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Have you tried doing less? Setting boundaries at work

Have you ever felt pressured by a client, or your boss, when they’ve asked you to work a few more hours? Have you ever stuck at work a bit longer to finish off a task, or to meet a deadline - and how regularly does that happen? What about checking your work emails when you’re not at work?

Whether you work for a company, or work for yourself, it’s likely that you’ve encountered at least one of these situations. You might have even told yourself that there’s no harm in working a little longer just this once. But what if it doesn’t stop at ‘just this once’? It’s time to talk about boundaries in business. 

Where did the way we work come from?

When we think about setting boundaries in business, it’s helpful to look at our idea of work, and where these ideas came from.

Before the eighteenth century the vast majority worked for themselves, and were able to set their own working hours. Before the invention of the lightbulb, these working hours were also determined by the sun; if it was light, you could work, if it was dark, you could not. 

Then came the industrial revolution. Suddenly independent manufacturers couldn’t keep up with factories, and as such, factories started to set working hours. Not surprisingly, these were as long as possible in order to maximise profit. Labour unions fought against this, claiming that it wasn’t possible to work this long and this often; at this stage, workers were doing 10 hour or 16 hour shifts, six days a week.

Eventually, Henry Ford found that his workers were more productive working eight hour shifts for five days than eight hour shifts for six - and this is the origin of the 40 hour week. A whole bunch of other manufacturing businesses adopted this practice, and so we end up with 8 hours a day, five days a week being the norm. 

What’s changed in the way we work

The way that we work has changed significantly between then and now, but there are a couple of important changes when it comes to setting boundaries. One is that when the 40 hour work week was decided, the vast majority of households were single-income. That meant that stay-at-home wives could do the household labour, including childcare. 

For the majority of families, it’s no longer possible to live on a single income. As such, the adults in the household have to work - but the household labour and childcare still needs to be done. 

Additionally, we can now take our work home with us. We’re no longer putting work down completely when we leave our workspaces; work is on our phones, and our computers. Remote working has changed the landscape of the workplace, and we’re working more and more out of the office - whether we’re getting paid for it or not.

What does this all mean for setting boundaries?

So the way that we work is very different compared to the industrial era, but the 40 hour work week is still considered the default. We’re also looking after households and children, and we’re more expected to pick up work outside of the office. 

Setting boundaries with clients, management and ourselves is increasingly important because working has become increasingly accessible, and our responsibilities have increased too. This means we have to know when to say yes to a request, when to say no, and how to communicate that in a healthy way.

Without setting boundaries, we’re more likely to overwork and potentially burnout. According to a study by the CDC, regularly working overtime is likely to lead to, ‘poorer perceived general health, increased injury rates, more illnesses, or increased mortality’ as well as associations with increased alcohol intake, smoking and decreased mental health. 

How to set boundaries for yourself, your team and your business

Setting boundaries is important, but how do we do it, and when? It starts with respect; acknowledging and respecting the value of yourself, your team and your business. When we’re valuing ourselves, we’re not seeking approval from our boss, our colleagues or our clients by saying ‘yes’ to something that we actually want to say ‘no’ too. 

We need to respect our own time, and the time of our team and our business. This means that we need to be aware that saying ‘yes’ to every request that is asked of us means that we’re saying ‘no’ to something else in our lives. This could be household labour, leisure time, connecting with our partners and friends, or taking the space for ourselves. 

When it comes to setting boundaries with a client, a boss, or a colleague, we need to think about what we’re asking for, and whether it is reasonable. A great place to start is your job description, or the client’s contract. Is the thing you’re being asked for in a document that has been signed by you, or the client? If it isn’t, then it might be time to set a boundary.

When communicating a boundary, don’t enter into a negotiation, don’t apologise, and stick to the facts. Start with your boundary, ‘I’m not able to do that for you,’ and restate your agreement, ‘as it falls outside of our contract/my terms of service/my job description,’ and end on a positive, ‘however I will complete this task for you by this date/in this way’. Avoid arguing with the individual; if you have set a boundary, it is not a negotiation. 

If you find that your boundaries are not being respected, then it may be time to move on. 

Worried about setting boundaries?

When you’re setting boundaries for the first time in a long time, it can feel very uncomfortable. People around you may have developed expectations due to your lack of boundaries before, and asking for something when you’ve been asking for nothing can feel like a big jump. Remember to communicate clearly without apologising, and state what you need; it is the first step towards feeling better.

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