How to set boundaries at work

Two smiling coworkers sit side by side in front of a large window while having a casual meeting in an office space.Image: Two smiling coworkers sit side by side in front of a large window while having a casual meeting in an office space.

In a Nutshell

Unhealthy work environments can create undue stress and even lead to physical, emotional and financial problems. Setting boundaries at work may help you establish a healthier work-life balance. If you’re unsure how to set boundaries at work, a few ideas include saying no, taking time off, establishing a working schedule and silencing notifications after hours.
Editorial Note: Intuit Credit Karma receives compensation from third-party advertisers, but that doesn’t affect our editors’ opinions. Our third-party advertisers don’t review, approve or endorse our editorial content. Information about financial products not offered on Credit Karma is collected independently. Our content is accurate to the best of our knowledge when posted.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, about two-thirds (65%) of workers in the U.S. report significant stress caused by work, and over half (54%) report this stress impacts their home life.

Learning how to create a healthy work-life balance is key. Whether you’re in-office, remote or hybrid, setting boundaries at work might be what you’re missing to keep your job in a healthy place.

Why is setting boundaries at work important?

Poor boundaries at work may create unnecessary stress or contribute to developing burnout. Although not an official medical condition, burnout is sometimes caused by work-related stress and can cause exhaustion, alienation from (work-related) activities and reduced performance.

Setting boundaries with your coworkers, manager and others may help mitigate some of these risk factors, avoid burnout and maintain your mental health. Avoid the negative consequences of burnout and use these tips to create healthy work boundaries.

1. Identify your priorities

While earning an income is necessary to provide yourself with basic necessities like food and shelter, it’s not the only priority in life. Consider listing your top priorities apart from work to see how you should allocate your time and energy.

You may prefer to spend time on your hobbies or with your loved ones, so keep these in mind when scheduling your workweek.

This also includes your priorities at work. Whether you’re trying to earn a promotion or just get through your workload by the end of the week, prioritize the tasks that will help you get there and be mindful of overextending yourself.

2. Learn to say no

Once you’ve established your priorities, remember to exercise your ability to say no at work. This might look like …

  • Politely declining meeting invitations scheduled for when you’ve planned to take a lunch break.
  • Rejecting a deadline that does not provide enough time to complete the task effectively (remember to propose a more reasonable deadline when responding).
  • Declining extra work that doesn’t align with your goals.

Saying no can be a powerful skill to help you enforce your boundaries and keep your goals a priority.

3. Take time off

Time off is a way to set boundaries at work that allows you to take a break from your responsibilities. Planning time off, however, may sometimes feel challenging.

Whether it’s hard to find time in your work schedule, remember breaks can be important in avoiding burnout. It may also help if you try planning out a vacation or mental health days well in advance. Once you can finally take a break, you can focus on resting and reenergizing.

4. Look for examples of professional boundaries

If you struggle with setting boundaries at work, reach out to a manager, supervisor, co-worker or mentor you trust and ask them how they maintain their boundaries.

This opens the conversation for you to communicate your boundaries with your colleagues and may even inspire you to create them. Everyone’s boundaries are different, so take inspiration from those whose boundaries align with yours.

5. Communicate clearly

Communication can be key when it comes to setting boundaries at work. Personal boundaries at work vary depending on the person, so it’s important to be upfront about yours if you want people to respect them. Try out these different ways to communicate your boundaries to others.

  • Let your team know you sign off at a certain time every day.
  • When you’re out of the office or signed off for the day, specify that you won’t answer emails or calls unless there’s an emergency.
  • Define what constitutes an appropriate emergency.
  • Put a note in your email signature saying you only answer emails during specific hours.

6. Establish boundaries with coworkers

Even if it’s a well-intentioned question or conversation point from a co-worker, something you may not want to share about your personal life could get brought up at work.

It’s up to you to decide how much personal information you want to share with coworkers. After deciding on your sharing comfort level, don’t be afraid to establish professional boundaries.

Let others know that you prefer to stick to conversations about professional topics, or if you’re open to sharing, be aware that others might not match your communication style.

7. Silence notifications

Another way to set boundaries with work is not to let it interfere with your personal time. This might look like ….

