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A Guide To Establishing Healthy Boundaries at Work

Boundaries. We all have them, and they’re essential in every relationship. We set boundaries – whether they be physical, verbal or emotional – with friends, family, even strangers, so why is it so difficult to set boundaries within the workplace? Well, it’s often because at work we want to help our colleagues out, be a ‘team player’ and show our boss that we’re committed to showing up and doing well. But if we’re not disciplined in setting healthy boundaries, and find ourselves plagued by the ‘disease to please’ (as Oprah calls it) then we risk overloading ourselves, overpromising and then underdelivering and ultimately, just burning out. 

Getting into the habit of setting (and keeping!) healthy boundaries at work by applying the techniques will not only help you be more effective at work but will also work to safeguard your mental health and overall wellbeing.  

Why Setting Boundaries Is Important in the Workplace 

Setting boundaries isn’t an easy thing to do on the best of days. It’s natural to want to support your team, help out a peer or go that extra mile on a work project. But saying ‘yes’ to everything can seriously backfire and actually make us less effective in our role. It can put us at risk of: 

  • Overloading ourselves with work
  • Over-promising (and then under-delivering)
  • Eventually just burning out 

The bottom line is that we can’t do it all. Even though society celebrates those who work 24/7 (why else would some people brag about how they’re ‘workaholics’?), it can be detrimental to the quality of our work, our ability to deliver on time, and our overall mental health. In fact, according to the American Institute of Stress, the leading cause of stress in the workplace is workload (46%).

But, setting those boundaries is easier said than done. We all want to be that employee that our boss and coworkers can depend on and undoing years of saying ‘yes’ can be a challenge.

Luckily, there are ways to help you through it. The first step to set those healthy boundaries is identifying what your boundaries actually are. 

Identifying Your Boundaries 

In order to set boundaries, you first have to identify your own. Everyone’s boundaries will look a little different because we all have different capacity limits. Take a moment to think about the last time you were overwhelmed in the workplace. Was this feeling caused because you took on a few too many deliverables? Or maybe agreed to a task that you weren’t comfortable with? Being able to identify our stressors is key to identifying our boundaries. 

Boundaries in the workplace can look like: 

  • Not checking emails after 7pm or on weekends 
  • Declining overtime work
  • Saying ‘no’ to tasks when you’re schedule is full 
  • Refusing tasks that go against your moral values/make you uncomfortable 
  • Utilizing your vacation time and not feeling ‘guilty’ about it 
  • Not oversharing with management/coworkers 

How To Be More Assertive When Setting Boundaries

Assertiveness gets a bad wrap. Somewhere along the way, it has become associated with bossiness, pushiness, or (worse of all) aggression. But if we look at the actual definition, we quickly see that being assertive is a positive behaviour that plays a big role in nurturing and maintaining healthy relationships. 

What Does ‘Being Assertive’ Mean? 

Assertiveness is the ability to strike a balance between passive and aggressive communication styles. We can think of it as a scale, with assertiveness being in the middle. 

It’s rare that we are so extremely on one side or the other. More often than not, we are somewhere in between. Ideally, we should be striving to strike a balance between these two communication styles. When you are behaving assertively, you are able to:

  • Clearly and directly articulate your opinions, thoughts and emotions 
  • Actively listen and collaborate
  • Offer and talk through different approaches/other possible options
  • Consider the other person’s perspective
  • Lean into disagreements and discussions (while being confident that you will arrive at a mutually agreeable solution)

So, what does being assertive in the workplace mean? Some examples of assertiveness at work include: 

  • Confidently communicating your emotions, perspectives, and thoughts
  • Being clear about your expectations and what you need to be successful 
  • Saying “no” to work you are unable to take on 
  • Having a difficult conversation with others (instead of avoiding the conversation, altogether) 

5 Tips To Becoming More Assertive 

Now that we have a better understanding of what it means to be assertive, we can start diving into more tactical strategies. Here are some tips to get you started on your boundary-setting journey. 

1. Don’t just communicate more assertively. Get into the habit of thinking more assertively. 

Before we can communicate in a clear manner, we need to be thinking in a clear and assertive way. That means avoiding the temptation to indulge in unproductive thoughts and start adopting healthier ones like…

  • “My needs matter too.”
  • “I’m confident that through discussion, we can arrive at a good solution.”
  • “I trust that my colleagues will respect my thoughts and opinions.”

2. Use “I” statements, so it’s crystal clear that you are referring to your needs

It’s important to use “I” statements so the other person (or people) understand that you are referring to your specific needs. A few examples of “I” statements include: 

  • “I am not comfortable with the direction of…”
  • “I would like to see more resources being put towards…”
  • “I am concerned about…”
  • “I would appreciate it if you stopped speaking to me in that way.”

3. Describe how you’re feeling or have experienced a situation. 

Another tactic is to clearly articulate how you’re feeling and/or how you experienced a situation as a result of someone else’s behaviour. For example, you could say…

  • “I am not comfortable with the direction of…”
  • “I would like to see more resources being put towards…”
  • “I am concerned about…”
  • “I would appreciate it if you stopped speaking to me in that way.”

4. Give yourself time to consider/assess a request. 

The process of assessing a request is really important when it comes to setting boundaries and managing the expectations of others and we’ll discuss that more in-depth below. 

5. Use “If/Then” statements.

If/then statements are an excellent way to clearly communicate the consequences or impacts of a specific behaviour. It can be used when delivering feedback, engaging in a difficult conversation or asserting your needs. Here are some examples of how we can use if/then statements in the workplace.

  • If the team keeps changing the scope of this project, then I won’t be able to complete it on time.”
  • If we continue meeting on a regular basis, then I think we’ll have a better working relationship.”
  • If you keep asking me to do things at the last minute, then I won’t be able to consistently deliver high-quality work.” 

ReAssessing The Importance Of A Request at Work 

Remember when we mentioned assessing the importance of a request being an important part of practicing assertiveness? This is also overall a key part of setting healthy boundaries. 

Part of setting boundaries is giving ourselves the time and the space to thoughtfully consider requests as they arise. While some people struggle to say “yes” to new requests, most people struggle with saying “no”. It’s OK to ask for time to carefully consider a request. In fact, people will often trust you more because you have carefully thought things through. 

So, before launching into an answer the next time someone asks you to do something, be sure you: 

  1. Understand what you’re being asked to do.
  2. Assess the request and ask yourself, “How much of a priority is this compared to my other tasks?” 
  3. Respond. Once you’ve spent time thinking through these questions, you will be better positioned to make a fully-informed decision. Vocal style and language that keeps the conversation productive and neutral.

Focus On What You Can Control 

Like every skill, setting boundaries, assessing a request, and learning to say ‘no’ takes time and practice to master – but we know you can do it! Overall, an important thing to remember is to focus on what you can control. This means: 

  • Being aware of what you’re working on at the moment and what else is on your plate
  • Knowing what’s feasible given time/resource/budgetary constraints
  • Setting clear limits when it comes to what you can/cannot take on 

With time, being able to set boundaries might just transition from something you fear/are nervous about into something essential to your own self-care.


1.  Assertive Communication. Psychology Tools. (2021, July 27). Retrieved December 2, 2021, from

2. Speed, B. C., Goldstein, B. L., & Goldfried, M. R. (2018). Assertiveness Training: A forgotten Evidence‐based Treatment. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 25(1). 

3. Your Stone Age Brain. Psychology Tools. (2021, November 5). Retrieved 2020, from

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