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What do Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka and Nikole Hannah-Jones have in common? Workplace boundaries.

How do we create healthy boundaries between our responsibilities to work and to ourselves?

Simone Biles waits to perform on the vault during the artistic gymnastics women's final at the Summer Olympics on July 27.Gregory Bull/Associated Press

Star gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from the Olympics in Tokyo, the biggest stage in world athletics, 24 years old and resolute. No competition was worth jeopardizing her physical and mental health. Tennis great Naomi Osaka denied the press her time, and then the French Open her presence. Their business model demanded her well-being for public consumption, and it wasn’t for sale. Acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones took her talents to Howard University after a battle for tenure with the University of North Carolina. UNC’s offer to adequately value her contributions came too late, and at too high a cost.

Each of these women faced workplace demands that would have required sacrificing their physical and mental health, and instead set personal boundaries to protect their well-being. Their talents may be exceptional, but their stories are not. Across the country, a conversation is arising around a single fundamental question: How do we create healthy boundaries between our responsibilities to work and to ourselves?


Workplaces have been increasing their demands of employees for years, and the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated this trend. Professionals working from home have found that work increasingly bleeds into personal life, with the expectation of round-the-clock accessibility on top of the stressful uncertainty of pandemic life taking a mental toll.

“When my shoebox apartment became my workplace, the asks could come 24/7 as opposed to during the hours I was in office,” Claire Rafson, a young professional in New York, told me. “Because there are no physical boundaries, the emotional and mental boundaries have been very quick to fall.”

For essential workers, the demands were both mental and physical. They literally risked their lives in the workplace, and are feeling the mental and physical effects of that stress. According to the American Psychiatric Association, essential workers are twice as likely as nonessential workers to have received a mental health diagnosis since the beginning of the pandemic.


As with anything in this country, these burdens are not distributed evenly. Women and people of color have long faced heightened societal expectations to contribute both personally and professionally at the expense of their personal well-being.

Many women have found themselves overwhelmed by the tension between the increasing demands of their occupation and the duties they are expected to perform in their personal lives. “Our society functions because women have been conditioned to believe that it is our job to accommodate, to step in when someone is needed, to put others first,” wrote mother and writer Cindy DiTiberio. “But there must come a point when we say no more.”

People of color similarly find themselves expected to meet workplace demands while overcoming obstacles unique to their identity. On top of commonplace racial harassment and microaggressions, many employees of color have had to manage new expectations that they identify and resolve those very workplace inequities on top of their daily responsibilities. Working under these conditions can cause mental and emotional distress. “[My field] generally is predominantly white, and I grew very tired of the politics,” research psychiatrist, Brandy Nunez told The Cut. “All of that discomfort coupled with being overworked, and what was going on in my personal life, led me to feel burnt out pretty quickly and eventually leave the job.”


These burdens logically compound for women of color and other people with intersectional identities, partially explaining why Black women again find themselves at a forefront of a cultural revolution.

As workplaces become increasingly demanding and hustle culture implicitly ties personal value to professional success, it can be tempting to buy into the idea that no part of ourselves is off-limits from our work. In fact, criticisms of Biles, Osaka, and Hannah-Jones center on pervasive demands that individuals, above all else, fulfill an obligation to work under any conditions. But until Americans redefine work as a productive activity rather than a source of intrinsic value, we will continue to see burnout that materially hurts individuals and by extension the workplaces that pushed them too far.

For all of our well-being, we must fortify cultural norms around valuing individuals independent of their economic output. This means extending understanding, compassion, and support any time a peer (or an idol) steps back from their work or draws a line in the sand, and being bold enough to assert those boundaries for ourselves when the time comes. Workplaces should proactively respect boundaries and mitigate demands, but often they do not. When those oversteps occur, it is up to all of us to recalibrate those expectations and instead normalize putting our health and well-being first.

The exceptional Black women leading these efforts, and the public response to them, demonstrate that establishing these boundaries is rarely easy, but increasingly necessary. Simone Biles herself put into words the psychological benefits of making this shift: “The outpouring [of] love & support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics[,] which I never truly believed before.”


Morgan Brewton-Johnson can be reached at morgan.johnson@globe.com.