The Hard Line Between Work-from-Home and Home
Boundaries are needed for work and home demands, and colleagues and family.
The most obvious example of a porous boundary is when you respond immediately to a manager who calls or emails you at all hours. When you’re never off work, you’re always stressed.
Other examples aren’t so obvious. Maybe you fall easily down Internet rabbit holes. Or your kids never leave you alone, even are you’ve told them not to enter your home office when the door is closed.
Work boundaries are crucial for remote employees. They help you direct your attention and energy where it’s needed and internalize your locus of control, a concept that refers to how strongly people believe they have control over the situations and experiences that affect their lives. The greater the control you believe you have over a situation, the calmer and more “in charge” you feel, said Melody Wilding, executive job coach.
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This look at boundary setting is particularly relevant because many of the workers who shifted to remote work during the pandemic aren’t expected to return to the office. In a February Harvard Business Review study, 89 percent of workers said their work life was getting worse, 85 percent said their well-being had declined, and 56 percent stated their job demands had increased.
When you set clear boundaries at work you can have a pleasant, efficient, and productive workday, said Valerie Burton, a productivity work coach.
Define the term
Boundaries are healthy limits that create space between you and someone or something else, such as another person, the work itself, a smartphone, or even between parts of yourself, Wilding said. Defining limits helps you maintain balance and self-respect and gives you a sense of integrity and confidence. Setting clear boundaries stops demands and intrusions from invading your space to manipulate and disempower you.
“They’re not a bad thing, not mean or harsh and can be delivered diplomatically. They serve you and other people,” Wilding said.
Make firm rules
Many people have a hard time determining if they need to set a boundary around a particular situation. Wilding suggests you gauge your emotional response to that situation. Certain feelings—tension, resentment, frustration, or discomfort—are a sign you need to limit interaction or otherwise set a boundary, she said.
Tension is a sense of pressure that leads to nervousness, dread, or distraction: Something is dependent on the outcome of your performance.
Resentment is persistent bitterness, indignation, or jealousy about a situation or a person.
You’ll recognize frustration when you’re upset or annoyed because you can’t change a situation or meet a goal.
Discomfort is uneasiness, impatience, guilt, or embarrassment.
Tell those affected
To work through it, first identify the physical or emotional space you need, whether it’s the time to get your work done efficiently or a childfree home office. Next, set clear limits to protect that space, Wilding said.
Now you’ll need to tell those who will be affected by your new rule. You may need to tell a friend you’ll no longer answer the phone after 9 pm, tell family members they can’t stare at their phones during dinner, set a timer to prevent your fall down an internet rabbit hole, or ask your boss not to contact you while you’re on vacation.
You can tell your boss with a diplomatic email or talk to your friend in an understanding way. You can play firm parent with the smartphones.
The most important thing: don’t justify, get angry about, or apologize for setting a boundary. Be kind, but firm. You will not budge, Burton said.
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“You are not responsible for the other person’s reaction to the boundary you are setting. You are only responsible for communicating your boundary in a respectful manner,” writes Anne Katherine in her book “Where to Draw the Line: How to Set Healthy Boundaries Every Day” (Fireside, 2000).
“You cannot successfully establish a clear boundary if you send mixed messages by apologizing,” Katherine writes.
Setting boundaries takes practice and determination. “At first you’ll probably feel selfish, guilty, or embarrassed when you set a boundary. Do it anyway,” she writes.
Maintain the boundary
You’ll most likely have to reinforce your boundary again and again before you see change. After awhile, though, maintaining the limits you’ve set will feel natural, Burton said. Let people know when they have stepped over a boundary.
“Practice maintaining a calm, pleasant, and straightforward tone when you speak to people about your boundaries,” she added.
If the behavior continues, ask the person to stop. If it still continues, insist they stop. As a last resort, be willing to distance yourself or end a friendship if necessary, Burton said.
Include your boss
It’s tempting to shy away from setting boundaries at work. Setting boundaries with your boss can feel like you’re putting your job on the line. But when it comes to separating your remote work from your home life, work boundaries are necessary, Burton said.
“Continual or last-minute expectations of working late or on weekends at the expense of your personal plans or vacation time may constitute a boundary you don’t like crossed,” she said. “A boss who prods into your personal business may be a boundary that you don’t want crossed.”
Decide which work boundaries are worth protecting and which ones you are willing to bend. Then, come up with a communication strategy, she advised.
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“If your boss regularly calls you at home, you might sit down with her and ask how you can get everything she needs before you end your workday,” Burton said.
Maybe the answer is a five-minute, end-of-day wrap up conversation. Explain you understand she may still have questions after hours, but your personal time is important to your quality of life.
“Remember, you can say just about anything to anyone if you master the art of saying it nicely,” Burton noted. “We teach others about how we wanted to be treated when we set and protect our boundaries. The people who learn and respect those boundaries will be the people who enrich your life.”
Boundary setting can be a challenge. But healthier, happier work-life balance is only a boundary away.
Jean Thilmany is a freelance writer in Saint Paul, Minn.