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Setting Boundaries at Work: What it Means and How to do it

November 22, 2023

Setting Boundaries at Work

As mental health continues to make its way out of the shadows and into the forefront, it's beginning to find its place in the workplace as well. And one way it's doing so is with employees beginning to understand the role of setting healthy boundaries at work.

Setting boundaries may sound like a no-brainer, but knowing where to draw a line and how to follow through with that boundary in a professional way can be tricky.

Here, we'll dive into what setting boundaries at work means, why it's important, and give examples of ways to set healthy boundaries.


Why Setting Boundaries at Work is Important

Based on the most recent Work in America survey conducted by the American Psychological Association, 19% of employees say that their workplace is perceived as either very or somewhat toxic. Additionally, 22% feel that their mental health has been negatively impacted by their work environment.

Employees describe experiencing emotional exhaustion, a sense of ineffectiveness, and a lack of motivation. Many also acknowledge feeling irritable towards their colleagues or customers.

In contrast, only 40% state that their time off is honored, 35% believe their workplace culture promotes breaks, and merely 29% observe managerial encouragement for employees to prioritize their mental wellness.

This is where setting personal boundaries comes in.

What Setting Boundaries at Work Means:

Setting boundaries at work refers to establishing limits on various aspects of your professional life to ensure a healthy and balanced work environment. It involves defining what is acceptable and unacceptable in terms of your time, energy, and emotional investment in your job.

In essence, choosing to set boundaries at work is about fostering a healthy and respectful professional environment that allows you to perform your job effectively while maintaining your wellness and work-life balance. It requires clear communication, self-awareness, and the ability to assertively manage your time and resources.


RELATED: Promoting Employee Wellbeing in the Workplace: 6 Strategies for a Thriving Work Environment


Types of Workplace Boundaries

Setting boundaries at work involves defining limits and expectations to create a healthier and more productive work environment. Here are various types of boundaries you might consider setting:


Physical Boundaries

Physical boundaries relate to your physical workspace as well as your body. This may sound like an obvious boundary, but it's important to recognize the nuance that comes with physical boundaries.

These can include:

  • Preferring a handshake to a hug or kiss on the cheek in other cultures
  • Closing your office door or wearing headphones during busy times
  • Choosing to take a break alone or in a different area


Personal Boundaries

Personal boundaries refer to how much of your personal life you're willing to share at work. While some people are an open book, its important to keep in mind that it's perfectly acceptable if others choose to keep their personal life private.

For example:

  • Choosing to share or not share one's sexual orientation/discussing their partner
  • Keeping political views private
  • Choosing to keep health information (including mental and physical health or neurodivergencey) private


Mental Boundaries

Mental boundaries at work are boundaries that help employees feel mentally engaged and energetic about their work. Oftentimes when this boundary is pushed too far, burnout is the result.

Mental boundaries may include:

  • Following the set hours an employee works
  • Choosing to decline meetings that aren't the best use of your time
  • Declining projects/requests that are outside of your scope of work


Emotional Boundaries

Emotional boundaries help employees minimize frustrations, stress, and conflict. And when they do occur, these boundaries are what prevents them from escalating into bigger issues.

These boundaries may include:

  • Avoiding engaging in someone’s bad mood
  • Talking to a manager about how you prefer to receive feedback or communication preferences
  • Expressing when a coworker has caused you frustration and providing ways to prevent it


Benefits of Boundary Setting

Setting boundaries at work can offer a range of benefits that contribute to a healthier work environment and improved overall morale. Here are some key advantages:


Work-Life Balance:

Setting boundaries helps maintain a clear separation between work and personal life, allowing for a better balance. This balance is crucial for preventing burnout and ensuring that personal life is not overly affected by work demands.


Reduced Stress:

Clearly defined boundaries can help reduce stress by preventing the feeling of being overwhelmed or constantly on call. Knowing when to stop working and having designated work-free time can significantly lower stress levels.


Increased Productivity:

Establishing boundaries allows for better time management and focus. When you know your limits and allocate time efficiently, you are more likely to be productive during work hours, leading to better outcomes.


Improved Mental Health:

Respecting personal boundaries contributes to better mental wellness. It allows individuals to recharge, relax, and address personal needs, fostering a positive mindset and emotional wellness.


