If you’re not among the millions of unemployed workers, you may find yourself in another category—those left to pick up the slack. Suddenly your boss is lecturing you about how it’s time for “all hands on deck” while you struggle to keep your head above water. Your workload was challenging before the pandemic, but now you’re juggling multiple roles and still trying to keep a smile on your face. The whole time thinking that, well, this isn’t what you signed up for. It’s not easy to push back at work—especially if you’re a people pleaser—but sometimes it’s necessary. When work intrudes on your personal life, it can cause spikes of stress that lead to a host of adverse effects, including insomnia. One recent study co-written by a team of researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign concluded that control over work-life boundaries creates a crucial buffer to manage after-hours work stress. By learning to set boundaries with your boss, you’ll work smarter, avoid burnout and feel more in control of your career.
Prioritize your values
Knowing what is important to you is the first step in learning how to set boundaries. Start by asking yourself what you need to protect your happiness at work. Notice the times you feel stressed or overwhelmed. If you feel discomfort, resentment, or guilt, it could signify that a boundary has been violated. For example, if family is your priority and you’re assigned a project where you’ll be working day and night for the next six months, that could be a game-changer.
Once you have your priorities and values identified, communicate them clearly and often. It could be as simple as letting your boss know that you’re not answering emails after 9 pm. It’s also a good idea to inform your team what constitutes an emergency, so you aren’t bothered unnecessarily during off-hours. Use technology to your advantage. Some examples include blocking off time on your calendar for research, putting an away message on Slack or leaving a detailed out of office email message when you’re on vacation.
Prepare to negotiate
With the employment landscape changing rapidly, renegotiating your position or responsibilities is becoming more common. When your manager approaches you with yet another project, clarify why they want it done. This approach will help you avoid an immediate emotional response and engage your rational brain. Remember that just because you don’t have the leverage of hierarchical authority doesn’t mean you have no leverage at all. Leverage comes in many forms, including expertise and positive relationships. Set up a meeting to discuss your overall workload and then explain how long various projects actually take. Set boundaries by presenting solutions and focus on finding a win-win situation.
Frame your response
By positively framing your case, your manager will be more receptive to your suggestions. If your boss makes an unreasonable request, try not to respond with phrases like “I’m really burned out” or “I have too much on my plate right now.” That type of language tends to sound negative and self-centered. Instead, frame your response in terms of how your other projects or customers will be affected. Make it relevant to the company and your manager rather than about you. Clarify that if you take on project A, you won’t have enough time to focus on project B.
It’s inevitable that at some point, someone will violate your boundaries. Be prepared by deciding in advance how you’re going to handle the situation. Imagine different scenarios. Perhaps your boss asks you to work on a project all weekend when you already promised your children you’d take them camping. How will you respond? Think of examples like this and practice so that you’re ready for any circumstance that arises.
Concerns around being demoted or fired may make it difficult to set boundaries with your boss. The reality is that this process takes time and practice. Undoubtedly, boundaries will get crossed. Instead of viewing those situations as setbacks, consider them opportunities to improve your ability to set limits. If you can set boundaries at work, it can make the difference between burnout and professional fulfillment.