The Importance of Healthy Boundaries at Work
If healthy boundaries at work are essential to employee satisfaction and engagement, how do they deliver a return on investment?
Today’s workplace can seem like a giant jigsaw puzzle with several missing pieces and others misshapen or frayed, making it tough to complete. The challenge of finding the fit occurs when we need to work together more than ever to weather an uncertain and tumultuous economy. Yet workplace team engagement is at an all-time low and sinking. It’s not looking good for the puzzle.
According to Pew Research Center, less than half of workers, 49 percent, are very satisfied with their jobs, which leaves 51 percent only moderately satisfied or outright dissatisfied. If you dig deeper into sectors, the 49 percent can be even less, depending on salaries and education levels. Gallop’s annual State of the Global Workplace Report: 2022 finds employee engagement a meager 32 percent, affecting both work-from-home and employees in the office. Yet, despite more and more people being checked out at work, businesses and organizations have been slow to respond—hence the great resignation and quiet quitting. It’s a complex problem with numerous factors contributing to someone feeling and acting like they are disconnected from their coworkers and the organization overall. 
Such a narrative wrapped around worrisome statistics can deflate even the most optimistic among us. Though the obstacles are formidable and the outcome far from certain for many, our vantage is clear-eyed optimism supported by a steady commitment to skills, tools, and resources that fit the puzzle pieces into a satisfactory whole.
Start Small: Ensuring Individual Team Members Feel Seen, Heard, and Valued
How do you encourage workers and teammates to invest or reinvest themselves? According to Gallop, “what really matters is how employees experience their work—how they are managed, coached, and treated.” Considering this, we believe the first step is improving and strengthening interpersonal relationships’ health and quality. This is the starting point for healthy collaboration in organizations of all types and sizes. If you don’t get along with your coworkers, how will you cooperate with them or be part of a well-functioning team? We beg to differ with the adage, “there is no I in team.” Each of us bears responsibility for the effectiveness and health of a team. Still, our colleagues and the organizational culture must give us a reason to invest and be engaged.
“Our desire to feel seen, heard, and recognized is fundamentally human,” note Emma Seppälä and Nicole K. McNichols, who specialize in workplace wellness and teach executive leadership at Yale and Stanford. In a recent report, Seppälä and McNichols find that healthy relationships among team members reduce turnover and increase engagement along with loyalty and productivity. “Companies that are run by these types of leaders enjoy higher client satisfaction, a better bottom line, and boosted shareholder returns,” they assert. 
Six Ways Boundaries Can Help Strengthen a Team
With numerous options available for employee wellness, it’s fair to ask what can yield immediate and lasting results for your organization. What is doable and measurable? The first step can be improving team relationships by recognizing, understanding, and implementing healthy boundaries in your work teams.
Sadbah Sullivan, who writes on the changing nature of work culture, sees boundaries as fundamental to wellness, “Whatever way work changed for you in the past couple of years, it has given many of us pause to reflect on how we can make work better… one thing we can all do, no matter what job we have, is set clear, healthy boundaries between ourselves and our work. This will not only make our day-to-day experience of work better but can also help ease the overwork and stress that so many of us still reckon with.” 
Yet boundaries are commonly crossed by colleagues and managers at work. This easily becomes part of the culture, e.g., when your boss asks you to do a little extra work—staying late or being available over the weekend, etc. Porous boundaries minimize your contribution when a colleague oversteps as a pretense of helping you out or when someone takes credit for your idea.
So, what do healthy boundaries in a workplace team look like? How about we start by recognizing what they don’t look like? Healthy boundaries don’t look like building walls between you and another, being closed off to different ideas and approaches, or refusing to compromise. They are not the act of suppressing your ideas and opinions in a team setting or discouraging the ideas of others. They are not overperforming or underperforming. They are the sweet spot of effective communication. Healthy boundaries are tools for you to be your authentic self and clearly convey your feelings and needs to your colleagues. They offer relief from burnout and over-functioning, and they encourage you to:
- Have high self-esteem and self-respect.
- Share personal information gradually to build and sustain mutual respect and trust.
- Have an equal partnership where responsibility and power are shared.
- Be assertive. and truthfully say “yes” or “no” when it calls for it and accept when others say “no” to you.
- Separate your needs, thoughts, feelings, and desires from others.
- Recognize that your boundaries and needs are different from others.
Dana Gionta and Dan Guerra, authors of a guide to setting healthy boundaries at work summarize three primary indicators that a boundary has been crossed are by feeling discomfort, resentment, or guilt. Each emotion is a warning to address a relationship that is out of balance. This doesn’t mean the connection is imperiled, rather Gionata and Guerra recommend a continuum to assess whether something needs to be addressed. “Ask yourself, ‘How uncomfortable, resentful, or guilty am I feeling now?’ Rate your answer on a scale of 1-10 (10 being the highest). If your level of discomfort is a three, you can consider this to be in the lower zone, having a mild effect on your emotions. Ratings of four-to-six are in the medium zone, indicating a more significant effect on you. Scores between seven and 10 are considered in the high zone.”
How Healthy Boundaries Translate to ROI
If healthy boundaries at work are essential to employee satisfaction and engagement, how do they deliver a return on investment? As one example, Deloitte recently investigated the ROI of the mental health of Canadian companies and traced that for every $1 invested in employee wellness by Canadian Bell, $4.10 was returned. Few would argue that a return of 400 percent is a wise investment.
Key markers included reduced attrition rate, reduced absenteeism, reduced short-term disability, reduced health claims, and increased overall workplace team productivity.
New Hires are Expensive!
The cause and effect of healthy interpersonal relationships at work and in teams are clear: even if leaders and executive management struggle to draw a direct line to profitability, the dollars saved are indisputable. Remember the Gallup survey on rising levels of disengagement at work? Actively disengaged workers cost US businesses between $450 billion and $550 billion in lost productivity per year and employers spend some $11 billion on employee turnover annually. 
Josh Bersin of Deloitte Consulting, compiled various series of employee attrition studies and concluded the total cost of losing just one employee can range from tens of thousands of dollars, or one and a half to two times an annual salary when considering:
- Cost of hiring a new person (advertising, interviewing, screening, hiring).
- Cost of onboarding a new person (training, management time)
- Lost productivity (a new person may take one to two years to reach the productivity of an existing person)
- Lost engagement (other employees who see high turnover disengage and lose productivity)
- Customer service and errors (new employees take longer and are often less adept at solving problems).
- Training cost (over two-to-three years 10-20 percent of an employee’s salary in training is lost.
- Cultural impact (whenever someone leaves, others take time to ask “why?”).
Try Answering These Questions Every Day for One Week
Each day ask yourself the following three questions and log your response for a week. For deeper understanding jot down your feelings for number two:
- How much of my average workday do I spend thinking about or responding to others’ actions/reactions to me?
- What consequential decisions have been made at work where I did not follow my inner guidance or speak up and share my opinion even when it was important to me to express my opinion?
- Am I aware when I rely on others more than myself, and/or am I aware when I overstep into someone else’s work? Do I pull rank?
If you’re interested in sustaining a more satisfying and positive workplace and improving your organization’s profitability through healthy boundaries, reach out–we’d love to chat. Open Eye Conscious Leadership email@example.com.
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