Enhanced Job Satisfaction:

When boundaries are set and respected, individuals are more likely to enjoy their work. Feeling in control of one's workload and having time for personal pursuits can increase overall job satisfaction.


Better Relationships with Colleagues:

Clearly communicated boundaries can lead to healthier relationships with colleagues. Knowing each other's limits promotes mutual respect and understanding, reducing the likelihood of conflicts or misunderstandings.


Increased Creativity and Innovation:

Having time for breaks and personal activities fosters creativity. Individuals are more likely to think innovatively when they have the mental space to explore new ideas and perspectives.


Enhanced Focus and Concentration:

Setting boundaries on interruptions and distractions can improve focus and concentration. Knowing when to disconnect from unnecessary communication allows for more dedicated and effective work periods.


Prevention of Burnout:

Establishing boundaries is a key factor in preventing burnout. It ensures that individuals don't consistently push themselves beyond their limits, maintaining a sustainable and healthy approach to work.


Career Advancement:

Setting boundaries can also contribute to long-term career success. It demonstrates self-awareness, assertiveness, and a commitment to employee well-being, qualities that can be viewed positively by employers and colleagues.


Positive Work Culture:

Individual boundaries contribute to a positive overall work culture. When everyone is mindful of their own limits and respectful of others', it creates an environment that values well-being and collaboration.


Increased Morale:

Respecting and promoting individual boundaries can boost morale at work. When employees feel supported in maintaining a healthy work-life balance, overall morale tends to be higher.


Retention of Talent:

Companies that support and respect employees' boundaries are more likely to retain top talent. Individuals are more likely to stay with an organization that prioritizes their well-being and understands the importance of work-life balance.

Setting healthy personal boundaries at work is not just a personal choice; it has a positive ripple effect on various aspects of the work environment, contributing to better mental wellness, improved satisfaction, and increased overall productivity.


Signs of Poor Boundaries

Equally important to set boundaries is being able to recognize the signs of poor work boundaries. Spotting these issues is crucial for maintaining a healthy work environment and personal well-being.

Here are some common indicators that boundaries may be lacking or ineffective in a work setting:

Constant Overworking:

  • Maintaining long working hours, including working evenings and weekends. Frequently skipping or working through a lunch break or not taking adequate time off.

Lack of Work-Life Balance:

  • Struggling to maintain boundaries between work and personal life, with work consistently encroaching on your home life.

Frequent Interruptions:

  • Constantly dealing with interruptions that hinder focused work, either from other employees, excessive instant messaging, or through excessive meetings.

Feeling Overwhelmed:

  • Experiencing a constant sense of overwhelm and being unable to effectively manage workload and responsibilities.

Poor Stress Management:

  • Demonstrating signs of chronic stress, including irritability, mood swings, and physical symptoms such as headaches or fatigue.

Blurred Personal and Professional Boundaries:

  • Sharing excessive personal information at work or allowing personal issues to consistently affect professional performance.



Neglecting Self-Care:

  • Ignoring physical and mental well-being, including neglecting exercise, healthy eating, and adequate sleep.

Feeling Guilty About Taking Time Off:

  • Experiencing guilt or anxiety when taking vacation or personal days, or feeling pressure to work even when unwell.

Frequent Burnout:

  • Experiencing recurring burnout, characterized by exhaustion, decreased motivation, and a sense of ineffectiveness.

Recognizing these signs is the first step towards addressing poor work boundaries and possibly a toxic environment. It's important for individuals to assess their own boundaries, communicate effectively with colleagues and supervisors, and set expectations. Employers can also play a role in fostering a culture that encourages and respects healthy work boundaries.


How to Set Boundaries at Work

Setting healthy boundaries is a crucial skill for maintaining a work-life balance and ensuring employee well-being. But knowing where to start can be daunting.

Here we outline steps you can take to set boundaries effectively:


Reflect on Individual Priorities

First and foremost when setting boundaries is to reflect on what is most valuable to you. Do you find yourself getting frustrated when your workflow is interrupted? Or do you feel pressure to check in even during your free time? Maybe a coworker has a habit of giving you feedback in a way that hurts your feelings.

Whatever it is that matters most to you, the first step to setting clear boundaries is identifying the everyday hiccups and annoyances that affect your performance. Then, begin to consider what it is specifically that what would make things better.


