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Creating Boundaries Provides the Freedom to Fully Engage

By SRAI News posted 05-11-2023 12:30 PM


Creating Boundaries Provides the Freedom to Fully Engage

On my very first day of my very first job, I worked through lunch. No, I wasn’t employed in a sweatshop. I worked at the local library, and I just couldn’t help myself. I was 16 years old and earning my first paycheck and quite likely overcaffeinated. There was no stopping me until Ms. Tai, my lovely supervisor, invited me into her office and said, “Don’t skip lunch.”

I’m a wee bit older now, and while the imagined “cha-ching” of biweekly paycheck deposits into my bank account still gives me a small thrill, I save the caffeine for the weekends and rarely ever work through lunch. It’s not that I don’t love my job and adore my team. Rather, I’ve learned that it really is okay not to do all the things all the time. 

I think that part of the struggle with setting boundaries at work arises from a failure to evolve those boundaries as we evolve as individuals. What we were able (and willing) to give at 16 doesn’t make sense at 26, or 36, or 76. And if we’ve been in the same organization or worked for the same people for a long period of time, it can be difficult for management to adjust to those evolutions, too.
If I had advice to give to folks, it would be to think long and hard about where you want to raise those boundaries and then to periodically check in to see if things need tweaking. Adjusting your boundaries could mean changing positions or even careers, and that’s okay. Or it could merely mean having a thoughtful conversation with your supervisor.

So, what boundaries do you need to define to be happy, fulfilled, and effective at your job? Mine, obviously, focus on work hours, but yours may be different. One of my former co-workers had a weekly lunch date with her husband that was sacrosanct. Another co-worker steered away from making presentations because public speaking made him ill, and when an old officemate was wearing her headphones, we all knew not to disturb her unless there was an emergency. Maybe for you it’s something as simple as not scheduling meetings before your morning coffee has had a chance to hit your bloodstream. 

Be prepared, though. When I tell people that I turn off my computer and work phone at 5:00 p.m., reactions are mixed. Some see boundaries as a fault line and think having them in the workplace means a person is not all in on their job, that they never stray beyond the bare minimum. On the contrary, knowing that my supervisor and my team respect and honor my boundaries actually encourages and inspires me to engage more fully in my role, and to explore opportunities beyond what’s required by my job description.

Authored by Carol Volker, Pre-Award Associate, Sponsored Programs
Virginia Tech