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Career > Work

How To Respectfully Set Boundaries At Work

Maintaining a healthy work-life balance can be incredibly difficult regardless of what career stage you are in. Whether you’re a new hire or a top-level executive, knowing how to be assertive and set healthy boundaries between yourself and your work life is essential. Especially during COVID, working from home might blur the line between work and personal time. Maybe you don’t know how to say no to a project, or you don’t know how to respectfully bring up communication issues with your boss or coworkers. Sometimes entry-level professionals don’t believe they are allowed to set clear boundaries between themselves and their boss. Just because you might be straight out of college doesn’t mean you don’t have the right to create emotional barriers between your personal and professional life. 

By relying on healthy boundaries, you might be able to log off of your computer at the end of the day and not worry about your work responsibilities. As Gen Z shys away from the typical 9-to-5 job and moves toward being their own boss, setting boundaries is even more important than before. Creating your own business might force your everyday life to fall into constant work mode. Setting aside specific hours for work responsibilities as well as distinct time for personal growth will help you acknowledge different aspects of your individual life. To understand what healthy boundaries are and their importance, Her Campus spoke to experts who suggested examples of phrases and quotes that will help you create a successful differentiation between your personal and professional relationships. 

Why is it so difficult for women to set healthy boundaries at work?

Because of the often overwhelming pressure to make connections and be successful, you might feel a lack of self-confidence. Kathy Bennett, founder of the all female-owned business, Bennett Packaging Company, says all workers, but specifically women and college students, are easily pressured to make connections. “They are not taught to refuse and the concept of boundaries is foreign to them. This translates to work settings as well,” Bennett tells Her Campus. 

Asking to be treated a certain way is often seen as disrespectful or “needy.” However, establishing a caliber of respect in the workplace can be crucial to your success. Saying no to a project, asking for an extension or assistance from a higher authority, or acknowledging when respect isn’t being reciprocated from a coworker or boss are all examples of healthy boundaries. 

Women (especially BIPOC women) might feel like they need to earn the right to ask for boundaries to be respected. Kyle MacDonald, Director of Operations at Force by Mojio, a GPS fleet tracking company for small businesses, says that women feel they need to prove themselves worthy of respect. “Because they think they have to prove themselves, they will feel more pressured to overwork or go past the boundaries they are comfortable with,” MacDonald tells Her Campus. The fear of being labeled as high-maintenance or possibly altering your reputation can overtake a person’s need to set boundaries. 

Maggie Rose Malone, owner and therapist at Rosebud Psychotherapy, acknowledges that women and BIPOC women specifically know they have to work harder than male counterparts in order for the chance to get equitable respect and pay. “Add on top of gender equality in the workplace, the possible ageism of older colleagues looking down at college students entering the workforce, and you have a lot of pressure to push yourself harder and longer than what may be healthy,” Malone tells Her Campus. 

Establishing boundaries can help you hold yourself accountable.

Valuing your individual wellbeing more than a position at a company seems like an easy task. However, sometimes unlearning the negativity associated with setting boundaries can be the hardest part of being a working professional. Learning your worth as an individual as well as an employee is important and will help you set specific goals and boundaries at your workplace. 

Bennett warns that if you start to take on too much responsibility, you might feel overwhelmed with the innate need to prove yourself, thus resulting in a decrease in your performance. “Doing an excellent job on only the work you are responsible for, not taking on too much extra work, and taking care of yourself outside of work so that you are refreshed and ready to go every day will show your employer that you’re an asset to the company,” says Bennett. 

A job can often be seen as the act of chasing success. Your colleagues, bosses and executives measure your success. So no matter how hard you try to find success within yourself, it can be hard to view your professional growth as anything other than other people’s opinions. When you’re working to reach a bar that someone else sets, it’s extremely difficult to set boundaries without fear of judgment, says Christian Hiscock, co-founder and CEO of Kardia, an emotionally-centered business guide. “Fulfillment is the key and that centers on your values and getting clarity about the things that are important to you. When you have that, you’ll be able to easily say what’s working for you and what isn’t, then you can set a boundary from there,” Hiscock tells Her Campus. 

The first step is to acknowledge what boundaries are important to you.

It can be very easy to feel pressure from workers around you and fall into the trap of overworking and disregarding individual boundaries. Malone acknowledges that it’s up to you to set boundaries at your workplace from the beginning as they are not built into the work. “If you can, begin at a new job with certain boundaries in place. So from the get-go, make sure you take that hour for lunch (and really take it — don’t eat and work at your desk). You are teaching your colleagues how to treat you,” says Malone.

