7 Tips for Setting Boundaries With Work

7 Ways to Improve Your Work-Life Balance

Our reality isn’t totally bleak. According to Carter, “We can decide to set the boundaries we need. We can change our culture. We change our culture all the time — that’s what we do as humans.”

And while cultural change is important, it’s important that we each define what we want work-life balance to look like for ourselves. “Work-life balance looks different from one person to the next, based on job requirements, stress levels, family and friend obligations, and other external factors that weigh on work-life balance,” says Sammie Moss, MD, a psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente in Denver.

Here are seven tips to get you started thinking about how to push for better work-life balance for you:

1. Use Technology in Smarter Ways

It’s not just a matter of willpower and not frequently checking our devices, especially since our brains are hardwired to want the social information that emails and other notifications bring, Carter says. That alert might mean you received an invitation from a friend or good feedback from your boss — or it might be an ad from Pottery Barn. You want to know about the good news, so you keep checking, she explains. “It’s like gambling.”

We need spaces where we don’t — and can’t — check our phones, she says. Start by reinforcing the norm to not have phones at the dinner table, during family time, or during meetings, or to limit email and social media checking to scheduled times during the day.

If you’re working from home and can’t move to a new physical space after work where you don’t check email or phone alerts, decide on a time to turn them off for the day or stop checking.

The technology itself isn’t good or bad. Email, social media, and instant messaging are tools that we need to learn to use more effectively. A hammer can be essential for certain tasks, Carter says, “But you wouldn’t walk around all day banging it away at everything.”

2. Establish Boundaries and Predictable Time Off

There used to be physical and time boundaries that helped keep work and life apart, Carter says. We need to reinstate boundaries that both employers and employees respect.

“People need predictable time off work,” Carter says.

If you’re a remote worker and a commute no longer separates work from home, pick a routine to fill that time. “I have dogs that need to go out around 5:45 p.m., so I need to close my computer at that time,” Carter says. Other good options to end your workday and separate the rest of the evening include: a workout, a scheduled exercise class, or taking a walk.

Adding to the problem is “on-demand” scheduling, which Pfeffer says is increasingly used by retailers and other companies that employ hourly workers. Sophisticated algorithms create the schedule based on predictions of when that store might be busy. Employees might know their schedule a week ahead of time or two days ahead. The irregularity makes time off difficult to plan.

While there are many of these structural problems that need to be fixed, Pfeffer says, you can act on your own behalf now by using the vacation days you already have — and staying logged off all devices and platforms during that time.

3. Make Time for Yourself During the Work Day

“Make sure you incorporate some time for yourself on a daily basis,” Dr. Moss says. Even better, carve out some time — as little as 10 to 15 minutes — during the work day. “It can be something as simple as allowing a little time to relax on the couch, getting in a quick workout like a walk around the block or the office on your lunch break, 15 minutes of meditation, or any activity that you know makes you feel better.”

Many employers won’t mind if you take a short break, as long as your work is getting done in a reasonable time frame.

4. Don’t Mistake a ‘Flexible Schedule’ for Being Available 24/7

Working for a company that allows flexible hours might mean that you can leave the office (or home office) at 3 p.m. for a doctor’s appointment, as long as you can log those last couple of hours of work from home, says Rebecca Zucker, an executive coach and partner at Next Step Partners, a leadership development firm in San Francisco.

It doesn’t mean that you need to be available all night long. You need to establish with your colleagues what they should expect from you, Zucker says. “If you are replying to email at 10 p.m. or midnight, you are developing the expectation that you’re available at that time,” she says. Instead, set boundaries, make them known, and stick to them.

5. Have the Tough, Productive Conversation With Your Employer

How do you set the boundaries you want your colleagues to respect when you’re not in the corner office? “You set a mutually beneficial goal that both parties can get behind,” Zucker says, such as recognizing that both you and your manager want to meet monthly deadlines, and that it helps everyone to do it in a way that’s sustainable, which means you don’t feel as if you’re always working.

When having that conversation, acknowledge good intentions behind those actions, and express the effect those actions have on you, she adds. Your manager may email at 11 p.m. because she wants to get a particular task off her plate, but she may not expect you to necessarily answer at all hours of the night, Zucker says.

6. Try to Find Work That Satisfies You and Aligns With Your Values

Work-life balance isn’t just about drawing clear lines between your 9-to-5 and your personal life; it’s also about the relationship between work and your well-being. A study published in 2022 in Industrial Health found that that better job quality — a combination of job satisfaction, job security, and salary — was associated with better physical and mental health, as well as better self-reported well-being.

Another study published in 2023 found that doing things in line with one’s values — which are different for everyone — was associated with increased well-being the next day.

“Engaging in values-aligned work significantly enhances career satisfaction,” says Ryan Sultan, MD, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University and the director of Integrative Psych in New York City. “This alignment leads to a sense of purpose, increasing motivation and overall job fulfillment.” In his research, Dr. Sultan has found that when individuals find alignment between their values and their professional environment, they experience less work stress and higher job satisfaction.

If you’d like to make your current job more values-aligned but don’t know how, Sultan recommends reflecting on how your core values might align with various parts of your job, and communicating with your supervisors or HR representative about how you might align your role more closely with your values while also carrying out your job responsibilities.

7. Recognize That Societal Changes Need to Happen From the Top Down, Too

Pfeffer says most individual employees are in a tough spot when it comes to work-life balance. He says the best-case scenario when you’re in a position where you feel overloaded by work and home is to quit that job and find an employer that will treat you better. But for most people, that’s not a realistic option, he adds.

“Employers have a responsibility to steward their human resources just like they worry about recycling, endangered species, and other societal problems,” Pfeffer says. That means companies should make sure that employee responsibilities reasonably fit into working hours, as well as giving employees paid time off and access to high quality health insurance.

“If we’re serious about solving the problem,” Pfeffer says, “employers need to do their part, too.”

With additional reporting by Kate Lucey.

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