How To Set Boundaries at Work

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Tamara Franklin

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Do you often feel overwhelmed? Have little time for yourself or your family? Have a hard time saying no?

Boundaries at work

If you avoid meetings and interactions with people you think may ask you for something, feel resentful toward colleagues who ask for your help, or are experiencing burnout, you likely need to set healthy boundaries at work.

It’s critically important that as a leader, you’re establishing and respecting personal boundaries. Creating a workplace culture that values boundaries requires being intentional about supporting the mental health and wellness of yourself and others.

What does it mean to set boundaries at work?

Setting boundaries at work is a way to communicate your personal limits, expectations, and needs to others.

Boundaries aren’t just about telling people what to do but also about holding yourself accountable for creating work-life balance.

Why is it important to set boundaries at work?

Healthy work boundaries help safeguard your time, energy, purpose, and job satisfaction. They can also help you understand your workplace roles, support positive professional relationships, and prioritize self-care.

When you don’t have healthy boundaries at work, you may experience feelings of:

  • Burnout
  • Frustration
  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

Pay attention to the voice inside you. Do you often say yes when you really want to say no? Start by listening to and honoring that voice.

Healthy boundaries at work: 6 types

In the book Set Boundaries, Find Peace, author Nedra Glover Tawwab offers six types of boundaries that can be exercised in the workplace.

Physical boundaries

Physical boundaries deal with personal space and physical touch. Examples of physical boundary violations include forced hugs or handshakes, or simply standing too close for comfort.

When someone looks like they’re about to come into your personal space, a helpful phrase for setting a physical boundary could be, “I’m more comfortable with an elbow bump than a handshake.”

Sexual boundaries

This type of boundary comes in the form of sexual innuendos or inappropriate jokes. When someone crosses this line, it’s important to speak up. For example, you could say, “Your comments about my appearance made me uncomfortable.”

Intellectual boundaries

Your intellectual boundaries are crossed when your thoughts, ideas, or opinions are dismissed or ridiculed. This can look like making fun of someone’s opinions, yelling at someone during a disagreement, or dismissing someone because they have differing opinions.

To set intellectual boundaries, you can use responses like “You can disagree with me without being mean or rude”; “I’m not going to talk to you unless you lower your voice”; or “I just said something I feel is important, and you brushed it off. Why?”

Emotional boundaries

Emotional boundaries can be crossed in the cases of oversharing personal information, pushing others to share info they’re not comfortable with, venting excessively, gossiping, or invalidating someone’s feelings.

Protecting your emotional boundaries can look like saying, “When I share things with you, I expect you to keep them confidential.”

Material boundaries

This type of boundary has to do with your possessions. For example, have you ever loaned someone something, and they brought it back in worse condition than when you gave it to them? That’s a material boundary violation.

Set material boundaries by sharing expectations for your possessions upfront. Say, “This is my favorite book signed by my favorite author. Please take good care of it.”

Time boundaries

The final type of boundary deals with managing your time, allowing others to take up your time, and dealing with favor requests. They are also referred to as mental boundaries. 

Violations of time boundaries include sending non-urgent work messages after hours or while someone is on PTO, scheduling excessive meetings, habitually showing up late or running over in meetings, overcommitting, or asking someone to stay late at work with no additional compensation.

An example of setting a time boundary could be saying, “I need to do some deep work from 10am to 2pm, so I’m not available to meet this morning.”

And if you’re constantly in meetings that run long, start by saying, “Just to let you know, I have a hard stop at 10am.”

Lastly, when you’re nearing the end of the meeting, you can say, “Hey, I noticed we only have five minutes left. I want to make sure we all know what the next steps are before we drop.”

How to set boundaries at work

The best way to set boundaries at work will vary depending on the individual and the workplace. However, some general tips on how to set healthy boundaries at work include:

Identify your nonnegotiables

Uncover what’s most important to you. From there, create, communicate, and negotiate boundaries to support and shield your priorities.

Your nonnegotiables might be that you will always attend your kid’s school plays, or a long-standing tennis match that you don’t want to miss. You could also not check work messages after business hours because you want to be present with your significant other in the evenings.

Communicate boundaries upfront

Once you have your list of nonnegotiables in place, it’s time to communicate them. This can be as easy as telling your direct reports that you don’t answer emails after 6pm or on weekends to focus on family time.

