How to Set Boundaries at Work

We live in a culture that glorifies the hustle, achievement, perfectionism and beyond and many of us were raised with these ideals engrained in every fiber of our being. But spoiler alert: we can be a successful, high-achieving, amazing employee while ALSO setting boundaries at work.

Setting boundaries is hard for many of us (in general), but it tends to be extra difficulty in the workplace because:

  • we’re unsure about how to communicate boundaries professionally
  • we have a general tendency to people please that extends to the workplace
  • we have limiting beliefs about boundaries
  • our company’s work culture doesn’t support it or model it
  • we’re new or otherwise feel like we haven’t “earned” the right to
  • we’re afraid of how it may be perceived and/or the potential consequences it may have

I’m not encouraging setting boundaries that contradict your job functions or would result in losing your job, but we often hold back from setting ANY out of fear of potential consequences, which sometimes even subconsciously creates the consequences we fear. For example, allowing yourself to get so burned out that you snap at your boss and get reprimanded anyway. Or over-committing to more than you can realistically handle and under-performing as a result.

If you’re not sure where to start with setting boundaries at work, here are some strategies.

Start Small When Setting Work Boundaries

It might be hard to think about setting boundaries at work when you haven’t done it before and/or aren’t sure how people will respond to it, so instead of going from 0 to 100, choose a small, low-risk boundary to test the waters. Instead of responding to an email immediately, wait an hour or until you finish up the task you’re working on before you do. Try letting a call go to voicemail and calling back when you’re available and undistracted. Take work apps off your phone & don’t check/respond to emails after work hours. Put an out-of-office message up when you’re away. Practice boundary-setting with someone you know will be receptive so you can build up confidence and momentum.

Write or Practice Expressing the Work Boundary

Sometimes, when we internalize, we overanalyze, catastrophize and make things bigger/harder in our minds. Try writing out the boundary you want to set or verbalizing it to a friend, partner or therapist. You’ll often find that it doesn’t seem that scary after you read it or say it out loud – and you can get some validation and/or feedback from the person you’re sharing it with, which can make it less intimidating. Moving from a thinking state to an action state gives us more confidence & control and this is one small way to do that.

Be Consistent With Work Boundaries

One of the most important strategies to keep in mind when you’re trying to implement a new boundary is to be as consistent as possible. If we say we’re not going to answer emails after 7pm, but then we do so more times than not, the boundary becomes blurred and people don’t take it as seriously. Once you’ve decided what boundaries are necessary and within reason, stick to them unless it’s an emergency or one-off occasion.

Set Boundaries by Pausing Before Responding to Requests

We’re allowed to take a beat before answering/responding to a request. If you have a tendency to be a ‘yes’ person (and often over-commit to things as a result), challenge yourself to respond with ‘let me get back to you about that’ first. Giving yourself an opportunity to look at what else you’ve got on your plate and to determine whether or not you can realistically commit first can save you from burning out later. You can still say ‘yes’, but it will be a more intentional yes vs. one that you felt forced or cornered into.

Set Boundaries by Offering an Alternative

Boundaries don’t always have to be a harsh ‘no’. They’re about finding a way to meet your colleague/employer’s needs without sacrificing your own. And there ARE ways to meet in the middle. If a request comes in that you cannot realistically commit to without sacrificing your own needs/sanity, offer an alternative instead. For example, renegotiating a deadline or asking for extra support or seeking clarify about priorities can still get your boss’s needs met without over-extending yourself.

Setting boundaries early on saves us from self-sabotaging at work, makes the job more sustainable, and actually makes us MORE efficient at our jobs, which is a win-win for everyone.

It can also lead to:

  • less stress, anxiety and burnout
  • more productivity and better work performance
  • less resentment and work conflict
  • more honest, authentic communication and relationships at work
  • improved work culture
  • better boundaries in other relationships as well

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