Importance of Drawing Boundaries

Sharpening blurry lines between home and work

By: Nimisha Jain

For most people, the COVID-19 pandemic was a stressful transition to navigate for  many reasons. Between finding the safest way to order groceries, taking care of children who were suddenly studying online, and being mindful of one’s own mental health, a lot of lines got blurry. A prime example of this would be people literally having to bring their work home with them. For some, ‘switching off’ or ‘logging off’ from work entirely while they are at home may not come as easily as it would if they were physically leaving their office. 

Even as people have started returning to the office to resume working in person, the question of work-life balance is one that’s on everyone’s mind. So, how does one draw the boundary between their work lives and their private lives, regardless of whether they work in person or remotely?

Setting our own boundaries and drawing certain lines is essential for our well-being. This is equally true across different spheres of life – at the workplace, with friends, family, or significant others. In this article, we will discuss what boundaries in the workplace look like and why they are important. 

What are Boundaries and Why Should We Set Them? 

While ‘boundaries’ sounds like a scary word that keeps you separate from others, they are actually protective guidelines to help us maneuver through our life and interpersonal relationships. 

Have you ever been in a situation where someone asks you to do something that you simply don’t have the bandwidth to do? Maybe your boss or coworker asks you to take time out of your weekend to complete that really important presentation for the client. While it may not be a ‘big deal’ the first few times, acquiescing to these requests can be cumbersome and quite draining over time. This is where boundaries become vital. When you are able to communicate your limits to yourself and others around you, you can create a safe space for yourself to thrive in. Respectfully declining your coworkers’ requests will allow you to take some much-needed downtime, recharge, and return to work with improved energy. 

Before getting into some boundary-setting strategies, let’s talk a little bit more about boundaries and what they can look like for different people. 

Boundary theory

Boundary theory focuses on the ways people create and maintain boundaries to navigate the world around them, especially in their work and non-work roles (Allen et al. 62). It originates from the premise that people need to classify the world around them to make sense of it, and an important classification is the delineation of work versus family roles. If one is able to classify these roles clearly, it makes it easy for them to transition between these roles as they switch between home and work. According to boundary theory, these roles are bounded by space and time. For instance, you are likely to play the role of employee from 9 AM to 5 PM, Monday through Friday, but then transition to your home/family role in the evenings and over the weekends. Boundary theory particularly is concerned with the processes that reinforce these transitions, which are discussed later in this article. 

As everyone works in different ways, there are multiple ways to conceptualize home versus work roles. One of the key concepts associated with this conceptualization is integration and segmentation. This is a spectrum of how separate a person keeps two spheres of their lives. 

  • Integration is when a person is comfortable with merging their work roles at home or vice versa. 
  • Segmentation refers to when there is no physical or temporal overlap between work roles and home roles. 

Of course, as mentioned earlier, integration and segmentation lie on a continuum. The extent to which work and home roles are separate varies from person to person. This depends on how permeable a person’s boundaries are—for example, are you comfortable taking a personal call while at work? Or are you okay with responding to work communication (e-mails, messages, etc.) while at home? 

In general, research indicates that segmentation between work and home roles leads to fewer family-to-work conflicts (personal interruptions at the office), fewer work-to-family conflicts (work interruptions at home), and a better work-life balance (Allen et al. 102). Additionally, people thrive when their work-home life reflects their integration/segmentation preferences. 

But is simply stepping away from work enough? 

In addition to the physical separation between work and home lives, there is also the matter of psychological detachment to consider. Are you mentally preoccupied with thoughts from home at work or vice versa? Being psychologically detached from work while outside of work has numerous positive outcomes. Individuals who are able to detach from work have reported overall better psychological well-being, improved moods, and even better performance at work (Allen et al. 102). 

So keeping all of this information in mind, we can move on to actual tactics that you can use to create boundaries between work and home. Keep in mind that you will likely need to draw boundaries in both spaces. 

  1. Behavioural tactics
    • Getting help from others to complete tasks on time 
    • Effectively using technology (e.g., using Excel functions to sort through a sheet rather than doing it manually)
    • Prioritizing tasks effectively so your day doesn’t have to be longer than it should be 
    • Selectively choosing what tasks can cross the work/home boundary
  2. Temporal Tactics 
    • Controlling work times (e.g., you work from 9 AM to 5 PM, and no more)
    • Setting alarms or timers to remind you to log off if you are working overtime 
  3. Physical Tactics (using physical boundaries and space):
    • Having a separate workspace 
    • Having separate devices for personal and professional use
    • Physically leaving a space dedicated to work 
  4. Communication Tactics 
    • Setting boundaries (pre-emptively setting expectations with managers or coworkers)
    • Confronting people who violate these boundaries 

Of course, we must also remember that there are no black-and-white answers to developing a healthy work-life balance to manage stress. Each individual has a different situation that their strategies must cater to. Self-regulation plays a major role in successfully navigating this quagmire. This can take the form of leaving work-related stress at work and coming home to your family with positive emotions, or not allowing tensions at home to affect your performance at work. 

Setting boundaries for yourself at work (and at home) goes a long way. For a lot of people, not allowing these spheres to influence each other helps maintain a healthy work-life balance. With some trial and error, you will find the strategies that work for you and allow the best version of you to shine both at home and in the office. 

Works Cited

Allen, Tammy D., et al. “Work–Family Boundary Dynamics.” Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, vol. 1, no. 1, 2014, pp. 99–121.

Allen, Tammy D., et al. “Boundary Management and Work-Nonwork Balance While Working from Home.” Applied Psychology, vol. 70, 2021, pp. 60–84.