A little while ago I heard on the news that the French government had passed legislation that gives French employees the right to ignore phone calls and emails regarding their work after office hours. It was legislation aimed to help reduce stress among the country’s work force (more on that here). It made me think about previous jobs I have been in, and how boundaries were (dis-) regarded there.
It will probably not surprise you that the job with least regard for my boundaries, was when I worked for a narcissistic boss. I mean, toxic people never respect boundaries, so why would they with their co-workers or staff?
Boundaries at Work, What Are Those Anyway?
In a world where we are hardly viewed as people, and more as the embodiment of whatever job we have (how often has ‘what do you do?’ been the first question you are asked when meeting someone?), we may need to ask ourselves: what are workplace boundaries anyway?
With email, mobile phones, What’s App groups… the ways for our employers to keep in touch with us after hours are endless. But really, do we never get to unplug? Do we never really get to leave our work behind? I remember when I was off work (again) with stress related health issues (working for a narcissist has that effect on a person) and my boss kept calling me. I would receive countless messages with questions about the visa application procedures I had been managing for our customers. You may think that it is ‘fair enough’ that he is calling to ask questions about my work, which he now has to do. The thing is though that the detailed instructions and all my notes and correspondence with all 27 embassies was clearly organised in a binder on my desk. There was no reason to bother me, everything he could ever need was on my desk. He was either being lazy or -more likely- wanted to keep the pressure on.
In the end I went over his head and called his boss, the chairman of our board, to ask for support. He gave me permission to ignore any and all messages from my boss.
We all need to be human-beings first. We need rest and relaxation to stay healthy, motivated, creative.. and all the other things that we need to do our jobs. When we are ill, we need time and space to get better. When we are off, we need the time and space to recharge.
When we are dealing with bullies? We are unlikely to get anywhere near the time or space we need.
How to Maintain Boundaries at Work
Whether you are dealing with a workplace bully or not, here are some tips to deal with boundaries in the workplace.
#1 Work and Private Do Not Have to Mix
Yes, I have made friends at work too. It is important to remember however that your co-workers to not HAVE TO become your friends. You are in no way obliged to add them to Facebook (or whatever other social media platform you prefer). If you do want to add them, consider using the tools Facebook has in place to group certain contacts together, so you can be careful about what you share. Especially when you are dealing with a workplace bully, who will be on the hunt for any information they can use against you.
Every glass of wine you have can become ‘a drinking problem’.
Any mention of being ‘tired after a long day of work’ can become ‘publicly slagging the boss’.
Well, it can in the rumors a workplace bully may decide to start about you… Trust me, I have been there.
#2 Be Clear About Your Boundaries, Right From the Get-Go
A lot of problems start when we over-extend ourselves in the first weeks or months of getting a job. We want to make a good impression after all, especially when we are still in a probationary situation. It is hard though to tighten our boundaries when we allowed people to tread on them freely before. Besides, you don’t have to be rude about it, just make sure you communicate clearly.
“It’s especially hard for people who are on probation [three month period of a new role] where they genuinely want to make a good impression. But you should start as you mean to continue because acting as though you’ll work after 5pm or 6pm sets an expectation and in the long run is not sustainable. […] “Setting it right at the start [at your interview] is going to be the most impactfull. It’s about asking those questions early on: ‘what time do people leave here?’ ‘What examples do you have of supporting your employees through difficult times?’ Those sorts of questions which are really infrequently asked at interview. “Don’t be afraid to interview the job, company and their culture as well.”
(from How to Assert Healthy Boundaries at Work by Anna O’Dea)
#3 Ask for Help
Are you dealing with a bully, or maybe you are overwhelmed or your private life is affecting you at work? Try and find someone to talk to. Not for gossiping or complaining, but someone who can help you remedy the situation. Remember the chairman of the board I talked about earlier? I did not contact him to complain about my boss. I contacted him to ask him to help me deal with the situation. Sometimes the difference is subtle, but there is a difference. Sometimes it is just about asking for someone to back you up, sometimes it is to ask for a buffer.
