As the modern workplace undergoes radical shifts, employees are reexamining their work habits, both big and small. Many of us have realized that we need a much greater work-life balance.
Especially because so many of us are choosing to work from home at least part of the time, it’s important that we create and maintain healthy boundaries around work — so that we can deliver our best results and still have plenty of time left over to live the rest of our lives.
Boundaries are Healthy
Ideally, we wouldn’t have to speak up about our boundaries at all. We’d simply set our work hours and stick to them, without anyone infringing upon our schedules or our priorities. This is not the case for most of us. When it comes to human relationships, healthy boundaries are a necessary part of co-existing, and co-working, together.
Some of my clients, especially those who fear confrontation or conflict, are afraid to verbally communicate their boundaries for fear of offending anyone or creating conflict that might get out of control. But if we can learn to articulate our boundaries gracefully, and stick to them, we can enjoy the great benefits that they bring to our work and our peace of mind.
Setting good boundaries with coworkers is a good place to start. Each of us is hired to do a specific job, role, and particular duties. Ideally, these are spelled out clearly from the get-go, so that there is no mistake about who handles what (and make sure to ask for clarity when you’re starting a new role!).
While it’s natural for there to be some slight blurring of these lines as we work together with others, especially on shared tasks that may demand our particular skillset take the lead, it’s crucial that you don’t take on more than you can actually handle.
Overload is a direct route to burnout and you won’t be helping anyone, especially yourself if you crash and burn. That’s where healthy work boundaries come in. Here are three phrases to help you set healthy work boundaries with coworkers.
1. “The best way I can contribute is to stay focused on the tasks I’m currently working on.”
This might be the hardest to say, but it’s the most important one to have in your repertoire. Nothing works better for fending off a huge dump of work that could burn you out. Reminding the person that you already have a sizable task (or tasks), and that you must stay focused in order to accomplish it, can convey that you are heavily invested in the project and its outcome.
This is different from giving someone the quick brush-off with no explanation, which can make you seem selfish, or even lazy. Especially if the work you produce is typically high-quality and appreciated, this one might also make your coworker think twice about bothering you again with a giant extra workload, for fear of distracting you from the crucial piece you bring to the project.
2. “I don’t think I’m the best fit for this task. I recommend checking with _______ who knows a lot more about it.”
If you already know that your workload is too heavy to onboard the new skill set that a particular task requires, pass it along to someone who can handle it, such as someone who is already well-versed in those skills. Running to catch up on what is required to even start the task is not a good strategy for producing your best work without burning out.
There’s no shame in passing the buck, as long as you pass it to a good candidate who fits the bill (and as long as your own work is high-quality so that you can justify shifting the load). The person who lands the extra task may even thank you for sending it their way, as it gives them an opportunity to shine. But even if they don’t you can certainly volunteer to help them out with something else when the time comes.
3. “That isn’t my concern right now. I know you can get the job done, and I believe in you.”
There are times when it’s completely appropriate to jump in and help out on a project that is not actually yours, especially if the person asking for your help has an emergency, is going on vacation or has covered you in a similar way in the past. This is not for those people. This is for the coworker who is hopeless with time management and actively seeks to make others take on their slack. The best way to fend off their attack is to send them on their way with a firm “no” and a blessing. Who knows, they might appreciate your faith in them so much that they actually try to live up to it!
Keep in mind that you may have to repeat your boundaries over and over to certain people. Also, keep in mind that the quickest way to sabotage your own boundaries is to say “no” and then do it anyway. You’re sending a message that your boundaries shouldn’t be taken seriously, which is a dangerous precedent. Be polite but firm, and throw in a smile to soften the blow if you think it will help. Just hold the line, and keep it strong.
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Alicia Dara is a nationally recognized speech and presentation coach based in Seattle. She has helped thousands of people including CEO’s, Global VPs, Executive Directors and Presidential candidates break through blocks, find their Power Voice, and put it to work. She gives private lessons and group trainings. Her most popular group training is "Power Voice for Career Women", which helps women strengthen their voices, clarify their messaging, and push back against workplace sexism. Corporate clients include Microsoft (where she is a vendor), Amazon, Kimpton Hotels, Planned Parenthood, The Riveter, and Carhartt. Private clients include the National Women's Political Caucus, the Female Founders Alliance, and members of Facebook, Merrill Lynch, Seattle Trade Commission, Windermere, and Twitter.