How To Set Boundaries At Work And Actually Stick To Them

It starts with an email – one little email won’t hurt, right? Then you’re checking messages before bed, just to make sure there are no emergencies. A trip out of town for a long weekend sounds nice, except you spend more time playing phone tag than actually relaxing. Eventually, you start canceling dinner plans because you need just a little more time. Maybe you even start to dread traveling and losing your phone signal, just knowing that you’ll be bombarded as soon as the service reconnects.

This isn’t healthy. It needs to stop.

You need to set boundaries with your job.

Why You Need To Set Boundaries At Work

Most of the time when people talk about relationship boundaries, they mean in familyfriendships, and romantic involvement. Setting those boundaries and sticking to them is already difficult for chronic people-pleasers, so setting boundaries at work, too? Forget it! No one wants to be labeled as slacking or ‘difficult’ by their boss, so let’s be clear: setting professional boundaries makes you a better employee.

It’s true – lack of healthy boundaries can lead to burnout, which negatively impacts your work overall. If company culture as a whole puts too much stress on employees, the entire workplace becomes unstable as exhausted workers constantly leave. That triggers a mad rush to fill and train their replacements ASAP until they, too, are burnt out, and the frantic cycle continues. 

In one Harvard School of Public Health survey from 2016, 43% of American employees responded that their job negatively affected their health and stress levels. Since working remotely has become more normal in the past two years, work-life balance issues have skyrocketed. Sure, you’re never in the office, but you’re never really out of it either, not as long as you have an internet connection. But there is hope! These four tips will put you on the fast track to having a healthier, happier relationship with your job.

Make a Plan

Before you can communicate your boundaries to others, you need to know what they are. Writing out a list of goals helps both “do” and “do not” goals. “Do” goals are something you want to accomplish outside of work: do exercise during lunch, do get home early to cook a special dinner twice a week. “Do not” goals are the limits you set to help achieve your “do” goals: do not take your phone on your lunch break, do not put in more than X overtime hours per week.

Personally, my favorite way to make boundaries for my schedule is by setting alarms on my phone. I can get so caught up in a project that hours go by without me noticing that lunch time came and went, then I’m too tired from low blood sugar to actually get anything done! The alarm on my phone snaps me out of staring at the screen reading the same documentation five times over. 

You might have a different schedule, but you still need to be able to plan your work hours. It could be time blocked off on your calendar app shared with your team, or just a sticky note on your monitor that says “No work emails after 5pm!” or “Meditate for 10 minutes after lunch.” These limits will be personal to you and can include anything from setting a maximum amount of overtime per week to turning off notifications in the evenings.

Communicate Your Boundaries

Making a plan is nice and all, but it won’t actually help if you don’t communicate those boundaries to your coworkers and boss. This step is where most people fail. It’s easy to wish for a perfect work-life balance, but actually speaking up and asserting your needs can be downright scary. Practice being assertive by writing out your boundaries and getting used to saying them to yourself. “I” statements are key for communicating clearly without passive-aggressiveness.

Instead of saying, “You can’t message me after 5pm,” say, “I won’t be able to respond after 5pm.” You might instinctually soften the boundary by offering up an excuse, like going to a doctor’s appointment or child’s extracurricular event, but doing so actually makes the boundary more difficult to enforce. The excuse is something that the person you’re setting the boundary with can latch on to and try to justify pushing back, like “Can’t you check in at half-time?” or “You’ll have time to respond in the waiting room.”

So keep it simple: “I won’t be available at this time,” or “That doesn’t work for me,” and that’s all they need to know.

Treat Others How You Want to Be Treated

Sticking to professional boundaries can be especially intimidating if your office culture involves everyone working late and being perpetually available online. Will you be the nail sticking up that gets hammered down? The golden rule of “treat others how you want to be treated” is really helpful here – don’t just communicate your own boundaries, but ask your coworkers what boundaries they have and put effort towards respecting those. 

One-way boundaries can feel like a punishment to your coworkers who don’t enforce their own. Making a dedicated effort to respect them sets the precedent that boundaries are the norm, not something special only reserved for certain people. Even if you’re not in a management position that can set boundaries for a whole team, having a reputation for respecting others can be a huge boost to good relationships among colleagues. It turns out that “be the change you want to see in the world” doesn’t apply to just big social issues, but also stuff as mundane as your Monday-through-Friday breadwinning.


Sometimes (okay, a lot of times) things don’t go the way we planned, and we have to stop and reevaluate. This is where the written goals from the “Make a Plan” step are really helpful for me. I can look back over my list and check if I feel like I am accomplishing those. Maybe one of my goals was to go for a run during my lunch break, but showering after took so long that I felt really rushed and behind all afternoon. Yikes! That has the opposite effect it was supposed to.

The general sweet spot to reevaluate is right around six weeks, when you’ve been in a habit long enough to tell if the “do nots” are helping you accomplish your “do’s.” Your timetable might be a bit shorter or longer than that, but it’s important to keep the boundary long enough to figure out if it’s working, as well as to make sure that your coworkers don’t feel like you are constantly changing things on them. Reevaluation is also a good time to check in with your coworkers: “Last month we talked about limiting Friday calls, I wanted to make sure that still works for you.”

It might be a bumpy road of trying different strategies to create and communicate boundaries, but the end result of a happy, healthy work life will be worth it in the long run. You can also check out more general advice for boundaries in other types of relationships, too!


Tell us if you struggle to set boundaries at work in the comments!

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