How to… Recognise boundaries and set limits at work

Have you heard the fable of the frog and the boiling water? The story tells us that a frog placed in a pot of boiling water jumps straight out. If, however, the frog is placed in lukewarm water it will stay there even when the temperature increases.

The frog can’t recognise the gradual change and will eventually boil to death. Like all fables, it provides a morbid, yet important, lesson that we can apply to our working lives. That is, without recognising our limits and implementing boundaries that protect these limits, we too may find ourselves in an untenable position that compromises our health and wellbeing.

What are boundaries? Government legislation, cultural practices, corporate policies or workplace procedures are examples of professional boundaries. They are tangible, definitive and universal, providing a baseline of minimum standards and expectations.

Personal boundaries are more complex as they are intangible and elastic, changing according to our situation or environment. Founded on our background, values and beliefs, personal boundaries provide the ‘why’ behind our own standards and expectations. It’s why some people want to work in excess of 60 hours a week and why the perfectionist isn’t happy with a result of 99% when their target is 80%.

Why they matter. The governing boundaries of traditional workplaces are changing with the growth of flexible working conditions and technology advancements. Today you can work anywhere at any time, but for some, it’s becoming work everywhere, all the time. Implementing personal boundaries is your way of looking after yourself and what matters to you. It’s recognising when you need to jump out of that boiling pot.

Recognising Limits

1. Listen to your body

During your workday have you ever felt stressed, anxious, confused, disrespected or unhappy but had no idea why? These are physical and emotional cues that something isn’t right.

2. Identify the event

Consider what preceded these uncomfortable feelings by looking at the who, what, where and when.

3. Analyse the cause

Ask yourself:

• If I changed any of the event factors (eg. day, location, task) would I feel better?
• What do I value that is currently at stake?
• How would I have liked this event to have turned out?
• Would I feel any different if the roles were reversed?

4. Define the limit

Armed with the relevant emotions, events and causes, document the issue so you are clear to yourself what your limits are.

Example: I feel stressed when a client calls me on Saturday afternoons. I feel obligated to respond, but doing so compromises my family time. I would prefer clients only contact me during normal business hours.

Implementing Boundaries

1. Prepare a plan

What steps can YOU take that will prevent your limits from being reached? Consider any exceptions or special circumstances. The focus is understanding what’s within your power to control.

Example: Communicate working hours to clients, set up a message bank to answer calls outside business hours and process unanswered calls during work hours.

2. Build confidence with practice

Rehearse your response when a boundary has been crossed. Not only will it make you feel more empowered and at ease when it occurs, it also minimises the emotional reaction as you’re not caught off-guard.

3. Effectively communicate

Be open and honest but don’t lose focus that the basis of your relationship is work. Communicate in a manner that reflects professionalism, priorities and a recognition of the party’s needs and position without compromising your own.

When we set boundaries and communicate these we are setting expectations and a standard of self-management and care. Leading by example, we encourage others to implement the same in their lives, which will hopefully ensure they too become a frog who knows when to jump!

Written by Sarah McKiernan 

You can find Sarah McKiernan from The Work-Life Balance over on her Website, Facebook or Instagram.

Main image by Julie Chiles Photography.

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