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What It Means to Uphold Boundaries

We each have a part to play in establishing and upholding effective boundaries.

Key points

  • Boundaries are important, but it can be difficult to uphold them when others don't support the same boundaries.
  • Many people have quit their jobs since the pandemic. This should prompt employees and companies to assess their boundaries.
  • As organizations return to the office, it’s important to reestablish rules of engagement around communication, expectations, and burnout.
Photo by Erin Larson on Unsplash
Fence with boundary line sign.
Source: Photo by Erin Larson on Unsplash

I will be the first one to admit: I’m terrible at setting boundaries. If there is anything I have learned from the pandemic, it’s that I’m very good at allowing work to creep into every available moment and part of my life. Without the structured separation of work and home, I find it incredibly challenging to turn things off and to say no.

This isn’t new, for me, but it certainly has been magnified over the past year and a half. Part of that is my own inability to set and uphold boundaries. But there’s another aspect to boundaries that isn’t discussed as often: what happens when other people don’t help us to uphold them.

The reality is that boundary-setting is not a solo endeavor. Brené Brown, in her book Rising Strong, notes, “Setting boundaries means getting clear on what behaviors are okay and what’s not okay. Integrity is key to this commitment because it’s how we set those boundaries and ultimately hold ourselves and others accountable for respecting them” (p. 123). I love this definition. But what happens if I’m surrounded by people who simply don’t or won’t respect my boundaries?

As we start to bring people back to the office, for those of us who have been privileged to work at home all this time, it is critical that we look at what it means to uphold other people’s boundaries. And let’s be clear: Respecting people’s boundaries doesn’t mean that they get to opt out of work responsibilities or tasks they just don’t want to do. It may mean hard conversations about next steps for those who don’t want to return to the office, if that is going to be a requirement. But in my experience, engagement at work always starts with setting and communicating clear expectations on both organizational and interpersonal levels.

And this is a moment to reset some expectations. What does it mean to re-engage with people in a shared space? What commitments should be made to one another for how we will show up, do work, and honor one another’s truths? And why does it matter?

Why Do Boundaries Matter?

One of the positive things to come from this pandemic is that a lot of people have started to ask deep, important questions about meaning and purpose and the value of work. In fact, over the past few weeks, the media has hit a bit of a frenzy over the idea that a whole bunch of people are quitting their jobs. NPR called it “the great resignation.” Business Insider describes it as “rage quitting.” Others have described it as a sign of a healthy economy. Perhaps. What is true is that a lot of people — many, but not exclusively, in the lowest wage positions — are reconsidering their relationship with work. And that isn’t something that any of us should dismiss or ignore.

Indeed, the recent Microsoft Work Trends Index survey found that while 61 percent of business leaders report that they are “thriving” at the moment, the exact same percentage of frontline workers say that they are “struggling” or merely “surviving.” Further, “One in five global survey respondents say their employer doesn’t care about their work-life balance. Fifty-four percent feel overworked. Thirty-nine percent feel exhausted.” Anecdotally, from those I have talked to in recent months, I would put those numbers far, far higher.

Pre-COVID, Sarah Green Carmichael wrote in the Harvard Business Review about our tendency to “overwork,” and the very real health outcomes that result from it, “including impaired sleep, depression, heavy drinking, diabetes, impaired memory, and heart disease.” And, despite what we might think, working long hours doesn’t result in greater productivity. In fact, it results in the opposite (and, notably, at least one study found that managers can’t tell the difference between those who worked 80 hours a week and those who just pretended to).

Many of us feel like we just spent the past year and a half working around the clock for seven days a week. Sometimes, you just do what you have to do. But that isn’t a productivity level that can be sustained. Managers should note that at the same moment that we seem to be coming out of this crisis, and talking about going back to the office, most of us are facing real feelings of burnout. What will that mean for our new return-to-office environments?

An Individual and Organizational Responsibility

I have written here previously (again, pre-COVID) about the individual responsibility to define one’s own work-life balance in an “always on” world, and I believe the concept still holds true. We are each responsible for our own paths and the choices that we make. Sure, in an ideal world, our organizations and our managers would create supportive, caring cultures that see and uplift people as fully-formed humans, with needs and challenges and lives that impact the ways in which they show up to work each day.

We know that doesn’t happen. But instead of banging your head against the wall wondering why not, it’s on you as the owner of that fully-formed life to make the decisions that best serve you. Sometimes, that looks like leaving your role or your organization for one that better aligns with who you are. Setting boundaries doesn’t mean that I get to say I only will work from 10-2 when the expectation is that I work from 8-5. Choices have consequences, always. And if my life needs part-time work then I always have the ability to seek out a part-time job.

At the same time, we all can and must do a better job of upholding and respecting one another’s boundaries. Especially as we look towards returning to the office and being in community with one another again, and knowing that we are facing a crisis of employee burnout. Because, no matter how many boundaries I may set for myself, if you don’t respect them, if you bully or shame me for holding them, it doesn’t matter. Organizational culture is created by the people who exist within those organizations, by their words and their behaviors. Cultures aren’t created in a vacuum. And boundaries can only exist if everyone sees them and helps to maintain them. And that starts with the very top of the organization.

Questions to Uphold Boundaries

If you are a manager, don’t just tell people to take care of themselves, to find balance, and to set boundaries. Regularly ask questions of your people and yourself:

  • What are my expectations for success in this organization, and how am I communicating those to my people? What do they need from me to be successful here?
  • What do burnout and exhaustion look like? When do my people need support?
  • What does my behavior communicate to my people? For example, if I tell people to “do less” and then add additional projects to their plates, what does that communicate to them?
  • When was the last time that I had an intentional conversation with my people as individuals about their workload, stress, and productivity? When have I sought out (and listened to) feedback from my people about their ability to set and uphold boundaries at work?
  • What do I not know about my people and their lives outside of work?
  • As you return to the office, how can you effectively reset boundaries and commitments with and between your people?

If you are not a manager, you can ask yourself some questions, too:

  • When do you feel most productive and engaged with your work? What do you need to do more of that?
  • What do boundaries look like at work for you? How do you communicate those?
  • When was the last time someone ignored or disrespected your boundaries? What happened?
  • How can you intentionally uphold others’ boundaries? For example, before asking someone to help you with a work project, how can you assess their current workload, availability, and capacity to help?
  • What does it look like when you are approaching burnout? What would help?
  • As you return to the office, how can you have intentional conversations with your manager about what you need to be effective, productive, and to re-commit to the workplace and your colleagues?


Brown, B. (2017). Rising Strrong. NY: Random House.

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