How to set boundaries at a new job—and why it’s so important

June 7, 2021, 2:30 PM UTC

The Great Shift is upon us. Over 40% of workers around the world are considering leaving their job in 2021, according to Microsoft’s Work Trend Index

Workers around the globe were overworked, underpaid, and burned out even before the pandemic started, but COVID-19 shone a light on the state of things for employees—if they were lucky enough to keep their jobs during the shutdowns. Microsoft’s study showed that one in five workers felt their employers didn’t care about their work/life balance, and over 50% said they felt overworked, while 39% felt “exhausted.” 

But attitudes toward work have been changing for years, and COVID seemed to accelerate that. Social media is awash with posts encouraging workers to establish boundaries and prioritize rest and free time.

Though our culture of über-productivity and work-at-all-costs mentality must be addressed at the highest levels, individuals are antsy to change their everyday lives—and fast. The easiest way to do that, it seems for many, is to change jobs. In those new roles, many workers hope they can set better boundaries and establish the work/life balance that was lacking previously. 

Boundaries “help keep you safe and well,” says Nedra Glover Tawwab, relationship therapist and author of Set Boundaries, Find Peace, adding that they aren’t just for those feeling burned out, but for anyone. 

And setting those boundaries starts before you even begin your job search, according to Paul Wolfe, senior vice president and head of global human resources at Indeed. He compares prepping for a job search with baking a cake: Your must-haves are your eggs, flour, and sugar, and your nice-to-haves are the icing on top. It is important, he says, to make the distinction between the two, so that when you are interviewing, you can ask questions to see clearly whether or not a job is a good fit for you. 

Miecha Ranea Forbes, vice president of people and culture at the Aspen Institute, calls it “knowing thyself.” Whatever it’s called, the experts agree that it’s the first step in finding a job that works for you and your boundaries, whether those are the hours you need to work so you can make it to pick up your daughter from school, or a rule that you don’t answer emails on the weekend, or anything in between. 

“This is as much you figuring out the right place for you as it is the company [figuring out] if you’re right for them,” Wolfe says. During much of the pandemic, when so many Americans were laid off and in desperate need of income, the feel of interview processes shifted away from that mindset, but “we’re back to more of that two-way street now,” he added. 

Aside from asking questions, making your needs and expectations clear is a must, Tawwab and Forbes say. And that starts during the interview process, but continues into the job every day. 

As a young mother, Forbes tried to hide the time constraints that new stage of life brought for her, but it became too much of a strain. 

“It starts to get too messy and stressful, and the stress is not worth it. And there’s a physical price we pay for that stress, so I had to communicate with people,” she said. “One of the most difficult things is you have to stick to what you say because people will learn from you how to engage with you. And then if you are constantly bending the boundaries or being flexible, they’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s really a soft boundary, a preference, but not a big deal.’”   

Tawwab suggests that acting out your boundaries is just as important as speaking them—and is often a good alternative. “I think we can behave our boundaries by not responding to a work text on a Saturday,” she said. “When we respond to it, that’s when we set the standard that you are available, and so then if that person continues to do it on a Saturday, you have set this agreement that it is okay for them to contact you on the weekend.” 

These behaved boundaries, Tawwab says, can be about anything from working outside of your regular or agreed-upon workweek to not giving your personal phone number or social media accounts to coworkers. And if that behaved boundary is challenged, you can work with the challenger—be that your boss, coworker, or someone else—to set up a contingency plan. So if your project partner feels they really need your personal phone number in the case of a work emergency, you can tell them that you are available via email instead. 

Expressing when and how you are available and leaning in during that time is another strategy for asserting your boundaries in a positive way, Forbes says. Overcommunicating your availability and bandwidth should feel empowering and be an asset to those you work with, she says. 

She says she often blocks time off in her calendar, so that technology can be the one to say no to meetings during school pickup or after-dinner leisure time, rather than her having to say it over and over again. That way, the boundary is clear and applies to everyone equally, without Forbes having to actually deliver a “no.”

Wolfe’s favorite tip on how to protect your time and boundaries is to use data wherever you can. If you can measure yourself to show that you are more productive when you work 40-hour weeks rather than 60-hour weeks, or that working from home helps you meet your goals faster than commuting into the office, that will help you make a case to formalize your wants and needs. He even suggests pitching a “pilot,” in which you ask to work in the way you feel is best for you for a limited period of time, then reassess with your manager when it is over. Armed with the data that you collected during that time, which will hopefully show that you are just as good at your job (if not better) when you work on your terms, you are much more likely to be successful in creating the boundaries you crave.

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that your managers are people just like you, Tawwab says. They will often know what it is like to need more downtime to be at their best or have to duck out of work early to pick up their child from school. Asserting boundaries can be scary, but it is important for your well-being—and it’s good for the bottom line. 

“There’s a lot of productivity we can get from a person who just came back from vacation. So I think the more that we start to value rest, relaxation, and really allowing people downtime, the better we’ll be able to retain good employees,” she said. “People like to work in spaces that support them being well.”

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