How to Set Boundaries at Work

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

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

[Featured image] A Southeast Asian woman in a dusty blue top sits with her arm draped over her office chair, smiling at the camera.

Boundaries are the metaphorical lines you draw 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, emotional, and time boundaries.

Setting different types of boundaries at work can positively impact 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 review several strategies for setting workplace boundaries. 

Types of work boundaries 

You can set three primary types of boundaries at work 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 two steps: effectively communicating your boundaries and taking action to ensure your team respects them. For example, let's say you don’t want to work overtime on the weekends. You’ll need to notify your team about your availability and relay the information to your supervisors.   

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 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 to focus your efforts, you can follow the tips below to establish better boundaries at work. 

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-cancelling headphones. 

  • Move any flexible weekly meetings to biweekly. 

  • Set clear meeting agendas 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 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.

Most Canadian companies encourage employees to take 15-minute paid breaks every four hours. Don’t feel like you have to work through them; the breaks are meant to help you feel refreshed.  

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 lot 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.

A number of apps can help you minimize distractions, such as Freedom or KeepMeOut, and 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. However, unless a message is extremely urgent, you’re not expected to answer. 

In Ontario, a recently passed law gives employees the “right to disconnect.” Employees aren’t expected to answer emails after work hours to help preserve a healthy work-life balance. 

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by work-related communications, it’s okay to take a step back from it when you’re at home. Emails can wait until the morning.  

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 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, 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."

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. Proactively communicating what you need and what you’re doing to protect it will make it easier to set and keep your boundaries. 

9. Leave work at work.

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.  

Canadian companies encourage employees to take the time they’ve earned, so use it when needed. 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 with Coursera. 

Need more ideas for better work-life balance? Check out this collection of valuable classes on Coursera, including 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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