If you start integrating basic practices into your workday routine like taking a lunch break away from the office or your desk, taking mental health or sick days when you need them, or verbalizing that you need more time for certain projects, your colleagues will start to understand the standard you’re setting for your individual work day. Hiscock acknowledges that taking the beginning steps to setting professional boundaries can allow you to reflect on your personal values or non-negotiable standards. “Think about the places or circumstances at work where you might be willing to compromise and where it’s a hard ‘no’ for you. Why is it a hard ‘no’? When you are in alignment with your answer, you’ll feel like you’re on purpose and doing what you’re meant to do,” says Hiscock. 

you can use certain phrases to navigate these conversations.

Think about your goals, past experiences, and how they might affect your approach to professional development — this is how you will come up with specific boundaries fit to your personality. Verbalizing your boundaries will allow you to hold them to a higher priority. Jodi RR Smith, president and owner of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting, gives three examples of possible beginner boundaries:

  • “When is the deadline for this? I would be happy to handle it right after lunch.” 
  • “This new project sounds great! Currently, I am working on A, B, and C. Would you like me to put a hold on any of those to start this first? Let’s review deadlines so that I can best prioritize them.” 
  • “I am so looking forward to being on vacation next week. Jessica is my backup for project A and Ben is my backup for project B. Everything will have to wait until I am back on the 15th.” 
  • “Just to let you know, I do not respond to emails after 7 p.m. I’ll get to your email once I am back in the office.” 

Smith says we create boundaries through our attire, our behaviors and our communications. “Dressing, acting, and speaking professionally help to maintain these boundaries. There are things in your personal life that should be released so that it does not impact your time outside of the workplace. There needs to be a balance.” 

Setting boundaries at work can help you prioritize your mental health.

Recognizing and respecting mental health at the workplace has become more widely practiced across corporate America. Some companies are even creating “mental health sick days,” specific days set aside for employees to recognize individual mental health struggles. Setting mental health check-ins with yourself throughout your work day can help you prioritize emotional recognition. Bennett says plowing through your responsibilities at work and not setting aside specific break time, you might be more subject to burnout

Malone encourages employees to practice mindfulness by regularly checking in with your needs and your body cues. “Take advantage of PTO, vacations, and employee assistance programs. Take time off to go to the doctor. Prioritize your mental and physical health. If you don’t, your body will make you slow down, usually at an inconvenient time,” says Malone. If you need to take the day off to do yoga, meditate and cry, recognize that and make time for yourself. 

Boundaries will look different for people who don’t work 9-to-5s.

If you’re a worker ditching the 9-to-5 professional lifestyle and instead being your own boss, you might find it incredibly difficult to differentiate between your work and personal life. Specifically for aspiring social media influencers, your whole life might feel like work. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people have begun to associate their personal space with where they work, where they hold meetings, and where they take lunch breaks.

Julia Bobak, content creator for a coffee company, Homegrounds, encourages people working on a self-managed schedule to set boundaries for themselves as if you are working a 9-to-5. “Set office hours for yourself and the people who contact you. Keep one space specifically for work and completely leave it when your hours are done. Make time to support your mental health through breaks, lunches away from your space, and taking sick days when you need them,” Bobak tells Her Campus. Just because you work from home does not mean you can work through sick days. Taking a break from your online responsibilities is just as important as not coming into the office when you’re sick. 

Turning off your notifications is just as necessary as setting work hours. Because you are essentially your own CEO, boss, and executive all in one, Malone emphasizes the need to hold yourself accountable. Utilize the “do not disturb” feature on your phone when you’re not working and separate yourself from your work duties. 

“Boundaries allow our work to be sustainable in the long-run. Without them, it’s a short road to burnout,” says Malone. It’s so easy for professional development to feel all-consuming. Your career should only be a portion of your life. Without setting healthy boundaries, you’ll miss out on a lot of living.

Meguire Hennes is a Her Campus Editorial Intern and a senior at Montclair State University. She is majoring in Fashion Studies. Meguire is excited to share her knowledge of pop culture, music, today's fashion and beauty trends, self love/mental health, astrology, and musical theatre. When not writing or in class, Meguire can be found living her best Carrie Bradshaw life in NYC, singing 70s/80s classic rock a little too loud in the shower, or watching her favorite rom-coms over and over again. Coming from a small town in Wisconsin, she's excited to see what adventures await her in the big city!