You can also establish what constitutes a work “emergency” to ensure you’re not fielding trivial crises that pop up during your off hours.

Leverage technology

Use technology as a tool to help you set and keep your boundaries. For example, create status updates that communicate your current availability. It can be as simple as putting up an away message on Slack when you’re deep into writing or blocking off a time on your calendar to focus on learning and development.

Use vacation time to fully disconnect. Leave a detailed out-of-office message directing any incoming emails to the right resource and set an expectation for when you will respond to the message if necessary. 

Establish conflict-of-interest guidelines

LaShawn Davis, CEO at The HR Plug, warns entrepreneurs to be careful of hiring relatives or showing nepotism, as it sets the stage for major boundary breaches.

Set policies that require those with a personal relationship (e.g., dating, roommates, relatives, etc.) to report it immediately to human resources. This will help mitigate personal conflicts spilling into the workplace.

Delegate work

While you may have started your company as a team of one or two, you’ll need to give up some control and learn to trust others as you grow. 

When faced with a task that isn’t a priority, ask yourself, “Is another member of my team better suited for this or looking for an opportunity to grow that could be achieved by completing this project?”

Farm it out if possible to someone with a lighter workload so you can perform your job at the optimum level.

Say no

If there’s no one you can delegate the work to, and it’s not a priority for you, say no.

Davis suggests preparing “no” statements in advance. Practice different ways to say no and be respectful when others might tell you no as well. An example of a “no” statement is, “I need to respect my time limitations. Perhaps check with [name], who may be able to support you.”

Other “no” statements could be:

  • “I wish I could help you, but I’m swamped for the next few weeks.”
  • “Unfortunately, I don’t have space for additional work at the moment.”
  • “I have several deadlines this week; please check back on Monday.”

Saying no is easier said than done, whether you’re a chronic people pleaser or just someone who genuinely wants to be helpful. However, you’ll notice that none of the phrases above actually include the word no, which may make it a little easier for you to say and the person on the receiving end to hear.

More phrases to set boundaries at work

When you want to build a boundary but are unsure of what to say, these phrases can help you establish your boundaries in a clear and empathetic way.

“That’s a very personal question. I don’t feel comfortable sharing.”

“I need some time to process this. So let’s brainstorm asynchronously and come back together to share our ideas next week.”

“I can’t meet at that time. However, here’s a link to view my availability.”

“I don't want to talk about [name] behind his back; let’s loop him into this conversation for visibility.”

“Let’s agree to disagree.”

“I want to hear about your weekend, but I only have five minutes to chat.”

How to set boundaries with friends and co-workers

Setting clear interpersonal boundaries and sticking to them consistently can help ease awkward work situations. Here are a few ways to set boundaries with friends and co-workers:

  • Don’t overshare. Discussing your personal life is OK, but draw lines with the amount of personal details shared so things don’t get too muddled.
  • Avoid gossip. Consider venting about work matters to people outside of your company. You wouldn’t want anything you say to get back to a colleague and ruin the chances of improving your work relationship.
  • Remain unbiased. Make it clear to your work friends that you will stay neutral and will not always take their side in meetings or show them favoritism because you’re friends.
  • Use caution with social media. While it’s usually fine to have your work friends connect with you on LinkedIn and Twitter, Facebook or TikTok might be a different story. Consider what you share on each platform and if it makes sense to show that part of your life in a professional setting.
  • Tread carefully after 5pm. If your team decides to meet for happy hour, avoid having too many drinks, and be sure to leave at a decent hour. The more uninhibited you are, the more likely the professional boundaries you set will be crossed.

Make setting boundaries at work habitual

Setting boundaries can be challenging, especially when there’s a lack of clarity around why boundaries are needed, a lack of understanding of what boundaries are needed, and no communication of the boundaries to impacted individuals, shares Danielle Joworski, a visibility adviser.

Give yourself grace and time to allow the boundary to become habitual, which means not being hard on yourself or others, or giving up on enforcing the boundary too soon.

Davis recommends writing declarative reminders. Use Post-it notes or a page in your journal to write out declarations that will remind you not to feel guilty about taking care of yourself (e.g., “I am a hot commodity, but everyone doesn’t deserve access to me”; or “The word ‘no’ is a complete sentence. No explanation required”).

Practice setting and enforcing boundaries at work until they become second nature for you and your team.

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