Ever worked late to get ahead on a project or not taken leave because you don’t want to let your team down? Or perhaps worked over capacity to show you were grateful for the ‘opportunity’? Or even worked all hours to meet unrealistic deadlines because you didn’t feel you could speak up?
Then it’s likely that you are ignoring your boundaries at work.
Whilst we often set strong boundaries at home around what we are and aren’t comfortable with, often we neglect to extend our boundaries in work. This often comes from a need to be accommodating and ultimately people-please which is what many of us were taught from a young age 1.
For women in particular, there’s an added expectation to people-please due to the socialisation of women in many different cultures to be caretakers, be passive, and put others first. Therefore saying no, setting boundaries, or challenging authority can mean that women can be seen as aggressive and difficult, when it’s most likely that men aren’t seen that way, making it a gendered issue 2.
Common examples of women being accommodating in the workplace is accepting what is known as ‘office housework’. This can include organising and shopping for leaving gifts, arranging Christmas Parties, Secret Santa, and nights out, writing up meeting minutes, and serving on committees. But by spending energy and time on these tasks, women are not spending time on the projects or work that could accelerate their careers, ensure they’re in the running for the next promotion, or secure that pay rise. Office housework is invisible, has an under-appreciated value 3 and ultimately focusses their attention elsewhere 4.
The issue of ‘office housework’ can also extend outside of gender roles. Frequently, during Black History Month, Black people are asked and sometimes expected to ignore their boundaries by sharing their stories, organising events, and speak on panels. All of this can mean they expend a lot of emotional labour and effort speaking about past and current experiences which may be difficult and potentially traumatic to share. There is an expectation that they will step up (often at very late notice) and take the lead in addition to their daily workloads without any additional compensation. Often the decision makers in these situations mean well, but placing an undue burden on Black people over one month isn’t the right approach as it can lead to emotional burnout. Therefore, sharing the workload across all colleagues, highlighting positive stories, adequately compensating those who choose to take part, and finally respecting those who do not wish to take part is a key part of being an ally and respecting people’s boundaries during Black History Month 5.
So why does this happen?
Simply women are asked to do these tasks more often! The woman is often more likely to say yes because they feel guilty if they refuse; all of which stems from our expectations that they will accept the task and say yes 6.
Organisations also don’t assign ‘office housework’ tasks equitably in the first place. We all have deep biases which influence our expectations around the roles that men and women play, but also around their perceived value 7. It is these unconscious biases which we all have around deeply rooted prejudices, assumptions, beliefs and expectations of others which means that this issue can be challenging to change. Our Unconscious Bias Workshops are delivered alongside key topics such as microaggressions, allyship and more, all of which is part of a focussed training programme which delivers on these issues to bring about positive change and real benefits.
Why are boundaries important?
Having strong boundaries in place protects your wellbeing, time, and stress levels. If you don’t have any work boundaries then you can end up on a journey towards burnout and ultimately needing significant time off work to recover.
Our boundaries are individual to us and will vary across our colleagues, our managers, and any direct reports. Often they can be different in various contexts such as work and home, and will often evolve and change over time as we do. Sometimes, others only become aware of our boundaries when someone has overstepped them; for example, one colleague may not take a lunch break but another one does, and when the first colleague arranges a meeting during the second colleague’s lunch hour, they appear surprised when their request is declined 8.
How do we set boundaries at work?
There are three steps to setting boundaries:
Having that conversation around boundaries is vital. If we don’t communicate what we want, others simply won’t know our boundaries and will likely continue to overstep them. Our EMPOWER and THRIVE programmes introduce some fantastic tools for planning and having those difficult conversations.