Picture this scenario. You get home after working late. It’s dark outside. You skipped your workout because you’re tired from the day, and when you pick up your phone, you see a text from your boss that starts with “URGENT.”
You open your laptop and wonder how long you can last at this job.
Nobody wants to be that employee or that boss. But without boundaries at work, this situation can happen repeatedly.
As an individual, it means honing your time management skills and learning to say “no.”
As an employer, it means putting policies in place to help create boundaries at work to finally reap the benefits of a happy, healthy workforce.
In this blog, we explore how to set boundaries at work for employees and employers. But let’s first answer the question: “What are work boundaries?”
Setting boundaries at work means laying out implicit and explicit guidelines for 1) what you are willing to do to and for people and 2) what you are willing to allow people to do to and for you. Boundaries protect your wellbeing and ensure your professional needs and goals are met.
People use personal boundaries when their needs, expectations, and schedules vary and require clarification or compromise.
In general, when they think about boundaries, people usually consider things like:
Managing your time to prioritize your work before doing favors for others
Telling a teammate that they cannot raise their voice at you
Closing your office door when in “deep work”
Below, we discuss setting boundaries at work examples. We also look at examples of overstepping boundaries at work.
Setting healthy boundaries at work means setting out guidelines for your own and others’ behavior in three main types of interactions:
Every individual has different physical limits. These include social physical limits, like how comfortable you are with eye contact and handshakes, and strenuous physical limits, like how long you can stand and walk.
Most workplaces support physical boundaries implicitly and explicitly. For example, you probably wouldn’t hug your boss even if your employee handbook doesn’t say this is a no-no. That handbook almost certainly forbids sexual harassment, though.
The following are physical examples of healthy boundaries at work for employees:
Asking for personal space when needed
Not working or attending work events on the weekends
Using noise-canceling headphones to focus in a busy office
Offering a smile and a nod or a wave over a handshake
Setting emotional boundaries minimizes discomfort within reasonable limits.
It helps employees manage their mental health and regulate their emotions when receiving critical feedback.
Here are some examples of emotional boundaries:
Telling others how you prefer to give and receive feedback
Delegating work when needed
Creating and sticking to a healthy schedule, including using sick days whenever needed
Not gossiping about colleagues’ personal problems
Emotional boundaries at work are especially important for those who have suffered trauma because they help them avoid potential triggers and seek support when encountering them.
They’re also important for those whose roles involve emotional labor because they help avoid burnout.
Mental boundaries protect employees’ mental health and energy. A person’s mental energy can be quickly sapped by receiving constant notifications and emails, reading endless text logs, and having many chatty conversations with colleagues.
Here are a few examples of healthy mental boundaries at work:
Sticking to working hours and days rather than extending them or dealing with work-related matters during time off
Declining unnecessary meetings
Not engaging in small talk
Turning off notifications while deep in work
Without healthy mental boundaries, employees do not have energy for their responsibilities after spending their workday dealing with small talk and handling a dozen Slack notifications.
Setting clear boundaries at work is important because it prevents negative outcomes and has strong positive effects.
Let’s look at the most important benefits.
Setting boundaries at work can lead to employees prioritizing a healthy work life balance and self-care.
Studies show that unhealthy work boundaries make it harder for employees to maintain balanced lifestyles and cause unhappiness, ultimately leading to burnout as employees cannot replenish the energy they expend on work.
The longer this goes on, the worse the problem gets. Maintaining a culture of respect for employees is impossible without respecting employees’ boundaries, and toxic corporate culture increases employee burnout by more than 100%.
Respecting employees’ boundaries builds a culture of respect where employees can trust their teammates and leaders.
It also sets you apart from other employers: Faith among employees that their leaders care about their wellbeing decreased from 2020 to 2022.
These benefits for wellbeing and culture improve productivity.
Happy workers are 13% more productive than unhappy ones.
Even refusing to work on weekends and vacations improves individual and team productivity when you set healthy boundaries.
Working during off time has been proven to negatively impact employee motivation, leading to lower employee satisfaction rates and poorer quality work.
Finally, the combined positive result of the above – and the advantage it gives you over competitors – discourages team members from jumping ship.
A toxic corporate culture, which includes unhealthy work boundaries, is more than 10 times more powerful in predicting a company’s attrition rate than other factors like its industry.
Day-to-day boundaries are healthy and acceptable for employees and necessary for long-term career growth and a healthy work-life balance.
Here’s how to set boundaries at work.
