The True Cost Of Ignoring Your Boundaries At Work

Photographed by Nicolas Bloise
Over the last few years the conversation around defining and implementing personal boundaries has become more widespread. Many of us recognise the need to identify where our boundaries lie in relation to time, money, availability (emotional and physical), respect and consent but when it comes to identifying our boundaries at work, things aren’t so clear-cut. 
In my personal life I have a very strong sense of my own boundaries. I’m able to acknowledge what I need and what doesn’t work for me, adjusting my plans and taking time out when I need to. Yet looking back on my career, there have been numerous occasions where I’ve ignored my own needs and comfort for the sake of a professional project. I've worked over capacity until I became ill because I didn’t want to let the team down. I’ve let disrespectful managers and clients mistreat me because I was grateful for the 'opportunity' and I’ve worked around the clock to unrealistic deadlines because I needed the money and didn’t have the confidence to push back. 
Now I am beginning to question what it might look like to take the boundaries we put down in our personal lives and apply them to a work environment. What can we realistically call out as a boundary violation at work, and who can afford to demand their boundaries be respected? I spoke to a range of different people to find out.
Early in her career, Amelia, an events manager in London started working for a prestigious art organisation. Eager to make her mark, she often went over and above her job description. "I always met every impossible deadline. I worked late every night to finish things quickly so no one had to chase me for anything." Amelia's hard work and determination were fuelled by the dreaded imposter syndrome, which meant she pushed herself beyond what she was comfortable doing. "I was constantly waiting to be found out and felt I was seconds away from people figuring out that someone else should be doing my job. I decided I could fend off the inevitable 'act of getting caught' by working twice as hard as everyone else." 
This approach worked for a time. Amelia was rewarded and praised by her seniors but her life outside work suffered and cracks soon started to appear. During the pandemic, Amelia's already substantial workload tripled and things inevitably came to a head when she experienced serious burnout. She took a step back in the short term and assessed the situation. "This intense work pace was never expressly encouraged by my employer but the few times I wasn’t able to deliver – when on holiday, for instance – the lack was noticed and questions were raised." She also notes that help was offered only at crisis point. "When you burn out, companies are quick to offer support, HR gets called in to [do] damage control and your company lavishes you with praise but what’s actually happening is that senior teams are feeling guilty for putting you in the position in the first place and [it's a] desperate cover-up of potential liability."
Amelia has learned techniques that have helped her to find more balance. "The tools I use now include breathing techniques, tapping, therapy, leadership coaching. Ultimately, I threatened to quit if I wasn’t given the support I needed." She goes on to make the point that having boundaries is in direct conflict with what many of us are taught from a young age: to people-please. "From an early age, we are mostly taught to ignore intuitive feelings around our own needs. Keeping the balance takes the highest self-confidence and a deep connection to the self."
From an evolutionary standpoint, people-pleasing goes back to living in a tribe. To survive, we all needed to be accepted by the group. Difficult members of the tribe may have been expelled and would have stood less chance of surviving independently. This pack mentality is replicated within the workplace, where we want to do what’s best for the group and secure our place within the hierarchy. But there’s something else going on. People-pleasing is a very gendered issue: women are seen as aggressive and difficult in ways that men aren’t when we challenge authority or question something we see as wrong. 

When you burn out, companies are quick to offer support ... but what's actually happening is that senior teams are feeling guilty for putting you in the position in the first place.

ellie, arts worker
Laura experienced this acutely in her role as a lecturer at a London-based arts college. With a workload that was overstretched from the beginning, in a culture that was unstructured and without boundaries, Laura tried to establish some ground rules for herself. "I sent an email explaining that I needed to set some boundaries as things were becoming unworkable for me. One member of staff took it personally and stopped speaking to me. After that it became even harder to get anything done." As a result of what was happening at work, Laura experienced debilitating migraines and ended up in A&E with stress-related health issues. "I was exhausted and depressed, and in the end I quit. I felt it was my only option. I believe that my experience was absolutely gendered. I was told I was intimidating and emotional. I was in a team of middle-aged men who had worked together for years. They did things in ways that worked for them. Sadly, this didn’t work for anyone else." 
Laura now works in a healthier environment where she feels she can assert her boundaries but her experience has had a lasting effect. "I think when you work in a toxic culture, you’re gaslit. You start to feel like asking for the basics is somehow unreasonable. I am glad I got out before reducing myself to nothing but I’m only just starting to believe in myself again."
What of the people who can’t afford to walk away? Who can’t afford to assert their boundaries in a problematic or unsupportive workplace that favours profit over people? And what if you don’t want to leave your job, you just want a more harmonious work environment? 
Kara, 33, from Birmingham, works in HR for an international bank and addresses these issues daily. "Some companies want everyone to fall in line and aren’t prepared to change – they want a standard of behaviour across the board but that’s not realistic. If this is the case where you are, I’d look at your options. What other jobs could you apply for and do these other companies support their staff better? Is there a union you can join that can help address some of the issues you’re dealing with, or can you escalate the issue with HR? On a personal level, focus on what you can control: your thoughts and actions and how you respond to the situation. This isn’t a long-term solution but looking at what you can control can bring back some sense of agency."
The world of work in the West has traditionally been designed by men, for men. Even in 2022, with more women founders and leaders, a broader understanding of how different personality types operate and flexible hybrid work policies, patriarchal hierarchies and ideas around success prevail and alienate many. Stephanie is a designer and art director who was diagnosed as autistic in 2020. She had always found fitting into the world of work challenging, as she explains: "Navigating a workplace that is not designed for you is actually some kind of marathon. You are constantly operating at a level of high stress. Every day for the past 26 years I overstepped my boundaries because I used other people as a guide, not understanding how different I was." 

