- Work/life boundaries are essential for our overall well-being and happiness.
- The five essential workplace boundaries are role load, role clarity, work/life, communication, and behavior.
- Effective and healthy workplace boundaries require clear communication, modeled first by leadership.
They help to protect us, clarify what is and isn't our responsibility, preserve our physical and emotional energy, create clear professional expectations, and live our values and standards. Not having healthy workplace boundaries increases stress, burnout, decreased performance, and voluntary attrition.
Setting effective boundaries is an invaluable skill often not taught in school or the workplace. Here are the key signals to know when to set a boundary and a valuable step-by-step process to guide.
Types of Workplace Boundaries
Many employees report doing the work of two to three people, given hiring freezes, budget cuts, talent acquisition challenges, and a troubling pattern we're seeing more of—the leadership philosophy of doing more with fewer human resources and incentives for management to maintain this status quo. Individuals are not machines and cannot sustain this workforce demand without a negative impact over time.
This is a guarantee and only a matter of time before adverse effects appear. Mental and physical health issues, stress, and burnout have increased to a concerning level globally.
There is often ambiguity about the new employee's responsibilities and the allotted time, especially when an employee is hired. This happened to me and many coaching clients I've had. Sometimes, this is due to the developmental phase of the business; other times, it is intentional by the company for various reasons.
This contributes to confusion and uncertainty and, often, the acceptance of a position that may not be a great fit for the organization or the employee.
Unclear roles may also happen when an employee has two or three bosses, supports multiple departments, and is given ever-changing tasks and responsibilities. It makes it quite difficult to know one's job description and the scope of one's position.
With the blurring of boundaries between home and work during the pandemic and the rise of remote work, the ability to draw the line between where work ends and family/personal time begins has become increasingly unclear. Technological advances with 24/7 access to the office, staff, and employees have also contributed to this blurring, with many work/life boundaries being violated.
This differs depending on the industry, leadership, and workplace culture. However, several common presentations are employees being called or texted far beyond the typical 9-5 hours, often at 9 p.m. or later. Next-day deliverables are required, resulting in employees working in the morning to meet a client's unrealistic deadline. This deadline, unfortunately, is approved by management to the detriment of employees' mental and physical well-being.
On special occasions, this is doable. However, it is becoming "business as usual" in many workplaces, resulting in significant psychological stress and, often, burnout for their employees.
Our overall well-being must have a manageable role load or responsibilities, clarity of our role(s), and healthy work/life boundaries, especially over the long term. We often cope relatively well with increased demands for two to three weeks.
However, it becomes unhealthy when such demands extend beyond that, with little opportunity for self-renewal. The high levels of stress, anxiety, and burnout occurring globally, with increasing employee health issues and mental health days taken, are a direct effect of workplace boundaries that are in the unhealthy zone.
Effective and healthy workplace boundaries require clear and respectful communication, modeled first by leadership and then by the employees. Clarifying expectations and priorities and creating realistic and manageable deadlines for employees is vital for effective performance and healthy employee well-being. Doing the above requires clear, open communication (and a collaborative mindset). There is no place for mind-reading in the workplace.
It's also important that conversations and respectful negotiation, at times, happen between management and employees around expectations, priorities, and deadlines so the agreed-upon arrangement is clear and has the employees' well-being in mind. Otherwise, it's not sustainable, and mid and long-term performance, and likely morale, will suffer. Guaranteed.
Using Intimidating language and cursing or nonverbal threatening or violent gestures are surprisingly not uncommon in organizations. It was jarring to hear reports from my coaching clients that employees or managers can punch a wall, slam a fist on a boardroom table, and curse or grimace in a meeting without consequence.
Such behaviors profoundly impact employees' sense of safety, trust, and overall well-being and negate whatever psychological safety exists in the workplace. These behaviors should not be tolerated within any organization. Firm behavioral boundaries with clear consequences for such violations must be communicated and consistently implemented.
Another concerning behavior is micromanagement, which, when done repeatedly, often leads to unhealthy boundaries between management and staff or between co-workers. Research consistently shows that a sense of autonomy is a highly valued workplace need.
Regardless of the motivation, micromanaging another's performance crosses an important line of healthy independence in another's way of being, thinking, and acting. It does not reflect respect or trust in another's competency or ability to learn and meet performance expectations. It will negatively impact the work relationship, motivation, performance, and well-being.
The five types of workplace boundaries outlined are the most important for leadership and employees to discuss, clarify, and negotiate when needed. Cultivating a workplace culture that values healthy workplace boundaries, modeled and supported by leadership, will optimize performance, increase work/life balance and satisfaction, and reduce turnover, burnout, and health costs. This will occur not at the expense of but through higher employee well-being fostered by these essential workplace boundaries.