In a hurry? Here’s a summary of our tips and what they each do to solve boundary issues at work.
Tips for how to set boundaries at work
What they do
1. Determine your personal and professional priorities
- Strengthen your relationships outside of work
- Ensure you have time to fulfill work goals and obligations
2. Understand your workload and set your limits
- Reduce the stress that comes from role ambiguity
- Help prioritize and delegate tasks
3. Use technology to set and communicate boundaries
- Enable you to enjoy your downtime
- Help colleagues navigate your boundaries with minimal friction
4. Ensure you take your time off
- Reduce multiple types of stress
- Decrease your risk of heart disease
- Restore your energy
5. Only share what you feel comfortable sharing
- Prevent dysfunctional teams by removing unnecessary pressure to be personal friends
- Preserve your privacy
6. Respect other people's boundaries
- Create stronger working relationships
- Show you’re a team player
- Contribute to a culture of strong boundaries
7. Don't stand for boundary breakers
- Demand respect from colleagues
- Set an example for others
8. Remember to set remote boundaries
- Maintain your home as a relaxing, private space
- Make remote work more effective by letting you take breaks
9. Be mindful of office politics
- Strengthen trust within and between teams
- Create more effective working relationships
To protect your priorities, you need to know what they are in your personal and professional life. Setting boundaries at work is about protecting work life balance. After all – you can’t have one without the other.
An example of a personal priority is having family time on Friday evenings, meaning that you must finish on time or early on Fridays.
Another is managing your work alongside caring for a parent’s health, blocking out time for appointments in your calendar when necessary.
Setting boundaries at work is beneficial for family life and relationships.
Setting boundaries around work priorities can also help you fulfill obligations and meet career goals. Examples of healthy boundaries at work include:
Doing high-priority work first each day and favors for colleagues later
Dedicating two hours a week to upskilling
Making time to mentor junior colleagues
Outlining your work priorities helps you understand your role and responsibilities. Failing to outline these properly leads to role ambiguity, which increases stress.
It also amplifies the negative effect of other issues, like having an abusive manager.
Once you’ve pinned down your list of responsibilities, when someone asks you to do something that falls outside of it, you can:
Evaluate their request alongside your other priorities
Reject the request or delay help until you fulfill your priorities
Ask for help from a supervisor
These actions reduce your risk of experiencing employee burnout.
Ensure you communicate your own boundaries to your manager, especially if you notice colleagues repeatedly overstepping them.
We all know that technology can contribute to unhealthy work boundaries. Who hasn’t checked their work email late at night to see a stressful message from a client that’s ruined their sleep?
However, technology can also be an asset when creating boundaries at work because it is where workplace communication happens.
Let’s start with the basics. Turn off your work notifications outside of office hours.
One study found that receiving work alerts on cell phones after hours caused employees significant weekly strain.
Turning them off reduced this and helped workers easily weather other workplace stressors.
Another tip is to make your calendar available to others and block out slots for things like:
“Deep focus” or do-not-disturb periods
Screen breaks and wellbeing walks
Learning new skills
Finally, include your working hours or expected response times in your email signature or an auto-response message.
For example, if you have a chronic illness and are prone to flare-ups, one example of the phrases to set professional boundaries is, “Because of the fluctuating nature of my chronic illness(es), response times may vary. Please prompt me if your message is urgent.”
It can be tempting to neglect your vacation days, especially if you’re highly ambitious or work in a high-pressure environment where there is pushback against time off.
Many workplaces reward this behavior as “hustling.”
More than half of workers with access to paid time off don’t take all their allowance, which is a big mistake.
Research shows that regular vacations alleviate many different types of stress, including childcare- and finance-related stress. They even reduce your risk of heart disease.
Be proactive about planning your vacation days, even if you work for an organization that offers unlimited paid time off.
Just as importantly, don’t work while you’re on vacation.
Almost 70% of Americans admit to working on vacation, and more than half say they feel anxious if they don’t read work emails.
Tackle this by:
Planning handover before you go away
Making it clear that no “emergency” is big enough to bother you on vacation
Removing unnecessary work channels from your devices
When you think of a dysfunctional team, what could come to mind is one where colleagues have little investment in each other.
However, teams can also be dysfunctional if they become enmeshed – in other words, if the pressure to share close personal bonds with colleagues makes it harder to assert boundaries.
Think of toxic work environments where leaders insist, “We’re a family.”
