How to Set and Maintain Professional Boundaries

January 31, 2022


Do you often feel overwhelmed at work? Do you say “yes” to every request that comes along even though you shouldn’t?

The ability to set and maintain professional boundaries is essential to feeling fulfilled and satisfied at work. It’s key to protecting your well-being and that of your clients, colleagues and loved ones at home. However, setting boundaries at work is more difficult today than ever before. Technology and remote work settings have eroded the boundaries between work and non-work. It’s difficult to create some space between you and the job when you take your work wherever you go.

That said, being too accommodating will set you up for stress and burnout, which can affect your emotional wellness as well as your ability to perform at work. Learning to set healthy professional boundaries will take some work, but establishing them early will make your experience at work that much easier.

Let’s look at some of the ways you can develop and maintain professional boundaries.

1. Assess Your Personal Boundaries First

Too many people shy away from setting boundaries because they might sometimes feel like unreasonable requests. Protecting your mental health is important—making it necessary to determine what you’re comfortable and not comfortable with at work. Know your limits and pay attention to your feelings.

Some professional boundaries you may consider establishing include:

  • Not performing additional favors for clients (outside your job description)
  • Saying no to working on the weekends
  • Keeping personal and professional contacts necessary
  • Setting your working hours and sticking to them
  • Having a “tell” or an away message when engaged in deep work
  • Delegating work when necessary

You are your own individual person and what someone else is comfortable with may not work for you. Some people are okay with the occasional work call during the weekend; others are not. All relationships are defined by boundaries and it’s important to define your limits.

2. Communicate Clearly

Expecting people to understand and respect your boundaries at work will prove to be a challenge if you’re not comfortable with direct communication. Boundaries are invisible lines and while the rules of etiquette may dictate what is or isn’t permissible in a professional relationship, you can’t expect people to automatically understand which lines not to cross. That’s not to say you have to list out your boundaries when you first interact with someone as you may be crossing their boundaries.

Instead, you can offer a handshake when someone offers you a hug at work or communicate that family time is important to you, which is why you’d prefer not to receive work calls after a certain time. The key is to only say “yes” to something only when you mean it. Your coworkers will learn to trust your words to accurately represent what you’re thinking and feeling.

3. Respond to Boundary Crossings in Real-Time

When your boundaries are being crossed, it’s best to respond directly in a timely manner. When you respond in real-time, you demonstrate confidence in your boundaries, as well as respect for the recipient. For instance, if someone interrupts you at work and it’s not urgent, let them know you’ll get back to them as soon as you’re done drafting your report. Doing so assures them that you value their time, effort, and input.

Also, some people find it difficult to communicate a crossed boundary in real-time. If you’re such a person, it helps to plan a response to boundary crossings in advance. Saying “Oh, that doesn’t work for me,” can work in a myriad of situations and buys you more time to think about the situation.

4. Keep Your Relationships Professional

Boundaries are all about respect – first for yourself and then for the other person. You must respect other people’s boundaries for them to respect yours. If you make it clear that you respect the other person, it’s much easier to communicate your boundaries and address any concerns. When a colleague says something inappropriate, shine a light on their behavior without making it seem like an accusation. Boundaries don’t work if their aim is to embarrass someone or “take them down a notch.”

It also helps to create clear structures with your colleagues as they take the guesswork out of boundary infractions. If you want to steer clear of workplace gossip, then you can’t be seen indulging in watercooler talk as this would blur the lines.

5. Learn to Say “No”

Saying “no” can be difficult, especially if you’re new to a job or responding to a supervisor. But you don’t have to respond with a knee-jerk “no”. First and foremost, figure out whether it’s feasible for you to help and to what capacity you can help out. If you have neither the desire nor the bandwidth to help, it’s important to be straightforward and upfront about your reasons.

Here are some ways you can respectfully and nicely say “no” at work.

  • Unfortunately, I have too much on my plate today. I can help out some other time.”
  • I’m not comfortable with that particular task. Is there anything else I can help you with?
  • The timing isn’t right at this time. Can you keep me in mind for next time?


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