Request a demo
Back to Blog

Your guide to drawing the line and setting boundaries that work

August 25, 2022 - 17 min read

Multi-racial-business-colleagues-talking-how-to-set-boundaries-at-work

Jump to section

The types of boundaries (and how to protect them)

General principles for setting boundaries

What to do when someone breaks your boundary

The challenges of remote work

What happens when everyone sets and respects boundaries?

Respect yourself

In every conversation about boundaries, you’ll inevitably hear: “‘No’ is a complete sentence.”

And, hey, fair enough. You don’t need to justify your reasons for setting healthy boundaries

But anyone who’s tried to do this at work knows it’s not always that simple. 

There are a million reasons why you would want to draw a line in the sand. Your to-do list is already a mile long, a colleague keeps interrupting you with questions, and you need to leave early to pick up your kids from daycare. 

Whether it’s your colleagues or your boss, communicating your needs can feel like walking a tightrope. A harsh “no” could be enough to drop you off the edge. But if you don’t say anything, you let others take more time and energy from you, preventing you from performing at your best.

We’re happy to report that it is doable. But setting boundaries requires self-awareness and a willingness to have (potentially) uncomfortable conversations. With practice, it’ll become second nature.

Here’s a guide on how to set boundaries at work. With these tips, you’ll have a better idea of:

  • How to set boundaries with coworkers at work
  • How to set boundaries with your boss
  • How to create boundaries when working from home
 

The types of boundaries (and how to protect them)

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines a boundary as “a psychological demarcation that protects the integrity of an individual.”

Boundaries look different for everyone, depending on their needs and preferences. Some people problem-solve by talking it out with their colleagues, while others prepare their ideas before sharing them with a group, and some prefer not to speak at all. Everyone has different ways of interacting with others and should set boundaries accordingly.

You can create these in several areas of life. Let’s have a look at each, along with some examples.

1. Mental boundaries

This means protecting your mental energy and applying it to the things that matter. Whenever you experience an interruption, solve someone else’s problem, or attend an unnecessary meeting, you waste valuable focus you could direct elsewhere.

Here’s how you can protect your mental boundaries:

  • Set and stick to your working hours, even if you’re working from home
  • Work with your manager to get clarity on organizational, team, and individual priorities — then prioritize, ruthlessly
  • Decline meetings where your presence doesn’t add value
  • Turn off Slack, social media, and work email notifications while you’re doing deep work
  • Use your vacation time to disconnect and enjoy the time off

Woman-having-a-break-how-to-set-boundaries-at-work

2. Physical boundaries

Your physical boundaries involve anything that has to do with your body, bodily health, or physical space. If someone or something encroaches on these boundaries, they’re crossing a line regarding your comfort and safety.

Here are some ways to maintain your physical boundaries:

  • Offer handshakes instead of hugs
  • Turn off your webcam during Zoom meetings when you need to
  • Take sick days and mental health days when you need them with only as much explanation as is required by your company policy
  • Set and take a lunch break

3. Emotional boundaries

Setting emotional boundaries means separating your emotions from other people’s. This requires you to identify your emotions in real-time and understand the alternatives, which is difficult. It’s a skill that demands self-awareness and courage to show up for yourself when someone else is making demands. These are skills you can develop with time.

Here are some situations that involve protecting emotional boundaries:

  • If your colleague is having an outburst, not involving yourself
  • Not internalizing unjustified anger, blame, or disappointment from someone else
  • Communicating to your boss how you like to receive feedback
  • Delivering negative feedback to a team member with firmness and compassion
  • Communicating with your team about your preferred working and communication style
  • Not letting work setbacks or someone else’s venting put you in a foul mood or change your outlook

BetterUp coaching can help you practice setting healthy boundaries and help you stay accountable for maintaining them. 

improve influence - coaching for individuals

General principles for setting boundaries

Setting mental, physical, and emotional boundaries is a form of self-care and self-respect. Communicating your needs will help you protect your work-life balance and mental health.

Here are some general tips to further protect your well-being.

