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Setting healthy boundaries in the workplace

Recently, I wrote about maintaining positivity at work, and one of my tips was to set boundaries. Today, we’re going to elaborate on that topic. Boundaries are an important part of professional success, but this is an area where many of us struggle. Hopefully, I can ease your mind and share some advice about how to make those boundaries stick.

First off: setting boundaries does not make you a mean or uncaring person. Setting boundaries is a completely natural and healthy thing to do. Boundaries make you a better leader, employee, and coworker because they tell people at the outset where you stand. Your boundaries help manage expectations in a proactive, positive way so that you can head off misunderstandings before they start.

Boundaries fall into three categories: mental, physical, and emotional.

Mental boundaries involve your mental state, thoughts, values, and opinions. A mental boundary might be, “I will not engage in office politics or gossip.” Mental boundaries are critical because they help us avoid our natural tendency to overthink things. Sometimes people worry that, if they don’t get involved with coworkers’ personal issues, they’ll be perceived as not caring. But what you actually are doing is picking your battles so that you can stay focused on your work.

Physical boundaries concern physical touch, property, and objects, such as your workspace or belongings. For instance, someone wearing earphones and intently focused on their computer screen clearly does not want to be distracted. Another example is placing a “do not disturb” sign on your door when you are busy. You are not being rude; you are setting expectations about how people can interact with you at that moment.

Emotional boundaries help separate your emotions from those of your coworkers. This requires self-awareness and identifying and understanding your emotions in real-time. Examples include communicating to your supervisor how you would like to receive feedback, expressing your preferred work and communication style with your coworkers, and not internalizing unfounded anger or blame from others.

Once you consider what your mental, physical, and emotional boundaries are, what next? Here are a few tips:

Communicate often. Effective communication is key. I communicate my boundaries so that my team knows what I expect of them, and what they can expect of me. I note meetings and appointments on my calendar. If I will be unavailable for an extended period, I’ll remind my team that I may not respond to messages immediately. Communicating about your availability (including vacation or sick days) helps co-workers plan around your absence.

Honesty is the best policy. Be upfront with your supervisor and coworkers about the reasoning behind your boundaries (giving however much information you are comfortable sharing). They’ll be more likely to support you if they understand how your boundaries help you to maintain your work-life balance and meet your professional goals.

Set limits – it’s okay not to respond. The default expectation should be that, if you’re off the clock, you’re off the clock… seriously. Do not respond to work emails and messages. This one is tough for many of us because we’re so used to being reachable. We often feel guilty for not responding or worry that people will think we’re slacking off. But virtually every situation can wait until you return.

Know your emotions.  Be aware of your triggers – what makes you see red, get anxious, or feel sad. If a meeting doesn’t go your way or you get negative feedback from your boss, sometimes it’s best to say and do nothing until you’ve calmed down. Remove yourself from the situation as professionally as you can. Getting some distance keeps you from reacting poorly (and possibly saying something you’ll regret).

Prepare yourself.  No matter what boundaries you set or how well you communicate them, someone will judge or criticize them. You can’t control what others say or do, but how you respond is up to you. When someone tests your boundaries, stay calm and respond professionally. It helps to practice statements like, “As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not available to respond to email on weekends.” If the problem continues, involve your supervisor or Human Resources.

Remember, ultimately you will be a more positive, productive, and well-rounded employee if you set boundaries and stick with them.


Sharine Sample is the Regional Workforce Development Manager at Goodwill Industries of Northwest North Carolina. Learn more about Goodwill’s employment services here