From an evolutionary standpoint, people-pleasing goes back to living in a tribe. This pack mentality is replicated within the workplace.

Being diagnosed as autistic has allowed Stephanie to define boundaries that work for her and communicate them to her employer. She says that companies and organisations should remain open-minded regarding their employees' personal boundaries and make space for people with different needs. "If somebody tells you what they need, don’t compare it with yourself. Try not to judge people as weak. It takes a lot of courage to communicate it so take it seriously."   
My recent book, Watching Women & Girls, features a story that explores how a young woman overextends herself and is exploited at work. It felt important to address after I’d experienced it personally and saw it happen again and again in different workplaces. This desire to prove yourself without understanding what is healthy is sometimes manipulated by companies and senior leadership. It’s an issue that Georgia Wagstaff is passionate about addressing at the international sports brand where she works. "I feel as though protecting my younger team is my purpose. I negotiate with them and respect their regular working hours. Before briefing them on new tasks I always enquire about their capacity, and we have regular wellness check-ins. I feel it’s important to cultivate a safe and candid environment where they feel they can ask for support." Georgia believes this approach is spreading throughout the company. "I do see corporate attempts to make this more of a standard across the board. Times are changing and formal approaches are being integrated widely." 
Boundaries at work is such a controversial subject that doing the work you were hired to do within your contracted hours – and no more – has recently been named "quiet quitting", causing a lot of capitalist hand-wringing online. To which this is the only valid response. There is certainly a tension for some around what can be considered a boundary violation in a work environment when you’re being paid to be there. 
Back to Kara in HR. "Personal boundaries at work are difficult because what is overstepping the mark for one person may not be seen as that by someone else. Often entry-level colleagues struggle to assert themselves and their needs because they’re fitting into an established structure or culture. This can also be especially difficult for people of colour who may feel like, or actually be, a minority in the company. I’d advise anyone in this situation to work out the top three priorities they need to feel comfortable within their work environment – these may be limiting contact outside of office hours, issues around working late, workload, or ring-fencing time in their own schedule – and making these a priority with their manager or team leader. It can feel uncomfortable if this is your first step up in your career but establishing these practices early on will help you later."
Working without the structure of an organisation can mean boundaries become fluid to fit within a constantly fluctuating freelance schedule. Leanne Cloudsdale, a writer and communications consultant based in Sheffield, can attest to this. "Freelancers are a satellite service. A voice on the phone. A face in the square of a Zoom or – worse still – just an email. We lack 'presence', which can sometimes mean what we say doesn't carry any weight, especially when it comes to hours or money." This feeling can be exacerbated when you’re working for a new client who you’d like to work with again, causing all boundaries to go out the window in the name of "doing a good job". 

Personal boundaries at work are difficult because what is overstepping the mark for one person may not be seen as that by someone else.

kara, hr worker
After my own experience of having my boundaries pushed and feeling frustrated that I hadn’t stood my ground, I’ve become a lot more intentional about what I will and will not accept within a work environment. This means staying vigilant, which can be draining, but over time muscle memory kicks in and red flags alerting you to disrespectful behaviour and unrealistic deadlines or client expectations rise quicker on their own. In an age where we have access to each other 24/7, Georgia has some helpful examples of her own work boundaries. "I have a work phone and a personal phone and I do not take my work phone out with me on evenings and weekends unless I have prior agreed as we are in a launch phase. I am only available for work outside of office hours in extreme cases and genuine emergencies. In my 10+ year career, there have been two incidents I would consider genuine emergencies. Every day I block out a one-hour lunchtime, I don’t respond until I can do so and I don’t apologise for a delayed reply if I didn’t have a moment to respond sooner."
Establishing personal boundaries at work can feel counterintuitive because we’ve been scammed into thinking that hard work and grinding beyond our limits is the route to success. Pushing back on that can sometimes feel like self-sabotage. Even with Beyoncé’s calls for us to quit our jobs, the conversation around cultivating a "soft life" and the much-discussed Great Resignation, we still, as a society, value material and financial success over everything else. I realised a few years ago that professional accolades don’t mean anything if you’ve sacrificed your life or health to get them. Nothing is worth that. We’ve been socialised to fit in and not rock the boat but protecting your energy and self-worth doesn’t have to come at a cost. It ultimately comes down to value: how much we value ourselves and our time, and how much our employers or clients value us. As Kara points out: "Companies don’t want to lose talented people – it’s expensive and very inconvenient. You have more power than perhaps you believe. Use it to establish what you need."
The question of boundaries also goes beyond what is individually acceptable. The ideal of what a good life looks like has been hollowed out over years of unchecked capitalism, encouraged by the merciless policies of soulless governments. Just as we’ve been coerced into seeing housing as a luxury, education as a luxury, free healthcare as a luxury, we’ve been tricked into thinking that we should sacrifice ourselves for our jobs when, really, we deserve to live full lives in which work is just one factor, not the thing we focus on until we’re burned out. This obsession with hard work in all conditions is based on a hyper Protestant work ethic coupled with rampant capitalist ideals that serve no one but the people at the top. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Collectively we, the workers, have power and as we’ve seen with the recent Royal Mail, UK rail worker and docker strikes, we’re stronger when we come together to demand better pay and conditions. When we define for ourselves what our boundaries are. 
The reality is we can’t insulate ourselves from discomfort. At some point our boundaries will be tested. Sometimes our employers or our clients won’t prioritise our wellbeing. But if we can identify healthy professional boundaries, communicate them clearly and honestly and support our teams to do the same, then we can aim to create a safer and more balanced work environment for ourselves and our colleagues.
Danielle Pender is the founder and editor of Riposte. Her new book, Watching Women & Girls, is out now, published by 4th Estate. 

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