Why Boundaries at Work are Essential to Well-Being
Updated: Aug 15, 2022
Many, many years ago, I worked in hospitality in a capacity that required me to be on call 24/7. This meant that no matter what time I was called upon to execute my duties, I was expected to do so without complaint and at the highest levels of efficiency. I have distinct memories of sitting at my desk crying at 2:00 am because although my shift ended hours earlier, reports needed to be written or I would face embarrassment and harsh consequences for “not getting it done”. I had very little sleep as it was not uncommon to be awakened to deal with matters deemed “urgent” by others. My mental and emotional health suffered and eventually, after ten very long and stressful months, I had no choice but to choose myself and leave after a particularly traumatizing experience, (which I will share later).
Flash forward twenty-three years later to my job as a therapist and, it seems that nothing in the corporate world has changed. Many of my clients struggle with setting boundaries with their employers for fear of being “fired” or missing out on “opportunities” because of a perceived lack of willingness to give more than what they agreed to on their job descriptions. Many of them doubt their perception that they are overworked as the company culture insists that the expectation of unpaid overtime is “normal”. They are usually hurt and surprised when we are able to identify this as gaslighting in a work context. (More on gaslighting at work here)
One of the positive things coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic is that many people are re-evaluating their relationships with their employers. The Great Resignation is on in earnest. It is such a phenomenon that Beyoncé decided it was significant enough to reference it in her song “Break My Soul”. Workers are waking up the realization that most of us are cogs in a capitalist wheel and that we are seen as “resources” and not “human beings”. Most of my clients are very upset about this and are bringing this issue into therapy as a major presenting issue.
My work with all of these clients is to help them realise that there is a need for them to feel empowered enough to set reasonable boundaries with their employers. The North American work culture, (and truthfully, parts of the Caribbean too), demands that people be accessible at all hours of the day and night to their employers even when they are on vacation. If they don’t, they are denied promotion opportunities, bonuses or even increases in pay. This is unfair, exploitative and unsustainable for the workers in question.
One of the activities I have started doing with my clients is to tell them to write down their hourly rate for the 37.5-40 hours of paid labour per week. I then ask them to add up now many hours per week they do as overtime. Then, I tell them to multiply the number of overtime hours by the time and a half that should be paid for overtime over the week. They then multiply that number by 4 (for the weeks in the month), then by 12, (for the number of months per year). They are usually horrified at the amount of “free labour” they are giving their employers without even a “thank you”. The horror is inevitably followed by anger and dismay when they realize that they are essentially working for close to or less than the minimum wage while being told how lucky they are to work for the corporation.
When they calm down and stop venting, I usually ask “so what kinds of boundaries do you now want to set?” Everyone lists the same things:
1. Not working more than 7.5 to 8 hours a day
2. Not answering work emails or phone calls past the close of business
3. Not being contacted during their vacations
4. Being compensated for their unpaid overtime or being discouraged from taking overtime.
5. Having the ability to work remotely for most of the week
6. Being compensated fairly for the work they do
There is nothing on that list that is unreasonable. What is unreasonable is that people are being told that taking on additional duties for no compensation is an “opportunity” to prove their capacity to maybe get a promotion years from now. In what other context is this normal besides the workplace?
COVID-19 shut the world down for two years. That was a global experiment in whether or not people actually need to be in an office to be productive. Apart from very few professions, we found out from this unplanned social experiment that in fact, people tended to behave in the same way when working remotely as they did in person. This article in Forbes Magazine explains that in three studies of remote work, it was found that “if an employee was highly productive in-office, they’ll be productive at home; if an employee slacked off at the office, they’ll do the same at home”. It was also reported that employee happiness in hybrid or remote work structures was 22% higher than those required to work in a physical space. They also reported lower levels of stress, higher levels of productivity and focus and better work/life balance. This is what many of my clients are reporting as well.
The post-COVID work landscape has created the unprecedented situation in which employees have power and employers do not. Therefore, in order to retain qualified workers, employers are finally willing to listen to what employees need in order to avoid them leaving. For all those who have wondered if they have enough power to advocate for themselves, now is the time. In fact, it is essential that you collectively refuse to return to “business as usual” because what that actually means is “the business of exploiting YOU as usual”.
It is vitally important that we remember that our relationship with our employers is transactional in nature. That means that we have an agreed upon set of tasks for which we are paid a specific amount of money. You are therefore under NO obligation to give more than you agreed to and certainly, not to do so for free. You cannot be fired for simply carrying out the duties on the job description you signed and nothing more. If an employer does this, you can take the matter to your labour ministry as this would be a legal issue. If you are in British Columbia, Canada your link is here. If you are in Jamaica, your link is here. For others, you can simply do an internet search for “labour complaints” or some similar term for your country to find your local labour disputes resource.
Employers will take as much as you are willing to give even if this means that you end up burning out or, in my case, fleeing for your mental health. It is up to you to decide what is more important. For me, I was asked to watch an autopsy of a guest who died tragically on the grounds of the hotel I worked at. I was awakened from my sleep at 1:00 am after working from 3-11 pm that day because the guest had died and they needed a Spanish speaker to help the family. I was given no psychological support, no additional time to process what I had to deal with, (translating for the police, funeral home, being required to go to the morgue to identify the body and watch the autopsy to determine if the hotel was in any way liable), and certainly nothing beyond a verbal “thank you”. My response was to quit effective immediately the very next day. I resolved after that that I would never allow a work environment to rob me of my mental well-being to that degree ever again.
There were certainly moments when I faltered in that resolve since I have had workplace bullying happen in other spaces but, eventually I decided it was time to choose myself. That was the driving reason behind me leaving paid employment for self-employment and, I have absolutely no regrets. I have since encouraged clients to examine their underlying beliefs about their worth as employees, to challenge them when necessary and to advocate for themselves from the basis that they are valuable to their employer and that they have rights under the law.
It is my hope for all workers that we realise that without us, there is no corporate environment. It is my wish that we capitalize on the power we have right now to secure a better work life for ourselves in the future. The benefits of doing this are clear. The objective, scientific results are in. May you channel Beyoncé’s message “I'm buildin' my own foundation”.