Managerial Challenges: Setting Boundaries and Priorities in the Workplace


Maintaining boundaries can be challenging in a culture of overwork. In this installment of Dear Helpdesk, learn how to communicate effectively with your boss, prioritize your values, and safeguard your work-life balance.

Dear Helpdesk: Inoculating your work life with IP Wisdom from Infection Control Today.

Dear Helpdesk: Inoculating your work life with IP Wisdom from Infection Control Today.

Dear Help Desk,

How do I deal with my manager's lack of recognition and constant reprimand? I value my life outside of work and refuse to bend to their lack of boundaries, which seems to bother my boss. They have even hinted that I’m not a team player because I refuse to come in on weekends or work crazy hours. Do you have any tips?

--It’s Never Enough

Dear “It’s Never Enough,”

I can hear the exhaustion in your voice. You’re trying to set boundaries, but those boundaries are being continually trampled on. You are giving your all to a job that is always asking more of you. So many of us can relate to that. We live in a culture of blurred lines. Work insidiously sneaks into our family room and the early hours of our morning well before the workday is scheduled to begin.

This obsession with accomplishment permeates the workplace and whispers, “One more minute. Another hour. An extra day.” And soon, before we know it, we’re caught in this rat race of overwork, barreling towards exhaustion. Where are the lines between work and life that define “enough?” in some sense, we’re all reaching for this ever-elusive state of balance between work and life.

But this balance might look different from one person to the next. What matters is what balance and fulfillment look like for YOU. It all depends on where your priorities lie. This is where our conversation on boundaries must begin—with our values.

As we explore what you need to approach your boss, I invite you to reflect on what you value most in your life. What comes to mind for you as you examine the priorities in your life? For some, advancing their career may be their highest priority. Those of us with children in our homes might be in a phase of life where family takes precedence. A college student may prioritize their schoolwork over a social event. And the nearly retired may be focused on preparing the next generation’s workforce. What do you value most in life? Be honest with yourself, and when you find the answer, I challenge you to dig even deeper and ask whether your priorities align well with your values.

You mentioned being asked to work on weekends or crazy hours, but I’m uncertain of all the requests that push your boundaries. Consider taking a moment to write down all the boundaries that you feel are being violated. Which of these are most important to you?

Now, set this aside for a moment. Since I’m uncertain of the context for these requests, I will begin with what may appear obvious to you: Your job requirements. Are any of these requests violating one of your boundaries job requirements that you signed up for when assuming the position? I know it’s obvious and may not be the case for you, but it needs to be said as a starting point. Some people's boundaries are being violated because they took a position that does not align with their values.

I strongly value my family and have chosen to work from home during this phase of my life. If I were to take a job that required me to be in the office, I wouldn’t exactly have the right to complain about not being able to work from home. In this situation, if we see that the job we have chosen does not align with our values, it may be time to start looking into other options. There’s nothing wrong with moving on from a workplace that doesn’t align with your current priorities in life.

Let’s say, however, that none of this is true for you. And judging from the tone of your writing, I don’t believe it is. I believe you are likely working for someone whose values do not align with your own, so you’re conflicting on how much work is “enough” despite the job’s outlined requirements. It’s difficult to see life from the lens of another person’s reality, but I suspect your boss has no ill intentions. They simply have a different set of priorities and values in their life.

Manager hanging over an employee    (AI-created. Credit: author)

Manager hanging over an employee

(AI-created. Credit: author)

The key, and the challenge, is communicating your values, priorities, and boundaries so that your boss and coworkers can see life from your perspective and honor your limits. I invite you to consider the following steps to address your situation.

Identify your boundaries. I’d encourage you to become incredibly clear with your boundaries. Identify which boundaries are most important to you and whether there are any that you could be more flexible with. You could present your entire list of violated boundaries to your boss, but you’re not likely to get very far with this method.

Instead, consider introducing 1 or 2 of the boundaries that you hold most valuable. Since you identified being asked to work on weekends or after hours, this may be what you’re most concerned about, and thus, a good place to begin. I invite you to reflect on the boundaries you’ve created and highlight those you value most. What might prioritizing these boundaries look like for you?

Communicate your boundaries. I am about to make this point so incredibly important that I don’t want anyone to miss it: Boundaries do not exist if we do not communicate them.

If I don’t communicate my boundaries, I cannot be upset with someone for crossing a line they didn’t know existed. Although moral boundaries are exempt from this rule, boundaries we set for ourselves to guard our time and energy must be communicated.

Your conversation with your boss must be carefully thought out and set up beforehand. I suggest asking for a meeting to discuss your boundaries.

You could say, “I really value the time I have with my family, so when I accepted this job, I did so because I knew it was a job where I wouldn’t be required to work weekends. I realize I haven’t communicated these values because I don’t work weekends.”

Your boundary-communicating conversation should allow the other person to understand your unique values, priorities, and boundaries in a nonthreatening manner.

See if you can find a compromise. The best-case outcome of a boundary-communicating conversation is to find a compromise that addresses both parties’ concerns.

You might say, “I understand that sometimes we need to work on weekends because situations such as an outbreak might arise, but otherwise, I’d like to continue reserving my weekends for my family as much as possible.”

Think about what compromises might be appropriate for you at this time so you don’t feel pressured at the moment to make one. Then, offer those compromises up during your conversation as an alternative to what is being requested. It’s ok if your boundaries aren’t flexible, but you need to communicate this as well and verify that what is being requested is not required of you as a part of your job.

Take responsibility for your boundaries. Boundaries are no one’s responsibility but our own. We cannot control other people's behavior; we can only control ourselves. We maintain the fence around our yards. That’s not our neighbor’s responsibility. It’s our own. If someone asks you to do something that oversteps your boundary, it’s up to you to hold it.

You could respond, "I’m sorry, I can’t do that. I don’t work weekends.” People will continue to do what you allow of them. If it’s not required of you and requested, then you’re under no obligation to allow it.

We teach people how to treat us by what we allow. If your colleagues see that you repeatedly remove your boundary by working weekends, they’ll continue asking you to work weekends.

I know someone out there is saying to themselves, “Right, but if I don’t do this, then I might get fired.” Fair point. But if the request is not required of you in your job, what grounds do they have to fire you?

This is where it’s essential to verify that you are not required to do what is asked of you. If your job description says that you’ll be on call every weekend, you can’t refuse to be on call every weekend—it’s what you signed up for.

Consider having a private conversation with Human Resources (HR) to verify whether the additional requests being made are required of you. Then, document every conversation, response, and request made where you hold your boundary, just in case you need to present these to HR in the future.

Be willing to walk away. Boundaries do not always make us the most popular person in the office. You may need to become uncomfortable with not being the most loved employee if you’re working in a culture that values overwork. People who benefit from us not having boundaries become quite upset when we set them for ourselves.

So, in the end, if someone continually violates your boundaries, despite your attempts to communicate and maintain them, you may have to ask yourself if it’s worth staying in a job where your time and energy are being continually disrespected. It may be time to consider moving on to an employer who respects your values, priorities, and boundaries.

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