Your Coworkers Are Not Your Family: Why Creating Healthy Work Boundaries Is So Important

I'm still thinking about Jill Lepore's article in Jan. 18th's edition of The New Yorker, "What's Wrong With the Way We Work." Lepore argues that we have been fed countless lies about fulfillment on the job and that we are our work in the most literal sense.

Creating meaning through work feels like a very Soviet philosophy — as if programmers and graphic designers are young, able-bodied Russian men who must commit to Dear Leader's mission in order to be rewarded with a plot of government land and a stipend for blue jeans. Yet, it's also frighteningly American. This country has the fewest vacation days per year, inexplicably ties health insurance to job status, and treats new mothers as breast milk robots who should be healed from the trauma of childbirth and ready to "get back to it" in four to six weeks (and those are the lucky ones). The most common get-to-know-you question when meeting someone new is, "What do you do?"

I'm a feminist, progressive, friend, daughter, sister, writer, yogi, runner, and artist. While marketing keeps a roof over my head and food in my Instacart, it isn't who I am. My identity can't be taken from me by Human Resources.

My longtime work obsession allowed me to neglect other areas of my life. For years, I didn't have real hobbies, unless you counted SoulCycle, reading on the subway, and going out too much. I bought into the lie that my job title was everything, that I needed to get that promotion, make more money, climb the corporate ladder, and shove anyone else off of it who got in my way. Even as I threw myself into my job, desperate for my bosses to notice my ambition and total lack of personal boundaries, I believed the bullshit that "work is a family."

Don't be gaslit into believing this. It's designed to manipulate and coax employees into situations that make them uncomfortable. For one thing, you decide who your family is. No one else. So, while the definition is yours to write, your standing as a family member probably won't be conditional on the service you provide for a paycheck.

It's true that both families and colleagues can provide comfort and community, but a company will never provide the same level of love, safety, and support. So, no, work is not a family. My coworkers are not my siblings or cousins, my manager is not my parent, my CEO is not my patriarch. If anything, work is a team. The dedication, expertise, and cooperation of each individual affects everyone collectively. We are only as strong as our weakest link and must come together to achieve a common goal (insert sports metaphor here).

"Work is a family" is also a great way to excuse negative behavior. It implies that we have to succumb to outdated traditions for the sake of the group, which I've fallen for in the past, blindly accepting strategies or spending I didn't believe in to protect my professional relationships. Even darker, I've overlooked inappropriate and sexist comments and attitudes, not wanting to "be dramatic." Instead, I've suffered in silence so as to not make a man with more power than me feel uncomfortable or emasculated.

Most importantly, a company can disown you at any time — ripping up your contract and dissolving you of your membership. These relationships are temporary and transactional. If money gets tight, you are deleted as quickly as a column on a spreadsheet.

It happened to me.

The economic fallout as a result of the pandemic cut my chest open and ripped out my identity. I lost my job as a marketing director at a prominent media company in May after months of anxiety, speculation, and fear. As a member of the experiential team, I grappled with both knowing my industry was obsolete and praying that it could somehow be saved — that I could be saved.

When I got the call that my department was defunded (but could be resurrected in the fall! Don't call us, we'll call you . . .), the tears came hard and fast. Who was I without my job? My entire sense of self was that I had a packed Google calendar and was too vital to take a vacation. I was connected, I was important, and, more than anything else, I was busy.

After 10 weeks of unemployment checks, sobbing so hard I scared the neighbors, obsessive journaling, clumsy meditation, and many contemplative walks, I started chipping away at who I really am. My grave couldn't read, "Here lies Samantha Stallard, director of marketing and business development." I had to be born again.

I'm a feminist, progressive, friend, daughter, sister, writer, yogi, runner, and artist. While marketing keeps a roof over my head and food in my Instacart, it isn't who I am. My identity can't be taken from me by Human Resources.

Let me preface this by saying that I'm very proud to be a part of my new company. I work with smart, strategic, industrious colleagues every day. I even like them as people! Like me, they're more than their professional talents — my team members are kind, funny, and open-minded. I'm creating meaningful friendships that make the job that much more enjoyable. But are they my family? No.

I've never actually met them before either. We exist as floating heads on each other's laptops for the foreseeable future. And while I miss the simple pleasures of office life like going out for lunch, sharing beers at 5 p.m. on a Friday, or, you know, eye contact, the distance created by our screens has helped establish some healthy boundaries.

It's easier to stand up for myself and actually say no, I can't take on another project this week, because I know that when I click out of our videoconference, there will be no awkward encounters later. While positive feedback is always welcome, I know I have many, many talents outside my ability to send an email on time. And, when I finish up for the day, I have personal projects and plans that I'm excited to pursue, even if it's just a long walk with the dog.