  • Silencing notifications at the end of the day so that work emails and messages aren’t interrupting you.
  • Keep notifications away from you by removing work applications like Slack or Teams from your personal devices.

Although they can be helpful during work, sometimes it’s not worth it to have notifications from coworkers pop up on your phone or laptop after hours.

8. Create built-in breaks

Creating a system that helps you stick to them might be useful when establishing work boundaries. Build your lunch break into your digital calendar every day of the week to reserve that time.

Once it’s blocked off, colleagues will be notified that you’re unavailable if they try to set up a meeting. This will also remind you to take your meal break at an appropriate time and not get carried away with work.

9. Organize your tasks

Even if you have a system created to take breaks on busy days, it might not be enough to combat a heavy workload. Learn how to prioritize your work tasks to stick to your schedule and boundaries.

Consider using the Eisenhower Matrix to prioritize tasks based on urgency and importance. Tasks that are urgent and important should be done now, while other tasks that don’t fall in this category can be delegated, saved for later or eliminated.

10. Don’t skip breaks

Breaks give you time to recover from work-related stress, and this recovery process helps boost your performance and energy. If you regularly forget their breaks, set reminders in your digital calendar to notify you when it’s time to put your work down and go for a walk or grab a snack.

Try to avoid surfing the web or scrolling through social media since these tend to be less-effective breaks.

11. Stick to your routine

Routines are important because they automate behavior. If you make it a habit to begin and end work and take your breaks simultaneously every day, you may find your work spilling over after hours less often.

Additionally, try building a transition activity into your routine before and after work. This activity could be a 15-minute journal session before work to wake up your mind and a 30-minute workout after work to relieve stress in your body. Having a transition routine to get you in and out of work mode can help create mental boundaries, even if you don’t have physical ones.

12. Try separating your workspace

While this may not be possible for every remote work setup, try creating some form of separation between your remote workspace and your personal space. If you have the space, put your work setup in a different room and close the door behind you at the end of the day.

For those with less space and a smaller budget, try closing off your space with a curtain or using a movable partition to block it from view.

13. Turn your camera off

Another way to set a remote work boundary is to turn your camera off during virtual calls or meetings. Many people have to work in spaces they sleep and eat in, so if that window into your life is something you’d prefer to keep private, leave your camera off.

Your coworkers aren’t entitled to look into your home and space, so consider opting for a virtual background that isn’t too distracting or keep your camera off altogether.

14. Utilize out-of-office messages

Feel free to utilize out-of-office autoresponder messages, whether you’re stepping away from work for a vacation day or it’s outside of your scheduled working hours.

When setting up the autoresponder, write a short message informing colleagues or clients that you are out of the office, along with your scheduled return date or time. This can provide a subtle yet polite message that you aren’t available and won’t be responding.

15. Delegate tasks when you need to

As much as you may want to be in total control of your workload, it might be better to delegate certain tasks if you don’t have enough time to complete everything yourself.

Ask coworkers who are available if they would be able to help out. Not only does delegating free you up to focus on your priority tasks, but it also fosters a collaborative work environment. 

How to handle overstepped boundaries

Even with all the right tips to help you create and communicate your boundaries, there may be times when someone oversteps them. Below are some potential boundary-breaking scenarios and ways to push back politely and professionally.

When you need to set realistic expectations

  • “Given the quick turnaround time for this project, I’m able to accomplish Objectives X and Y. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough time to complete Objective Z with the quality it deserves.”
  • “This project was slated for X hours for completion, but on average, it takes Y hours. Extending this project’s scope to ensure it’s finished to the best of my ability would be helpful.”

When asked to take on extra work

  • “Unfortunately, I don’t currently have the bandwidth to give this project the attention it needs.”
  • “I’m happy to help with this if Project X can be deprioritized to allow me to pivot my focus.”

Meeting scheduled during a break

  • “Hi [Name], I just saw your meeting invitation and wanted to see if there’s a chance we could push it back? I normally take a lunch break during that time, which helps me feel energized and focused for our meetings.”

What’s next: Set boundaries in your finances

Burnout at work can negatively affect your physical, mental and financial health. Learning to set boundaries at work may help you preserve a healthy work-life balance and well-being.