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Work-life boundaries: establish them ahead of time

How do you manage the unspoken expectation of managers for employees to be available beyond working hours? Learn the difference between rules and boundaries, and the importance of setting and adhering to realistic boundaries.

Suzanne Lucas
Suzanne Lucas

Suzanne, the Evil HR Lady, shares expertise, guidance, and insights based on 10+ years of experience in corporate human resources....

work-life balance boundaries

There’s an aspect of culture that almost all managers lie about during job interviews – and that’s how fast they expect you to respond outside of regular working hours.

I’ve yet to see a job posting that states, “This position requires you to be on call 24/7. Don’t think that just because it’s Saturday evening and you’ve got Taylor Swift Tickets that your boss won’t demand you drop everything and do that report!”

Nope. They talk about their great work-life balance and flexible schedules!

Some bosses are great and don’t disturb you unless it is a true emergency, while others consider everything to be an emergency and expect you to respond right now.

Can you effectively build boundaries if you’ve got the latter for a boss? Maybe.

I’d love to give a resounding yes, but some bosses are beyond reason and not trainable. But others, you can handle, and here’s what you need to do.

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Rules vs. boundaries

Many people mess these up and think they are setting boundaries, but in reality, they are just creating rules. A rule is just that – a rule and people often treat rules like speed limits: something they’ll comply with if there’s a police officer in the area, but otherwise, they do what they want.

When you tell your boss, “Don’t contact me after 5 p.m. or on weekends,” you’re making a rule. And you have no authority to make rules – you’re the employee after all – and your boss will go speeding right past it.

A boundary, on the other hand, is about behavior. Your behavior, not that of your boss.

So, a boundary would look like this: “I turn my work phone off when I leave the office, so I won’t be reachable.” And then you do just that.

That’s a boundary. Your boss can try to violate it, but if your phone is off; it’s off.

You can choose whatever boundary works for you.

“I’ll check my email occasionally, but I’ll only respond in the case of a true emergency.”

Or: “I turn my phone off when I go to sleep so anything after that will wait until morning.”

But the key point in boundaries is carrying them out. You can say, “I won’t check my phone on the weekend,” but if you keep checking your phone on the weekend, you haven’t set a boundary. You’ve just set a rule that even you aren’t following.

Setting realistic work-life boundaries

Just what is a reasonable expectation in a job? Well, that depends on the job. If you work in public relations and one of your clients goes viral for a very bad thing, you must set aside everything and fix it, even if you have the aforementioned Taylor Swift tickets. It’s tough, but that’s your job.

But, if you work as a grocery store cashier, it’s perfectly reasonable to say that your time off is your time off and you’ll be in the next time you’re on the schedule.

You need to determine what is reasonable for your job and industry. A general rule is that the more money you earn, the more responsive you’re expected to be. Sometimes that gets flipped, and managers expect their entry-level people to bust their buns at all times, but that shouldn’t be the case. Push back.

So, it’s not just about setting a boundary and keeping to it; it’s about setting a reasonable boundary.

A great time to talk about work-life boundaries is after you’ve gotten a job offer and before you accept it. Make it clear what you’ll do and see how they react.

If they react negatively, that’s a good sign that this isn’t the job for you. If they react positively at that point and later push back, you can refer back to the original conversation. “If you recall, I told you I won’t be available on weekends, and you agreed.”

When a rule smash occurs

So, you let your boss know you don’t work weekends and you get an urgent phone call or text message anyway. How do you handle it?

  • Evaluate: Is this a true emergency or can it wait?
  • If it’s a true emergency caused by unpredictable events: Handle it.
  • It’s a true emergency caused by other’s failure to plan: Evaluate if this is the hill you want to die on. It’s easy to say you won’t fix it, but there can be real consequences to your career.
  • If it’s not a true emergency: Say, “This can wait until Monday.” And then wait until Monday.

Now, the problem with handling the true emergency caused by someone else is that they will expect you to do it again and again.

But if you can anticipate these emergencies, set the rule early so that you can see this is going down a bad path and, therefore, you will not be available, and then don’t be. Turn your phone off. Don’t answer. Don’t let anything get marked as read.

If your boss freaks out when you refuse to handle something that isn’t an emergency, you’ll have to remain firm. Handle it first thing when you’re back at work.

And if your boss punishes you for this? Well, then you’ll have to make a decision: Is this job worth it? Because sometimes that answer is yes, and sometimes it’s no.

If you are consistent in holding your boundaries on non-emergency events and responding to true emergencies caused by unpredictable circumstances, most rational bosses and coworkers will learn to take a chill pill.

But some people won’t, and sometimes those people fire you for not being a “team player.” And then you have to make a choice.

Whatever you choose is fine – do what’s best for you. But, unfortunately, sometimes firmly-held work-life boundaries don’t go over well with boundary stompers. It would be great if we could set boundaries and hold them, and everyone would get in line.

But sometimes, the only way to do that is to go no contact. That works for bad mothers-in-laws, but you need your paycheck, so you may have to bend until you can find a new job if your boss falls in that category.

It’s never an easy balance, but it’s made easier if you set expectations by establishing clear work-life boundaries ahead of time – and perhaps you won’t have to find yourself in this quagmire to begin with.

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