Here’s a dirty little secret that every career coach and career counselor knows: When people are burnt out, hating their jobs, or just feeling like they can’t get ahead, it’s often because they aren’t skilled at setting boundaries at work.
When you lack healthy work boundaries, either because you don’t know how to set them, or because you’re in a work culture that discourages having boundaries, you can’t perform at your best. You are bound to feel exhausted and overwhelmed, or intruded upon by coworkers whose expectations feel inappropriate.
Not having good boundaries at work makes it more difficult for you to shut off, recharge, and maintain a personal life that’s separate from your career. And when you can’t do that, professional success becomes harder to achieve.
Especially now that so many of us are working from home, setting healthy work boundaries is key to keeping yourself healthy and your career moving forward. This article will help you recognize the kinds of boundaries you need (because there are many varieties, which we’ll discuss), and the best way to set those boundaries, depending on your particular situation.
If you’d rather listen, I’ve also created an episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast on setting boundaries at work. You can find it in the player below, or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
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Unhealthy Work Boundaries
First, let’s talk about what it looks like when you don’t have healthy boundaries at work.
Maybe your boss calls you at 11pm on a Tuesday because they have some non-emergency feedback on your project. Maybe you’re in a toxic workplace with coworkers who gossip about each others’ personal lives. Maybe the entire company culture is one where roles and responsibilities are ill-defined, creating power struggles, confusion, and some people feeling overburdened while others aren’t pulling their weight.
The difference between healthy work boundaries and unhealthy work boundaries is relative. If you’re a brain surgeon, it doesn’t mean that you’re in a workplace with unhealthy boundaries when you get called in on your day off. It’s just part of your job. For that reason, it’s smart to think about work-life boundaries before you choose your career.
The same goes when you’re looking for a job — If healthy work boundaries are important to you, ask some questions during the interview process about how often people at the company work overtime, what the expectations are for the role, and whether or not you need to be available to answer messages outside of working hours. If your curiosity turns them off, good! This probably isn’t the job for you.
Of course, sometimes unhealthy work boundaries don’t have anything to do with the workplace itself, and everything to do with your own ability to set healthy boundaries, with yourself and others. When you struggle with people-pleasing, perfectionism, or low-self-esteem, it can feel like unfair expectations are coming from everyone else, when they’re actually something you’re imposing on yourself. Getting better at setting boundaries in relationships will help you feel calm and in control, rather than overwhelmed and resentful.
How to Set Boundaries at Work
The key to setting boundaries at work is tailoring your approach to different situations. The process looks different for setting boundaries with your boss than it does with your coworkers, and different in a healthy workplace than in a toxic one.
Here are a few workplace boundary-setting scenarios and some tips for handling each:
How to Set Boundaries with Coworkers
There are a couple “types” of coworker that people tend to struggle setting boundaries with.
The first we’ll call the intrusive coworker. They may share way too much information about their personal lives, ask you questions that feel inappropriate, or just expect more attention from you then you’re comfortable giving.
Here’s how you can set boundaries with an intrusive coworker: First, have some empathy for them. They are almost certainly not being intrusive on purpose; they have a different sense of what feels normal and appropriate, and that’s okay. It just means that, in order to have a positive working relationship with them, you have to be thoughtful about how you engage.
Think about the relationship that you would like to have with this coworker: I’m guessing it’s one that’s polite and supportive, but limited. Then, continue to be warm, encouraging, and gratifying when you’re having that kind of relationship… and less so when you’re not. Learn “the art of the pivot” to steer away from topics that are too personal for you. If all else fails, you can just say, “Okay, I need to get back to work now.”
The key to managing an intrusive coworker relationship is releasing control over how they feel and what they think of you — which is actually a huge component of having healthy boundaries. You get to choose how you want to participate in this relationship, and they get to choose how they manage their feelings about that.
The second “flavor” of coworker who can be difficult to set boundaries with is the coworker who puts their work onto you, to the point where you’re feeling overwhelmed and resentful. Sometimes this happens because the person just feels entitled to delegate their workload to their peers. Other times, it’s because there’s a lack of clarity coming from the top about who should be doing what.
If you have a coworker who seems to expect you to do their work, you can set boundaries with them by deciding for yourself when you are willing to help them, how much time (if any) you can give, and communicating those limits clearly. Be crystal clear that you are helping them with their work — not performing a task that is your responsibility. Here’s a response template you can use: “Hi [difficult coworker]. I would be happy to help you with your project if you need some support. I am available to help for 30 minutes tomorrow at 4pm.”
Of course, you can also decide that you aren’t willing to take any time away from your own work to help with theirs – that’s also valid.
