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The Importance of Boundaries for School Staff

Approximate reading time: 9 minutes.

Establishing appropriate workplace boundaries is important for teachers and school staff because of the close-knit environments in which they work. UK mental health charity, Mind defines boundaries as, "Guidelines, rules or limits that define acceptable and unacceptable behaviour." Boundaries are closely linked to interpersonal relationships which is why they have such a significant role in many aspects of our lives — the well-known phrase, "To cross the line," is about overstepping a boundary. As schools are often more like independent societies than most other workplaces, establishing effective boundaries is vital for those who work in them.

Workplace boundaries and school staff

a pink sign with the word boundary on it.

Creating and maintaining healthy workplace boundaries is important for all school staff. Teacher wellbeing may decline if staff feel unable to set boundaries, or if those they set aren't respected. This can heighten stress levels, hinder performance, and lead to feelings of resentment. The benefits of setting clear boundaries include:

  • Gaining clarity about what is and isn't required of you
  • Increased performance and the quality of your work
  • Protecting yourself against potential exploitation
  • Wider respect for each other's boundaries
  • More respectful relationships between colleagues
  • More satisfactory relationships with managers and leaders
  • Better workload and time management
  • Helping to avoid your job from feeling all-consuming
  • Helping in maintaining autonomy and retaining your sense of self
  • Aiding in sustaining a healthy separation between your professional and personal life
  • Keeping stress at bay, helping to avoid burnout
  • Teachers and support staff may benefit from improved relationships with pupils
  • Boosting overall wellbeing

Types of boundaries for school staff

Boundaries are often characterised as personal or professional. This can cause confusion because some boundaries which fall under the personal umbrella are also applicable to the workplace. For example, a boundary limiting your involvement in workplace politics is both personal and professional. It may be more helpful to categorise boundaries for school staff under the following headings.

Physical boundaries

Physical boundaries are concerned with respecting physical space. Examples include:

  • Reducing interactions with colleagues who have a negative impact on you.
  • Keeping work such as marking out of your bedroom and personal living areas.

Workload boundaries

Consulting your employment contract can guide you when defining your workload boundaries. Examples of this type of boundary are:

  • Only agreeing to tasks which are within your professional skills and abilities.
  • Limiting additional responsibilities that will impede your contracted duties.

Time boundaries

Enforcing time boundaries has the potential to reduce stress and increase personal satisfaction.

Examples of time boundaries include:

  • Setting clear times when you're not prepared to read and respond to work communication.
  • Limiting the time you'll spend listening to non-work related talk.

Communication boundaries

Communication boundaries can encompass methods of communication, frequency, topics and who you interact with. Examples include:

  • Requesting that communication regarding certain topics be put in writing.
  • Making it clear that conversations around particular topics are off-limits.

Common misconceptions about enforcing workplace boundaries 

It's common for people to shy away from setting and enforcing boundaries concerning their work, especially in new roles and at the early stages of their careers. Here are some common misconceptions about having workplace boundaries:

"People will think I don't care or I'm not a team player."

Setting and sticking to boundaries is a sign of professionalism which has the potential to benefit everyone. 

"Having boundaries will limit my progression."

Establishing healthy boundaries can actually help you improve your performance and workplace relationships.

"My coworkers will resent me for enforcing boundaries."

It may take a while for some colleagues to adjust, but it may also inspire them to consider their own boundaries.

"I should just accept whatever comes my way — I get long holidays."

You deserve to have your needs respected while you're at work, regardless of how much time off you get.

"It's not for me to set boundaries."

While some boundaries are defined by the school and others, they are unlikely to cover all the nuances of your job, which is why asserting your own boundaries is so important.

Fundamental principles about workplace boundaries

It's sometimes difficult to make the step between thinking about setting boundaries and actually doing it. Understanding the following fundamental principles can help you stay on track when setting and enforcing boundaries in your workplace.

Boundaries are about respect

Boundaries may seem to be about restrictions, but they're really about respect. Upholding our own boundaries and respecting the boundaries of others can help to facilitate better understanding, trust and respect. Within workplaces such as schools, boundaries can result in healthier work environments in which everyone feels more secure.

Setting boundaries is sensible, not selfish

Enforcing boundaries is by no means selfish. Rather, it's a sensible way of looking after your wellbeing which can be mutually beneficial. Without the anxiety that arises from not having clear and enforceable boundaries, you can be more a productive colleague.

Sometimes, boundaries need to be flexible

As you progress in your career, you'll need to add, adjust, and possibly remove certain boundaries. Your existing boundaries aren't set in stone. There may be times when it's not possible or desirable to uphold a hard boundary. Viewing the boundaries you set as flexible is a healthy way of approaching them.

How to set boundaries

Here's a step-by-step guide to setting and enforcing boundaries:

1. Clearly define your boundaries

Some boundaries are obvious and applicable to most education staff. However, many boundaries are reliant on a specific person and position. Identifying areas and situations that cause stress or discomfort can help you set your boundaries. Consider what differences would improve the problem areas you identify.

2. Write them down

Listing your boundaries can help you to see them as tangible guidelines rather than abstract concepts. When you begin to implement your boundaries, it can be useful to use your list to gauge your progress. Having a written list also makes it easier to refer to and revise your boundaries when necessary.

3. Communicate your boundaries

Communicating your boundaries is a crucial part of enforcing them. You don't have to make a formal announcement or inform anyone in a particular way. Instead, you might add your contactable hours on your email signature or tell a colleague that you've drawn a line on certain conversations.

4. Implement them

This is the all-important step. Enforcing your boundaries means upholding them consistently. Doing things such as setting reminders of when to go home or stopping marking when you're working from home can assist in implementing time boundaries. There are also likely to be occasions when people will try to push or ignore your boundaries. Being consistent with your boundaries helps others become accustomed to them which will benefit you in the long run.

Tips for protecting your boundaries

Here are some tips for protecting your boundaries:

  • Rehearse having to enforce your boundaries: It can be helpful to run through scenarios in your mind in which a colleague is infringing on one of your boundaries. Writing down what you would say can help you find the most effective words and phrases to use. Practising in this way can make it easier if you ever have to reinforce your boundaries in real life.
  • Strategically turn off notifications: Switching off email and other notifications from work communication channels during out-of-work hours, holidays and weekends can help you to maintain your work/home boundaries. You could also switch off or silence these when you're working on something or with someone that needs your full attention.
  • Call out people if they continually overstep your boundaries: Before taking any action, ensure that you have made them aware of your boundaries. If someone knows your boundaries but ignores them, firmly but respectfully inform them that you've already made yourself clear and that they need to respect your position.
  • Know your responsibilities and rights: Understanding exactly what your job entails is beneficial when you're asked to take on additional tasks or responsibilities. Knowing your rights as an employee is also important for establishing effective workplace boundaries.
  • Lose your fear of saying 'No': Being asked to do something that infringes on your boundaries can put you in an uncomfortable position. Knowing how to say ‘No’ in such a situation enables you to protect and uphold your boundaries without feeling guilty.
  • Develop an end-of-work routine: Having a routine that you do at the end of every workday and when you finish working from home supports the distinction between work and home. This could involve tidying your workspace, saying goodbye to your colleagues, or dimming the lights once you've finished any work you've taken home.

Getting further support

Establishing healthy boundaries is just one of many things you can do to improve your workplace wellbeing. The team at Welbee have created dedicated resources for supporting education staff wellbeing. find many of them in the freely available Welbee Toolkit — you sign up for a free account and immediate access here

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