To create a work environment that is productive and safe, there must be healthy boundaries that guide the behavior of each employee. This is true for both experienced professionals and new hires alike.
Establishing healthy boundaries benefits everyone involved – employees, supervisors or managers, executives, and the organization or business as a whole.
But establishing boundaries can be challenging because what you consider to be healthy workplace boundaries might not be what one of your coworkers believes to be a healthy boundary. This means that everyone in the office might have slightly different ideas of what healthy boundaries might be. This is okay, though!
The purpose of establishing healthy boundaries for yourself is to ensure that you have a safe, productive, and healthy place to work. What’s more, healthy boundaries ensure that you have a good work-life balance and that your work doesn’t take over the rest of your life.
In this guide, we’ll explore some general tips that will help you create much-needed boundaries that will contribute to a healthy workplace. Both setting and safeguarding these boundaries is key for enjoying a healthy work environment.
It’s important to note that the suggestions below are individualized – not necessarily organizational rules or regulations. So, this is more of a discussion about things you can do as an individual employee to have healthy boundaries than it is a discussion of policies and procedures that you agree to follow as an employee of a business.
There are certain things that will be governed at the institutional level (e.g., policies regarding sexual harassment in the workplace). Those kinds of regulations are not things you can decide to follow or not – obeying the rules is part of the deal you make to be employed. But the items discussed below are things that are within your control and which can have a significant impact on how you feel about your job and your workplace.
Learn What Your Limits Are
One of the first things any employee should do when considering tips for establishing healthy boundaries at work is to learn their limits. This is largely rooted in determining individual values.
This can take some trial and error, as personal and professional limits may not always be known. But over time, you will become aware of what your professional limits are and what you need to do to ensure those limits aren’t broken.
For example, you prefer to work on projects individually. However, your employer might ask that you periodically work on projects as a member of a small group or team. As you participate in these group projects, you might find that over time you realize that your limit for doing so is one project a month. Or, perhaps you work best if the projects aren’t back-to-back.
Having those experiences allows you to develop an understanding of your personal limits. This doesn’t necessarily give you license to tell your supervisor, “no, I will not work on this project.” However, it should be something that you discuss with your supervisor as a mechanism for maximizing your productivity. After all, it doesn’t make much sense to put you in a work situation in which you aren’t comfortable as that will surely reduce your productivity.
It is also important to arrive at a point in which setting boundaries feels comfortable to you. Again, this will take some time and practice. Initially, you might feel like it isn’t your place to set limits. In fact, you might feel bad doing so for fear of being perceived as someone that isn’t a team player.
But so long as you’re open and honest and frame your decision to set certain limits as being a good thing (for you as an employee and a good decision for the organization), you’ll likely be surprised at just how supportive your coworkers and superiors will be.
Once limits have been established, it is time to set rules.
In order to protect the limits you set for yourself in the workplace, they need to be disseminated to others.
For example, let’s say that you want to be sure to leave work by a certain time each day so you have time to pick your kids up from after-school activities. So, your limit might be “I need to quit work by 4:30 pm.” The rule associated with that might be communicated to your coworkers as “I will not be available for work-related tasks after 4:30 pm.”
When communicating these rules to your coworkers, supervisors, and other stakeholders, it’s important to consider a couple of points.
First, your limits and rules can’t conflict with the broader expectations of your job. If, for example, you are supposed to work 9-5, taking off at 4:30 each day isn’t appropriate.
Second, the manner in which you communicate the rules that govern your healthy boundaries is critical. You want to present these rules as the vehicles by which you are able to have a good work-life balance.
So, discuss your rules as personal boundaries that respect the expectations of the workplace and the duties you’re required to carry out in your position, but which also deserve respect from other people in the office.
A final component of this is to respect the boundaries that others establish in the workplace. In all reality, not everyone’s boundaries will mesh perfectly. But that doesn’t give one person the right to set someone else’s boundaries aside. This brings us to the next point…
Be Prepared to Compromise
Part of setting and maintaining boundaries is not being afraid to say “no” to various requests. However, saying “no” in a professional context is not always easy and in some cases may not be entirely possible.
Getting around this conundrum involves compromise. Let’s use our earlier example of a parent that needs to leave work at a certain time to pick up their child. Perhaps they are granted the right to leave early two or three days a week to pick up their kids. But in exchange for those early days, they might be asked to come to work early on those days to make up for the lost time.
This is a simple example, but you get the point – for a business to run well and for the workplace environment to be one of respect, it’s critical that we all come to the table ready for a give and take that benefits everyone.
