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How to Set Boundaries at Work

Learn how to improve your work-life balance while still excelling at your job.

A good work-life balance is not easy to come by, especially in today's remote work climate. You may need to work to live, but you shouldn't be living to work. And even if your boss isn't quite as demanding as Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, it's easy to start feeling like you don't have time to enjoy your own life. If that's the case, you need to learn how to set boundaries at work.

Take back control of your life and keep your boss away from your time off and weekends. We know setting limits can be intimidating—especially with your employer—but we've spoken with several experts who are all about wellness in the workplace, and who have solid tips for keeping your peace at work. Read on for their best advice.

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Why is setting boundaries at work important?

Shot of a young business man frowning while using a laptop in a modern officee

Although having a source of income is vital, aving a life outside of your place of work is important, too. Alexandria Agresta, a leadership development expert and coach, says, "Setting boundaries at work is essential for maintaining a healthy, productive, and harmonious workplace." It also prevents burnout and allows employees to maintain their mental and physical well-being.

People often think setting parameters at work only benefits employees. But when managers support their employees, it's a win-win situation for everyone.

"When people yield the other important pieces of their lives to work, there is a tipping point at which they begin to resent the work environment, their managers, or themselves," says Megan Ragsdale, an executive coach. "Boundaries allow employees to have domain over the trade-offs they are willing to make between work and home life."

Employers benefit from this because when employees feel like their time is respected, it can lead to higher employee retention. When employees feel like they are given an appropriate time to work and be off the clock, they in turn may feel more motivated and recharged to perform better at work. According to Natalie Rosado, a licensed mental health professional, a positive work culture can go a long way.

When you let your job know your limits, you can also help prevent job creep, which is when your responsibilities gradually grow beyond your job description, Rosado explains. In some workplaces, doing a great job is often "rewarded" with more work.

"By clearly defining what tasks are within their role, an employee can avoid taking on extra work that isn't part of their job, preventing feelings of being overwhelmed and underappreciated," Rosado explains.

When boundaries are set and employees feel respected, people have an opportunity to perform at their absolute best.

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How do you set healthy boundaries in the workplace?

ambitious man at work
Delmaine Donson /iStock

Setting down your expectations in the workplace is easier said than done—but not impossible. Here are several clear-cut ways to set boundaries so your mind and body will thank you.

Refrain from checking work emails during dinner time and after work hours. "[This] is a power move that keeps your personal life from becoming an overwhelming extension of the office," says mental health motivational speaker Azizi Marshall.

When communicating your boundaries, Marshall suggests taking a positive approach, "especially when dealing with a difficult boss, try framing it as a productivity booster," she suggests. "For example, 'I can bring my A-game if I can recharge after hours, which will benefit both of us and the company itself.'"

Make a priority list for all your responsibilities. List your tasks and rank them based on their importance and deadlines, Rosado shares. "Focus on high-priority tasks and communicate which lower-priority tasks might need to be deferred or delegated."

Add time management tools to your workflow. Implementing calendars, planners, or apps to allocate specific times for tasks and breaks can help you block out times for focused work and breathers, Rosada says.

Don't be afraid to delegate tasks. When reviewing your list, see which responsibilities can be passed on to your coworkers or people who work under you.

"Delegation not only reduces your workload, but also empowers others," Rosado notes.

Be real with yourself so you can set realistic workplace expectations. It's dangerous to keep saying yes to everything your boss assigns you, without taking into consideration the workload you already have. Communicating your bandwidth to your manager and team will help you and them be realistic about what can actually be done.

"Learn to say no politely," says Rosada. This is probably the hardest suggestion on the list, so as a buffer, offer an alternative solution or suggest another person for the task who has less on their plate.

Remind yourself and your boss what your roles and responsibilities are. It's easy for job creep to set in when things ramp up at work (end-of-quarter months, we're looking at you). So, make sure your role is not only clear and well-defined, but documented as well. This will help keep you and your boss accountable for doing exactly what your job requires.

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How do you handle pushback from your employer?

A disappointed female boss pointing to her male employee's computer screen
FluxFactory / iStock

An unsupportive manager can make work the stuff of nightmares. Unfortunately, some employers just don't get it and have real difficulty wrapping their heads around the need for a healthy work-life balance. Despite clearly communicating your boundaries, some managers may dismiss you and continue overloading you with assignments.

If this happens, communication and assertiveness become key. Remain calm and professional, and explain your boundaries again.

"It's important not to use an accusatory tone," Rosado cautions. "Instead of using 'you,' simply say 'I.' It's your boundaries and how violations or pushback affect you, after all. Remember, consistency is key."

If your needs still aren't being met, it could help to loop in human resources. So be sure to save and "document any incidents and communications in case you need to escalate the issue to higher management," Rosado suggests.

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What are common myths about setting boundaries in the workplace?

Call center, customer care and support with a man consultant in a headset working on a computer in his office.

