6 Steps To Set Boundaries Between Work And Family

August 23, 2016


AMA Playbook presents a week-long series celebrating workplace equality, exploring the challenges, obstacles and frustrations faced — and overcome — by businesswomen. The series will run through Women’s Equality Day on August 26.

Tracy, an accountant at a major accounting firm, wasn’t happy with her work life. Every day she would try to sneak out around 5:30 p.m. to make it home by 6:30 and see her kids. Still, at least three nights a week, she found herself chained to her desk by a late request or last-minute conference call. She became extremely anxious about her daily departure — hours before leaving. At 4:00, she literally hid behind her desk, worrying that if she looked a colleague in the eye for too long, she’d be pulled into a late-afternoon meeting or asked to help with a new project.

At home, it was no better. Because Tracy intended to arrive home at 6:30 p.m., her nanny worked from 8:00 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. every day. Most nights, she had to make the “call of shame,” apologizing for being delayed at work yet again. Tracy worried if, frustrated with her own unpredictable work hours, her nanny might take it out on the kids. As the kids got older, they’d call and ask when she’d be home. When she called announcing she’d be late, her son would grab the phone out of the nanny’s hand and shower Tracy with guilt, often bursting into tears — and when Tracy hung up, she cried too.

What could Tracy do to end this downward spiral of discontent and guilt?

  1. Decide what’s really important. Tracy’s first step was to pin down her non-negotiables. She wanted to be home by 6:30 every evening, and two hours of uninterrupted time with her kids every weeknight before bed.
  2. Stop sneaking out. Tracy was leaving the office hoping colleagues wouldn’t notice, but it wasn’t working—and was probably far more obvious than she realized. Now she addressed her work schedule head-on. She went to her boss with a plan: “I’d like a more predictable schedule. I’ll aim to leave work at 5:30, but will stay late if there is a work emergency or deadline. I’ll be back online after 8:30 once my kids are asleep.” Without a second’s hesitation, her boss obliged. This might not happen every time, but there is always a good chance that it will. If not, you have at least stepped up and fought for what you need.
  3. Train your colleagues. To set expectations, Tracy spread the word about her new schedule to colleagues. They didn’t push back overtly; their resistance showed itself in other ways. They’d schedule 5:00 meetings that she needed to be in, or throw new work on her desk at the end of the day. She calmly explained that she could participate in meetings between 8:30 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., unless there was an emergency. When a colleague ventured outside her boundaries, she would again patiently explain her new schedule. Over the course of six months, colleagues stopped asking for late-day meetings. She had trained them to respect her boundaries — and dropped her own guilt.
  4. Set boundaries at home. This is a big one. Tracy committed to being home by 6:30 p.m. and turning her technology back on at 8:30 p.m. If her kids got up after she had put them to sleep, she told them, “This is Mommy’s work time and your sleep time.” Eventually, her kids respected her boundaries. When they didn’t, her husband stepped in so she could catch up on work.
  5. Announce a work emergency plan. Tracy told colleagues she’d be available at 8:30 after her kids went to sleep, but to call her home phone if they needed her urgently before then. This happened only once in the year after she stopped sneaking out. Just having this backup plan made her colleagues and boss feel more comfortable about her two “unreachable” hours.
  6. Let go of the guilt. Tracy learned to compartmentalize, and not feel guilty about it. She didn’t buy into those stereotypical images of businesswomen — the mom in a suit, holding a baby, a laptop, and a phone — working and parenting at the same time. At work, she focused on being awesome at her job. At home, she felt great about turning off the smartphone and being present for her family.

Tracy wasn’t working less, she was working smarter — and she had designed a schedule that met her family’s needs without sacrificing her performance.

Excerpted with permission of the author from her upcoming book The Pie Life: A Guilt-Free Recipe for Success and Satisfaction, to be released on September 27, 2016.


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Women face unique challenges in the workplace, so AMA has assembled resources to help you navigate the waters. From negotiation tactics to assertiveness skills, we've got you covered.

About The Author

As a work/life wellness expert, Samantha Ettus has worked with thousands of CEOs, celebrities and professionals who want to maximize their potential. Since earning her undergraduate and MBA degrees from Harvard, Sam has become a national bestselling author, writer for Forbes, sought-after speaker, TV contributor, host of a nationally syndicated call-in radio show, and was the first person to be quoted in Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. More than 400 experts—such as Rachael Ray, Richard Branson, Suze Orman and Barbara Corcoran—have written chapters for Sam’s bestselling Experts’ Guide book series published by Random House. The Pie Life is her fifth book.

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