Setting boundaries is key to preserving a person’s mental health. In a busy world where time is limited, it’s an exercise in making space for what’s most valuable in one’s professional and personal life.
It can be a particularly critical for women and minority groups.
Women often struggle to set boundaries for reasons ranging from a lack of confidence, to a desire, primed from a young age, to be helpful team players and carers. They already have less time than men to spend on ancillary activities because of the many more hours they spend doing “productive unpaid work” at home, like childcare and household management. Little requests like being asked to help out at a school event or to offer their expertise without pay and outside of work hours tend to stack up, and women often find their lives run by the needs of others, rather than their own. For them, setting boundaries means preserving precious free time and their energy for what they value.
For people of color, setting boundaries is not just a matter of creating limits around time or space—it can often mean setting guardrails against microaggressions, stereotyping, or even overt racism. They can face extra scrutiny for setting those limits. “Protecting Black lives means safeguarding not only from police and systemic trauma, but also being guarded in the ways we interact with the world, our white affiliates, Black folks, and even ourselves,” writes entrepreneur Bria Brown as part of a guide to creating those limits.
Ultimately, learning how to say “no” more is about emotional and physical freedom, says author Alexandra Elle, and staying true to yourself. “Boundary work is liberation.” Here are some tips on how to do so with conviction.
“Healthy boundaries can make the difference between professional fulfillment or burn out. They are the physical, emotional, and mental limits you create to protect yourself from overcommitting, being used, or behaving in unethical ways. Boundaries separate what you think and feel from the thoughts and feelings of others.”
—Melody Wilding, How to set healthy boundaries at work
WHY SET BOUNDARIES?
For Paula Allen, setting boundaries is about preserving time for the variety of activity and scenery that is so critical to our mental health, whether it’s socializing, spending time with our family, going for a walk, or traveling.
As the senior vice-president for research and total wellbeing at employee engagement firm LifeWorks, she observed the effect that the pandemic had on restricting people’s ability to switch things up. This in turn impacted their ability to set boundaries around their work, and deal with anxiety around what was happening. “All of a sudden, our world became small. That was a huge part of our stress. Even those people who didn’t work more hours—they were in a worse place because they didn’t have the variety of outlets.”
Allen’s research has shown that mental health took a “precipitous decline” during the pandemic as a result. As life starts to return, preserving the experiences that give us variety—from interacting with colleagues, to going to the theater, to cooking or spending time with our family and friends—will be a priority for many people. Just as a balanced diet helps with your physical health, “you need that balance and variety and experience in order to have a healthy mind,” she says. Not having that ability to reset can make you more likely to develop anxiety and burnout.
Allen advises people who struggle to set boundaries to frame them as a business imperative—it’s really about protecting your productivity. She suggests this approach can be particularly helpful for women and minorities. “As uncomfortable as those conversations might be, they are necessary. It might take a while to rehearse them. It might take a while to feel confident,” she says. “But if you are not in a good place, if you’re overwhelmed, you are not going to deliver well. You’re protecting what people are paying you for. And thinking about it in those terms feels a little bit safer than focusing on the individual.”
TRY A BOUNDARY AUDIT
You get an email over the weekend from your boss asking you a question about an important project you’re working on. Do you:
a) Answer the email immediately with a response to their question,
b) Answer the email to say you’ll respond on Monday, or
c) Read the email, and commit to not answering until Monday morning?
The answer, ideally, is none of the above, according to Penelope Jones, a UK-based career coach. In an ideal world, you will not have noticed the email in the first place, because your boss would already know that you don’t read emails on the weekend.
“Essentially, boundaries are a set of rules that communicate how we want to be treated, what we value and think is important, and what we want to protect,” says Jones. “A good boundary is neither too rigid or too porous. It’s about recognizing that the sweet spot for a healthy boundary has just enough flex to enable us to function.” In the exercise above, for example, you could set a standard for exceptions—that you’re OK with a rare phone call if something work-related is urgent.
Boundaries aren’t just work constructs. They’re the point between “when one person stops and another person starts,” and allow us to protect our energy in all settings and relationships. To help create them, Jones suggests starting with a “boundary audit,” which might look like this:
- Ask yourself: What’s the behavior or context preventing me from functioning in the ideal way I’d like, and is it in the realm of “time, tech, talk, or touch”? Am I running out of time to do things? Am I spending too much time on my phone, or at work? Am I uncomfortable with the way I’m being spoken to, or touched?
- Articulate for yourself “exactly what you find unacceptable, and the request you’re making.”
- Then, communicate your boundary clearly, and as soon as possible. Don’t be defensive. If you feel uncomfortable, think about who might benefit from the boundaries you’re setting: a junior employee, for example, who might be inspired to do the same for themselves.
- Finally, consider the consequences for your boundaries being overstepped. That could be as simple as restating the boundary. “Boundary predators rely on you being passive,” Jones says. “Think about what you want to achieve: Are you asking them to change their behavior, start doing something new, or accept a change in your behavior? Think about basing your response on what the desired outcome is.”
Boundary setting doesn’t have to be an outright no. It can be approached as a negotiation, using what’s described as “can/if” thinking. Either way, it’s a conversation over what’s desirable, rather than what’s possible, says Jones.
The responsibility of companies
There’s an entire academic world devoted to the tactics people use to manage their work and non-work roles. It’s called boundary management theory, and the pandemic has been fertile ground for researchers.
Researchers such as Tammy Allen, a distinguished professor in psychology at the University of South Florida, have looked at the way in which “segmentation”—the process of creating physical and psychological boundaries—allowed some people to achieve a sense of work-life balance during Covid.
Yet as much as the focus of boundary-setting starts with the individual, companies have a responsibility to consider their role in employee’s ability to set limitations, Allen says. “The bottom line is it’s really incumbent upon management to work with their employees in a way that enables them to just log off and detach from work. That’s so critical for employee health and wellbeing,” she says. “Employees should be given agency to initiate those conversations…and there needs to be an ongoing channel that permits both the employee and manager to work with one another so that the employee can feel they’re able to be a good family member, while also meeting the needs of the company.”
Here’s further advice on how to set boundaries:
😰 When your boss is a workaholic
🐛 When you’re facing “scope creep”
🤝 While still being seen as a team player
Have a great weekend,
—Jackie Bischof, talent lab editor (who commits to only saying yes outright in improv settings for now)
One 🌴 Thing
At Quartz we’re a little obsessed with the vacation response email, from making your auto reply a Robert Frost poem to directing all emails sent while on vacation straight to trash. Here are a few more inspiring approaches (send your own to email@example.com!)