Contrary to popular belief, setting boundaries at work doesn't mean you suddenly have a super laid-back gig. It also doesn't mean getting fired or having a contentious relationship with your boss. There are a handful of common misconceptions we're ready to address to give you the courage and clarity to cultivate a healthy workplace for yourself.

Setting boundaries shows a lack of dedication or commitment.

Boundaries and conversations about one's limits aren't just reserved for the workplace.

"We set boundaries in every part of our lives to maintain healthy relationships, so it's logical to manage relationships in this area, too," says Sunaree Komolchomalee, head of human resources at Cupid PR.

Boundaries are selfish.

Often, when people advocate for themselves, they or the people around them might feel like it's inconsiderate. In fact, it's "a form of self-care and respect for one's own limits," Rosado says.

Having boundaries means you'll no longer be flexible at your job.

Putting parameters on your role does not mean you won't be there for your team if they need you in a capacity that is outside of your job description. Having boundaries doesn't make you difficult: It simply offers guidelines to help you manage your time and energy, Rosado explains.

"They can be adjusted as necessary while still protecting core needs," she says. "Flexibility within clear boundaries helps maintain a healthy balance."

Setting boundaries means you can't handle your job and are weak.

"Setting boundaries is a sign of strength and self-awareness," Rosado shares. "It shows that an individual understands their limits and is taking proactive steps to maintain their well-being and effectiveness at work."

Boundaries will hurt career advancement and only lead to conflict.

Depending on your boss and your workplace culture, advocating for yourself could lead to pushback or retaliation, but setting boundaries and having a successful career are not mutually exclusive.

"In my experience, people who have a negative reaction when they bump up against other people's boundaries are typically the folks who tie their own self-worth to the transactional value they provide others," Ragsdale notes. "To them, boundaries feel like a rejection and tend to evoke some strong self-defense reactions. Taking the time to communicate your boundaries respectfully can eliminate any misunderstandings that could lead to conflict."

As an employee with boundaries, you may be perceived as someone who isn't a team player, but it's important to remember that career growth comes from "sustained high performance and reliability," which also comes from setting healthy boundaries, Rosado says.

Remember, no job is worth your mental health, and if burnout is a requirement for a promotion, that job may not be the right fit for you.

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How can you identify your own boundaries?

woman looking stressed in front of her laptop at work

The first step to setting boundaries is figuring out what yours are. Rosado advises you to take time to conduct a stress/mental health audit on your life. Think about your past experiences and what caused strong feelings of discomfort, anxiety, or tension. This will help you gauge where change and boundaries may be needed.

It can also be helpful to get advice or perspective from trusted friends, family, or mentors, as they can help you see your situation more clearly. Jenna Rogers, founder of Career Civility, also suggests asking yourself the following questions to kickstart your boundary assessment:

  • What working hours are sustainable for you?
  • When are you able to respond to emails?
  • What hours are best for holding meetings vs. doing busy work?
  • What days would you like to request off for PTO?
  • How available are you to your coworkers and clients?
  • Are you able to complete your workload on your own?
  • What tasks/projects do you need help with?
  • Does your job respect you and your needs?
  • What personal events do you need/want to attend?
  • What are your financial goals and commitments?

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What challenges do employees face when they try to establish boundaries?

Man stressed and agitated while working at his desk

Setting boundaries at work can be empowering, but also terrifying. A pro tip to keep in mind is to set your boundaries for the job in the beginning.

"Right out of the gate, you can train people what they can expect from you around working hours, workload, pace, and mobility," Ragsdale suggests. That way, there will be less confusion and objection around your boundaries.

Here are a few issues employees may face when making their expectations known.

Anxiety about losing their job or hurting their career

"Employees often fear that setting boundaries might be seen as a lack of commitment, potentially putting their job at risk or hindering career advancement," Rosado says. "[For] example, an employee might hesitate to refuse additional tasks or after-hours work, fearing it could lead to negative performance reviews or missed promotions."

Heavy responsibilities of a demanding job

Depending on your career path and position, your job may be very demanding, which can make time management extra difficult. Rosado says, "An employee may find it hard to take breaks or leave work on time if they are constantly faced with tight deadlines and a heavy workload."

Certain roles have extensive job requirements, so when accepting those positions, it's important to take that into consideration.

#BossBabe culture

Before #softlife was a thing, employees were all about #girlbossing, #grinding, and glorifying the workaholic personality. Unfortunately, there are still companies out there that promote burnout culture.

"In a company where long hours are the norm and being constantly available is expected, an employee who tries to set boundaries may feel pressured to conform to avoid being seen as less dedicated," Rosado warns.

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Wrapping Up

Having a job is great, but you don't have to trade in your mental health for a paycheck. Being constantly available to your team doesn't make you a good employee—it only puts you at risk of becoming very unhappy. Take back control by setting boundaries, so you can build a positive workplace while enjoying your personal life.

Remember, "you must teach people how to treat you," Ragsdale says. "If you have no boundaries, don't expect people to treat you like you do. They will take advantage of your time and resources until you teach them not to."

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