Work-Life Boundaries: Don’t Overthink It

When it comes to managing work-life boundaries, don’t overthink it. Doing so could hurt your productivity.

Those of us who care about maintaining a clear work-life balance usually create boundaries for ourselves. How we create and enforce those boundaries, however, and how much we think about them could be counter-productive.


Not everyone credits work-life balance as necessary, but those who do usually believe that getting away from work, both physically and mentally, helps us recuperate from the stress of work. Plenty of research (Hobfoll 1989 and 1998; Fritz, 2005; Sonnentag, 2010) explores and explains what’s happening.

The going theory, Hobfoll’s conservation of resources theory, says work depletes resources, so we regularly need to protect, preserve, and regain resources. In other words, we can only work for so long before we’re tapped dry. Going home at the end of the night, having weekends off, and taking vacations are routine ways we take a break from work to rebuild resources or even gain new ones.

Okay. We need to take breaks, to get away from work to recharge, so that we can be at our most productive when we return to work. Got it.

Of course, technology makes it hard to cut ourselves off fully. Anyone who can freely access work email from home or a mobile device surely knows this is true. Working from home (as I do) can also make it tough, as there are fewer spatial boundaries between the work space and the living space. Still, this is all common sense so far.

Stop Overthinking It!

What’s less commonly understood is that when and how we create rules and boundaries, the sheer act of doing so and enforcing them might be keeping us from fully letting go of work.

Professor Glen E. Kreiner at Smeal College of Business at The Pennsylvania State University, writes a lot about the kinds of barriers people try to create to prevent themselves from dealing with work at home. One of his studies (2006) looked at people who, based on their jobs, could or could not actually create boundaries and found that employees who could check their work problems at the door, as it were, had lower stress levels and lower work-home conflicts than those who could not.

Sabine Sonnentag (2010), a professor for work and organizational psychology in Germany, adds by saying that “such strategies might prove effective in achieving the desired level of segmentation versus integration, but enacting these strategies and constantly monitoring one’s boundary level might be exhausting in itself and might increase one’s need for recovery.”

She’s saying that the boundaries create strain. Sure, it’s better to have some boundaries than none at all, but be careful how much effort you put into making and maintaining them.

So don’t overthink it, or you could stress yourself out, obsess over work, and never get the recovery you need.


Fritz, C., & Sonnentag, S. (2005). Recovery, health, and job performance: Effects of weekend experiences. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 10, 187–199. doi:10.1037/ 1076-8998.10.3.187

Hobfoll, S. E. (1989). Conservation of resources: A new attempt at conceptualizing stress. American Psychologist, 44, 513–524.

Hobfoll, S. E. (1998). Stress, culture, and community: The psychology and philosophy of stress. New York: Plenum Press.

Kreiner, G. (2006). Consequences of work-home segmentation or integration: A person-environment fit perspective. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 27, 485–507.

Sonnentag, S., Kuttler, I., & Fritz, C. (2010). Job stressors, emotional exhaustion, and need for recovery: A multi-source study on the benefits of psychological detachment. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 76, 355–365. doi:10.1016/j.jvb.2009.06.005

Photo by Mike Kniec, CC.


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