Whether you’re working from home or making the daily commute in to the office, setting boundaries at work can be a challenge.
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From video happy hours and in-office meetings to an increased workload and emails dinging on your phone at all hours of the day, there’s a chance you may feel overwhelmed by what’s expected of you. This not only applies to your work performance, but also to the relationships you build with your coworkers.
“You may have very clear boundaries about how you want to interact with your coworkers,” notes psychologist Kia-Rai Prewitt, PhD. “Some people are intentional about not developing friendships with coworkers. But you may feel very comfortable sharing your life with your coworkers.”
Regardless of your preference, it’s important to set healthy boundaries at work. Dr. Prewitt discusses the value of setting these personal boundaries, along with some tips on how to do it.
Dr. Prewitt shares the following suggestions and tips on how to set boundaries at work.
It can be beneficial to get to know your coworkers — learning more about their personalities, likes and dislikes. You probably have coworkers who are open books — sharing photos of their kids, their vacations, their pets.
But that doesn’t mean you have to do the same.
“You can start with the basics — topics most people are comfortable with — whether you’re a parent, some of your hobbies,” explains Dr. Prewitt. “And take your time. Don’t ask someone something that you wouldn’t want to share yourself.”
And when you share is also important. If you’ve got an important deadline approaching or only have a half-hour for a meeting, the timing might not be right to dive into a conversation about personal drama or issues you may have. Not only can it affect how focused you are, but it can also disrupt your coworkers as well.
“In some situations, it may be appropriate to share some personal information if you need extra time to meet a deadline or reschedule a meeting due to a personal conflict, or in case of emergency,” acknowledges Dr. Prewitt. “However, it isn’t typically appropriate to share personal information in a formal business meeting or with other staff you just met unless personal sharing is part of the agenda like a team-building exercise.”
If you encounter a coworker who frequently shares personal information, your response may vary depending on your interest in engaging in a personal relationship.
“For example, if you would like to become friends, you may suggest setting up a time to meet for coffee or lunch so you have more time to catch up instead of during the workday,” she adds.
Whether you’re happy sharing details of your fun-filled weekend or you’d rather keep your private life private, it’s important to accept what others want to share about their personal lives.
“It’s all about being respectful,” says Dr. Prewitt. “And recognizing that we all have different personalities and comfort levels.”
And keep it professional. It’s important to know the culture of the workplace. Is it the type of place that’s buttoned-up and serious? Or are teambuilding and laughter encouraged?
So, you may want to think twice before sharing that joke you heard from your uncle this weekend. It might not be appropriate for the workplace, no matter how funny you think it is.
“Overall, people want to feel safe, respected and recognized,” states Dr. Prewitt. “You want to work somewhere where it feels like everybody is working toward a mission or the same goal. Take a step back when you want to judge someone who’s doing something differently than what you’re doing. Remember, there’s more than one way to accomplish a task.”
Ah, workplace gossip. It’s hard to avoid. But do your best to stay out of spreading rumors or talking badly about coworkers.
“Even if your intentions are good, it may not come off that way,” stresses Dr. Prewitt. “If you’re spending time talking about other people, it can make your coworkers wonder what you’re saying about them behind their backs. And you may not be viewed as a trustworthy person.”
Participating in office gossip can also create low morale, leading to feelings of anger, frustration and helplessness.
If you have a coworker who comes to you with the latest office drama, what should you do?
“I think being direct with someone is always helpful,” advises Dr. Prewitt. “For example, saying that you prefer not to engage in gossip about coworkers. You can also ask how they know what they’re repeating is true. Or you can state that you are too busy with your own work to focus on what’s going on with someone else.”
You’ve got a major work deadline looming and you feel like you’re working 24/7.
“It’s important to have an honest conversation with your supervisor and your coworkers about expectations,” recommends Dr. Prewitt. “For example, make it known that you typically won’t respond to any emails or text messages after 6 p.m. unless discussed ahead of time.”
Figure out what hours you want to reasonably work — whether that’s 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. or 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. — and make sure you communicate that to your coworkers.
And if you’re working closely with a coworker on a project, it can be beneficial to have periodic check-ins to update each other on deadlines, responsibilities and expectations.
“For example, if your child has a soccer game during the week, let your coworker know when you’ll be unavailable to avoid feeling like you’re on-call while you’re cheering your kid on from the sidelines,” she says.
It can be easy to work straight through lunch. But taking time to eat, run errands or go for a walk outside can help with your work productivity and your overall mood.
This can also help how you react and engage with your coworkers — you’ll feel less stressed, less prone to burnout and more open to receiving feedback or collaborating.
So, whether it’s a full hour lunch or even just a few minutes throughout the day, taking that mental break is beneficial.
“There’s a mindfulness exercise that’s good for those who don’t feel like they have time,” offers Dr. Prewitt. “There are 24 hours in a day, you deserve to take 60 seconds to stop what you’re doing, especially if you typically go from one task to another. So, for 60 seconds, focus on your breathing, connect with your surroundings and take notice of how you feel.”
“When someone crosses your boundaries, even though it can be uncomfortable, it’s important to say something,” says Dr. Prewitt.
And how you frame that conversation is key.
“You want to be specific about the issue. Let the other person know what the issue is, how it hurt or offended you and how you want to move forward,” she continues.
And if you’re dealing with a toxic co-worker, someone who’s passive-aggressive or the issue doesn’t resolve itself, you may need to loop in your supervisor. And you should keep track of interactions — document the date, time and what happened.
“If you ever feel harassed or bullied by a coworker or feel a particular coworker is continually making you feel uncomfortable, it’s important to inform your supervisor,” states Dr. Prewitt. “If you’re experiencing this behavior from your supervisor, going to that person’s supervisor may be necessary. Share as many details about the incident or incidents and ask what the options are to address what’s happening.”
We tend to spend a lot of time with our coworkers — sometimes, more than our families. So, not only do you want to create an environment where you feel safe and respected, but you also want to do the same for your coworkers.
Try to embrace office happy hours and teambuilding events while sharing what makes you comfortable. And don’t forget about how far paying a compliment — whether it’s about a project or something more personal — to a coworker can go toward establishing a solid, trusting relationship.
Overall, setting up boundaries at work can be vital when it comes to helping you navigate different social situations and figuring out when and how to turn to your supervisors if an uncomfortable situation arises.
“It’s important for all employees to feel safe, respected and valued at work, and a policy and structure in place to support this culture is critical,” says Dr. Prewitt.