Boundaries are our imaginary lines in the sand that separate and protect us from the many things that threaten to overtake our time, resources and well being. People tend to either have strong, firm boundaries that others recognize and respect, or loose, soft boundaries that are more easily overlooked or crossed. As with most things, the middle way is generally the best. In boundary terms, that means flexible yet clear priorities and limits – and the assertiveness to say ‘no’ when you mean ‘no’. In the final analysis, we are all responsible for ourselves, which requires that we take ownership of our well being by establishing priorities and setting boundaries that honor our specific needs and lifestyle choices.
What About Work?
As a social worker I recognize that some jobs require more time and flexibility than others. In the early years of my career, I was on-call 24/7/365 and only later realized that I could have prevented a lot of that. The truth is, I enjoyed the work so much that I didn’t really mind most of the time. However, I created an unsustainable situation where I could not continue to work that much due to burnout – and the need for a personal life. This behavior on my part set up unrealistic expectations about my ability to perform at superhuman levels of functioning. Eventually, I had to renegotiate my role within the agency. I was fortunate that my superiors were willing to work with me to do that.
There are some things that put you at greater risk for being asked (or expected) to work more than others – being single and/or having no children are among them. However, even people who do not have children have a life. It is important to realize that whatever you do with your personal time, the separation between work and home life is critical for good health and mental health. In reality, whether you have children and/or a family at home should not matter. Your other commitments, whether they be taking your dog out for a much needed potty break, going to a yoga class or enjoying a quiet evening at home alone are as important to your well being as parenting or being at home with a family is to another.
Some Tips for Establishing and Maintaining a Healthy Boundaries at Work
1. Be realistic about your career options. If you want to have evenings and weekend at home without interference, it probably isn’t realistic to go to medical school to be an OB-GYN who delivers babies or become a firefighter. Not all careers are as clearly unpredictable as that of an OB-GYN or firefighter, but you get the picture. Set your priorities in advance and choose your career accordingly. If you are a social worker, chaplain or other helping professional, chances are you will be on-call at least some of the time. Make sure your family understands this and that you are able to work out the details, ie. childcare if you decide to pursue this option. If you find at midlife that your career choice requires you to sacrifice too much time at home and that no longer works for you, consider a different field. People go back to school to change careers at midlife frequently for these and other reasons. This may take some planning and re-organizing, but is often worth it in the long run.
2. Be honest in the interview. There is really no need to agree to work odd or long hours to get a job if it does not complement your lifestyle. Ask in advance about the work hours and explain that work-life balance is important to you. You may not get offered jobs that require long or odd hours, but in reality, that is not the right job for you. In the 21st Century, this is also the time to talk about on call or after hours requirements. Find out in advance if you will need to carry a company-issued phone or other device that requires you to check in or respond after hours. If given a choice about this, be honest about your after hours availability. Just say ‘no’ if you have the option of taking a company-issued phone or device if it requires you check in after hours.
3. We teach people how to treat us. When you start a new job or position, it is tempting to take on more work, stay late, come in early or take work home to show them what you’ve got to offer. Don’t do it! If you set the precedent for overworking, that will become the expectation. If you are working on a special project that is short-term and everyone is working more, you might offer to join in. But, be sure to talk about it in advance with your boss. Say something like:
“I know the so-and-so project is due by Monday. Generally, I try to leave on time every day to keep up with my other responsibilities, but I am available to work until 7 PM on Wednesday and Thursday this week so we can meet the deadline. However, I will need to make arrangements with my family. Would you like for me to do so?”
What message does this send? It spells out exactly when and how long you can work, says that working late is something that requires prior planning and coordination on your part and that you have other obligations that prevent you from doing this routinely. In other words – I can do this for the team this week, but don’t expect me to do it at the drop of a hat – I have other obligations.
Most likely, your boss will appreciate your teamwork and respect your boundaries because they are clear and firm. There may be times when things come up at work and you are asked (or required) to stay late without notice – handle each incident carefully so as not to set a precedent. If it becomes an expectation, talk to your boss about your concerns and explain your work-life balance needs.
4. Renegotiate if you have set a precedent that no longer works for you. If you have already set the bar too high, meaning you established a workload that is unsustainable, talk to your boss about your changing needs. If you are honest about what you can and can’t do, or about your needs at this point in your life, it is possible that you can come to an agreement that works for everyone.
It is helpful to have a plan before you sit down to talk. Rather than dumping on them about how overworked you are, talk about what you need. Be specific. “I need to work from 8-5:00 beginning in January. Here are the projects I am working on. Currently I am working about 55 hours per week to keep up with them. How can we distribute the work so that I can cut back to 40 hours per week and get home by 6:00 PM?”
5. Explore other options if you can’t strike a balance. You may find that your employer needs/wants/expects more from you than you are willing or able to give. If that is the case, you have to decide how to proceed. If you have been doing the work of 1.5 people and there is no money to hire another person to help with the workload, you may have to explore other options. Don’t threaten to quit unless you have a plan, but if the writing is on the wall and you are not willing to continue to work the same hours, develop a plan to transition to a different position or a new employer. It is up to you to honor your needs if they can’t be met in your current situation. Be smart about it. If you love your company, but can’t work the hours for the job you have, discuss other positions, part-time options, tele-commuting or job share possibilities. Chances are they don’t want to lose you if you have been doing the work of 1.5 people. Use that to your advantage.
Lewis, Katherine Reynolds. "Stop Blaming Your Boss for Your Crazy Work-life." Fortune: Management Career Blog, Web. 11 Dec. 2013. Winter, Jennifer. "3 Crucial Ways to Set Boundaries at Work." The Daily Muse, Web. 11 Dec. 2013.