work life

Achieving Effective Work-Life Boundaries

21 August, 2017

Effective boundary management is a fundamental aspect of protecting and fostering a healthy and happy work-life balance. The intrusion of e-mail correspondence and portable work into our non-work lives helps create an always-on work environment. Although flexible work arrangements are a real benefit to some, their darker side is that they represent a gross blurring of boundaries between spaces devoted to work versus personal, family, or leisure activities. With that, they further undermine temporal distinctions between the two.

In many cases, at the level of single choices about the boundaries we keep, we have the control. Do we check our work email after dinner? Do we take work home over the weekend, rather than work longer hours during the week? Do we get back to that client just before we leave home, rather than when we arrive into the office? The overall pressure to maintain a highly-responsive and -productive work ethic is high, but we can select a few personally-meaningful boundaries to protect.

In their article “Balancing Borders and Bridges: Negotiating the Work-Home Interface via Boundary Work Tactics”, Glen Kreiner, Elain Hollensbe, and Mathew Sheep outline some of the key challenges to boundary management. We present their main categories here, and, with their help, explore what to take into account as you develop a plan for improved work-life balance.

  1. The Influence of Others
    In addition to thinking about your own actions, consider how others influence your ability to maintain a healthy work-life balance (colleagues, partners, children, friends).

  2. Technology
    Technology is known as the great enabler of poor work-life balance, but it can also help you be firmer with your boundaries. Consider using caller ID to more actively screen work calls outside of hours, or changing the settings on your phone to stop work email notifications on the weekend.

  3. Work-Life Triage
    Having an established set of priorities means that when multiple demands risk blurring work and personal boundaries, you can quickly and easily filter out, and act on, what matters most to you.

  4. Differential Permeability
    This about your non-negotiable work boundaries versus your negotiable ones. Where it is okay for a work-life boundary to be crossed? For example, you might not mind taking calls up to 2 hours after you've left the office. Where do you want to impose a hard boundary? For example, you won't take work calls or check work emails when spending time with your children during weekends.

  5. Time Management
    Understand exactly what works needs to get done, what it will take, and what expectations there are of you as an employee. This can empower you to develop a realistic and effective plan for boundary management. It might involve techniques like “banking”: if you have to work late one night, you might want to "bank" that time lost to your family, and take it out of work time later.

  6. Time Off
    It's often easy to feel guilty or uncomfortable about taking time off work. However, it's important to use your allocated days off to take a break from the juggling itself. Here, it helps to curtail your exposure to repeated “opportunities for boundary violation”. This, in and of itself, can become one of the greatest sources of stress in a poor work-life balance. Where you can take the opportunity to leave both “the work space” (at work and home (the kitchen table, study)) and “the personal and/or family space”? It might involve a trip to the cinema, an art gallery, or the park, or meeting up with friends. Taking a break from the physical spaces in which you experience "juggling-stress" can help you press reset.

  7. Physical boundaries
    If you work at home, physically marking the boundary between work and personal space can help to reinforce the invisible boundaries between work and personal life. If you work in a different location to your home, and are considering changing jobs or moving house, you might want to think about how far you live from your workplace. A significant physical distance may help you demarcate stronger boundaries. Equally, you might be seeking a good buffer of commuter time: people often remark that they value this time as their “out-of-contact” and only “pure” me-time, where they aren't supposed to be doing anything, but can instead just enjoy a good book, listen to music, or people-watch (provided their commute isn't stressful or too long). A significant physical distance between your home and work locations may feel more right for you.

  8. Physical Artefacts
    This is about understanding what belongs to work and what belongs to home. Separating the two physically can be a useful way in which to reassert boundaries. You can do this, for example, by having keys for work and home on separate key rings, or different calendars for work and home.

  9. Setting Expectations
    Communication is one of the keys to effective boundary management. If your partner knows that you are planning to work late, or if you've told them that every Thursday morning you have an early work meeting you can't miss, then it is easier for them to understand and respect your boundaries. This is the same for the work side of things. If your team know that it is not appropriate for them to call you past 6pm, and you have communicated this to them, then you are firming up your boundaries and helping others respect your boundaries too.

  10. Addressing Boundary Infractions
    It is important to communicate with those who have crossed your boundaries, especially if they haven't realised it. Doing this soon after the incident, and in a way that makes it clear what your priorities are, means it's less likely the person in question will cross your boundaries again. Sometimes it's hard or impossible to speak frankly with someone who crosses a boundary of yours (for example, if they are your boss), so thinking of ways in which to mitigate the effects of a violation can help.

Kreiner, G. E., Hollensbe, E. C., & Sheep, M. L. (2009). Balancing borders and bridges: Negotiating the work-home interface via boundary work tactics. The Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 52, No. 4, 704-730.

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