You need to create some space: between you and the j-o-b, or between yourself and some colleagues.

Man smiling through burnout on yet another Zoom meeting, needing to set work boundaries for himselfShare on Pinterest
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Saying “yes” at work to anything and everything can be tempting. By making yourself available, taking on extra responsibilities, or staying late, you can often set yourself apart.

Being too accommodating, however, might also set you up for undue stress and burnout.

According to a 2019 report that Udemy published, boundaries at work are being crossed regularly. Approximately 59% of managers feel pressed to work through lunch breaks, and 66% of employees have experienced or witnessed bullying.

A 2016 survey found 43% of working adults felt their jobs negatively affected their stress levels.

Chronic stress at work can affect both physical and mental wellness. You may find yourself dealing with symptoms of anxiety or depression. Learning how to set boundaries at work might take some practice, but establishing them early may help you avoid uncomfortable situations down the road.

Having a good work ethic doesn’t mean you have to be perfect all the time. It’s fine to say no to that last batch of overtime and to want to have the weekend off.

Your personal value as a human being doesn’t rest on your ability to perform at work. By taking the pressure off yourself to perform, you can make setting boundaries with coworkers easier.

Here are some further resources to bookmark for giving yourself a professional break:

Your reputation is made up of more than people’s opinions of whether you’re a “good” or “bad” worker. It’s the sum set of actions and behaviors people attribute both to you, plus their interactions with you.

As former law professor, ethics lecturer, and founder of CHARACTER COUNTS! Michael Josephson famously taught: “What you allow, you encourage.” How you engage with others and what boundaries you establish with colleagues teach them what they can and can’t say and do to you.

Liz Ryan is the founder of The Human Workplace and a former Forbes contributor. She addresses how to politely decline or redirect with your boss or coworker, when the answer to a request isn’t a yes.

Here’s more guidance on how to say no without being rude, plus some helpful prompts to reply and maintain boundaries.

Expecting people to abide by your workplace boundaries may be a challenge if you aren’t comfortable with direct communication. Communicating clearly not only means being direct about where your lines are drawn, but it can also mean working through layers of conversation to fully understand something.

Clarity can mean avoiding assumptions; if you’re uncertain; you may want to ask questions.

Pro communication tip

In his book “The Four Agreements,” Don Miguel Ruiz suggests asking this simple question when communicating to avoid taking things personally or making assumptions:

“What do you mean by that?”

It allows the other person to clarify or perhaps rethink the delivery of a statement.

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It can also mean making sure when you say “yes,” you mean yes. Agreeing to something your instincts say “no” to can send a signal to other parties involved you’re OK with something when you really aren’t.

Saying yes only when you mean yes can also help build your integrity. Coworkers learn when you say something, they can trust your words to accurately represent your thoughts.

You may want to bookmark these resources on communication:

Responding with specific feedback in the moment can help set the stage for how you want your future interactions to go.

This can help build professional trust between yourself and coworkers. You’re letting them know you value their time and effort, and validating what they’ve brought to the table.

“When you answer communication in a timely manner, you demonstrate confidence in your message, as well as respect for the recipient,” says Linda Esposito, licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and writer in Pasadena, California.

Not only is timely communication important, but choice communication is important as well. As much as folks relish watercooler talk, staying clear of indulging in gossip will help ensure your boundaries protect you and others from blurring lines with personal business.

Not participating in gossip, and only bringing company concerns up through the chain of command, is one small and continual step toward establishing a precedent for what teammates can come to you with.

Sharing concerns up the chain of command can also help prevent unintentional undermining of authority.

Workplace bullying is another toxic aspect of lack of boundaries that can be addressed by direct and calm-assertive communication.

“Your home is your sanctuary,” says Esposito. “While it can be difficult to ʽleave work at work’ if doing business from a home office, it’s essential for work/life balance.”

One way to do this, Esposito suggests, is by “tidying up your desk and stowing paperwork after your shift [to] signify it’s time to decompress and enjoy the rest of your evening.”

If you’re finding you’re losing yourself in your work, here’s some advice on reconnecting with yourself outside of an all-consuming job.

“ʽThat doesn’t work for me’ is a short message that’s long on limit-setting,” explains Esposito.

Saying “that doesn’t work for me” allows you to address a potential breach of your boundaries and offers room for an alternative option if there is one.

Having a plan for boundary crossing can also help prevent you from getting caught off guard. An immediate response lets your coworker know a line has been crossed but buys you some time if you need to think about the situation.

Want some help planning ahead for work boundary breaches?

Many places of work also have a preferred system for addressing conflict. If something inappropriate occurs, knowing your company’s policy can help you take action sooner rather than later.

“Boundaries are all about respect — for yourself and for the other person,” says F. Diane Barth, licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist in New York. “When a colleague says something inappropriate that you want to address, go for it.

“But keep in mind that anger, sarcasm, put-downs, and criticisms will not accomplish much, except to get you both worked up. Boundaries really don’t work if they’re used to punish another person. If you make it clear that you respect the other person, it’s much easier to communicate that you expect them to respect you as well,” Barth adds.

Addressing concerns at the moment may also help you “call people in,” a conversational method that shines a light on behavior without direct accusation.

Calling people in focuses on finding mutual understanding instead of confrontation.

Setting healthy boundaries at work isn’t just about taking a stand on hours, responsibilities, or interactions. Without limits on what you’re willing to take on, you can find yourself miserable at work and feeling overwhelmed.

If you’re unsure of how to set boundaries, or feel too overwhelmed, speaking with a mental healthcare professional may help.

You may also want to talk with a human resources representative at your company. They have access to supportive resources as well.

Contacting agencies skilled in addressing workplace issues can also provide support. These include:

Setting boundaries at work doesn’t mean you have an attitude, you’re looking to work less than your fair share, or are less ambitious than your coworkers. It’s about self-care for mental wellness, mutual respect, and clear-cut communications.

Boundaries can help prevent workplace burnout and might help you be more productive in the long run.

Learning how to set boundaries, however, and being comfortable doing so, isn’t always easy. You may be worried you won’t get a promotion, or you might associate your self-worth with job accomplishments.

Sometimes it’s just uncomfortable to say no to people.

The good news is, you can learn to set boundaries without being confrontational, and you can reinforce those boundaries subtly and mindfully.