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How to Set Boundaries at Work

How to Set Boundaries at Wor

Boundaries at work:
Why You Need Boundaries at Work and How to Set Them


Boundaries are important in all relationships

Setting boundaries at work is just as important as setting boundaries in your personal relationships. Boundaries are the guidelines we use to let people know how to treat us, what to expect from us, and ultimately what’s OK and what’s not OK.

Most of us spend more than 40 hours a week at work. You deserve to be treated with respect by your employer and coworkers. Boundaries aren’t a luxury; your physical health, mental health, and family relationships depend on them!

What kinds of boundary issues happen at work?

Boundary issues at work often revolve around your time, ethics, and responsibilities.

Boundary issues at work might look like:

  • Staying late when you have a family commitment
  • Working on weekends
  • Working through your lunch breaks
  • Responding to work email after hours or during your vacation
  • Disrespectful treatment from your boss or colleagues
  • Uncertainty about whose job it is to do a certain task
  • A coworker or supervisor who stands too close, invading your personal space
  • Your coworker repeatedly arriving late leaving you to cover for him/her
  • A coworker sending passive-aggressive emails
  • Being asked to behave unethically, such as falsifying reports
  • Unwanted sexualized comments or touch

Why do you need boundaries at work?

Without boundaries people tend to overwork, grow resentful, and feel disrespected and unappreciated. Boundaries help everyone feel happier and be more productive in a workplace. Setting boundaries at work is an essential component of job satisfaction. Healthy boundaries at work contribute to:

  • A clear understanding of everyone’s responsibilities on the job
  • Positive relationships with colleagues and your employer
  • Less burnout
  • Improved morale
  • Increased productivity
  • Improved loyalty and longevity at the company
  • Respect in the workplace
  • Knowing what you can expect from your colleagues and what they can expect from you
  • Self-esteem

Barriers to setting boundaries at work

So, if boundaries at work are so useful, why don’t more of us set them?

Work is an important source of both income and self-esteem. In other words, you need your job and you might be afraid to do anything to rock the boat.

Are you a people-pleaser? If so, you worry about what people will think of you and you don’t want to be seen as difficult or not a team player.

Even worse, maybe you’ll be passed over for a promotion or even fired if you say “No” to your supervisor. If you’re not used to setting boundaries, it can be truly scary to assert yourself and ask for what you need at work. However, you also have to consider the consequences of NOT setting boundaries; your health, productivity, and family may all suffer.

How do you actually set boundaries at work?

You can learn how to set boundaries at work.

  • Get really clear about what you need. Before you request a change, spend time getting a deep understanding of your priorities, what you can and can’t do, and what areas of your work life need improved boundaries. We all have different needs, so it may feel right for you to answer texts from your boss on Saturday, while for someone else that might feel like a real intrusion of family and rest time.
  • Communicate clearly and calmly. This is not the time to be vague or wishy-washy. The kindest and most successful way to communicate your needs is to be direct, calm, and polite.
  • Keep it simple. There’s no need for a lengthy explanation. Tara Murphy, LPC, LADC suggests that “if someone speaks to you in a manner that is rude, intimidating, degrading… [simply say,] ‘It is not OK for you to talk to me like that.’”
  • Bring up issues sooner rather than later. Don’t wait until you’re burnt out or teaming with resentments before you speak up. Communicating early and clearly increases the likelihood that your concerns will be heard.
  • You can say “No.” Psychotherapist Norine Vanderhooven, LCSW reminds you to “know that it is okay to say no to something you’re asked to do if you’re uncomfortable or maybe feel that the request may cause you further stress.”
  • Allow for exceptions (as long as they truly are exceptions). It can be challenging to find the right mix of firm yet flexible boundaries. You want to be able to stand up for yourself, but also be willing to compromise when appropriate. You may have to make some sacrifices, especially when you’re new at a job or profession. But always know what’s truly non-negotiable for you. For example, you might be willing to work a few weekends, but not willing to accept your boss yelling and cursing at you.
  • Don’t expect perfection. Whenever you begin to set boundaries it’s normal to get some resistance from others. Don’t be discouraged; change takes time for everyone. Most of the people who you work with will adjust to your boundaries. There are always some employers or colleagues, however, who are determined to take advantage of others or, in my opinion, have little regard or respect for others. If you have the misfortune of working in such a situation, your best course of action may be to begin to consider other employment opportunities.
  • Offer solutions, don’t just complain. No one likes a complainer because venting without working towards solutions only magnifies the problems.
  • Ask your coworkers. If you’re feeling stuck, ask a supportive colleague how s/he navigates work-life balance or put your heads together and see how you can help each other or identify new solutions.

Would setting stronger, clearer boundaries at work be helpful? If so, start slowly and begin to use these tips to identify what needs to change. Additional strategies can be found in the workbook Setting Boundaries without Guilt.


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© 2016 Sharon Martin, LCSW.  All rights reserved.
Photo by David Castillo Dominici at

How to Set Boundaries at Work

Sharon Martin, LCSW

Sharon Martin is an emotional wellness speaker, writer, and licensed psychotherapist. Her San Jose based practice specializes in helping over-stressed, high achieving adults and teens learn to embrace their imperfections and grow happiness. Her personal journey of overcoming perfectionism and people-pleasing traits, inspired her passion for this work. Sharon is the author of Setting Boundaries Without Guilt: A Workbook to Move You From Doormat to Empowerment. Sharon also enjoys teaching blogging and writing classes for therapists. You can find her on Twitter, instagram, and her website.

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APA Reference
Martin, S. (2018). How to Set Boundaries at Work. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 21, 2018, from


Last updated: 7 Jan 2018
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 7 Jan 2018
Published on All rights reserved.