Setting Boundaries at Work

Jessica Antony

Learning how to protect your energy levels and set boundaries at work is crucial to not only avoiding burnout but staying engaged at work – that is, enjoying and being really good at what you do.

However, setting boundaries has become increasingly difficult over the past two years, with more of us working remotely for all or part of our work weeks. In fact, the percentage of Canadian employees (ages 15 to 69) working most of their hours from home rose from 4% in 2016 to 32% in 2021. Despite what appears to be a shift toward a more balanced approach to work, with more flexibility being offered to employees, you may find that the challenges around managing your energy and workload haven’t simply disappeared.

Learning how to protect your energy levels and set boundaries at work is crucial to not only avoiding burnout but staying engaged at work.

What follows are four considerations for creating healthy boundaries that will help to ensure a sustainable relationship with your work life.

Use your energy wisely

I’m a morning person. I recognize that this preference often gets associated with a sense of moral superiority, which is likely a product of the “rise and grind” culture we’re all so familiar with. In reality, however, there is no moral value associated with the time of day you find yourself most energized. And trying to force yourself into a box you don’t truly fit into is a waste of time! It’s more important to simply recognize and understand when you are the most energized. For me, it’s before lunch. I like early mornings because I find it easier to tackle work that requires a lot of brain power earlier in the day. Come 3:00 p.m., I’m fading fast! I know this, so I schedule my days accordingly.

Take some time to reflect on your own energy levels and how they ebb and flow. Use that information to plan your day. Instead of forcing yourself to push through groggy mornings or low-energy afternoons with your most taxing work, save tasks that don’t require a lot of mental power for those times when your energy is waning. While you may not have the flexibility at work to request a later start time or a change in your hours, you can still make the best use of your energy and prioritize challenging tasks for times when you’re more likely to do good work.

Take some time to reflect on your own energy levels and how they ebb and flow. 

Review your priorities

If you find yourself with a seemingly never-ending pile of work that is impossible to conquer and so overwhelming that you don’t even know where to start, this is a sign that you need to spend some time prioritizing. It’s easy to let whatever lands on our desk or shows up in our inbox determine what we do next. But this is a great way to waste time on things that aren’t as urgent or important as they may seem (or simply aren’t as urgent or important to us).

Make a list of what you have to accomplish over the coming week (or month) and ask yourself:

  • Which tasks are necessary to complete so that someone else can do their job?
  • Which ones have been deemed crucial by my supervisor?
  • Which are key to accomplishing my professional goals?

Use the Time Management Matrix to help you determine your order of operations and ensure that you’re making the best use of your time. If your supervisor comes to you with another urgent project to add to your already heavy workload, explain what you’re working on and ask them what they’d like you to prioritize. Sometimes our colleagues aren’t aware of everything we’re doing! And if you find that everything you’re tasked with is deemed urgent, perhaps this is a sign that a conversation with your management team is in order to discuss unrealistic expectations or overstretched role requirements.

Make the best use of your energy by prioritizing challenging tasks for times when you’re more likely to do good work.

Make email work for you

Email is an incredibly useful and handy tool, but it can also be overused and misused. Our inboxes are slowly becoming saturated with walls of text, unclear requests, and unnecessary FYIs. It can be easy to get sucked into an email vortex and spend the majority of your day simply replying to other people. In fact, a 2021 survey of Canadians found that 58.6% of people check their email more than 15 times each day! Where can you find the time to do your job when you’re spending it all on emails?

Instead, choose one or two timeslots each day to read and respond to emails (e.g., 9:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.). Outside of those times, close your email app and turn off the constant distraction of notifications and pings. This allows you to keep track of important messages but also gives you space to do your actual work.

If someone needs to get ahold of you ASAP, they will call you or swing by your desk. Additionally, your email signature can be used to your advantage by noting your response times so that people understand that you aren’t available 24/7 (something that is becoming unnecessarily expected of us as we rely more heavily on technology to do our jobs). A few examples:

  • Please note that my average response time is 48 hours.
  • Our working hours may differ, so please do not feel obligated to reply outside of your normal work schedule.
  • Thank you for your message! You can expect a response within 72 hours. If you require an urgent reply, please call me at (555) 555-5555.

Take breaks

Hustle culture is responsible for the voice in your head telling you that you aren’t doing enough, producing enough, or working long enough. A helpful reminder: There are no awards for the Most Burned-Out Employee! While working through lunch can sometimes be necessary to hit a deadline, it may also be a symptom of poor time management or unrealistic workload expectations. And if we’re being honest with ourselves, nobody does their best work on an empty stomach and little sleep. If you want to maintain sustainable engagement at work, you need to give yourself time to rest and recharge. That means taking your lunch break – and not using that time to check your email while you eat!

Hustle culture is responsible for the voice in your head telling you that you aren’t doing enough, producing enough, or working long enough.

Use your breaks to get up from your desk and move your body, whether that’s walking around your office building, stretching in your office, or doing a short mobility circuit (YouTube is great for this!). Get outside and give your eyes a screen break. Talk to colleagues about anything other than work and use this time to get to know them a bit better. Put in your headphones and listen to your favourite music. Move away from your desk and read a book.

Giving yourself a break from reports, meetings, and emails will allow you to recharge and come back to those tasks with renewed energy and perspective. You’re more likely to cut corners, miss deadlines, or make mistakes when you’re exhausted – why make things harder for yourself?

We spend the vast majority of our lives at work. If we want our time off to be relaxing and enjoyable instead of simply recovering from our work week, then it’s necessary to set some boundaries at work. Take control of your day-to-day and make it work for you.


For more FREE RESOURCES on this topic and others, visit our resources page.

Author: Jessica Antony
Trainer, ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership

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