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In today’s fast-paced, interconnected world, the lines between personal and professional life can easily blur, leading to burnout, stress, and a lack of work-life balance. Setting boundaries at work is an essential step to protect your well-being while boosting your job satisfaction and success. Read on for how to set boundaries to better your work-life integration.
Before we consider how we’re showing up as an employee, we must take care of the person who’s showing up to work. Work-life balance starts with prioritizing ourselves and what matters to us, and boundaries are key to supporting that practice.
If we’re a manager or leader, setting boundaries at work helps us show up for our teams in a way that’s resourceful, respectful, creative, and supportive. This helps us create workplace cultures that make people want to stick around. Setting boundaries gives you the space to take care of your mental health, which can in turn boost job satisfaction, morale, and a sense of unity. Here are some key benefits of boundaries at work.
When you’ve set limits on the amount of work, type of tasks, and hours you take on, you can better manage your workload and avoid feeling overwhelmed.
By setting boundaries in the workplace, you can focus on tasks that align with your role and responsibilities. Boundaries allow you to prioritize work effectively, concentrate on essential tasks, and avoid getting sidetracked by distractions or non-essential requests.
Clearly communicating your work boundaries shows professionalism and self-respect. It also encourages your colleagues to treat you with respect and acknowledge your needs and limitations, leading to healthier working relationships.
Setting clear limits between work and personal life can help you avoid burnout and maintain your overall well-being. Without workplace boundaries, you might feel pressured to take on additional tasks or projects. This can contribute to lower performance and quality of work.
Setting boundaries requires self-awareness and assertiveness. Learning how to set boundaries at work can lead to personal growth as you become more confident in expressing your needs.
Mental health at work is becoming a focus for more organizations and boundaries are essential for mental and emotional health. When we don’t have strong work boundaries, we can experience burnout, anxiety, and depression.
Setting boundaries at work can help prevent conflicts and misunderstandings. When everyone is clear about each other’s boundaries, it’s easier to collaborate effectively.
Setting boundaries helps you stay focused on your long-term career goals. By saying “no” to tasks or responsibilities that don’t align with your objectives, you can better prioritize opportunities that contribute to your professional growth.
Taking control of your time, energy, and personal space can boost your satisfaction and effectiveness at work.
Interpersonal boundaries refer to the limits, rules, and guidelines set to define emotional, physical, and mental space. These limits determine how we interact with others, how much we’re willing to give or receive, and what behaviors we find acceptable. Interpersonal boundaries can be both explicit and implicit, and they play a crucial role in maintaining healthy and respectful relationships, whether in personal or professional settings.
Mental boundaries protect your thoughts, beliefs, and values. They help you have a clear sense of self and set limits on what information and ideas you take in.
Examples of mental boundaries include:
Physical boundaries protect your personal space and regulate physical contact with others. They also help you maintain physical autonomy and a sense of safety. Physical boundaries at work have become more muddled for those working from home but are still relevant. If you’re going to an external workplace, there’s an implicit boundary that’s created between work and home. Meanwhile, some of us are working where our family eats dinner or in the same room where we sleep.
Examples of physical boundaries include:
Emotional boundaries involve recognizing, understanding, and protecting your emotions. They allow you to differentiate between yours and others’ feelings so you can be empathetic without feeling overwhelmed by their emotional experiences.
Examples of emotional boundaries include:
Setting boundaries at work can be challenging, but it’s essential for maintaining your well-being and productivity. Here are 10 actionable examples of how to set boundaries at work:
Be open and direct about your work boundaries. Clearly state what you are and aren’t comfortable with.
Example: “I prefer not to be contacted during weekends, except for emergencies. Please reach out to me during working hours if you need anything.” It can also help to give explicit examples of what you mean by “emergencies” to help clarify any ambiguity.
It’s OK to decline additional tasks or projects when you’re already stretched thin. Prioritize your workload and politely decline when necessary. We all want to do a good job at work and feel that we’re contributing, but we can’t put our best foot forward if we’re not caring for ourselves. Sometimes that means considering and offering a thoughtful “no” in a moment when we might automatically or reflexively say “yes.”
Example: “I appreciate the opportunity, but my current workload won’t allow me to take on this project. Can we discuss it at a later time?”
Avoid overextending yourself by setting boundaries on working late or taking work home consistently. If you‘re requesting something or need to uphold a boundary, express this need politely.
Example: “I understand that X is important, and I’m tracking that. Is it possible to extend this deadline so that I can show up to both of these priorities in a way that feels productive? If shifting this deadline isn’t possible, what would you like me to de-prioritize at this time in order to meet this need?”
Minimize interruptions by setting specific times for focused work and letting colleagues know when you’re unavailable. You can also block your calendar during those times so if colleagues attempt to schedule during those hours they’re notified that you are unavailable to collaborate.
