‘Setting boundaries’ often features in advice columns for managing romantic relationships. Delineating what you’re willing to compromise on can be a valuable activity to protect your energy and ensure the relationship is serving you. But what about when it comes to your relationships with your boss, colleagues or organisation?

In this article, we introduce the concept of Boundaried Workers and suggest tips for individuals to navigate work-life boundaries. Without further ado…  

Enter Stage Right: Boundaried Workers  

After extensive research, we’ve identified a group of professionals that we call the Boundaried Workers. They have essential commitments or factors in their life outside of their work, meaning they are ‘bound’ by responsibility; for example, illness, religion, or caring responsibilities.

Both men and women can be Boundaried Workers, but it’s much more common for women to become Boundaried Workers earlier in their careers. For instance, after the birth of a child, 90% of fathers return to full-time work, compared to only 20% of women. Similarly, when caring for elderly relatives, responsibilities fall on women a decade earlier than men.

These boundaries can cause a lack of availability of time, flexibility, or geographical mobility. These limits can impact an individual’s capacity to be fully flexible and adaptable to an organisation, hindering  progression. When you think about how women make up 74% of part-time workers and are less likely to work abroad than men, the pieces that make up the Boundaried Worker puzzle start to come together. 

In theory, an inclusive workplace culture should bend and flex to the worker’s needs. What happens in practice can vary greatly.

Unfortunately, this reality means that Boundaried Workers often feel that they have lost out on opportunities to progress at work because of their boundaries. They might feel that their manager has – unconsciously or consciously – rewarded others with a boundless work style.  

Boundaried vs Boundless  

In contrast to Boundaried Workers, boundless workers have maximum flexibility. They can participate and thrive in all hours working industries, online or in the office, without limits. They can travel easily, work late, and attend activities outside regular working hours at the drop of a hat.

On the surface, this can look more desirable to employers. If you’re hiring staff because they can align with existing workplace expectations, for example, working longer than their contracted hours (overwork) or showing up even when ill (presenteeism), it makes life easier, right?

Wrong. It pays to invest in diverse teams.

Supporting Boundaried Workers is part of an organisation’s commitment to equity. Only some people need identical working conditions, so companies should flex to accommodate those who need extra or alternative support.  

A Boundaried Scenario  

Imagine you’re a new starter at an organisation, a parent with care commitments or a member of a religious group that doesn’t drink alcohol. The workplace has a culture of organising activities, such as client-facing meetings or team-building opportunities (great). Still, they’re often organised after work hours and revolve around drinking (not so great). What happens now?  

  1. You miss out on building relationships with your colleagues 
  2. You lose out on opportunities to connect with your superiors
  3. Your workplace takes actions to respect your boundaries and demonstrates inclusivity  

Yep, you guessed it – the only acceptable answer is option 3.

It’s important to remember that it’s not your fault you’re boundaried. An organisation should see you as a whole person with a life outside of work that they should support – if they want to retain you.   

Personal Insight   

Recently, I started at a new organisation (spoiler alert: it was ECC). A few weeks into my new role, my dad had an accident whilst visiting me and ended up in a London hospital for a month. He’s from Leeds, and I’m the only person he knows here. As I juggled visiting him with my new job, I had a brief insight into what Boundaried Workers experience daily.

Thankfully, I was encouraged to work flexibly around hospital visiting hours, lean on my team to help manage my workload, and occasionally take time off. If my team hadn’t asked me what I needed to support my well-being, navigating the whole experience would have been very different. The difference between asking ‘what’ I needed rather than ‘if’ I needed anything was pivotal. My brief stint as a Boundaried Worker brought home how crucial it is for workplaces to be supportive when personal lives need to take precedence.  

The Benefits of Setting Boundaries  

The likelihood is that many of your colleagues are Boundaried Workers – they’re only human! It’s not only essential to have a life outside of work; it’s natural.

There are many benefits to setting boundaries with your manager; if your manager supports them, they can avoid losing or overlooking talented employees. Research shows that employees respond more positively to leaders who show compassion, resulting in less burnout and lower absenteeism. Having a positive conversation about shifting your working hours so you can make the school run is likely to leave you feeling more energised and committed to the organisation.

If you open up to your manager and explain what factors in your life contribute to you being a Boundaried Worker, this will benefit all parties in the long term. Whilst it can be intimidating, especially if there is a culture where boundless work is rewarded, being honest and vulnerable at work about home life can help build team psychological safety, an essential driver of productive and innovative teams. 

What Boundaried Workers Can Do  

If you’re reading this and thinking, “Argh, am I a boundaried worker – what now?!” these tips are for you.

Confide in someone close to you. This person could be a personal or professional contact, whoever you feel you can trust. You might have experienced feelings of exhaustion or stress, trying to balance your boundary with your workload, so it’s crucial to be able to share the emotional load with others. Commit yourself to check in with this person about your experiences regularly, so you can monitor how your work environment impacts your life.

If you’re considering leaving the organisation, pause. If you’re considering quitting because of their inability to support you, but you could be engaged and satisfied at the company if they did offer support, stop and think first. Is there a way to communicate with your manager or organisation that you need help managing your boundaries? Whilst the onus shouldn’t be on the individual to enact change, it can help if you allow the organisation the opportunity to pivot.

Access ECC’s resources on talent pools. We’ve been researching other groups of talented individuals currently being overlooked, underestimated and neglected. Knowledge is power, so arming yourself with employees’ experiences and the failings of organisations to harness their homegrown talent will help in your journey to realising your strengths.

To read more about Boundaried Workers and the other talent pools we’ve uncovered, please explore our new resource base.