Here’s another example: let’s say that you’ve set a boundary that you will take your lunch break on time rather than working late into lunch and taking a late lunch break. But let’s also assume that one of your coworkers has set the same boundary. The problem is, it’s best that you aren’t both at lunch at the same time.
So a compromise is in order. Maybe you take lunch at the normal time on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, while your coworker takes their lunch on time on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Then, the next week, you switch to keep the number of early and late lunches equal between the two of you.
These compromises allow boundaries to be respected while still making sure that work gets done when it needs to get done.
Having said that, another part of setting healthy boundaries at work is learning how to say no. And while it might not seem like you can pursue compromise and say no at the same time, it is possible.
For example, assume that your supervisor has asked you to work late on a Tuesday night to help catch up on work that has been delayed. Let’s also assume that you are taking a college class on Tuesday nights.
Since you can’t miss your class, and since working late isn’t mandatory, it’s perfectly fine to say no. Be gracious when you do, thank your supervisor for considering you for working overtime, and offer a compromise. Perhaps instead of staying late on Tuesday, you could stay late on Wednesday.
Burnout is a very real thing in the workplace, and one of the chief causes of burnout is simply pushing yourself too far. There is nothing wrong with being ambitious or being a team player or genuinely wanting to provide extra help at work. But if you work yourself too much, you’ll find that your ability to do your job and do it well might diminish.
So, be prepared to offer compromises when necessary, but also be willing to say no, too.
Learn How to Delegate
For some people, delegating tasks to others is supremely difficult.
Perhaps you feel like you can do a better job if you do the tasks yourself. Maybe you feel as though it will take more time to explain a task to someone else than to do it on your own. Sometimes, simply not having trust in your coworkers or employees can factor into it as well.
But if you truly want to create a work environment for yourself that is healthy, you need to give up some of those fears or control issues and let others help you.
This doesn’t mean that you have to be completely hands-off on a project or task that you’ve delegated. Stay involved in the process so you’re informed and so that you can offer advice and direction. However, be very careful not to micromanage the situation, either. Trust in the abilities of your coworkers, keep the lines of communication open, and be open to providing some direction when needed.
Work Within Your Comfort Levels and the Comfort Levels of Others
Personal comfort levels are important to consider too – what you are comfortable with might not jive with what someone else in the office is comfortable with.
For example, certain people in the office may be more reserved than others and not want to cultivate personal relationships with coworkers. Instead, they might prefer to keep work relationships purely professional.
In this case, while it is a nice gesture to invite everyone in the office to your birthday party, it’s also important to recognize that some of your coworkers might feel uncomfortable getting such an invite.
As another example, some workers get together to talk about their clients, coworkers, and supervisors as a way to blow off steam. The discussions might be very matter-of-fact and professional, or they might be gossipy, emotional, and downright unprofessional.
But for some workers, having time to decompress with their peers is critical for their mental health. For others, that kind of behavior might be viewed as wholly inappropriate. Again, it’s a matter of respecting the varying boundaries that people set for themselves and being okay with the fact that each person in the organization will have a different set of boundaries and standards that they need to follow.
Address Violations Right Away
Experts agree that boundary violations need to be addressed immediately to have the greatest effect.
It is all too common for employees to not say anything right away when someone violates one of their boundaries. What ensues is that they stew about it, get more and more upset, think about what they should have said or done when the boundary was violated, and lose focus on their work. Then, after a period of time, they might bring the violation up when the perpetrator doesn’t even remember the incident. In some cases, the incident might not be brought up at all.
In most cases, violators are not overstepping boundaries with malice, although that may occasionally happen as well. Usually, a boundary violation occurs because the boundary wasn’t communicated to them in the first place or they simply forgot the boundary existed.
Once someone is allowed to overstep a boundary without consequences, they will likely continue to do so. Be firm and let someone know when they are crossing a line, bearing in mind that they very well could have crossed a line without even knowing it. Be respectful in your communications, don’t be accusatory, and stick to the facts of the situation. You’ll find that in most cases your coworkers are genuinely sorry and it won’t happen again.
If the issue persists, though, another discussion might be in order or perhaps even a trip to human resources will be necessary.
In today’s often high-stress business environment, healthy boundaries are a necessity to avoid burnout and job dissatisfaction while promoting higher levels of productivity. Though every situation is different, these tips can be successful in establishing healthy boundaries in virtually any work environment.
B.A. Social Studies Education | University of Wyoming
M.S. Counseling | University of Wyoming
B.S. Information Technology | University of Massachusetts
Updated January 2022