If Your Time is Sucked into Meetings

In general, being protective of your time will help you stay productive and efficient. Unfortunately, meetings have been steadily increasing in length and frequency over the past few decades.

So much so, research shows executives now spend an average of nearly 23 hours a week in meetings, up from less than 10 hours a week in the 1960s. Furthermore, across the 76 companies surveyed, 92% of employees considered meetings costly and unproductive. What's more, employee productivity rose 71% when meetings were reduced by 40%.

Additionally, research found that in 2022 the number one cause of employee burnout was a lack of time for focused, deep work. It makes sense - when your time is sucked into meetings, when can you actually do the work?

So, while it will be up to leaders and company culture to reduce meetings on a large scale, you can help protect your mental energy by reducing the number of meetings you attend.

Set this time boundary by only attending meetings to:

  • Review work that’s occurred (what worked or didn’t and why)
  • Clarify and validate something (policies, team goals, etc.)
  • Distribute work appropriately among your team


If You Get Pinged After Hours

Remote work has plenty of benefits, but one thing it has hurt is the clear boundaries between work life and home life. After all, when your office is a few steps away, it can be increasingly difficult to unplug.

And while managers should know to not contact their team after hours, we all know it happens. And in these circumstances it's important to set boundaries to protect your mental and emotional well-being while preventing burnout.

If this is your experience, try communicating a boundary by saying, “I’m happy to be fully present at work, but I need to also be fully present in my home life too.”

If setting a strict work hours boundary like this isn't practical in your industry, and you’ll need to be at least somewhat available at home, you can still set a boundary.

For example, you might say, “When I leave, I’m going to be with my family. I understand that urgent things happen though, so I’ll check my email again at 8 p.m.” If something pops up after that time then it can be addressed the next morning.


If Socializing is Becoming Distracting

Most companies who have returned to the office did so, at least in part, to help cultivate company culture. And that means little side conversations between coworkers about weekend plans, latest movies, and life in general.

While most of us enjoy these chats from time to time, they can undoubtedly seep into distracting at times - especially when they're happening in your personal space. When this happens, it's the perfect opportunity to set a boundary.

One way is to say, "I wish I could chat more, but I need to get this done by 2pm today. Can we pick this back up later?"

If you'd rather not continue the conversation at all, try giving a physical cue by checking the time or standing up, implying you're stepping away from your workspace.

Lastly, there are other physical cues you can use to imply you're not open for chatting at the moment. Try wearing headphones, shutting your office door if you have one, and setting your Teams status to "Busy." This should help indicate you're in the middle of heads down work and don't want to be distracted.


If Constructive Criticism is Just Criticism

Many of us have had a "straight shooter" boss - the one whose direct approach can come off as harsh even when it may be well intended. But even constructive feedback with the best intentions can be hurtful without tact.

Check out these constructive feedback examples that you can utilize and share with your team

So, if this type of feedback is starting to rub you the wrong way, it may be time to set boundaries to protect your emotional well-being.

The next time you're given negative feedback, try saying something like, "I love learning where I have room to grow, so I appreciate your constructive feedback. But I'd also like to know if there's anything I'm doing well that I should keep doing."

Keep in mind though, if your boss's harsh feedback is still affecting you even after setting this boundary, it may be time to consider setting a new boundary by finding a new job. Protecting your emotional well-being is the highest priority.


Next Steps

Setting boundaries is crucial not only for setting expectations, but also for building a balanced, healthy work culture.

The Terryberry Be Engaged Platform offers a comprehensive solution that can host your employee engagement efforts, including milestone and service awards, peer-to-peer social recognition, feedback and communication, and performance and incentive rewards.

  • Pulse Survey Software: Be Heard is an employee survey solution that's designed to enhance your employee experience while fueling business performance.
  • Service Awards and Performance Awards: Recognize and reward employees based on years of service awards, anniversaries, or performance.
  • Social Recognition: Empower your employees and managers to recognize their peers and celebrate successes with an easy-to-use social recognition application.
  • Feedback and Communication: Unlock improved feedback and communications with employee and customer feedback solutions.
  • Wellness Programs: We make it easy to run wellness programs and activity challenges that increase engagement, expand corporate health, and build team camaraderie.

Contact Us

Ready to learn more? Schedule a demo with our team to get a hands-on walkthrough of how Terryberry can transform the culture of your workplace.