1. Do the self-work

You can’t communicate your boundaries if you don’t know what they are. They’ll stem from your personal beliefs, values, and passions

As you assess your boundaries, here are some things to think about:

  • Identify your values and decide what is non-negotiable for you
  • Be mindful of your feelings
  • Allow yourself to set these boundaries
  • Regularly check in with yourself

2. Communicate, communicate, communicate

First, think about who needs to know about the boundary you’ve just set. Is it your boss, a coworker, a family member? Is the boundary a significant departure from the status quo? In that case, you may need to formally renegotiate this new boundary with your manager.

Or, is it something you’ve said in the past and just never protected? In that case, some automated templates and tricks might help. 

You can communicate a boundary in several ways. Sometimes, it’s as simple as saying, “Hello, I'm trying to work in the next room. Would it be possible to speak more quietly?” Sometimes silence is the best way to communicate a boundary you’ve been struggling with. 

In other situations, you can:

  • Use an automatic reply saying you’re unavailable after certain hours
  • Let your colleagues know in advance when you’ll be out of the office
  • Clarify with your boss that you’re a caregiver and may need to respond to emergencies at home
  • Create “No” templates that you can cut and paste into emails and IMs to turn down requests for your time and attention

3. Keep things professional

Having a work bestie is invaluable and lots of fun. But when work mixes with your personal life, things can get messy.

If you become friends with your boss, the power dynamic can lead to personal disagreements and resentment. Remember that you’re colleagues first, friends second — no matter how forthcoming your boss (or anyone else) is. Knowing how to set boundaries with your boss is really uncomfortable, but it’s crucial to keep everyone in line.

Set interpersonal boundaries with your work friends by:

  • Only hanging out with your colleagues during happy hour or work functions
  • Keeping your weekends free of work-related social gatherings
  • Planning family time and social activities outside of work

Cheerful-coworkers-talking-while-walking-how-to-set-boundaries-at-work

4. Ask for help or delegate

If you’re overwhelmed with work, you can ask for help for your colleagues or direct reports. This will help ensure you’re not stuck at work long after five o’clock. Here are some tips for delegating tasks:

  • Find the best person for the job
  • Work with them to make sure they aren’t overloaded themselves
  • Give clear instructions and deadlines
  • Make yourself available for questions 

What to do when someone breaks your boundary

In a perfect world, everyone would respect your boundaries right away. But you can expect an adjustment period — especially if you’ve just started. And remember that at work, other people have their own boundaries, too. While you should generally expect that your emotional and physical boundaries be respected, mental boundaries are part of the workplace negotiation. 

When someone crosses your line in the sand, it’s important to be polite but assertive. Here are some examples of what to say:

  • “I would love to help, but I’m busy with deep work until 2:00 p.m. I’m happy to discuss it afterward.” (Even better, if you’re busy with deep work, turn off notifications until you’re available. Remember, no response can be an effective way to communicate a boundary.)
  • “I’m out of the office on vacation. In case of emergencies, please connect with [NAME]. Otherwise, I’ll review your request upon my return.”
  • “Thanks for thinking of me for this project. Unfortunately, I just don’t have the capacity to take it on right now. I’m happy to help in the future, but I’ll need more notice to fit it into my schedule.”

On a team, your work style and communication preferences may be in conflict with others or with the needs of the organization, and compromise will be expected.

That’s why, rather than get too detailed about too many specific boundaries, it’s better to start by getting clear on the ones that really matter to you. If your non negotiables can’t be honored, it might be time to look for a different work situation.

 Are you working in a toxic environment?

If people repeatedly disrespect your boundaries and receive aggressive pushback, you might be working in a toxic work environment. Watch out for these additional signs:

Bored-man-during-online-meeting-how-to-set-boundaries-at-work

If these sound familiar, boundary-setting might not be enough to protect yourself from burnout. It might be time to change jobs.

The challenges of remote work

The rapid spread of work-from-home during the COVID-19 pandemic was a blessing and a curse. 

Many people — millennials, especially — welcomed the new way of working. They enjoyed the physical distance from their workplace, the absence of a long commute, and the flexibility to meet their personal needs (like spending time with their kids) at home.

But this working style blurred the lines between "work time" and "home time," making it difficult for people to assert their boundaries.

