6 Ways to Set Boundaries at Work—Even When It’s Uncomfortable

8 minute read

Setting boundaries at work—in this economy—might seem like a pipe dream. Not be available 24/7? Not smile and accept every new assignment? Not push back when a colleague tries to steal your time?

It could be your best career (and mental health) move: Establishing expectations for what you will and will not tolerate is key to increasing productivity and wellbeing, experts agree. “Boundaries are limits or personal rules that protect your time and energy and allow you to perform at your best,” says Melody Wilding, a licensed social worker and author of Trust Yourself: Stop Overthinking and Channel Your Emotions for Success at Work. “Everyone likes certainty and clarity, and that’s what boundaries provide.”

Sticking up for yourself is particularly essential, she adds, when you consider how many people are burned out or plain old fed up at work. According to the American Psychological Association’s latest Work in America survey, 19% of employees say their workplace is very or somewhat toxic, and 22% believe that work has harmed their mental health. Workers describe feeling emotionally exhausted, ineffective, and unmotivated, and admit to being irritable with their coworkers or customers. Meanwhile, only 40% report that time off is respected, 35% say their workplace culture encourages breaks, and 29% note that their managers encourage employees to take care of their mental health.

Enter boundaries. Setting them can be hard, acknowledges Amy Cooper Hakim, an industrial-organizational psychology practitioner and author of Working With Difficult People. That's why it's essential to remove emotion from the equation: “When we can be a bit more pragmatic, we can clearly state to our boss, ‘In order for me to be most productive, I need this; in order for me to accomplish this task, I need that,’” she says. “Everyone is so afraid of stepping on someone's toes or making them feel uncomfortable. It’s best to focus on being professional and courteous and clear with what we expect of others, and to treat people the way they want to be treated, but to give ourselves that same level of respect.”

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With that in mind, we asked experts how to set boundaries around six common work scenarios:

If your boss routinely Slacks you at 10 p.m.

The line between work and home is so blurred it’s practically indecipherable. (Maybe someone spilled their stale office coffee on it?) “We shouldn’t have to tell our boss, ‘Hey, I’m happy to work at work, but please don’t bother me after hours,’” Hakim says. “But work-life balance is almost like a work-life merge, because things blend into each other instead of having very clear demarcations.”

If your manager repeatedly pings you after you’ve logged off for the day, Hakim suggests communicating a boundary like this: “I’ll be fully present at work, but I need to know that I’m also permitted to fully commit to my home life.” If that’s not practical in your industry, and you’ll need to be at least somewhat available, you can still set a boundary. For example, you might say: “When I step out the door, I’m going to be with my family. However, I appreciate that urgent things happen, so I’ll check my email once a night at 9 p.m.” If something pops up after that time? It’ll be addressed the next morning.

If your time off is interrupted

You’d probably prefer not to take your colleagues along on vacation—but a stubborn few might insist on showing up in electronic form. Even if the nature of your job makes it impossible to go totally offline, you can still set boundaries around disconnecting during paid time off. It’s essential to prepare in advance, Hakim says: Let your team know who to reach out to if they have a question about a project you oversee, for example—and name a backup for the backup. Include this information in your email auto response, too. 

If you suspect your direct supervisor will hound you anyway, send her a note and say: “I’m offline from X to Y. If you need me urgently and can’t reach this person, this person, or this person, give me a call and I will commit to responding within 24 hours.” That way, you won’t be leaving your employer high and dry—but you also won’t feel pressure to respond immediately. If you still feel guilty, or worried that you’ll look bad, Hakim suggests repeating this mantra: “I respect myself enough to grant myself this opportunity to take a break. I deserve it.”

If your boss piles on—and on and on

Part of you is probably pleased to be your boss’s go-to; it means they recognize and appreciate your skills. But you also want a reasonable workload—research suggests that having too much to do can trigger burnout. There are a couple ways to set boundaries in this scenario, says Alison Green, who runs the work-advice blog Ask a Manager. You might approach the conversation from a big-picture angle, perhaps during a weekly check-in: “Hey, my workload is really high,” she suggests saying. “Can we talk about how to prioritize? I’m going to need to say no to new things that come up, or take some existing things away.”

Or, you could wait until the next time your boss comes to you with a new assignment, and have an in-the-moment discussion. When they ask if you can take on a project, respond by saying: “I’m really interested in doing that, but my plate is full right now. I don’t think I can make room for it without compromising the work I'm doing on X, Y, and Z,” Green advises. That ensures you won’t get overloaded—and opens the door for your employer to figure out the best use of your time.

If you need to say no after already committing 

Wilding’s clients often ask her how to say no to an assignment they already accepted. The best way to handle this situation, she says, is to have a second conversation with your boss—focusing on what you can do. “You might say, ‘When I committed to this, I thought I had the bandwidth, but looking at my calendar, it’s not possible,’” Wilding suggests. “‘However, I can attend the first strategy meeting and help you come up with an initial plan.’” With that, you’ve set a boundary around your workload—but you’re also not leaving your team totally in the lurch.

If your chatty coworker won’t let you work

It’s 2 p.m., you’re slammed, and Rick from accounting has been leaning against your cubicle for 20 minutes. Don’t be afraid to be direct, Green advises: Tell your colleague you have something you need to get done by 3. You could also communicate a boundary silently, through actions—perhaps by looking at your watch or standing up. “Physically give the cue that you’re leaving your workspace,” she says.

Or, perhaps you’re struggling with any overly nosy coworker—a problem Green sees a lot. Maybe a coworker keeps asking what you’re planning to do over the weekend, even after you’ve tried to brush them off. Or your officemate’s curiosity might be piqued by the sick days you just took, or the doctor’s appointment that caused you to miss the morning meeting. “You don't need to share your private medical information at work,” she says. It’s often easiest to make it clear that you don't wish to divulge personal details by adopting a breezy attitude. If someone asks what’s going on, Green suggests responding in a cheerful tone: “Oh, just some medical stuff I had to take care of. Nothing to worry about.” That, she says, signals the conversation is over.

If you crave a different style of feedback

Ideally, your manager will make it a point to ask what type of feedback you need to succeed. But maybe that hasn’t happened—and your boss’s gruff, blunt style is getting to you. It’s a tricky situation, Green acknowledges, since boundaries are about you, and you can’t change someone else’s behavior. “But I do think there’s room to have that conversation and say, ‘Hey, I really appreciate that you’re giving me all this constructive feedback to help me grow. I also need to know where I'm doing well. What should I keep doing?’”

Eventually, with overly critical bosses—who make you feel like you never do anything right—the boundary might become quitting, Green adds. She suggests asking yourself: “Is there a way to change my mental positioning and let it roll off me, or is it going to make me come home unhappy every day?” If it’s the latter, it may be time to start looking for other opportunities.

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