She had to quit to survive. Thirty-eight year old Nandita Menon from Dubai recalls her initial years at a corporate company. As she was friendly by nature and a self-professed people pleaser, she got along well with everyone. “I worked after hours if needed, and my boss began to just take it for granted that I would be ready to work at any hour. I don’t want to completely blame her, because I also feel responsible for giving that impression.
“I just kept working. I would even say ‘I’m on standby, if you need me’, on my days off’. I don’t know why I did that to myself. My husband would get so irritated with me. I was always on the phone, even during weekends and sometimes on vacations. I just couldn’t say no to work.”
Menon acknowledges the toll it took on her physical and mental health. “I was constantly falling ill. It was terrible. I finally quit, and I took a couple of months off. In my next job, I was adamant that I would not do any work after work hours, even though my managers tried to get me to work. I know they didn’t like it, but well, too bad,” she says with a sigh of relief. “If your boss calls you a rockstar for always being available, you know that you have no boundaries at work,” she warns.
Work will never end, you need to know when to shut it down. Psychiatrist Girish Banwari, from the Camali Clinic in Dubai echoes this sentiment. It’s not a matter of pride to be a workaholic. In fact, it is unhealthy for both the mind and the body. “It is easy to fall prey to the corporate culture of celebrating workaholics as a desirable trait and working long hours as a sign of dedication,” he maintains.
Why are we not able to draw boundaries at work?
Setting boundaries isn’t a completely straightforward process and involves a lot of mental work. One needs to understand and assess themselves first. There are several reasons why people find it difficult to maintain firm boundaries, including battling low self-esteem, harbouring fears of abandonment and rejection, as well as anxieties about escalating conflicts.
Rreema Aidasahnni an Energy Healing Therapist at Miracles Wellness Center Dubai, explains that people could be hardwired from childhood itself to always adhere to rules. People with a lower self-esteem find it particularly difficult to set boundaries, says Aidasahnni. “Most people get their sense of worth from who they believe they are, usually based on their experiences at work, home, and list of accomplishments. This can result in a loss of true non-judgmental self-identity,” she says. She emphasises that the person needs to understand that their sense of worth stems from them, not from others or from their job.
“People with low self-esteem crave approval from others, which feeds their sense of self and fosters people-pleasing behaviours. As an unfortunate consequence, they will find it difficult to establish healthy boundaries,” she adds.
There’s an innate need to impress someone in a higher position than us, says counselling psychologist Reema Baniabbasi from the Psychiatry and Therapy Centre in Dubai. It’s a trait that is inculcated from childhood onwards. “We want to keep proving ourselves to our managers, and in doing so, we overstep our boundaries. We are just so eager to show that we are capable, and this brings further psychological stress.”
She also points out that many people do not wish to be in conflict with higher authorities and believe that they need to stay silent, even when they’re rather distressed. “We believe that we need to look up to those in power,” she adds.
Moreover, people want to feel like they ‘belong’ somewhere and wish to be accepted. If that means working continuously without a break even after work hours, they’ll do it, even if they don’t want to. “We sometimes put ourselves last in the process of belonging and do things we don't want to do in order to feel accepted. The fear of rejection and abandonment can feel very strong at times leading people to do things they don’t wish to do,” says Aidasahnni. In order to set boundaries clearly, one must address these fears first, and seek help, if needed.
However, the onus isn’t only on the individual. It’s a collective effort, says Baniabbasi. “It also depends on the office culture, whether it is an encouraging one or not. What is their role in making an employee feel comfortable at the workplace?” Communication should be clear between the manager and employees from the get-go itself, and certain expectations should be established. “It’s a two way thing,” she says.
"We sometimes put ourselves last in the process of belonging and do things we don't want to do in order to feel accepted. The fear of rejection and abandonment can feel very strong at times leading people to do things they don’t wish to do.."
Watch those interpersonal boundaries with colleagues
Twenty-eight year old Saba Muzaffar (name changed on request) from Abu Dhabi feels rather awkward as she remembers how she would be personal and informal with her colleagues at her first job at a media outlet. “I was that person who would go and hug people, share personal details of my life with them. Everyone knew what was happening in my life. I made the mistake of crying to a colleague over a rather bad break-up on a particularly difficult day at work, and my manager had to call me aside. He wasn’t rude - but he made it clear that I couldn’t bring my problems to the workplace. It’s embarrassing, when I think of how I was five years ago.”
Setting boundaries at the workplace doesn’t only pertain to biting off more than what you can chew. It is also about how you engage with your colleagues and managers. It’s one thing to be friendly, however, if you get far too involved in each other’s lives beyond a point and carry that baggage at work, it could affect the workplace ethos. Remember that you, too, have to accept other people’s boundaries.
“You should be mindful of interpersonal boundaries needed with co-workers, getting too informal or sharing sensitive personal information can affect the work dynamic with them, making the relationship messy,” says Banwari.
It’s crucial to establish firm boundaries at the workplace as it is vital for your mental health. There’s a life beyond work, and one needs to focus on their other relationships as well as themselves in order to recharge. There will always be some form of pushback, as not everyone will understand. Violations however should not be considered as setbacks, says Banwari. “Instead, these should be seen as learning opportunities for you to work on and enhance your boundary-setting skills,” he says, adding that continued violations and severe pushbacks are usually indicative of a toxic work environment.
You should not feel guilty of being selfish while drawing some lines. Some work boundaries are non-negotiable and clear, while others can be more flexible and vague. “It is helpful to have clarity around some of your non-negotiables, to be mindful of the implications of the choices that you make where work is concerned,” he says.
There will always be some form of pushback, as not everyone will understand. Violations however should not be considered as setbacks.
Here’s how you can set boundaries at work based on feedback from the experts:
• Identify your own boundaries first: Take some time to understand what your own boundaries are, what you are willing and not willing to do.
• Communicate clearly: Let your managers know that you will not be responsive on your weekends and after work-hours, unless urgently required to do so.
• Be polite, but assertive, otherwise people won’t know that they’ve overstepped.
• Learn to say ‘no’.
• Learn to switch off: Learn to log out from your work emails after work hours. Logging off from communication platforms, emails, and phone calls after office hours and during weekends or vacations, is essential, so you are not bothered by work notifications and can relax and recharge. Being overworked isn’t a badge of honour, reminds Aidasani.
• Remind yourself to be calm. Setting boundaries can lead to disagreements and there will always be pushback.
• If you still feel that your boundaries are not being respected, reach out to your manager or Human Resources.