Setting personal boundaries at work to create a healthier environment

“I cannot work past 4:30.”

“I do not feel comfortable sharing details of my personal life.”

“That will need to go on tomorrow’s to-do list, not today’s.”

People who set clear boundaries at work sometimes worry that they come off as mean. Most of us prefer being seen as agreeable and positive. But saying “no” and drawing limits often benefits the greater picture. Boundaries provide a framework. They make work and life more manageable. They contribute to comfort levels, satisfaction, and sanity. They guide interaction and promote respect.

Let’s further explore reasons for setting boundaries and how they contribute to a better work environment.

MGR Handbook D

Work boundaries improve productivity

To do good work, people need to concentrate. Such focus becomes difficult when others pull your attention away from the task at hand.

Employing physical boundaries often helps. Let team members know a closed door means you need solitude. Hang a “do not disturb” sign on your cubicle at times you are not open to conversation. (A good tip: Let others know when you will be available. A sign that reads “Do not disturb until after 2 pm” tells people when they can come back.) Wear headphones, a universal signal for “please leave me alone.”

Watch, too, that you are not your own worst interrupter. Set your own boundaries, and abide by them. For instance, close computer tabs not in use. Vow not to check social media until your lunch break. Let family members know you won’t return their phone or text messages during work hours.

Establishing work-related boundaries also is important for smoother operations. Got individuals on staff who frequently submit late timesheets? Establish a 10:00 Thursday morning—no exceptions—turn-in policy. This deadline guides them and allows you the necessary time to process paperwork without risking everyone’s direct deposits getting delayed. Are you a leader whose day gets disrupted by team members with non-urgent questions? Ask that they schedule a short meeting instead. Or, consider holding set office hours where you welcome workers to stop by.

Set healthy boundaries to increase well-being

All people deserve to feel physically, mentally, and emotionally comfortable at work. Better boundaries contribute to feelings of wellness.

For starters, think about your personal space. If bothered by co-workers touching items on your desk or coming into your area when you are not there, politely say something. If someone sits closer to you than you like at a meeting, reposition your chair. If hugging is not your thing, extend a hand for shaking when you sense an embrace coming. (And if bothered by post-pandemic handshaking, it is perfectly ok to refrain from that, too.)

Nobody, of course, should be subjected to unwanted physical contact or violence. Crossing this boundary demands immediate attention. State in no uncertain terms that the offender needs to stop. Consider notifying human resources if the act was severe or if the behavior persists.

Similarly, all workers have the right to protect their mental health. Colleagues should respect each other’s emotional boundaries.

Actions that often cross the line include:

  • Offensive jokes or comments

  • Making fun of someone or their abilities

  • Tirades

  • Swearing

  • Threats

  • Passive aggressiveness

  • Spreading rumors

  • Exclusion

Again, victims need to clearly tell offenders that this behavior is unacceptable. Bring the matter to a higher authority if needed.

Likewise, let others know where you stand on unacceptable work-related behavior. Tell gossipers you have better things to do than listen to stories. Call out a sexist remark. Know your values, and refuse to go against them. Better to draw a line in the sand when asked to fudge some numbers than to endure sleepless nights of regret.

Many professional boundaries, however, are more a matter of taste than of ethics. Some workers, for instance, love to share details of their free time. One colleague might find Sarah’s dating scene tales fascinating. Another may squirm that her accounts reveal too much information. Sarah hopefully possesses the ability to read her audience. If not, bothered listeners may need to excuse themselves or express their discomfort.

Similarly, individuals need to think about what they feel okay about sharing from their own lives. At some places, pressure exists to be an open book. But you do not owe it to anyone to talk about your family, finances, sexuality, physical health, or any other personal subject.

Define for yourself what topics you consider off-limits. Then, politely but firmly communicate boundaries if the conversation goes in that direction. Most people should respect your decision and move on. If receiving pushback, hold your ground. Or, lighten the situation with a joke such as “Sorry, I only share that info with my dog and my therapist.”

Your courage to reveal personal boundaries may inspire others to do the same. A psychologically safe workplace values the right to privacy.

Also, be aware of making the problems of others your own. Teamwork and kindness definitely are great things, but all of us have encountered colleagues who test our limits. Do not feel you must take on other’s bad moods or solve their problems. Figure out how much empathy you can give, then redirect or tell them you need to focus on your own work.

Boundaries promote a healthy work-life balance

Life is a constant juggling act. People have a variety of professional and personal obligations. Boundaries help with fulfillment. They also assist in reducing stress and burnout.

Workers want to perform well. This desire may lead to taking on too much of a workload, giving up a lunch break, or staying late. They may fail to take earned PTO such as sick days and vacation time. Exhaustion becomes standard.

Eventually, though, lack of self-care takes a toll. Mental and physical health suffer, as do relationships. Resentment builds. Employers risk losing top talent who “just can’t take it anymore.”

What types of boundaries can employees set to prevent this outcome?

  • Take days off as needed. If the boss gives grief, remind him or her that workers need to recharge to stay effective. If sick, staying away from other team members is in everyone’s best interest.

  • When away from the office, truly be away. Let it be known that you won’t be checking messages or taking calls. Set up a co-worker in advance to cover pressing matters during your absence.

  • Apply similar limits to after-hours. Prioritize relaxation and family time. Construct voicemail and work email messages that tell people you will get back to them during workday hours. Such a heads-up is courteous and gets others familiar with your schedule.

  • Speaking of schedules, issue reminders as necessary. Communicate what you need. Perhaps you must pick up your son from daycare at 5:00 each evening. Make certain everyone knows you will be out that door hook or crook at 4:45.

  • Value lunchtime. Put up a “do not disturb” sign if necessary. Head to the cafeteria. Consider physically getting out of the office for a bite to eat, errands, or just some air. Do not feel guilty.

  • Go over priorities with your manager and other staff members. Stick to an agreed-upon, manageable workload. Insist that any changes mean eliminating something else from your plate.

Remote workers have their own set of challenges

Many employees nowadays perform remote work. Working from home presents its own boundary challenges.

Remember those distractions stated earlier? Add to them a TV at the ready, a bed calling you to nap, and a sink full of dishes you’d love to see disappear. The flexibility of telecommuting often does allow for attending to things other than work. But these activities must be regulated. Set boundaries for yourself, such as only doing housework during scheduled breaks.

Make others aware of the need for boundaries, too. People often think home-based workers can change their plans at a moment’s notice. Some have wiggle room; many do not. Either way, you are not obligated to become the neighborhood’s default babysitter. Likewise, your well-meaning mother might need clarification about when she can call to chat. Communicate limits and schedules, and get used to saying “no” or “I can’t” to those who try to take advantage of your presence at home.

Lastly, watch out for work taking over your personal time. Failure to establish boundaries can leave you feeling constantly “on.” This state of mind is not healthy.

Create space between the two realms. Shut down the computer to physically prevent yourself from getting on it. Close your home office door when done for the day. Do not leave work-related material scattered throughout the house. Its presence does not promote relaxation!