Ask Avery: How Do I Set Boundaries With My Boss?

Simply ignoring emails or saying “no” to workplace requests won't cut it
HR expert Avery Francis (photo: Avery Francis)

Welcome to CB’s work-advice column, Ask Avery, featuring Avery Francis, founder of workplace design consultancy Bloom. Each month, Francis will answer reader questions on topics that affect our ability to thrive in our jobs, and she’ll offer her real-world insights on how to handle even the most rock-and-a-hard-place conundrums. Have a work-related question? Send it to [email protected] with the subject line “Ask Avery.”

Working from home for many people during the pandemic has led to a blurring of the lines between personal and work lives. Research shows that remote employees have been spending more than two extra hours a day on their computers working since Covid started, and are also facing heavier workloads. Surveys found that people who work from home are taking shorter lunch breaks, working through illness and feel the divide between work and leisure time has faded.

This is a serious problem. When work bleeds into our personal lives, it can have serious effects. Data from the World Health Organization shows overwork can have health consequences, including an increased risk of heart disease and stroke. The stress from too much work wreaks havoc on things like proper sleep, diet and exercise—all pillars of a healthy and balanced life. 

The pandemic has caused many workers to evaluate their relationships with work and strive for better work-life balance. Bolstered by new “right to disconnect” laws in Ontario that require workplaces to limit interactions with employees outside of set work hours, and the growing popularity of four-day work weeks, employees want to create better boundaries with their bosses. 

So how do you do that? The key is to take a conversational and intentional approach with your manager (something the Harvard Business Review and I agree on). Simply ignoring after-hours emails or saying “no” to requests outside the scope of your role isn’t sufficient—and this approach can not only put your job in jeopardy, it also can destroy your working relationships and the trust required for people to respect your boundaries.

Here’s the right way to set boundaries with your boss.

Identify your non-negotiables 

Before you talk to your boss about your boundaries, you need to know what you’re asking for. Instead of naming boundaries ad hoc, like “I don’t respond to emails after 5 p.m.”, start by identifying what you need in order to promote better work-life balance. For example, “I need to pick up my kids from after-school programming, so I will need to be offline from 5 p.m.” is a boundary that helps you ensure you are keeping your personal commitments.  

This approach is effective for two reasons: One, it clearly identifies the “why” behind your boundaries, which is helpful when enforcing them because it gives people context for understanding them, and second, it recognizes and allows for different work styles. It also helps with setting expectations, since you can clearly explain when something will be done if it initially crosses your boundaries. For example, setting a boundary of being offline in the evening means if your boss emails you after 5 p.m. they can expect a response the next morning.  

Name and frame your boundaries 

Once you have that real-life outcome that you want to achieve through setting a work boundary, like making it to your weekly soccer game or doing meditation on your lunch hour, you can start thinking about what you need to achieve it, for example no meetings from noon to 1 p.m. Then ask yourself if those boundaries are realistic in the context of your job and work expectations. Here’s what you can think about: 

The job description

What did you sign up for? You can’t set a boundary that goes against an agreed-upon job requirement or responsibility. For example, if you work in crisis communications and your client needs to reach you at 8 p.m., it may be hard to enforce a no-calls after 5 p.m. policy.

Company policies and values

What does the company promise to offer or act on? What do you promise in return as an employee? For example, if a company policy is to always be available for clients and you are compensated fairly for that expectation, it may be harder to set certain boundaries, like taking 48 hours to respond to emails. If you still need to set a specific boundary, regardless of your role, you need to ensure solutions are in place (like a colleague who covers for you and vice versa) so job promises are kept.

A natural opportunity to address boundaries

Whether there’s an event in your personal life, like suddenly needing to take care of a sick relative, or you’ve been given a promotion or are meeting with your boss for your annual review, natural transition points such as these offer an opportunity to set—or reset—boundaries. You can use any change in circumstance to communicate what you need to be successful in your role, and what that looks like in the workplace.

Make it easy to act on your boundaries 

If you want people to respect your boundaries, you have to respect your own boundaries, too. For instance, if you signed up for a gym class at 6 p.m., don’t make a habit of cancelling it each week in order to get work done after hours. Instead, make it a priority to leave your desk by 5 p.m. so you can maintain some work-life balance.

Create a “Guide to Me”

Write down your boundaries with reasons why they exist. Then give people alternatives to accomplishing their work if they need you in a way that breaks a boundary. For instance, if someone typically asks you for help on something over your lunch break when you go offline to eat, give them some next steps for when you’re not available, like when it’s appropriate for them to wait until you’re back and when to call someone else for help instead.

Use tools to stay on track

Calendar blocks—blocking off chunks of time in your work calendar so people know when you’re unavailable—and using visual reminders, like setting your Slack status to “away,” will help you honour your boundaries and make it easier for other people to respect them. Don’t forget to set up out-of-office email replies when you’re unavailable for longer periods. This helps people both inside and out of your organization understand you’re not going to respond until you’re back at work.

Respect other people’s boundaries

When you respect boundaries set by others, you’re demonstrating their importance. So it’s not just about holding yourself to your boundaries (like that gym class), but also understanding that someone else has rules around how they need to work, too. Not only does this build reciprocity with people, it shows respect for the entire concept of having boundaries at work.

Respond to boundary pushing effectively

When someone pushes your boundaries, such as asking you to cancel your dinner plans to help them with a project, offer a solutions-orientated response. Figure out precisely what that person needs and give them suggestions on how to achieve it in ways that still respect your boundaries.

For example, if a co-worker wants you to help them create a process document, ask if it needs to be done immediately or if it can wait. If it’s urgent, share some resources on how to build a process document (Google is a helpful resource here) so the person can build it on their own. Then offer to do a quick check of the document after you’re home from your dinner. That way, you’re still supporting your colleague in an emergency situation without breaking your boundaries. 

Know what boundaries don’t give you 

At all times, your boundaries need to take into account the work you signed up to do. Setting boundaries is not about writing off your boss, challenging core ways of working or not supporting your team with tasks you are responsible for. It’s also not a scapegoat for poor time management or shirking responsibilities. 

For bosses, or people who have power and privilege at work, don’t expect individual employees to do all of this boundary-setting work. Yes, workers need to name and frame their own boundaries—that’s critical. But decision-makers have the power to normalize establishing, respecting and honouring work boundaries. In the end, having healthy boundaries benefits everyone.