How to Set Healthy Boundaries at Work

No. It’s a simple, small, two-letter word and yet so many people have trouble with it. One of the hardest places to say no and set healthy boundaries is the workplace. Some people fear saying no to their boss because that person is an authority figure. Others don’t want to say it to their coworkers for fear that they won’t be seen as a team player.

How to Set Healthy Boundaries at Work

Three steps to enjoying healthy boundaries

According to a survey by the Thriving Center of Psychology, 58 percent of Americans have trouble saying no to others, 65 percent of women reporting this problem along with 49 percent of men.

However, saying no and setting boundaries is essential to your career longevity. Healthy boundaries can prevent burnout and make you better at your job in the long run. Here are a few steps you can take to set boundaries that protect your mental and emotional health at work.

Define your work hours

The first thing to know is that you set your own boundaries. You cannot expect others to set healthy boundaries for you. While some managers will respect the time of their employees and make sure they have a healthy work-life balance, others aren’t as engaged.

Evaluate when you’re able to work and what a reasonable work week looks like for you. This is particularly important for salaried employees who don’t get paid overtime for working extra hours. It’s easy to add a few extra hours every few weeks until you feel like your mind is focusing on work tasks 24/7.

Once you have your ideal schedule, talk to your manager. At this time, you need to advocate for yourself. During this meeting, draw a hard line against working on weekends or responding to emails late into the night.

Discuss your workload and how it’s becoming unbearable—and how that’s impacting the work you’re able to do. After this discussion, maintain your boundaries. Don’t let an errant task ruin your Saturday plans or a late-night email distract you from spending a weeknight with your family. If you hold firm with your boundaries, those around you are more likely to do so as well.

Approach your workload as a negotiation

In this productivity report from 2022, 87 percent of workers say that they are productive at work but only 12 percent of leaders say they are fully confident that their teams are productive.

One of the reasons that people have such a hard time setting boundaries is they don’t want to seem lazy or unproductive to their managers. They also don’t want it to appear as though they aren’t pulling their weight on the team. However, there are only so many hours in a day—and even fewer work hours—so at some point you will run out of time to get things done.

Instead of saying yes and always accepting new work, approach new tasks as a negotiation. For example:

  • “Is this as high of a priority as [insert other tasks on your plate]?”
  • “I can do that, but my schedule right now is full. Can we look for lower priority tasks to remove before taking this project on?”
  • “Would it be possible to push back this project until next week when I have more time to focus on it?”

You can think of these discussions as soft nos because they give your manager or coworker the opportunity to rethink whether you are the right person for the work. Your manager in particular will have to reevaluate your workload to see what you can handle.

Evaluate your social boundaries

Along with your workload, social connections and drama in the office can leave you feeling stressed and emotionally drained. What starts off as a good thing, like a group chat to share personal updates, can become a significant distraction and prevent you from doing meaningful work.

Becoming someone’s gossip confidant can also pull you away from your tasks, especially if you fear that they will start gossiping about you if you don’t listen. Some people even report working extra hours because office drama takes up too much of their normal day.

Setting healthy boundaries also means taking control of your work relationships. Unfortunately, these are some of the hardest boundaries to set. If this is challenging for you, practice setting yourself as away in office chat groups so you can focus on work and no is expecting you to respond because you said you’re away or busy. If relevant for you, also try to break the habit of falling into gossip and remain neutral when someone tries to spill the tea.

This might feel antisocial at first, but setting social boundaries can help you reclaim your time and avoid burnout. You can still form close bonds with your coworkers without getting involved in petty office drama.

Start with small boundaries

You don’t have to become an expert at saying no overnight. Instead, you can work on setting a few important boundaries and grow your confidence over time. If an email comes in late at night, let it wait until morning. If your work chat blows up with irrelevant chatter, set “Never interrupt me” for 30 minutes until you need a break.

Prioritize your mental health and your career performance above the needs of others. You can’t help others until you first take care of yourself.

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