We spend about a third of our lives—90,000 hours—working. With this fact in mind, it’s so important that we identify and define what we want from our workplace and employers. Creating and communicating our boundaries in the workplace can prevent burnout and promote mental health, bettering our overall work experiences.
Having a clear set of boundaries enables us to make decisions that are better for our career paths and professional growth and development, as well as our personal lives. They’re a way to hold ourselves accountable to championing our unique needs.
But boundary setting and upholding boundaries in the workplace can be especially difficult for working women. “Women are taught and expected to please, and that makes it very hard to deal with boundaries,” says psychotherapist Sarri Gilman. “You feel like you’re supposed to make everybody happy, but you feel like you don’t have permission to ask for what you need.”
Let’s combat that narrative, starting today. Learn why setting boundaries is so important, the different types of boundaries that exist, and how you can create stronger boundaries and communicate them in an effective manner.
Why are boundaries important?
Having healthy boundaries is an important part of self-care and maintaining positive interpersonal relationships. We all have non-negotiables, but not everyone has the same non-negotiables. Explicitly laying out what you do and don’t prefer, need, and want in the workplace ensures no one is left guessing how to best interact with you.
Communicating your boundaries helps you advocate for your mental and physical health and create clear guidelines on how you would like to be treated. It lets others know what’s acceptable behavior in order for you to feel safe and respected.
Dr. Janys Murphy Rising, a licensed mental health counselor, says, “Boundary-setting in the workplace is especially important for women, since so many end up doing unpaid emotional labor. Without boundaries, women can feel overwhelmed, extreme fatigue, and if it is not addressed early enough, resentment towards others.”
A lack of boundaries at work might lead to more conflict in your work relationships, as well as exacerbate mental health consequences. Often, women opt to “keep the peace” at work, making small personal sacrifices in order to maintain job security, appease employers, avoid being stereotyped, and balance their workloads and households. Many women feel like it’s easier to conform to the dominant group’s expectations at work, forgoing their own boundaries and pushing themselves closer to burnout in the process.
That, and standing up for what you need isn’t always easy. “Communicating boundaries feels very foreign to people who aren't used to doing it,” says family therapist Jenn Kennedy. “Especially for women who are conditioned to be accommodating, it feels like you are disappointing other people or being mean or unreasonable, but really you're taking care of yourself and helping that relationship to have integrity.”
Boundary communication may feel uncomfortable your first few times, but it’ll definitely be worth it in the long run, throughout all types of relationships.
3 types of boundaries
1. Mental and emotional boundaries
Mental and emotional boundaries protect your thoughts, ideas, and mental capacity and health. Healthy mental and emotional boundaries might include things like deciding when to take time to yourself, deciding how to listen and support others, delegating workloads so you're not overwhelmed, and giving yourself permission to say no to job opportunities that don’t fall in line with your wants and needs.
Here are some questions to keep in mind when creating mental and emotional boundaries:
Who will I turn to when I need to discuss something personal at work?
How will I make space to process my own emotions at work?
How will I show others my respect for their ideas and perspectives?
What will signify to me that it’s time to walk away from a discussion? Am I comfortable engaging in friendly debates?
How do I prefer to communicate that my ideas aren’t being respected?
2. Time and communication boundaries
Time and communication boundaries are the boundaries you set for yourself regarding how you spend and prioritize your time and how you communicate with others. These types of boundaries might include saying no to working on the weekends, not checking your work email during family time, and using your paid time off or mental health days because you earned and deserve it.
Questions you can ask yourself to explore these time boundaries can be:
How much time do I want to reserve for myself every day/week/month?
Do I want to have working hour limits? Am I okay with communicating “after hours” or on the weekends?
What activities or tasks should take priority in my free time?
How can I decide which extra projects to devote time to?
3. Physical boundaries
These boundaries are about protecting your physical space and body, right to not be touched, right to privacy, and other physical needs regarding things like resting and eating. Physical boundaries can look like closing your office door when you need quiet time, putting headphones in when you need to focus, eating lunch in your office instead of the breakroom, and offering handshakes instead of hugs.
Here are questions to keep in mind when creating physical boundaries?
How comfortable am I being touched by others?
With close coworkers, do I prefer handshakes or hugs?
In what ways can I signify to others that I prefer to have more privacy when working in the office? How can I signify that I’m open to working close to others?
During my lunch break, do I prefer eating with others or alone?
5 tips for creating stronger boundaries
The more precisely you can express your boundaries, the more likely your boundaries will be respected. Even if you have to politely repeat yourself and remind others of your expectations a few times, don’t feel the need to apologize.
The best way to ensure follow-through is by telling colleagues your boundaries and maintaining them. “Ask someone you trust to hold you accountable,” says Rising. “For example, if you slip up and answer an email in off hours, be transparent about how this isn't your normal work time, but you understand the importance so you are honoring the request this once. It signals to others that this isn't going to be your usual pattern.”
Here are five ways you can create stronger boundaries at work.
1. Practice saying “no”
“Women are often cultured to say ‘yes,’ be nice, and not take up too much space in early childhood. This makes setting boundaries counter intuitive. The first step is learning to say no especially to anything that is above and beyond the job description,” Rising says. “I suggest practicing with close friends or with a therapist. Set a timer and say ‘no’ in a clear, calm voice for a minute every day to build your confidence.”
Read more: Learn How to Say ‘No’ Professionally
2. Log off and turn off
Rising says that technology boundaries are the easiest to set and hardest to maintain. “Try your best to log out of any device that is work related so that you aren't answering calls or emails during your off hours,” she says. “Be clear about your time at work and time away by setting up your calendar to let people know when they can expect to work.”
3. Delegate workloads
Don’t be afraid to delegate tasks if you have too much on your plate. This can reinforce your boundaries by protecting your time and productivity, while also helping you focus on and prioritize your most important tasks.
4. Elevate other women’s voices
While you work on creating stronger boundaries yourself, make sure you also stand up for other women in the office and enforce their boundaries. Point out helpful suggestions made by other women, credit them for great ideas, and create an opening for them to speak when they’ve been interrupted or silenced. If you witness one of their boundaries being crossed, show some allyship and say something like, “Anna, I recall you saying you prefer to log off at 4 p.m. to go pick up your kids. Drive safe, and team, let’s pick this discussion back up tomorrow so we can all feel recharged.”
5. Be consistent
The final key to creating strong boundaries is sticking to them and being consistent. For example, Rising says if you know you need two days away from work to recharge, don't get sucked into taking a quick call, meeting, or email unless it's part of your job description. If you don’t take your own boundaries seriously, others can’t be expected to fall in line.