How to Set Boundaries at Work

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Creating healthy boundaries at work can help you avoid burnout, reduce resentment, increase connections, and lead to a happier experience overall.

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Boundaries are the metaphorical lines you draw in order to establish healthy limits that protect something you care about, such as your time or mental health. There are many different types of boundaries, including physical boundaries, emotional boundaries, and time boundaries.

Setting different types of boundaries at work can have a positive impact on your life, helping improve your relationships with coworkers, reducing your stress levels, and boosting your on-the-job satisfaction. With work boundaries, you develop guidelines that determine how you perform your work and how you expect others to interact with you. In this article, we’ll go over several strategies for setting boundaries at work. 

Types of work boundaries 

At work, you can set three primary types of boundaries to help establish healthy limits. These are: 

  • Physical: Boundaries for personal space, personal touch, as well as your health, such as hunger and energy.  

  • Emotional: Boundaries about your feelings, how you handle colleagues' feelings, and your mental energy.   

  • Time: Boundaries about how you manage your time and how you handle requests.

Setting boundaries at work involves a two-step process: effectively communicating what your boundaries are and taking action to ensure that your team respects them. For example, let's say that you do not want to respond to emails you get after 6 p.m. First, you'll need to notify your team about your availability after-hours. Then you'll need to take additional steps, such as adding a note to the bottom of your emails as a reminder and not responding to any emails you get after work.   

Learn more: Why Is Workplace Communication Important?

How to set boundaries at work

Before you begin thinking about the boundaries you need to set, take time to reflect on your job, your office, your coworkers, your manager, and your day-to-day tasks. Of those areas, what doesn't feel like it's working well for you?

Identify the problem (or problems) so you have a clearer understanding of where you need to set boundaries. For instance, maybe you work in a different time zone than your manager, who often emails you during their work hours expecting an immediate response when it's much later for you.

Once you know where you need to focus your efforts, you can follow the tips below to begin establishing better boundaries at work. 

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1. Start with small boundaries.

If you're not used to setting boundaries in the workplace, it helps to start small and build from there. Rather than make sweeping changes, you can begin with a few small steps to protect your time or environment at work. 

  • When you need quiet time, close your door or wear noise-canceling headphones. 

  • Move any flexible weekly meetings to biweekly. 

  • Set clear agendas for meetings and stick to them to respect everyone's time. 

  • Focus on a project’s objectives when you’re working alongside difficult coworkers.

  • Rather than say what you think people want to hear, offer genuine preferences to work-related or project questions. 

2. Build breaks into your schedule.

It’s easy to sit down at your computer and get caught up in a task. But breaks can help energize you. If you use a digital calendar, add a lunch break so your colleagues can’t schedule meetings during that time.

If possible, block out time on your calendar throughout the day or week to get your work done. A hold on your digital calendar lets your team and others know you're unavailable at those times, and gives you uninterrupted time to focus on your tasks.  

3. Prioritize your work tasks. 

When you have a heavy workload, you may need to prioritize your tasks. When you have too many tasks and not enough time to complete them, start by deciding which tasks are most urgent. Then, if possible, determine which tasks you can delegate to others on your team or seek more time to complete.

However, if prioritizing and delegating tasks is not enough, speak with your manager about your workload and see if there's room to set aside a certain project while you focus on the most important priorities.   

4. Use digital tools to help. 

A good deal of office work relies on digital tools to help foster productivity. Think about ways you can use the tools your company already offers to establish boundaries. For example, if you’re working on an important task and don’t wish to be disturbed, put up an away message on Slack and turn off notifications.

There are also a number of apps that help you minimize distractions, such as Freedom or KeepMeOut, that may help you block out your time while you work.  

5. Delay your response time.

Thanks to email and other virtual tools, you may feel pressure to be available or respond to communication quickly during—and even after—work hours. But, unless a message is extremely urgent, that demand may interrupt the structure you’re attempting to create—and can distract you from more important tasks.

Where possible, delay how quickly you respond to emails and other requests. Dedicate time throughout the day to checking your email, but avoid responding outside of those blocks.  If you work in a different time zone than others on your team, add a note to your email setting expectations about your availability or response time, such as I am sending you this email at a time that works for me. Please respond at a time that works for you.

6. Only say "yes" when you mean it.

Without boundaries, it's easy to grow resentful. Saying “no” is important because you may be asked to participate in tasks that you do not have time for, such as attending an extra meeting, taking on a last-minute project, or heading a new committee. 

When you feel pressure to say “yes,” but would rather say “no,” consider these questions:

  • Are you the only person who can complete the task?

  • Is there a way to re-prioritize your task list to take on this work?

  • What will taking on this work cost you? 

When you do say “no,” start on a positive note. For example: "I would really be interested in handling the Johnson account, but I'm wondering if I could pass the Holt Industries file on to Jim to make time for it?"

7. Avoid gossip.

If you feel drained when your colleagues complain about some aspect of work, then it may be useful to set a boundary with them. You get to decide what that looks like. Perhaps you enjoy venting a little bit, but your coworkers often go too far. Or perhaps you'd rather focus on the positive aspects of your work rather than the negative.

Either way, you can tell your colleagues about your preferences: "I know it's been especially frustrating lately, but I'd really like to focus on what's been going well" or "Venting without a solution doesn't feel helpful right now. I'd rather not talk about our frustrations unless we can identify ways to address them."

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8. Communicate your boundaries.

Make sure your coworkers and manager know about your boundaries, whether that’s not responding to emails over the weekend or leaving work early to pick up your child from school. That will make it easier to set and keep your boundaries because you’ve proactively communicated what you need and what you’re doing to protect it. 

Learn more: Strategies in Communication: Your Guide to Better Connections

9. Leave work at work.

In order to maintain a healthy work-life balance, you need to set boundaries when you're not at work, especially when you’re working remotely. At night or on the weekend, try to refrain from taking work calls or answering emails. Let calls go to voicemail and encourage people to call only in case of an emergency, though you may have to clarify with your manager or coworkers what that constitutes. Put text and email notifications on silent when you're not at work.  

Take time off when it's offered—and when you need it. A long weekend here and there or a week away with loved ones can help you recharge. 

10. Reassert your boundaries when people cross them.

Setting boundaries isn't a one-time occurrence. Chances are, someone at work will cross your boundaries (or ignore them), so it's important to reassert them, reminding people about your needs and expectations.  

Setting boundaries at a new job

While it might feel intimidating to set boundaries when you start a new job, it's one of the most important things you can do. When you start a new role, it can be beneficial to create a 30-60-90 plan to set yourself up for success during the first few months. As part of your plan, consider what boundaries you can establish from the get-go and how you can communicate those boundaries with your team.

We've created a list of ways to be successful in a new job. Take a moment to look it over and see if there's a way to communicate your boundaries as you go about meeting with your new team.

Explore further 

Need more ideas for better work-life balance? Check out this collection of valuable classes available on Coursera, which include courses on time management and mindfulness. Or enroll in Yale University’s free course on happiness, The Science of Well-Being, which is designed to help you build more productive habits.  

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Written by Coursera • Updated on

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