your duties whilst you are away.  If your team is fully equipped to deal with requests and issues in your absence, then they are less likely to hunt you down at your hotel with an urgent phone call.  

Most importantly; book that holiday in now.  It can feel hard to justify arranging a holiday when work is piling up around you but confirming at least some time off in advance can make it easier for you to take the leave when you really need it.

Turn off the work phone

Most of us feel bad about answering our personal calls whilst at work, but that same ethic isn’t applied to taking a work call when sat at the dinner table, or out with friends.  For some reason, it is becoming more acceptable to prioritise work over personal life.  Unfortunately, this bleeding of work into evenings and weekends can stop you from fully switching off and being present with your family and friends.  It might seem that the easiest solution is to just take a quick call or answer an email when work is hectic but as soon as you do so the flood-gates for follow up conversations and requests are opened.  It’s much harder to say to no to a “quick favour” from a colleague if they know they already have your attention.  

If you have the luxury of a separate work mobile, and you are not “on call”, then make sure it is turned off once you leave the office.  If that feels too severe then ensure you give yourself a cut-off point in the evening, say an hour after you return home, that you can keep checking your emails.  Once this time has passed make sure your phone is turned off or put in a drawer out of sight.  Avoid using your personal phone for work communications wherever possible and don’t hook-up your work emails to it, in case the temptation to just “check-up” on the latest project development when you are at the park with your family is too great.  

Respect your colleagues’ downtime

Respecting your colleagues’ working hours can be a great way of ensuring yours are respected in return.  Lately, there have been stories of executives adding lines like “I might be answering emails late at night, but I do not expect you to” at the end of their emails so colleagues do not feel pressured to respond outside of their usual working hours.  Encouraging your teammates to keep their work-life to office hours means they are more likely to respect your decision to do the same.    

Understand your own pattern of productivity levels

There has been a lot of discussion in the press recently of the merits of more flexible working for employees.  With various initiatives available it is likely that your employer is offering or considering offering a variation of flexitime.  Whether this is condensed working weeks, working from home or flexitime, these can all be hugely beneficial to you if they allow for you to work when you are most productive.  For instance, if you find yourself getting sluggish around 4pm every afternoon on a 9-5.30pm work day then a condensed working week with four 10-hour days is unlikely to leave you very productive by 6.30pm.  True flexitime, however, can give you the freedom to plan your working day around you most productive periods.  This is beneficial to both employers and employees.  My employer, Avenue Digital, recently discussed its decision to implement flexitime over other similar initiatives, essentially to ensure skilled staff are able to work as effectively as possible.  For instance, if you realise that you need a break away from your computer to get fresh air every two hours then planning a 20 minute walk a few times a day is suddenly more practical than waiting to take your hour’s lunch break in the middle of the day.  

Conclusion

The absolute key to ensuring you avoid burnout at work is to see your rest as valuable.  If you make sure you give equal priority to your life outside of the office it will allow you to remain focused and motivated whilst in work.  Seeing your own health as a crucial component of your effectiveness at work keeps your well-being front-and-centre when deciding if you should really stay later for another hour.