How to Set Work-Life Boundaries That Actually Work

A woman texting her boss about work-life boundaries

Sensitive people may be at higher risk of burning out. Here’s how to actually get work-life balance — without looking unprofessional. 

I have a confession: I sometimes work past my scheduled hours, doing paperwork and checking emails at home. It’s easy to do, since it seems as though there’s always one more thing to get done, and I’d like to be helpful. But, as much as it might help others, this practice is not helpful to me, since it blurs the lines between home and work — and often leaves me stressed and exhausted. 

Lately, I’ve been trying to setting better work-life boundaries. We all need limits between work and life, especially in our overworked modern culture, but sensitive people — who often fall into the people-pleaser and perfectionism traps — need them especially. 

That’s tricky, because while work-life balance is a concept we all strive for, work-life boundaries are harder to achieve. But they’re crucial for living a life free of overwhelm. 

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What Are Work-Life Boundaries?

So what are work-life boundaries? According to MasterClass, “(Work-life) boundaries are the rules and guidelines workers implement for themselves and human resources establish for a company to set clear lines between one’s professional and personal life.” Those rules look different for everyone, but across the board, they are lines we draw, to say “This is work” and “this is not work, this is something else (that we get to choose).” Humans are not machines after all, we were not designed to always be working.

Work-life boundaries are important. A study conducted in 2020 in the Netherlands found that blurred work-life boundaries for professionals resulted in decreased happiness and overall decreased health. Blurred work-life balances can also affect our home relationships, especially with romantic partners. But setting boundaries might involve some conflict, or at least some anxiety about conflict. And HSPs famously hate conflict (and can be more prone to anxiety). 

So, what is an overworked HSP to do? 

How to Determine Your Own Work-Life Boundaries

The first step, at least according to business writer Sean Peek, is to figure out what you want your ideal work life to look like (keeping in mind, of course, that there is no ideal job). The boundaries you need will flow naturally from this ideal.

Controlling Your Environment

This balance is going to look different for everyone, as everyone has different needs for their work. However, sensitive people as a whole are more prone to occupational burnout, and if you work in a “helping” profession, such as teaching or healthcare, more prone to compassion fatigue as well, compared to our neurotypical coworkers. We also tend to prefer calm, stable environments. (Chaotic environments cause all employees stress and anxiety, but HSPs feel those things more strongly than others, thanks to our extra-deep sensory processing.) That means that, as a sensitive person, your ideal work life will likely include working somewhere with a calmer physical environment or the capacity to control your own environment — and, if you’re in a high-stress or helping profession, a lot of downtime and outside of work to help combat fatigue. 

Finding Meaningful Work

Highly sensitive people also crave meaningful work, and truly want to believe that they are making a difference with the job they do. We don’t like showing up to work simply to earn a paycheck! (Coincidentally, many of these “meaningful” jobs are also the roles that drain HSPs the most since they require lots of empathy and attention to the needs of others.) Doing this more meaningful, but demanding work may mean establishing firmer boundaries around your time or what kind of company culture you’ll tolerate.

A practical guide to finding your ideal work is to take Richard Nelson Bolles’ advice in his book What Color is Your Parachute? Bolles advises listing every job you’ve ever had, then pros and cons about that job. What did you love — the hours, the people you worked with, the salary, the nature of the work? And what did you not love — maybe the commute, a micromanaging boss, the overtime or extra hours? Once you’re done, compile all of the pros and cons into a master list. You can’t have everything you want, but you might find that your list reveals some powerful tradeoffs. For example, perhaps you thought you were simply burned out in your industry, but you’d actually be happy as long as you lose the long commute. Or perhaps you were perfectly happy in a highly demanding role when you had a supportive boss, and that’s what you need to look for to keep going. 

Beware of Overworking

Another question to consider in regard to your ideal work balance is how much extra effort you may be putting in. HSPs are known perfectionists, sometimes to the point of dangerously overworking. After all, we want to do a good job, and there is nothing wrong with that — as long as it doesn’t get in the way of your health and happiness. As my therapist once asked me, “Are you okay with doing a good enough job and walking away at the end of the day, or are you wasting energy trying to be perfect?” Sometimes, “good enough” really is good enough. 

Need to Calm Your Sensitive Nervous System? 

HSPs often live with high levels of anxiety, sensory overload and stress — and negative emotions can overwhelm us. But what if you could finally feel calm instead?

That’s what you’ll find in this powerful online course by Julie Bjelland, one of the top HSP therapists in the world. You’ll learn to turn off the racing thoughts, end emotional flooding, eliminate sensory overload, and finally make space for your sensitive gifts to shine.

Stop feeling held back and start to feel confident you can handle anything. Check out this “HSP Toolbox” and start making a change today. Click here to learn more.

Making the Changes You Need In Your Career

Once you have figured out what you want your ideal work-life balance to look like, that’s where some conflict might come into play. But the good news is that you can start with some small changes to your work routine. As an example, if your company offers voluntary overtime, say no. In most cases, no amount of money is worth your mental health. (If you feel as though you are letting down the company, don’t. It is their responsibility to hire enough employees to do all of the work.) Another small change that I found personally very helpful is to refrain from checking email on my day off. Whatever it is, it will wait until my next working day.

There is some evidence to suggest that working from home or hybrid may benefit HSPs, as they can better organize their day to suit them, avoid interruptions and provide time for deep thinking. If this is something your company allows, try it. If not, consider asking your supervisor if it’s something you can look into. Approach this conversation from the perspective of wanting to do your best work and contribute the most to the company, and explain why working remotely some days will help you do that. 

Many HSPs also find that the work approach that best meets their needs is starting their own business or doing freelance work. However, entering the business world can be overwhelming for many, with its extrovert-oriented tendencies (I was certainly terrified taking my first Entrepreneurship class, afraid that I wouldn’t belong or fit in.) HSP therapist and expert Julie Bjelland offers resources for HSPs wanting to start their own business here.

Other small steps you can take to build your work-life boundaries include?

  • If you do work from home in any capacity, make sure you set up a space that is solely devoted to work, in order to keep work life separate from home life in both your physical and mental spaces.  Many people find it stressful to have their kitchen table double as their office desk. 
  • If you’re an office worker (remote or in-person), make sure you disconnect from work tasks such as email and Zoom meetings at the end of your day and week.
  • Create space in your schedule to recharge from work. This is all important for all of us, but HSPs have been shown to need more rest and downtime in order to function at their best. Don’t compromise your scheduled downtime for obligations and invites from friends and coworkers. 
  • When the work day is over, stop working. Many company cultures now tend toward workers staying well after 5:00 without extra compensation. Be the first to break that trend — it’s unlikely to harm you in the long run, and the boost to your health will more than pay off. 
  • Find a mentor in your career or a related field. According to Andre Sólo, coauthor of the bestselling book Sensitive, HSPs benefit from a “Boost Effect” when they have support and resources: They rocket to far greater heights than less-sensitive people with the same support. A mentor is a great way to activate the Boost Effect in your own life and shape your career to fit your boundaries. 

Enforcing Your Boundaries

Once you have set your boundaries around work and work-life balance, how do you keep them?  It’s tempting to compromise on your boundaries when your coworkers or boss ask for help above and beyond your job description, “just this one time.” And don’t you want to help people? But your boundaries exist for a reason, and they are important.

Bjelland suggests reframing how you say no. Instead of thinking of how you are disappointing someone else, think of how you are saying no to yourself. Enforcing your boundaries is saying yes to yourself and your needs. And honoring your needs for greater work-life balance, or even just less work stress, ultimately allows you to do better work, which is saying yes to your job as well.

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