How to Set Professional Boundaries

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By DeVry University

April 28, 2022
5 min read

Establishing professional boundaries is an important part of maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

It can be easy to fall into a habit of working more than you need to, especially when you’re working from home. You might feel pressured to show how productive you are away from an office, or maybe you want to make a good impression after taking a new position. You may also feel like you’re expected to work longer than the typical 8-hour workday, especially if your coworkers never seem to log off.

Why Are Boundaries Important in The Workplace?

According to CEO, mental health advocate and author Jayne Hardy, establishing professional boundaries begins with recognizing your worth. “We’re all brimming with value,” she says, “even when we can’t see it. The amalgamation of our experiences, skill sets, expertise, energy, insights and perspectives has a unique value that only we can offer.”

Putting professional boundaries in place can do a lot for your overall well-being, including:

  • Reinforcing your sense of self-worth: Establishing boundaries that help you maintain a healthy work-life balance can remind you that what you accomplish does not decide your worth. While many people associate what they do with their identity, it’s healthier to understand that what you do is only one part of who you are.

  • Helping stave off feelings of burnout: According to the World Health Organization, burnout is an occupational phenomenon, and is defined as chronic workplace stress that shows up as depleted energy, reduced professional efficacy and negative or cynical thoughts about your job. Having professional boundaries in place can help protect you from developing these feelings or can help you manage them before they become overwhelming.

  • Cultivating an awareness of your abilities: Developing an awareness and an appreciation for your skills is another way of reinforcing a positive sense of self and may assist you in setting boundaries at work. If you can recognize and have respect for your professional abilities, then it might be easier to insist others do so as well.

How to Set Boundaries at Work

The professional boundaries you establish may be influenced by your work style, how you prefer to interact with your coworkers or whether you’re willing to take on additional work outside of your job description. They can also be put in place to help safeguard personal time, hobbies or family time.

Here are some examples of what establishing boundaries at work might look like:

  • Identifying your non-negotiables: Signing off at the same time each day, keeping certain communication channels open for colleagues while keeping others off limits or not scheduling meetings during certain blocks of time are all ways to set boundaries at work. Making a list of things you’re not willing to compromise on can help keep you focused, and your workday streamlined.

    While some things should remain protected, it’s important to remain flexible. You may want to create a second list of tradeoffs, or things you’re willing to compromise on in unforeseen circumstances. For example, if you’re asked to work late one day, then you might sign on a bit later the next day or sign off early on a Friday to make up for it.

  • Ranking your priorities: Your time and energy are important. Taking on additional work like stretch assignments can give you a chance to grow professionally, but can also contribute to feelings of stress if you’re trying to balance more than you can handle. Like your non-negotiables, taking time to evaluate what parts of your job—and your life—take priority can help you set professional boundaries that extend beyond your workday. If you have hobbies, personal routines or family commitments that you don’t want to miss out on, structuring schedule around what’s important to you will help you learn to balance both.

  • Maintaining personal privacy: You will most likely develop a personal relationship with the people you work with. Still, privacy is an important professional boundary. Having a strategy for how to kindly remove yourself from conversations that make you uncomfortable or setting boundaries on what aspects of your personal life you’re not willing to talk about with coworkers are some ways of maintaining personal privacy while at work.

  • Communicating clearly: When you’re up front about what works for you and what doesn’t, everyone knows what to expect. If possible, set up working hours on your calendar and block out chunks of time when you want to focus or take breaks. Clearly communicate your preferences and outline procedures they should follow or people they should contact when you’re unavailable.

  • Taking breaks: Taking time to rest is just as important as completing your work. According to a study from the University of Illinois, prolonged focus on a task results in a drop in the brain’s attentional resources. “The brain gradually stops registering a sight, sound or feeling if that stimulus remains constant over time,” which means that taking breaks allows your brain to rest and refocus itself, helping you stay on task.

    Taking breaks also allows your brain to process the information using diffuse thought. As opposed to focused thought, diffuse thought lets your mind step back and work through a problem creatively behind the scenes. Ever had a great idea in the shower? This is diffuse thought at work.

Addressing Overstepped Boundaries

Sometimes, despite our best efforts, boundaries still get crossed. When that happens, it’s okay to push back politely and firmly to restate your boundaries.

If you know that you won’t have time to take on an additional project because you’re working toward a deadline, consider asking for an extended timeline or seeing if a colleague can help. If you get an email after working hours, save it for the next day.

Sticking to the boundaries you set for yourself serves as a reminder that your time and energy are worth protecting. It will also help you manage that energy so you can use it to stay on top of your responsibilities and maintain a balance between work and your personal life.

Expand your Skillset at DeVry

Whether you’re going back to school or just beginning your education journey, we have a variety of undergraduate and graduate-level online programs to explore. In addition to learning the technical skills needed for your industry, you’ll also gain valuable soft skills in areas such as communication, leadership and teamwork.

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