This sentiment is not always a red flag, but it’s perfectly okay not to want your work team to be your family. If you don't feel comfortable sharing your personal life with colleagues, you don't have to. That includes:
Details of your sexual orientation or personal relationships
Your mental health history
Access to your personal social media accounts
Politely decline when colleagues ask for this information, either by using one of these phrases to set boundaries at work:
“That’s personal, and I prefer not to disclose this information.”
“I’m very sorry, but I don’t share that with my work colleagues.”
“I would rather not share that because I like to keep my work and personal life separate.”
Not overstepping other people's boundaries helps them do the same for you. It creates a bond of mutual respect and leads to a more fruitful collaborative relationship.
You could even lead the way by asking your colleagues what their preferences are, for example, about feedback. Ask if they prefer to receive feedback in a meeting, by email, or a combination.
If you manage human resources, consider this a part of your mentoring duties. Look out for indications that your direct reports need help boundary setting at work, for example:
Suggested boundary-setting actions
They repeatedly work late on Fridays, catching up on their work after doing favors for others
- Hold a meeting to reiterate team responsibilities
- Create a protocol for checking in with you when they’re overwhelmed
- Make their calendar public, so their team can see when they’re busy
A remote employee responds to Slack messages and emails from employees working overtime even when they aren’t
- Reiterate your organization’s operating hours and overtime policy and that you don’t expect them to do unpaid work
- Help them change their notification settings to not interrupt their rest time
- Point them towards employee benefits and wellbeing initiatives, such as gym membership and mental health days, to help them relax outside of work
These behaviors establish you as a great team player and help set up a culture of healthy boundaries team-wide.
Inevitably, some people don’t respect boundaries, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t set them.
Be patient and compromise where necessary – for example, if a genuine work emergency arises – otherwise, politely decline or offer an alternative.
Examples of overstepping boundaries at work
Phrases to set boundaries at work
A colleague in another team emails you the day before your PTO to ask you to finish a task the next day
“Unfortunately, I am on leave from tomorrow until [date]. I can forward this to [name] with my suggestions if this is urgent. If it can wait until I return, I can deal with it ASAP then.”
Your boss repeatedly calls you after work or at weekends
Ignore the calls, then email during work hours explaining that “I don’t answer work calls when I’m off, but I’m happy to set up a standing appointment to give updates.”
A teammate ignores your closed office door and barges in without knocking
“When my door is closed, I’m usually in deep work or meetings. Please knock next time or request a meeting on my calendar?”
If someone is repeatedly overstepping boundaries at work and ignoring your verbal warnings, escalate this to a manager.
If managers and leaders consistently overstep boundaries despite push-back from employees, it requires broader efforts from HR to help your company build a culture of work boundaries and prevent attrition.
It's easy to blur the lines of work-life balance when you work from home. “Presenteeism,” or the impulse to be online at all times in case one of your colleagues or bosses accuses you of slacking off, is a particular issue.
More than three-quarters of HR professionals say they have seen presenteeism in individuals working from home.
Setting healthy boundaries at work could even be more important for remote workers than in-person workers because a lack of boundaries can have a worse impact.
Research into the effects of working from home on employee wellbeing found that invasion of privacy and role ambiguity were especially harmful.
Researchers recommended that employers provide work-home boundary management support to help.
You can set remote work boundaries by:
Shutting your computer off at the end of your shift
Not checking work emails or your LinkedIn messages over the weekend
Working from a dedicated office space instead of your sofa or bedroom
Office politics isn’t inherently negative. It’s simply how human influence works across your business.
Being polite and friendly to colleagues could be considered a form of office politics because it helps you maintain a good reputation.
However, engaging in negative office politics can severely impact boundaries in the workplace, for example:
Taking credit for others’ work
Withholding important information from people you dislike
Arbitrarily excluding others from workplace discussions
A common example is workplace gossip. Gossip may be fun and even endear you to some of your colleagues at first, but in the long run, it can damage your trust in your team and vice versa.
After all, if you overstep ethical boundaries and gossip about a coworker, how can you trust your other coworkers not to do the same to you?
Research suggests that gossipers experience more negative consequences than the targets of their whispering, particularly in areas like:
Engagement and performance
Relationships with their supervisors
Organization outcomes and advancement
We’ve covered how to set boundaries at work as an individual, but what if broader change is needed?
As HR professionals, we can improve boundaries in the workplace by implementing these five strategies.
Evaluate whether you can accommodate a candidate’s boundaries during the hiring process. Ask candidates directly about their work boundaries: No work on weekends? Audio meetings with no face cam? Check these against your policies to see if they’re a match.