When you begin to set these boundaries, you may discover that the root issue is some basic confusion over how you should be working together, or who is responsible for what. They may genuinely believe that what they’re asking you to do is part of your job, not theirs. In that case, ask your manager for some clarity, and if you have a trusting, comfortable relationship with your manager, you can share that the confusion around responsibilities is creating stress at work for you.
How to Set Boundaries with Your Boss
Setting boundaries with your boss can be tricky, especially if you aren’t lucky enough to have a good boss. An effective leader wants their people to have healthy boundaries, if for no other reason than to prevent them from leaving their jobs, or at least getting so burned out that they’re no longer productive. But not every boss has that mindset about boundaries, and you have to tailor your approach to the boss that you have.
Many people need support setting boundaries around their workloads. This can be a sign that you’re not communicating about what’s on your plate or how long things take. It may be that your boss doesn’t understand that they’re asking you to do something that takes three hours, on a day when you already have eight hours of work to complete. Start by communicating about your workload and asking for your boss’s help in getting your priorities organized, and consider cutting back on meetings if those are feeling like a waste.
When you start having these conversations about your workload, you might discover that your boss expects you to be working more than your agreed-upon hours, or to be doing your work on a timeline that isn’t feasible for you (or both). If they say you’re spending too long on certain tasks, be open to that feedback — it may in fact be the case, especially if you struggle with perfectionism. If that’s not what’s going on, you’ll have to decide whether you want to continue striving to meet their expectations, or move on.
Setting Boundaries at work When Your Job Keeps Growing
Sometimes, hardworking go-getters find that the better they are at their jobs, the more responsibilities get heaped upon them. You may have started out with a clear and reasonable job description, and ended up taking on so many additional tasks that you no longer have clarity about where your focus should be.
It can be hard to find the balance between having a can-do attitude at work, and allowing the scope of your role to grow until you’re stretched too thin to be effective. If this is what’s happening, you have an opportunity to turn it into a positive thing.
Have a conversation with your boss about how your role has evolved since you started, and request an updated job description that reflects what you’re doing now. You can also request a promotion and/or a raise at this point — when you’re exceeding expectations, that should benefit you as well as the company.
If it would make sense to add a junior person to your team, communicate about that as well. Managers don’t always know who needs resources and support unless they’re hearing about it.
How to Set Boundaries with Yourself at Work
Often, the healthy work boundaries you really need to set are with yourself.
When you don’t have good internal boundaries around work, it can show up in a few ways. If you are a bit of a people pleaser, it can feel like everyone is putting unreasonable expectations on you, when the problem is really your fear of letting other people down. If you can face that fear, setting boundaries at work will become much easier for you, and you’ll also get to stop worrying so much about what other people think.
If perfectionism is a problem in your life, that can lead to some boundary issues. You may feel like you “have to” go overboard, when doing a good-enough job would be better. The reasons for perfectionism vary from person to person, ranging from anxiety, to low self-esteem, to having your identity wrapped up in your work. Getting support from a good career counselor can help you get to the root cause of your perfectionism so you can feel better about yourself, and be more successful in your career.
You may also have, as many people do, unrealistic expectations for relationships at work. Sometimes work becomes a place where people unconsciously seek love and approval — and feel hurt and resentful when their coworkers don’t respond how they want them to. Getting clear about the emotional boundaries that are healthy and appropriate for your work relationships, and then setting those boundaries with yourself, will make a huge difference in how you feel.
Finally, sometimes you need to set boundaries around your own work-life balance. There are many people who come to career coaching feeling burned out and hating their jobs, and when they tap into that, they discover that they have chosen to over-index their professional lives at the expense of their personal lives. They may be checking work emails outside of working hours or putting in extra hours on the weekend, even though no one expects them to do so. Other times, the issue is that they’re just not treating their personal lives and relationships with the same attention they’ve given their careers.
If this is the case for you, make the choice now to start setting boundaries around your time and energy, and to stop neglecting your life outside of work. That will allow both your personal and professional lives to flourish.
Support for Setting Boundaries at Work
I hope you found this article helpful. If you haven’t already listened to this episode of the podcast, check it out — it’s an even deeper dive into healthy work boundaries and how you can achieve both balance and success in your career.
You are more than just your job, and you deserve to have a working life where that’s honored and respected. If you would like some support in achieving that from a career counselor on my team, I invite you to schedule a free consultation.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
P.S. — For more practical guidance on having positive relationships at work and achieving your career goals, check out my “Professional Growth” collection of articles and podcasts. It’s all there for you!
Music in this episode is by Palace with their song “Bitter.” You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://palace.bandcamp.com/. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
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Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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