5 steps to better work-life balance with boundaries

Work-life balance matters to almost all of us. In fact, research for SEEK shows 98% of New Zealand employees believe it’s important.

But work-life balance is still something many of us struggle with. Work is more accessible out of hours and our personal devices are a gateway to work chats and timesheets. The line between professional and personal time can blur.

Plus, we know these parts of our lives often aren’t smooth sailing – work hits a busy stretch, or something personal comes up needing attention. So, maintaining an ideal ‘balance’ can feel out of reach.

But what if we thought about it differently?

Focusing on ‘work-life boundaries’ instead

SEEK’s Resident Psychologist Sabina Read suggests rather than looking at these different priorities with a work-life balance approach, we think about work-life boundaries instead.

“Chasing an elusive balance between the personal and professional domains of life is largely futile, and not surprisingly, balance looks different to each of us and will likely shift over time,” Read says.

At times we’ll all have demands – from work, our personal commitments, families, partners or pets – that are outside our control.

But by setting boundaries with people in your work and personal spheres, you’re more clearly defining these parts of your life, how they’ll interact, and how you’ll dedicate time and effort to them.

“So often we wait for someone else to create a sense of balance for us, hoping that others will intuit or know what we need more or less of,” Read explains.

“However, the best person to identify our needs is us. Setting clear and reasonable boundaries is the action step required to experience what most of us call balance.”

5 ways to set better work-life boundaries:

1. Know yourself and what matters to you

The first step is to understand what you value. What matters most to you? What are your priorities? From there, you can draw out meaningful boundaries to help you make sure what you value is getting the space it deserves.

  • For example, if time with family is important to you, your boundaries might be around being able to do afternoon pick up and bedtime and adjusting your hours to fit around this.
  • Or if looking after your health matters most, your boundaries might include finishing on time so you’re able to make an evening fitness class, or not responding to email after hours to help manage your mental health.

Read adds that anyone working will benefit from considering which conditions they need to thrive at work – for example, flexibility, collaboration, feedback, autonomy, structure or consistency – and drawing out boundaries from there.


2. Share your boundaries with others

The next step is to communicate your boundaries with those around you – your manager, people leader, business owner or team members . This is an important step, as we can sometimes assume people know or understand our boundaries when we haven’t shared them.

When discussing your boundaries, Read says it can help to use language like,

  • “I know I thrive at work when…”
  • “I want you to get the best from me, and I’ve learned that to be my best I need more/less of …”
  • “I’m excited and committed to making an impact here. For me to be most impactful, I need to know it’s OK for me to also carve out time to…”

Remember boundaries can also require an element of compromise. “What’s ideal may not be possible, so discuss what’s achievable and what isn’t. But try to avoid assuming people you work with or for are mind readers,” suggests Read.


3. Use smaller actions to maintain your boundaries

Once you’ve set your boundaries, the key is to make sure you can take achievable actions each day or week that help you uphold them. These actions could include:

  • getting outside or taking breaks during the day
  • putting a hard stop at the end of your workday with a time or activity
  • blocking time in your calendar for focus
  • letting your team know you start and finish earlier on Thursdays to make your language class
  • switching off computers and work phones at the end of the day
  • setting guidelines for communication outside of hours
  • regularly reviewing your workload
  • adjusting the days, times or location you work during the week, where possible.


4. Have a plan for when your boundaries are challenged

There are times demands or requests will come up and fall outside of your boundaries, or conflict with them. Think about what can be in your ‘toolkit’ to help you respond to those situations – it might be mindfulness, talking to someone, or taking a physical break. Then, try to separate what’s in your control from what’s not, and consider how you can respond.

  • For example, if you’re drawn into after-hours work chat about a problem that’s come up, you might decide, I’ll respond now, but I will finish earlier tomorrow. Or, this problem is outside my control for now but I can deal with it tomorrow when the workshop opens, so I’ll let the team know I’ll handle it then.

“There will always be forces pushing up against our boundaries. Some we can push back, others will require us to bend. Sometimes just recognising we have choice in how we respond can help support us,” Read says.


5. Keep communicating and adjusting

Boundaries aren’t set and forget – they work best when you continue to review and adjust. Keep checking you have space and time for what you value across the personal and professional parts of your life. Try different things to help you maintain your boundaries.


And keep the communication going. If you can, get guidance and support from your manager, and make boundaries something you engage about as a team. This way, you’re able to better see each other as whole people and begin to understand each other’s parts.


Read acknowledges the pathway to defining and meeting boundaries isn’t easy, and that it’s where things go wrong that we can often learn about our boundaries.

“Most of us know what it feels like when boundaries have been breached, so it can sometimes help to think about a time we felt resentful, misaligned, frustrated, tired, invisible, or not appreciated,” she explains.

“These experiences may help provide clues to where we need to express, refine and implement boundaries, and can indicate we need to make changes to feel more valued, empowered, seen, heard, or impactful.”

By setting and communicating your boundaries with those around you, you’re creating a working environment where you can thrive – and encouraging others to do the same. You’re also acknowledging the things that are in your control and the things that aren’t, and how you can best respond to both.

Source: Independent research conducted by Nature on behalf of SEEK interviewing 4,000 Kiwis annually. Published April 2023.