Supporting Employees in Setting Boundaries at Work

Healthy boundary setting isn’t discussed enough in the workplace; however, the practice may very well be the key to combating the “Quiet Quitting” trend in which employees are disengaging as a substitute for setting firm, clear limits. Although boundaries are often thought of in terms of personal interactions, they’re also pivotal to the future of the workplace. 

Just as they can imbue other relationships with trust and safety, professional boundaries also aid in building stronger workplace relationships while enhancing individuals’ feelings of being heard and appreciated. Boundaries are also essential for achieving an optimal work-life balance. 

Setting boundaries is arguably more important than ever in today’s fast-paced workplace, where the line between home life and work life can easily blur. The practice is a secret weapon in building solid relationships, enhancing productivity, and establishing a healthy culture. 

The need for leaders to support employees in setting boundaries at work isn’t a new one. Research demonstrates that pre-pandemic, people slept less in an effort to get more done, yet productivity remained an increasing challenge. In the post-pandemic landscape, research suggests that insomnia, anxiety, and stress have increased while physical activity and free time decreased — a perfect recipe for burnout.

Workplace boundaries may evolve and change over time. They’re unique to each individual and the various settings and situations that individuals may find themselves working in. Melody Wilding, Licensed Master Social Worker and author of “Trust Yourself,” defines workplace boundaries as the personal rules, expectations, and rules that a professional sets for themselves to prevent over-commitment and preserve energy, allowing individuals to achieve peak performance.  

The pandemic highlighted the need for professional boundaries. Left to their own devices, many workers may overproduce themselves into burnout. However, when setting boundaries at work becomes the norm, everyone can establish their personal limits more easily, and in the end, everyone benefits. While it is incumbent upon individuals to set boundaries for themselves, leaders must support, encourage, and facilitate the practice, starting with modeling boundary-setting behaviors. 

Develop Clear and Mutual Expectations 

Employees with clearly defined expectations are exponentially more likely to remain at their jobs. Data from Microsoft’s Work Trend Index showed that workers who understand and are clear about their work priorities are nearly four times as likely to remain at their current company for two years or more and are 4.5 times happier in their workplace.

That data underscores the need for leaders to intentionally develop clear job requirements and ensure those requirements and expectations surrounding each individual’s role are communicated with zero gray areas. Employees should have clarity about their roles and responsibilities. Their duties should be constrained to their job description unless there is further conversation and communication. 

Expectations may evolve, and company news may change. That’s not a negative. However, it’s imperative that leaders and employees engage in open conversations and ongoing negotiations when it comes to taking on more responsibilities. This helps reduce undue stress and leaves the workforce empowered (and more productive).

Encourage Open, Direct Communication

Without open communication, how would anyone know what works and doesn’t? Just as employees can expect managers and other leadership members to read their minds, leaders must be equally willing to vocalize and listen.

Quiet Quitting and Quiet Firing are the antitheses of what’s needed for everyone to establish healthy boundaries. It’s critical to be anything but quiet, particularly for leaders who can use direct communication to help the workforce better learn their work preferences, allowing them to naturally start fitting in with your standards and ultimately allowing you to be a more effective leader. 

For employees, it’s equally important to communicate their boundaries so leaders and coworkers can establish clear expectations. For example, an employee who sets their phones to “Do Not Disturb,” or stops answering emails after a certain time or on weekends must ensure the rest of their team is aware of that so they understand they may not receive immediate responses to communications that fall within those periods. 

By creating a culture based on openly and respectfully sharing boundaries and encouraging clear, direct communication, leaders make it possible for everyone to feel comfortable sharing their boundaries. It also facilitates easier conversations when something isn’t working well for one person or group and resolves workplace conflict. 

Address Time Management

Healthy boundaries help create a healthy work-life balance. How anyone manages their time, including you, is essential to maintain control over their workday. Some employees may need extra assistance developing and holding time management boundaries. 

For example, remote workers may struggle to clearly define their home and work lives. Some have already taken matters into their own hands, creating a “fake” commute, which provides a buffer between their two worlds to help turn “work mode” on and off at the appropriate times. This “commute” may include a morning walk, stretching session, yoga, and focused periods for work and communication. The benefit? Improved productivity and lower risk of burnout.

Taking time off and setting defined work hours should be encouraged, not questioned. As a leader, it’s also essential for everyone to respect boundaries surrounding time. In addition to encouraging employees and colleagues to enjoy time outside of work, it’s helpful to allow employees to structure their days in ways that suit the company’s needs while also allowing them to choose where and when they work most effectively.

Consider Relationships Between Peers

Boundaries make it easier to maintain healthy professional relationships, both between leaders and employees and among peers. These relationships are pivotal to creating a robust company culture. They also boost employee performance, engagement, productivity, and loyalty. Companies run by leaders who maintain effective workplace relationships also tend to have improved client satisfaction and an optimal profit margin.

Leaders must model appropriate behaviors in the workplace to help set the tone and clear expectations surrounding behavior. Physical boundaries help protect each individual’s personal space, while emotional boundaries protect against oversharing personal details, disrespectful behaviors, and other unproductive habits that can inhibit trust, engagement, and performance. 

Encourage individuals throughout the organization to:

  • Identify their personal and professional boundaries with leaders and coworkers
  • Set and communicate their limits to peers and leadership
  • Remain professional with coworkers, even those who are good friends
  • Determine off-limits conversational topics in the workplace   
  • Maintain boundaries, both individually and collaboratively

Be Mindful of Employee Burnout

Microsoft’s 2022 Work Trend Index revealed that burnout has been ravaging the workplace, with 53% of leaders and 48% of workers indicating that they have experienced professional burnout. Burnout, as defined by the World Health Organization (WHO), comes from unmanaged, chronic workplace stress that creates feelings of depletion, disconnection, negativity, and disengagement. Ultimately, burnout increases employee turnover, hampers performance and reduces productivity and the bottom line.

Even after implementing the above strategies to encourage setting boundaries, you can still end up with employees approaching burnout. That’s because setting boundaries only goes so far. Upholding those limits is essential and may require leaders to intervene, helping employees take time away from work and manage stress and workloads. If you see an employee who is clearly burning the candle at both ends or failing to uphold their boundaries, assess the changes that should be made and the actions you need to take to reevaluate their boundaries.

Solid Boundaries Equal a Happy Workforce

Boundaries are the self-imposed limits and rules we all create to avoid over-commitment or saying “yes” even when it’s not in our best interest. With the rapid changes that have occurred in the workplace, establishing professional boundaries is more essential than ever before. 

Burnout is worse than ever, and although it was supposed to begin improving, it appears to be a trend that’s here to stay. Unless leaders step in and begin encouraging their workforce to make a change. To do so, you must begin modeling the behaviors you want to see in your employees, starting with developing expectations and encouraging (and practicing) open communication. The additional points to address include ensuring that everyone manages their time in ways that work best for them while encouraging them to take time away from work, establishing healthy peer relationships, and keeping an eye out for signs of burnout. 

In the end, solid boundaries help everyone. Leaders can be more effective and workers more productive. Individuals and the organization benefit from a healthy work-life balance that allows both parties to thrive.