Another important topic is time boundaries, especially if your team is remote or international. If the candidate says they never answer messages after 6:00 PM and you’re 14 hours apart, this could be an issue.
Use pre-employment testing to help you.
For example, if your sales department prioritizes a fast-paced environment, stress a “quick culture” in our Culture Add test. Applicants are then automatically ranked based on these criteria.
Evaluating a candidate’s boundaries must be a careful balance between two points:
Ensuring a candidate doesn’t have unrealistic boundaries
Ensuring that relatively minor accommodations aren’t a deal-breaker with an excellent candidate
Be sure that “deal-breaker” boundaries are necessary for your organization. Would “no face cam” meetings and always having their lunch break at precisely 1:30 p.m. be enough to disqualify the ideal hire?
It’s critical to be objective and tolerant whenever possible.
Many employees insist on setting boundaries because they do other people’s work, which can happen for a few reasons, including when employees are coerced or feel obligated to assist.
Whatever the reason, the simple answer to such problems is this: If it isn’t their responsibility, they shouldn’t be doing it.
Try creating a RACI matrix to review the responsibilities of each role. RACI stands for:
Responsible – the person executing the responsibility
Accountable – the person held accountable for the work (usually a manager)
Consulted – the person consulted about the work
Informed – the person who should know about the progress or result of the work
Then, build a table listing tasks and roles. It should look something like this:
The table clarifies what everyone should be doing and what they are doing. For example, no row should have two As because two people shouldn’t be accountable for one task.
Once you’ve finished this task, make sure to update your job descriptions as well, so candidates and new hires are crystal clear on their responsibilities from day one.
Don’t leave it up to employees to advocate for better boundaries. Instead, you should:
Put some basic boundaries in place, for instance, around out-of-hours emails. Depending on where you live, your government may already do this for you – in France, it’s illegal for businesses to email employees after work hours.
Incorporate processes for employees to reflect on and communicate their boundaries, possibly as part of the onboarding process.
Collect feedback about how respected employees feel their boundaries are.
An example comes from Buffer, a software company. Buffer replaced its unlimited paid vacation time with a minimum paid vacation after realizing that removing guidelines for employee PTO meant they hardly took any. 
Research by EY found that for each additional 10 hours of vacation employees took, their yearly performance improved by 8%.
They were also significantly less likely to quit.
Discussing and resolving issues before they snowball into serious problems is always best. Do this by instituting regular (weekly or bi-weekly) one on one meetings between managers and direct reports to check in and discuss their issues in real time.
These meetings should be an open and accepting environment for employees to discuss their boundaries, whether the issues arise from colleagues overstepping or common practices that impact their mental health.
To create psychological safety at work in this context, promise employees:
Confidentiality, within reason. Unless you’re worried for an employee’s wellbeing, don’t pass on any information to others. Be mindful of confidentiality laws in your region, especially around sensitive health data. If an employee provides you with a health report to show their access requirements, this is subject to confidentiality laws, for instance, GDPR laws in the UK.
Low-pressure brainstorming of fixes. Don’t try to force workers into unwanted confrontations with colleagues or disciplinary procedures if they don’t want to.
Acceptance of their unique needs. A massive 60% of employees say they never discuss their mental health at work, with nearly half saying that when they have, the reception has been negative. Don’t be that manager.
Any efforts to maintain healthy boundaries company-wide are likely to fail if your leaders don’t comply.
Patagonia is an example of an organization where leaders “walked the walk” when it came to creating boundaries at work.
Patagonia’s founder, Yvon Chouinard, role-modeled the organization’s commitment to flexibility and work-life balance by taking several months off each year to go fishing, during which time staff knew not to contact him.
The company’s policies apply to leaders at all levels, not just executives.
One study found that when leaders outwardly engaged in self-compassion, they helped employees with their work tasks and personal issues, and stakeholders believed they were more competent.
It’s an especially important lesson for novice leaders lower in the company structure.
In this blog, we’ve looked at all aspects of setting boundaries at work, from what unhealthy work boundaries can do to your mental health to phrases to set boundaries at work with colleagues and creating a culture of work boundaries as an HR leader.
To implement what you learned, head to our blog to learn more about employee wellbeing.
Evaluating work boundaries for job candidates can be tricky.
Ensure you avoid any issues by reading our list of illegal interview questions.
To help you recruit candidates whose work boundaries and values align with your organization, use our Culture Add test to hire the best.
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