How to Support Employees Professional Boundaries

7 mins

In this blog, we’ll be looking at the importance of setting professional boundaries when it ...

In this blog, we’ll be looking at the importance of setting professional boundaries when it comes to how and when employees work. In the context of this blog, professional boundaries relate to the way we separate our work from our home life.  An employer who helps their employees gain a good balance will find it easier to attract, get the best out of, and retain employees, and will also be better able to fulfil their health and safety obligations. 

The reality is that, for many of us, professional boundaries have become harder to maintain and this, in part, is due to technology and, changes in where and how many of us work.  The increase in the number of people who can, and who want to, work from home, has created an environment where the lines between home and work life can become blurred.  Advancements in technology have meant that many of us have all our work information on a laptop, or get instant notifications on our phones whenever an email or work call comes through.  There’s also a desire from many employees to have more flexibility to choose when work is done, instead of having to commit to working 9am to 5pm, on a Monday to Friday basis.  A lot of these changes have benefited employees and employers alike, but for some, it’s meant that they don’t switch off from work as regularly or as effectively.

Why is it important?

Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve finished work for the day, or you’ve got a day off, and your phone buzzes?  You look down to see an email asking for an update on a project you’ve been working on and what do you do?  A lot of the time we respond to the email, or forward it on to someone else with an explanatory note stating how it should be responded to.  If this rarely happens, it probably won’t cause a problem, but if it becomes a habit, it can have an impact on our wellbeing.  In fact, a survey by found that 78.3 per cent of workers surveyed believed the always-on culture is negatively impacting today’s workforce, citing poor quality of sleep, increased stress levels and spending less time with family as examples of the damaging effects [1]. 

Research from the CIPD found that a quarter of those surveyed (24%) found it’s difficult to relax in their own time because they are thinking about work and that their job affects their personal commitments (26%).  The survey also found evidence of high levels of work intensity, which is known to cause stress, with 66% of workers having experienced a work-related health condition in the last 12 months, with anxiety and sleep problems being two of the most common issues reported [2]. 

Just as an athlete needs rest days in order to perform at their best, employees need time away from work if they are going to be as effective as possible.  This includes having lunch breaks and having daily and weekly time away from work.  The right to time away from work is a legal one, with most employees being entitled to at least 20 minutes off if they work over six hours, as well as 11 hours between shifts and 24 hours off in a seven-day period [3].  Employers also have an obligation to ensure that employee’s welfare is looked after under HSE rules – having time away from sitting at a desk and not putting undue stress on employees, are all factors which play a part in an employer showing they have met their health and safety obligations.

How to do it?

Employees have to take responsibility for managing their work effectively but there are many ways that an employer can help.  It’s important that employers walk the walk, not just talk the talk when it comes to their expectations of when an employee will work and how quickly they expect responses.  If an employer sends requests with unrealistic deadlines or allows a culture of long hours where quick responses become standard, employees will soon learn that they need to work in a similar way if they are likely to succeed in a business.

We can all help in setting professional boundaries by respecting other people’s choices on working hours.  If we like working early in the morning or after traditional business hours, we may inadvertently make others feel like they need to respond to meet our working times.  To negate this, you could put something in your email signature that states “I have chosen to work flexible hours but have no expectation that I will receive a response from others outside of standard working hours”.

For employees, having clear working days and/or working hours is key to setting out what’s acceptable.  Once you’ve made a decision on when you’ll be working, have a plan to leave your desk when your working hours are done.  This may seem strange at first, but will become easier as it becomes habit.  Once you’ve finished work, put your phone down or turn off notifications!  Some people have found it helpful to charge their phone in another room so that they don’t get tempted to look at emails before going to sleep.  Smartphones often have functionality to stop access to certain apps or contacts within specified times, which can make it easier to resist the urge to work past your chosen hours.

Another helpful way to reduce the appeal of checking and responding to emails is to put an out of office on your email and voicemail.  This doesn’t have to be done only when you’re on annual leave, it can also be used to set expectations on general response times.  A simple message along the lines of “I’m in a series of meetings today and so my response to emails may be delayed.  If your query is urgent, please contact XXXXX” will take the pressure off you to respond whilst giving the other party an understanding of when you are likely to reply.

Why support employees in this?

Encouraging and supporting employees to set professional boundaries can be very beneficial to an employer.  Employees who feel like they can obtain a good work/life balance are more likely to be loyal to their employer so the likelihood is that it will be easier to retain staff.  Ensuring employees are supported in getting enough rest is a legal obligation so there’s financial risk in avoiding the problem.

If you would benefit from support in helping your employees to create professional boundaries that work for your business, get in touch with View HR.