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A healthy professional boundary is a way of expressing what we need to get our best work done. Boundaries give us a sense of control over the way we approach our role, how we collaborate and what’s expected of us as an employee or a team leader, beyond the basics of our job description. They’re also a powerful way to warn the people around us when we’re being stretched too far. Without them, we can end up resentful, unhappy or burnt out.
Author and therapist Nedra Glover Tawwab describes a boundary as “something that keeps you safe and comfortable in your relationships.” This is important, because boundaries aren’t just something you negotiate with yourself; they’re something you need to communicate with the people around you. And nowhere is that more evident than the workplace, where we spend a lot of our time around people we might not choose to spend our time around if we weren’t getting paid. (No offence, Janet.)
What kinds of boundaries are important in the workplace?
Before we think about how to negotiate healthy boundaries with others, let’s have a think about which ones might matter most to us at work.
🙅♀️ Your physical boundaries include:
- How much personal space or physical contact you prefer
- How people treat your belongings
- How you like to be approached by others
- How you prioritise your break time (eating, relaxing, smoking, walking…)
🧠 Your emotional boundaries include:
- How you protect your mental wellbeing
- Which topics you’re comfortable discussing with coworkers
- How you prefer to receive instructions or feedback
- How you choose to socialise
🏢 Your organisational boundaries include:
- When you’ll respond to queries
- How others can respect your time
- How to agree reasonable workload expectations
- How you respond to work demands when you’re off the clock
How to set better boundaries at work
Think back to the last time your boundaries were compromised at work. Did someone drop in another mystery meeting when you’d blocked out your diary? Did your manager ask you to stay late without giving you a chance to reply?
It’s natural to feel hurt when we feel like others aren’t respecting our boundaries. But to stop that from happening, we need to make sure that we’re communicating them properly in the first place.
Common mistakes we make when setting boundaries with others
- We play it cool – we act like we don’t mind, and then quietly resent the outcome
- We bend our own boundaries – so others think they can, too
- We people please – we fear letting others down so we say a convincing yes to requests, when we’d like to say no
- We forget to consider our own needs first – we commit to something before we think about whether we really have the time or energy available
- We sulk – instead of telling people what we would like to happen
- We don’t know what our boundaries actually are
Failing to articulate our needs doesn’t mean they’ll just go away. What’s more likely is that they’ll start to express themselves in other ways; like passive aggressive comments, a simmering resentment towards our coworkers or just a load of unnecessary stress that could be happily avoided with a well-placed conversation or two.
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How to communicate your boundaries so people will listen
The best boundaries are easy to understand. Avoid indecisive language and be assertive about what you want, need or expect.
❌ I might move to the spare meeting room this afternoon
✅ I want to get some stuff done without being interrupted
❌ It’s so annoying when meetings are rescheduled last minute
✅ I need some warning if you decide to reschedule our meeting
❌ If we fail to deliver, one of us will need to call the client
✅ I expect you to call the client if we fail to deliver
Adding unnecessary details can undermine what we’re saying. It tells the other person that we’re wobbly about our own boundaries.
❌ I can’t come to work drinks tonight because my friend’s moving house and I need to go and help her rent a van and I’ve cancelled on her a few times already
✅ I’m not coming to work drinks tonight, I already have plans
Say it more than once
Articulating your boundaries means changing your relationship with another person, and we all need time to adapt. Repetition is your friend when you’re asserting new boundaries.
✅ Just to remind you, I need you to let me know if you’re running late.
✅ I can’t come to the 1pm meeting, I use my lunchtimes to go to the gym
This is also relevant if you’re being (mindfully) flexible with your boundaries. Restating your boundary just lets people know that your behaviour this time is the exception, not the rule.
❌ No worries, I can do that at the weekend
✅ I don’t usually work at the weekend, but I can help out this time.
Reinforce your boundaries
If someone breaks a boundary that you’ve set, then make sure to tell them how ignoring that boundary affects you.
✅ Whenever you cancel that meeting without notice, I feel like you don’t value my time
❌ Julia, you’re not listening to me
✅ Julia, when you don’t take on my feedback, it makes me not want to delegate projects like this to you
And if someone routinely disregards your boundaries, then follow through with consequences. Stop delegating all those juicy projects to Julia.
Ideas for setting boundaries at work
Now we know how to be expert boundary communicators, there are some quick actions we can all take to feel more in control of our time and wellbeing at work.
✍️ Get your team to write user manuals
A user manual is a document that you can fill out with your personal preferences, which is hosted somewhere handy for speedy reference. This exercise forces you to think about your own boundaries at work, and can also help you to better understand your colleagues.
Some useful user manual prompts might be:
- It’s best to get hold of me by…
- I do my best work when…
- I prefer to receive feedback…in person immediately / in my next 1-1 / in writing
- Things that drain my energy at work
- Things people might misunderstand about me
🏖 Take your holiday (yep, all of it)
This one’s an easy one. Taking your whole holiday allowance is a good way to reset and remember what you want your priorities to be. Whenever you’re about to take some time off, be sure to tell your colleagues that you’ll be totally offline, if you can. A good out-of-office message will let people outside of the business know who to contact if they need a speedy answer.
🎯 Set an agenda for every meeting
This is just good practice for a few reasons. It helps to manage everybody’s time and expectations, it can help coworkers who experience anxiety or ADHD to feel more prepared, and it means the meeting absolutely, definitely has a purpose and couldn’t be an email or message instead.
🗓 Set aside time for deep work
And share your calendar with colleagues so they know when it’s appropriate to drop meetings in your diary. If you use an instant communications platform like Slack, then pause your notifications and put an emoji in your status whenever you’re uninterruptible.
⏰ Agree reasonable contact hours with your team, and stick to them
Just because we’re technically able to reply to work messages 24/7, doesn’t mean it’s doing our mental health any good. Use scheduling tools to automatically delay sending your message until working hours, rather than pinging an email off at 10pm when the thought occurs to you. This helps to take the pressure off everybody, and means your team can properly unwind after work without distractions.
Watch a recording of our mental health webinar on 'How to set, respect & stick to boundaries'
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