Like when I asked our controller to help with a manager who was refusing to comply with regulation and just did not take the feedback from me (a lowly project officer). I discussed the issue with the controller and I asked him if it was okay to refer each and every toe out of line to him. He was only too happy to help, and it did not take very many interventions from him to get the manager to comply with regulation. He was also very good at keeping me out of the firing line, which was crucial to the success here.
The point I am making is that you need to figure out who you can approach to help you, and how you can approach them.
#4 Make Toxicity Visible
In a previous article about workplace bullies we said: document, document, document. One of the ways in which I did that, was to email my boss after every meeting we had. My emails would go something like: “In our meeting of date & time we discussed the following: I will do a,b and c. You will make sure d is prepped for me by the end of the week. If you have anything to add, please let me know”. He never responded to my emails, but they gave me a shield. If (or rather when) he would come charging down at me for doing something he ‘never told me to do’, I could produce the email and ask him why he did not correct me about it then. It did not help very much in the actual situation (he was after all a narcissist and did not have a very close relationship with facts and truth), but at least when he would complain to the board, I had documentation to back up my story.
That is just one way to make toxicity visible, but there is more you can do. Rather than helping the workplace bully hide their bad behavior, call them out. Not in a confrontational manner, by picking public fights, you will likely make your co-workers feel like you are the one with the problem. What worked well for me was to play dumb. Workplace bullies (like all abusers) are likely changing their story about 7 times an hour. So I would ask a lot of questions, at team meetings. “I don’t understand, yesterday you gave me this note asking me to do the opposite of what you are saying now. Should I still do this work, or should I leave it?”
Abuse and bullying needs secrecy to be effective and enjoyable for the perpetrator. Where you can, shine a light on the behavior. Find ways to create paper trail. Figure out how you can make co-workers take notice of odd behavior. Make sure you do not do this is a confrontational manner though, you will surely trigger the wrath of the bully (and you really do not want to do that).
#5 Make Mental Space for Solutions
If you are experiencing issues at work, you need to create some head-space for problem solving. Whether figuring out who and how to ask for help, how to bring the problem to light without looking like an idiot… or even how you are going to find a new job. Whatever you feel is the right way to go, you need time and mental energy to make it happen. Confide in your partner or a close friend. Vent some of the frustration, so you can approach the challenge more level-headed.
Sometimes just updating your CV will give you some peace of mind, and some air to breath. It may make you feel that there is a life beyond your current situation.
Keep Asking the Questions
After the lunar eclipse a few years ago (or some such astrological “the world is going to end” event) I read a number of tweets that all boiled down to:
Oh no, the world didn’t end last night! Now I have to go to work #IHateMondays.
I was shocked that there were people who seemed to feel death was preferable to heading to work. Do you feel like that? Or are you frequently upset at the prospect of going to work? I had times where I would break down in tears as soon as I walked down the stairs. That is no way to live!
One of the reasons workplace bullying can be so very difficult to deal with, is because we are afraid to lose our jobs and our livelihood. I get it! I had mortgage payments too when I was dealing with the narcissistic boss, it adds a lot of stress to an already stressful situation. Simply walking out, is not an option many of us can afford. Workplace bullies know that (trust me, they do) and count on it. Read up on toxic behavior, abusive strategies and their effects. You may find many articles referring to abusive parents and spouses, but have a good look at how those behaviors and attitudes translate to a workplace bully.
And if you are not dealing with a bully (or even an abusive corporate system, those exist too), then ask yourself the question: what is really going on?
- Are you overworked?
- Are you just bored because the work is too easy?
- Are you feeling under appreciated?
- Are you really dealing with a personal issue that is bleeding into or presenting itself as a professional one? (For example, are you working late so often because you have too much work, or because you would rather not go home?)
Keep asking yourself questions. Keep wondering what is going on, what is making you feel like this?
Self-reflection is crucial in figuring out what is going on, as well as for finding the solution and healing required to build a life you love!