Example: “I have dedicated ‘focus time’ from 10 a.m. to noon daily. Please avoid scheduling meetings or interrupting during this period.”
Set boundaries with digital communication tools. Avoid responding to work-related messages during your personal time, if possible.
Example: “I won’t be checking work emails after 7 p.m. If it’s urgent, please call or text me.” Again, it’s helpful to provide examples of what “urgent” means to you to clarify any potential confusion.
Monitor your workload and delegate tasks or responsibilities to others when appropriate.
Example: “I trust your expertise on this matter, so I’d like to delegate the task of coordinating the meeting to you.”
Set boundaries for appropriate workplace behavior to maintain a respectful and comfortable environment.
Example: “Let’s keep our discussions professional and avoid making personal comments about each other.”
If you’re facing challenges or boundary violations at work, discuss them with your supervisor or HR team.
Example: “I’m finding it difficult to manage my workload effectively. Can we discuss strategies for how to set boundaries to maintain productivity?”
Create some space and time to check in with yourself every day before work to see how you’re feeling. What you need day-to-day might change. You may feel able to say “yes” to more work or an extra shift one week, but not the next, and that’s OK.
Example: Pause and check in with yourself before responding to a request. Don’t just automatically agree to it because it worked last week. Your capacity may be different this week.
For leadership, it’s important to recognize that boundaries can intersect with someone’s sense of identity and cultural affiliations. For example, somebody who identifies as belonging to a historically marginalized group might feel less empowered to create or uphold boundaries at work. People who hold more privilege in the workplace or who are in a position of power might be less practiced in offering flexibility to individuals who are requesting that a boundary be upheld. Investigating who we are at work from the standpoint of identity, power, and privilege can help to inform the way we build healthy boundaries at work.
Example: People in positions of power in the workplace might say to their employees, “I realize some folks have a hard time asking for what they need. Would it be helpful to check in periodically, to make sure you’re not feeling overwhelmed?”or “How can I empower you to ask for what you need when it comes to work-life balance?”
Healthy boundaries are characterized by clear and respectful limits set to protect physical, emotional, and mental well-being that encourage trust and mutual respect. On the other hand, unhealthy boundaries often involve overstepping personal limits, leading to feelings of discomfort, resentment, and potential harm in both personal and professional interactions.
Examples of healthy boundaries at work include:
Examples of unhealthy boundaries at work include:
Maintaining healthy boundaries in the workplace fosters a positive and productive environment where individuals feel respected, valued, and able to thrive professionally. Conversely, unhealthy boundaries at work can lead to conflicts, stress, and a toxic workplace culture. Being aware of these examples can help promote healthier relationships and interactions in the workplace.
When we feel our workplace boundaries being overstepped, the first thing to do is slow down. Often we don’t even realize until the boundary has been pushed well beyond our limit that it’s becoming uncomfortable. It’s important to recognize when our boundaries start to feel infringed upon so we don’t get to a point of panic and alarm.
Perhaps your manager is asking you to work an extra eight hours a week but you know that’s not possible. At what point do you start to notice your discomfort rising? How can you slow down? Acknowledge that sensation, investigate what it might be trying to tell you, and then make an informed choice about whether or not you want to uphold your boundary or find a way to create some compromise or flexibility. Reminding yourself that you have a choice can help correct unhealthy responses to boundary violations.
Clearly reinforce your boundaries. Politely but firmly restate your boundaries to the person, making sure they understand your limits.
Example: “I appreciate your interest in discussing personal matters, but I prefer to keep those conversations outside of work hours.”
Set consequences. Make it clear that there will be consequences if the person continues to ignore your work boundaries.
Example: “If you continue to call me during my lunch break, I’ll have to silence my phone to avoid interruptions.”
Limit your availability. If the person keeps intruding, reduce your availability or responsiveness to establish boundaries.
Example: Responding to non-urgent messages or emails only during designated hours.
Enlist support. Talk to a trusted colleague, supervisor, or HR representative about the situation for guidance and support.
Example: “I’m having trouble setting boundaries with a co-worker. Can you offer any advice on how to handle it?”
Document incidents. Keep a record of instances when your boundaries were disrespected, including dates and descriptions.
Example: Maintain a journal of each interaction that violated your boundaries in the workplace.
Avoid engaging in arguments. If the person becomes confrontational, avoid engaging in arguments or power struggles.
Example: Stepping away from a heated conversation to cool down before addressing the issue again.
There are two essential parts of setting boundaries at work: employees setting healthy boundaries and employers respecting those boundaries and creating an environment that encourages people to enforce their boundaries without negative consequences. When each party does their part, everyone—including the organization, thrives.