How to set boundaries at work

Boundaries. We’ve all heard the term – and we’ve all experienced those uncomfortable feelings when pressured into doing something we’d rather not have done. It could be as simple as a family member asking you for money you do not have, or a friend expecting you to accompany them to an event when you are really not up to it. Perhaps you find it hard to clearly communicate to someone that you do not share their romantic feelings. 

Boundaries are tricky. Being able to say no seems like such a simple thing, but most of us (and women especially) have been taught from a young age that saying no to others is selfish, rude, or that it will hurt people’s feelings. Somehow, we’ve come to believe that always saying yes and accommodating others’ wishes (even to our own detriment) is some sort of virtue.

Why it can be so hard to say no

Saying no to friends and family is hard. It is almost counter-intuitive – we want to help the people we love – even when they are asking more of us than we can give. Unfortunately, us humans have been conditioned since childhood to gain a lot of our self-worth from pleasing others – and putting their needs before our own. That’s why not being able to say no often leaves us with feelings of frustration.

Aletta Lintvelt, life coach, food writer and stylist shared the following observation about boundaries; “We are social primates and the animal in us will do anything to not be an outcast. However, the animal in you, your body, will let you know when you are violating yourself by giving too much – by sending you uncomfortable feelings like shame, anger, guilt and resentment.”

Constantly agreeing to the wishes of others will lead us to feel like we were taken advantage of, or that our personal lives and space have been intruded upon. As the unreasonable demands pile on, feelings of stress, anxiety, anger, burnout – and sometimes even depression – can arise.

Types of boundaries

Essentially, there are three types of boundaries – physical, mental and emotional. Physical boundaries relate to personal space and touch – some people hate having their hair touched, others prefer a handshake to a hug. Mental boundaries are about thoughts, opinions and values, while emotional boundaries will enable someone to distinguish their own feelings from that of another person. 

A person with strong mental and emotional boundaries will not be shy to share their opinions, and will not take it personally if someone disagrees with them. They also won’t let the feelings (bad moods, aggressive or passive-aggressive behaviour) of others affect them.

Boundaries in the workplace

But what about setting boundaries in the workplace? Here the dynamic is even trickier. We all want to be liked and accepted by others, including our colleagues, clients and bosses. Saying no to co-workers or an employer could feel like you are jeopardising your very livelihood, something that can cause a lot of anxiety.

“If you are constantly feeling resentment, anger, shame or guilt in your interactions at work, it is a sign that your boundaries are being violated,” Lintvelt explains. “Firstly, you need to take an honest look at your own expectations. Often we expect our employer or colleagues to take care of our emotional needs and respect boundaries that we never communicated them,” she adds.

Setting clear boundaries is, in a sense, training the people around you how to treat you. Doing so will likely earn you the respect of your clients, colleagues and your boss. Importantly, when it comes to setting boundaries at work, it is definitely easier to implement them right from the word go.

Setting professional boundaries – useful factors to consider:

1. The number of hours you are prepared to work daily.

2. The circumstances under which you will be prepared to work overtime. 

3. The colleagues to whom you will you be giving your personal phone number.

4. Your social media policy with regards to co-workers.

5. Your dating policy with regards to co-workers and clients.

Boundaries at work essentially determine how much of yourself you give to your career. Some people are prepared to give almost all of themselves to their career, and that is their prerogative. Other people might prioritise a passion – a hobby, sport or pastime – or family time. 

“Setting boundaries in your professional relationships is just like training a puppy – you teach others how to treat you,” says Lintvelt. “Setting boundaries is something you do for you, not to change other people. It’s an inside job. You have to get clear about where your limit is,” she states.

Everyone is different and therefore everyone’s work boundaries will differ. What is important, is that you do some self-examination to determine what your particular work boundaries will be – and then implement those boundaries from Day One. “Once you have communicated your boundaries, stick to them and do not explain yourself any further. If you have respect for yourself, others will follow suit,” says Lintvelt.

Here is a list with some tips for setting healthy boundaries in the workplace

1. Be clear about your own professional boundaries

Before starting at a new place of work, be clear on what your personal policy is on things like working overtime, socialising with colleagues, taking on work outside of your portfolio and other relevant issues. When these issues arise, communicate your boundaries clearly and friendly. Remember, boundaries are meant to be dynamic. Non-existent boundaries are problematic, but so are overly rigid ones! Also think about which of your professional boundaries will be flexible and reviewed on a case-by-case scenario.

2. Communicate boundaries clearly and be consistent

Healthy boundaries are mutually beneficial to both parties. If you have to enforce boundaries at work, always ask the other party to explain their position and motivations to you clearly. Do so positively and respectfully, using “I” statements to show you are taking responsibility. “I would like to get a good understanding of your viewpoint, so that we can devise a solution for the best possible outcome together.” Sounds good, doesn’t it? Never get defensive and always try to outline the benefit to your employer when setting boundaries at work.

3. Expect pushback and be ready to respond

People who are used to crossing boundaries will not react positively to someone who says no to them – no matter how diplomatically it is done. When this happens, see it as proof that boundaries were indeed necessary. Additionally, see it as an opportunity to gain insight into the situation – and practice for flexing your “boundary muscles”. It will be useful to visualise such moments of confrontation before they take place – imagine how you would handle such boundary violations and what your responses will be. When they do happen in real life, you will be calmly prepared.

4. Check in with your emotions and change where necessary

If you find yourself often experiencing feelings of guilt, resentment and anger at work, chances are that your workplace boundaries are either being violated, or that they need to be more clearly defined and enforced. Try to identify the people, situations and your personal actions or patterns that are causing you discomfort or distress at work – then put a plan in place to change these.

Setting effective boundaries takes time

Building boundaries – and consistently enforcing them – takes time and practice. They are essentially the lines we draw – the limits we set for others with regards to what we consider acceptable and what we do not. It’s been said that the ability to draw boundaries comes from a healthy sense of self worth. It is not something we do for other people, it is something we do for ourselves. “‘No’ is a complete sentence,” states Lintvelt. “Learn to say no, without explaining yourself. ‘Can you organise the Christmas party for us again?’ ‘No, I’m not available’. “Learn to stop using the words ‘sorry’ and ‘please’ when you state your boundaries,” she adds.

Setting boundaries is a skill that takes time. If you find it exceptionally hard – or impossible – to say no to others, talking to a therapist could be a valuable exercise, as it could help you explore the root causes of your inability to say no. There are also many books, audiobooks, talks, articles and other online resources on the topic of setting healthy boundaries at work and in your personal life. Do some research and educate yourself on the topic as much as possible. All your relationships – personal and professional – will benefit as a result.


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Written by Riana Wiechers

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