Here at some tips to help you protect your boundaries at home:

  • Create a proper office space you can enter and leave every day
  • Schedule activities during your free time so you don’t reflexively sit back down at your desk
  • Be clear with your family about when you’re busy working
  • Stick to your work hours
  • Create routines to bring you in and out of your “work mindset” and “home mindset,” like shutting your computer and clearing off your workspace 

What happens when everyone sets and respects boundaries?

Relaxed-business-colleagues-meeting-how-to-set-boundaries-at-work

When people communicate, set boundaries, and respect each other, several benefits emerge:

  • Team members feel more comfortable being their authentic selves. A parent will feel comfortable talking about their kids, an amateur musician will share details about their next show, and a baking fanatic will bring fresh snacks for everyone. If everyone is comfortable being themselves, they all benefit from a vibrant work culture.
  • Workers have a healthier work-life balance. Clear boundaries help people balance work and home life, leading to a healthier lifestyle. They'll have more time for their hobbies, hit the gym during the workday, or make time for a doctor's appointment, improving overall mental and physical health.
  • Colleagues communicate more effectively with each other. Informing people of your needs can expedite conversations while keeping them friendly. Communicating that you’re pressed for time can help your colleague get to the point faster. As long as everyone understands that it’s nothing personal, you can address a problem quickly or agree to spend more time on it later.
  • Teams and individuals can be more productive. People who can set boundaries are good at setting parameters for a conversation and focusing people’s attention. Setting clear goals for a meeting will inform people of your desired outcome and focus their attention on achieving it.

Respect yourself

Defining and maintaining your personal boundaries will help you live a happier life. But this kind of assertiveness doesn’t come naturally.

You have to trust that you’re capable. You can let your colleagues and your bosses know exactly what you need to thrive at work with practice. Clear communication will give you personal space to do your best work, balance your home life, and demonstrate that you value your happiness and well-being.

For personalized advice on how to set boundaries at work, consider working with BetterUp. With our coaches, you can learn how to be more assertive, build your confidence, and earn the respect of your colleagues. Remember: “No” is a complete sentence.

New call-to-action

Published August 25, 2022

Elizabeth Perry

Content Marketing Manager, ACC

Read Next

Professional Development
17 min read | July 30, 2021

Setting boundaries at work and in relationships: A how-to

Discover why setting boundaries is important, and how it can benefit you. Learn how to set them at work, in relationships, and with your friends and family Read More
Well-being
16 min read | April 25, 2022

A toxic work environment hurts. These 5 tips can help you overcome it

A toxic work environment drains us all. Learn how to identify and deal with an environment that damages your well-being. Read More
Professional Development
16 min read | April 18, 2022

Career advice: 24 tips for each stage of your career

From changing careers to working toward a promotion, careers are hard to navigate. Here’s some of the best career advice for each stage of your career. Read More
Collaboration
17 min read | May 3, 2022

Why building great work relationships is more than just getting along

Building good work relationships is important for personal and professional growth. Here’s why it matters and 9 ways to get started. Read More
Professional Development
17 min read | August 18, 2022

10 things that can destroy your focus at work

What causes lack of focus at work? Turns out, there’s a lot of reasons. Here’s everything you need to know. Read More
Professional Development
14 min read | August 17, 2022

Am I a workaholic or just working long hours? What you need to know

Learn what it means to be a workaholic vs. working long hours for your job. Plus, learn why working fewer hours isn’t always the best solution. Read More
Professional Development
13 min read | September 28, 2022

Video interviews are here to stay: How to adapt on camera

Video interviews became mainstream during the pandemic with remote work opportunities. Here’s our advice so you can perform like a movie star. Read More
Professional Development
15 min read | September 12, 2022

Learning curves: The role of self-compassion at work

Interested in learning how to practice self-compassion at work? Here’s the ultimate guide to teach you how to swap self-criticism for self-compassion. Read More
Professional Development
12 min read | October 31, 2022

5 Tips for reentering the workforce

After an extended leave of absence, reentering the workforce can be scary. But it doesn’t have to be. Here’s what you need to know. Read More

Stay connected with BetterUp

Get our newsletter, event invites, plus product insights and research.