Comfort in a workplace can help improve morale, productivity, and personal satisfaction. Learning to set healthy boundaries at work is an important way to create a safe, comfortable place for you to achieve success. Let’s look at why personal boundaries are important, how to set them, and some examples of boundaries you might set so you can improve on your boundary setting and create a workspace where you feel comfortable.
Why are boundaries at work important?
Boundaries are essential to a safe and productive workplace—even if you work from home. Having a team that understands their own boundaries, the boundaries of others, and how to respect them encourages teamwork and camaraderie. Boundaries can also help you maintain a healthy relationship with your work and your role within the organization. Alternatively, not establishing boundaries can result in spending time and energy to resolve uncomfortable situations at work—and, potentially, a drop in productivity.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed or have trouble completing tasks, interacting with your colleagues, or maintaining a positive work-life balance, setting boundaries can be the first step toward a potential resolution.
How can an employee set healthy boundaries with coworkers?
There are a few steps you can take to set healthy boundaries with your coworkers. Following this process can help you develop clear boundaries and communicate them to your colleagues. These steps are:
Consider reflecting on who you have challenges with at work, what boundaries are being crossed, and how it is impacting your productivity and happiness in the workplace. If it helps, you can keep a list of the specific behaviors that make you feel uncomfortable on the job. This way, you can determine what your boundaries might be and how boundaries getting crossed affect you.
Once you can identify the problem, you can establish your boundaries. It’s helpful to be specific as possible: “Behavior x makes me feel y, resulting in negative effect z.” This way, you understand exactly what makes you uncomfortable or otherwise interferes with your positive work experience—and how to avoid it.
Communicate your boundaries
In order for your boundaries to be effective, it’s important for others to know them. This may mean having a conversation with co-workers that are overstepping boundaries. It’s important to be clear about how your coworkers changing their work behaviors, respecting healthy boundaries, and being consistent in their efforts can benefit the entire workplace.
If someone violates your boundaries, let them know. Others can learn how you prefer to interact by the way you let them interact with you. It’s important to note that someone overstepping boundaries might not have malicious intent—keeping track of everyone’s boundaries can be difficult. With consistent reminders, you can help others create the habit of respecting your boundaries.
Boundary examples and how to enforce them
To create your own personal boundaries, it might be helpful to know what healthy boundaries look like. So, let’s look at a few examples. I’ll also include phrases you can use to alert others when they cross your boundaries. These are just suggestions—once you figure out your boundaries, you can determine which ways of enforcing them work best for you.
Some example boundaries include:
“Personal space” can have several definitions. It can include your body, the space directly around you, your personal items, or the space where you regularly do your work, such as your desk. Essentially, your personal space feels private to you.
When someone keeps looking over your shoulder/checking your work: This could happen for several reasons, so asking questions might help. “Do you need help with something?” can establish whether they’re looking at your work for reference on how to do their own. Simply stating, “I’m sorry, this is personal,” can let them know that you’ve observed them looking without accusing them of anything.
When someone gets too close to you: This can happen unintentionally, such as someone offering an unwanted hug or handshake. In these cases, it’s important to stay firm. Phrases such as, “I’m uncomfortable with hugging,” or, “I don’t like that,” can help. If they simply stand too close without realizing it, taking a step away might help them understand the situation.
How you manage the time you need to complete your tasks can be a big factor in your success. Creating or following deadlines can be important to your work. Others might not be aware of your deadlines or how important time management is for your comfort.
When someone asks to meet excessively: “I am working on some hard deadlines right now. I scheduled a 15-minute quick connect. Can you send me an agenda so I can prepare it for you?” If the agenda includes items you can resolve without a meeting, then communicate that. Make sure you remind them you have a hard stop at the end of your connect time.
When someone invites you to meetings not relevant to your role: “Thanks so much for the invite. I am unable to attend due to my other priorities. Keep me in the loop with any relevant developments.”
When someone asks you to provide support / assigns you work at short notice or with unreasonable timelines: “I would love to help, but I am currently at capacity. I can get this to you by (insert a reasonable timeline for your current workload).”
Sometimes, the most important boundary you can set is between yourself and the work. This can include always taking your lunch breaks, leaving work on time every day, or scheduling family time. Others might not have this boundary or not understand how their requests might impact yours.
When someone suggests an idea that would greatly increase your workload: “I am currently at full capacity. Would you like to spearhead this?”
Some coworkers like to tell jokes; some don’t understand how to filter what they say; others might just be having a bad day. No matter their reason, the words of others can cross a boundary for many. There might be an urge to let whatever was said go—it’s often over just as quickly as it started. But it can become a casual habit if your colleagues don’t understand what they say can hurt others’ feelings.
When a co-worker is rude for no apparent reason: “You don’t seem like yourself today. Is everything ok?”
When a co-worker says something offensive: “That was offensive because (insert reason here).” “I don’t think you understand how that makes me feel. May I help you understand?”
When being direct doesn't work
If someone repeatedly crosses your boundaries despite your reminders, you might consider speaking with your manager or HR representative about any concerns you have about the workplace. Everyone has their own boundaries, so it’s important that management is aware of anyone who might not respect the boundaries of others.