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Setting boundaries at work and home

Understanding the parameters of your life at work and home

Setting boundaries at work and home can come with negative connotations.  Boundaries can suggest putting up blockers or imply a lack of flexibility. It can feel mundane and micro-managerial to compartmentalise the different elements of your life in such a defined way.  Where’s the spontaneity and how do you even work out what boundaries to set and with whom?

The reality however is, that for working parents, setting boundaries at work and home helps to define the parameters of what you can and need to achieve in all areas of your life. Only by knowing your boundaries can you really see where and how you can be flexible. Far from putting up blockers, it helps create clarity about what you can do.

Parenting is often talked about as being a juggle: time is short and you are having to balance often contradictory parts of your life that can be in direct conflict.  This is particularly true when you first return to work after parental leave – you have taken on a huge emotionally and time demanding responsibility and now you are stepping back into the busy work life you were leading prior to becoming a parent.

Therefore, it is very easy to get overwhelmed. A common comment in our coaching programmes is that people feel they are letting everyone down by not managing either their home or work responsibilities to the best of their abilities.

For this reason, we spend time coaching individuals on boundaries and how to be proactive about setting them, discussing them and living within them. Without clearly defined boundaries it is easy to take on too much, feel like you are lurching from one crisis to another, or start to resent the demands (and people) in both sides of your life.

Setting boundaries at work and home – where to start?

On our programmes for working parents, we ask participants to fill in a questionnaire ranking how they feel from a score of 0 (very hard) to 10 (very easy)  about the different areas of their life. We look at how clear people are about areas such as boundaries at work and home and also how comfortable they are with the way things are currently arranged.

The aim of this is to help people to actively consider their work and home responsibilities, to understand which they feel are well under control and which are being left to chance.  If you want to try it as an exercise for yourself, a sample of the questions we ask is listed below:

  • I have clear boundaries around my time to be able to separate work and family e.g., start/finish times, work after hours, work on “days off”
  • I am clear about my manager’s and colleagues’ expectations/ boundaries/ flexibility around the way I am managing work and family.
  • I am clear on the level of flexibility I can offer at work and what I can be flexible about.
  • I am clear and comfortable about the amount of time/ energy I give at home/ to family at this point
  • I am clear about who is doing what at home sharing the unpaid responsibilities (caring and domestic)
  • I have clear boundaries around what is essential that I do vs. where I am comfortable getting help from others

This forms the basis for developing a practical plan that works for each individual based upon their unique family and work circumstances.  So, if you’ve just done a quick self-score on the questions above want to get started in more clearly defining the boundaries in your life, here are a few tips.

Agree a plan for who does what at home

We’ve written and spoken about the mental load on many occasions and how the burden of unpaid domestic work tends to fall to women. Covid also brought this into stark relief. If you are looking to get the boundaries right in your work life, be sure to have a plan for this important area of your home life too.  As tedious as it sounds, approaching domestic responsibilities as you would a work project and agreeing on who does what and what you can outsource is vital (this unpaid work calculator is great for helping you quantify the actual value of the time you are spending on non-paid work).  It reduces the chance of conflict or resentment building at home (if you are a two-parent family) and helps you to commit the time you want to work and non-chore-related home life.

Childcare – a plan for when things don’t go to plan

Parenthood comes with a high degree of unpredictability. Anyone who has had a call from the nursery during a busy work day to say their child has a temperature and needs to be picked up early can testify to this.  Therefore, having a plan when things don’t go to plan is vital.

  • What are your backup childcare options?
  • Who should your childcare provider call if your child is sick (if you don’t agree then it will likely default to a mother)?
  • Does your work have any emergency childcare support?
  • Who in your support network or family can act as an emergency backup?

Setting boundaries at work

While agreeing boundaries at work with your manager and the wider team is advisable for everyone, as a parent, it really is essential.  And, whether this is formally agreeing which days you have to leave early to pick up a child or what the expectations are in relation to looking at work outside of regular work hours, proactively initiate conversations don’t avoid them. It is easy to get stuck with other people’s assumptions (or boundaries) because you haven’t actively discussed issues. Without proactive communication, one of two things is likely to happen:

  • People will assume you are far less flexible than you actually are – often (but not exclusively), an issue for mothers as colleagues make assumptions about their commitment to work. This is particularly true if you have altered your work days/hours after returning from leave.
  • People will assume nothing has changed – often (but not exclusively), an issue for fathers as colleagues simply expect ultimate flexibility to attend meetings, complete work or be available whenever.

Therefore, proactively agreeing boundaries, communicating them with your wider team and demonstrating how they help, not hinder, you in being effective at work is critical.  A lot of this relies upon positive communication and the ability to help people see the benefits for them as well as you.

Tips for positive communication

  • Check your mindset before you go into the conversation, are you going in to ‘win’ or reach a compromise that works for all.
  • Acknowledge what is working already. It can be easy to forget this.
  • Talk about what you CAN do and when you ARE available as this is more constructive and positive e.g.,” I can log on at… to do this or ‘I can do that first thing.’
  • Once agreed, pre-emptively remind people about your boundaries on a regular basis, positioning the benefit for them in keeping to the boundary e.g., so you have time to review their work, etc.
  • Remind people of the trade-off’s “if I do ABC now, then it will mean leaving XYZ until later”
  • Look and sound confident and sure when you are communicating about your boundaries. If you don’t, people will pick up on that and potentially push back which will make it harder for you to stick with them.

Making time for you

As a parent, particularly of young children, time for yourself is likely to be limited, but this doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be prioritised. Even short bursts of time doing something that is just for you will help you feel invigorated.  A key tip is to diarise it as it is much more likely to happen if it is blocked out as part of your schedule. If necessary, start small – a 5-minute activity that makes a difference to you.  Even if you think you are too busy, try to stick to it.  The benefits of doing something just for you will far outweigh the benefits of prioritising something else.

Every yes creates a corresponding no

Setting and sticking to boundaries is about finding a set of parameters that works for your unique family and work situation.  It is influenced by your values – what you want to prioritise, where you see the fit between work and family and by your individual situation.  Know your boundaries, be prepared to be flexible within them when it is unavoidable and keep in mind that everything you say yes to is creating a corresponding no somewhere else.

For more details about our programmes for working parents, including defining boundaries at work and home click here, see our latest case studies or contact us to see how we could support the working parents in your organisation.

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