top of page
  • Melissa Sims

Red Light, Green Light: Setting Boundaries

Burnout, quiet quitting, stress fatigue, anxiety…these are all things that can be avoided by setting clear boundaries - at work and in your personal life. Boundaries help create a healthy work-life balance that is imperative for you to be as productive and happy as possible. Work can actually be enjoyable.

I have worked from home almost 100% for at least three years, and it has taken me at least one to two of those years to get things working efficiently while maximizing my time. For those of you who work from home, I am sure you can relate. While the benefits are incredible, it doesn’t come without its problems. My husband has seen me work from home all this time and has been quite envious of my lifestyle, but that’s really only because he sees me when he gets home from work. I’m usually happy and humming away, while he’s exhausted and irritable. In his eyes, it’s because I get to work from home. In reality, it’s because I manage my time well and I know my boundaries. There isn’t any less work-related stress or even any less actual work. I just know when I am or am not equipped to handle that stress, how to balance my personal time and work time, and when to walk away from my computer - I know my boundaries.

He is in a leadership role and I can see, visibly, the strain that it puts on him because he doesn’t have ANY boundaries set. He is always ON, always checking emails, and there’s no clear delineation between work and home. Whether you work in or out of the house, boundaries can make the work environment so much more pleasant, but only when you take care of yourself and actually enforce your limitations. My husband is completely burned out. He works at least 10-12 hours per day, head down, work, work, work. I believe this has a lot to do with upbringing, and the values that are ingrained in you as a child. Don’t be “lazy” and always work hard. I don’t disagree with that. However, we need balance, as you know, and working 12 hour days doesn’t leave a lot of room for that.

If you tend to be the leader who sees themself in the same light as my husband, first know that this is very likely your own doing. That isn’t meant as a judgement or even a dig, it’s just reality. Boundaries may have never been set with your staff, your superiors, your family, or yourself. A lot of leaders, and even non-supervisory employees, believe they will be more valued the harder they work. While that is somewhat true, hard work doesn’t always mean good work. Work smarter, not harder. A burned out employee or supervisor is of no benefit to the organization.

Do you have an inner monologue right now, saying “well, she doesn’t understand. I have so much to do in a day that I simply can’t get it done in 8 hours.” Or “I have to check my email, all day long. Someone might need something.” I get it, I really do. When I sold real estate as a career, I got phone calls at all hours and the stress level was insane. But I started setting boundaries with clients that I would not be answering my phone or emails past 6 pm. And guess what? Magically, all of those “emergencies” could wait until 8:00 am the next day.

So, do you know your boundaries? Boundaries coincide with psychological safety, and it’s important to take note of your feelings throughout your day in order to realize if your limits are being exceeded. Melissa Urban, author of “The Book of Boundaries: Set the Limits that Will Set You Free” created The Green, Yellow, and Red system, which represents the level of threat that arises from the boundary crossing you’re facing. I think this is a great and simple system to identify your boundaries and whether they are being crossed.

According to Melissa Urban, these are the zones:

GREEN: Low risk, and the gentlest language. Assumes the other person wasn’t aware they were overstepping and wants to respect your limits. Your boundary language is clear, generous, and very kind. Leaves any potential consequences unsaid in the spirit of good faith.

YELLOW: Elevated risk, and firmer language. Used as a follow-up if your Green boundary isn’t respected, or if historical interactions with this person indicate the threat is higher. Your boundary language is just as clear, but more firm. Yellow may also include an intended consequence, if appropriate.

RED: Severe risk, and your most direct language. At this point, your health, safety, and/or the relationship are in jeopardy, and your language must reflect the severity of the situation. It’s still kind, but this is their last reminder, and makes it clear that you are prepared to hold your limits. State the consequence plainly here and be ready to enforce it.

We can interpret these zones in my husband’s situation like this: Let’s say a construction employee doesn’t know where he is supposed to work the following day, and neglected to clarify prior to the work day ending, and this happens frequently. GREEN may be a quick phone call after hours from the employee on my husband’s personal phone. Jeff, my husband, could say something like “the schedule is posted in the office, please be sure to check it before you leave each day as I don’t typically answer my phone after hours and I would hate for you to not know where to be.” YELLOW response would be “Going forward, please confirm your schedule well before the day is over. I do not take work calls after 5pm.” RED would be “I am concerned that you aren’t managing your time efficiently, as the schedule is posted and should be referred to before leaving the office. This is my personal phone and I will not be answering work calls on it. My work phone is turned off after 5pm, so please make the appropriate adjustments. If you aren’t able to show up to the correct job site, you will unfortunately not be paid for that day of work.”

Setting boundaries allows you to protect your time, energy, and resources. Ultimately, setting boundaries is crucial to maintaining your overall well-being, happiness, and sanity in all areas of your life.

Examples of healthy work boundaries include:

Know what you can realistically handle, and say NO when it exceeds that. If you are a “yes” person, automatically taking on extra work regardless of your workload, you aren’t setting appropriate boundaries. There is nothing wrong with saying no, and even better if you can explain why.

Limit After-Work Hours! If you are continually overworking, reflect on why this is happening? Is it time management, or are you expected to do more than you can handle? If it is the latter, you may need to have a talk with your supervisor, or work on your delegation skills. Working long hours can take a toll on your mental and physical health.

We stress this in EVERY workshop we do. Take breaks! A 5-10 break will refresh your mind and keep you energized to get through the rest of the day productively.

Keep things professional. This is hard, I know. As leaders, we want to relate with our employees and show authenticity. But there should be a definite line that isn’t crossed. When a supervisor gets too close to a staff member, it gets more difficult to manage the relationship and the defined roles become blurred.

Boundaries are an essential element of trust. When you have no boundaries, it leaves you open to being taken advantage of, and leaves your mental health in danger. Boundaries essentially communicate to others that you respect yourself, that you value yourself and your time. It also models to others that they too should have boundaries. If you never say no to your teammates or staff, they might not feel safe to say no to you. If you take on more than you can handle, you are sending the message of what’s expected of your staff as well.

Boundaries are only effective when we set and enforce them with ourselves and others. These are your rules, and when rules are broken, typically there are consequences. We must be willing to accept the consequences of enforcing our boundaries, because if we don’t, those consequences could be far worse.


bottom of page