How To Set Boundaries At Work (With Ready-to-Use Scripts)

Let’s cut to the chase: setting boundaries can be scary! And setting boundaries at work can be even scarier. You’re worried about ruining your career, questioning what your boss will think and wondering if all this stress is even worth it.

I promise you: it is. Boundaries are how you protect your personal space. So you can take time off, truly relax and then enjoy your return to work.

Here’s how to set boundaries at work (with scripts to save you from ever wondering “What do I say?”).

These are the signs you need boundaries at work

I’m 99.9% sure that every person reading this post will need to set boundaries at work. But if you’re still on the fence, some of these might sound familiar…

You’re becoming the therapist for your team. They’re coming to you with all their questions, queries and concerns, at all hours of the day. And even more than that, they’re expecting you to fix them all, instantly.

You leave work for the day and your colleagues insist on having a meeting with you. Even though you’ve finished your office hours.

Your boss is placing unreasonable demands on you, expecting you to work weekends even though that’s not part of your contract.

You’re constantly taking on tasks that are outside the scope of your role. And worse than that, you’re being pressured to complete them all “urgently”.

Your colleagues expect instant replies to every message they send. Even though you’re trying to get on with doing all those “urgent” tasks.

You’re operating way above your pay grade, with no sign of appropriate remuneration or a pay rise anytime soon.

You’re always pulled into meetings that you don’t need to attend, with no clear agenda and no productive conclusion. You’re tired of wasting your time.

I could go on and on… it all leaves you feeling exhausted, burned out, overwhelmed, unmotivated, and wanting to quit!

What are boundaries?

Your boundaries are simply things that you say “no” to. They’re invisible barriers that protect your personal space and mental wellbeing.

Boundaries look different for everyone, as they depend on you and your unique needs. However, they typically form into one of three categories.

3 types of boundaries to set at work

Mental boundaries

Mental boundaries protect your mental load. You need a certain amount of mental energy in order to do your job and do it well. Your mental boundaries can help ensure that you’re able to fulfil that.

Examples of mental boundaries at work include:

  • Saying no to constant interruptions
  • Protecting your holiday time
  • Not taking meetings or work calls on weekends

Physical boundaries

Physical boundaries are a lot more visible. These are about protecting your physical space and environment.

Examples of physical boundaries at work include:

  • Asking for a handshake instead of a hug
  • Declining invitations to after-work drinks
  • Taking days off work when you’re unwell and need to rest

Emotional boundaries

Emotional boundaries can reduce your stress as you take a step back from other people’s emotions in the office. They’re probably one of the trickiest types of boundaries to set (you’ll need to practice) but may well have the biggest impact.

Examples of emotional boundaries at work include:

  • Asking a colleague to pause when they’re venting at you about a problem
  • Directing any complaints to HR instead of taking them on yourself
  • Leaving the room when a colleague starts to get angry or aggressive

Why do you need to set boundaries at work?

Boundaries protect us and our energy. They provide certain limits on how we are treated.

Your boundaries can help to protect your mental health, well-being, energy and emotions. They’re an important part of self-care and maintaining healthy workplace relationships.

Before you can set boundaries at work, you need to move past the fear of “no”

If you’re shying away from setting boundaries because you’re scared about missing out on opportunities, you’re not alone.

Even though you want to protect your life-work balance, that fear of rejection wins out. We fear saying “no” because we worry that those who always say “yes” will overtake us on our path to success.

Setting boundaries at work could actually help your career

Your workplace boundaries create a clear line in the sand. They help your colleagues understand what tasks you’re available for, what you’re not responsible for, and where they stand when they send a request over.

Whilst setting boundaries for the first time can be scary, they often help your coworkers develop a deeper respect for you as you show that you’re able to stand up for yourself. This can often inspire them to follow suit!

You’re also able to complete your job to the best of your ability because you’re taking care of yourself.

Rather than working on all the tasks and all the hours, you’re taking a more sustainable approach. You’re less likely to become overwhelmed and more likely to have a more productive level of output. All this creates more space for better ideas.

Finally, think about this: if you’re always saying yes, you’re working on those extra tasks for free. Why would they promote you if you’re already doing it already?

Why are boundaries so hard for women to set at work?

Women are natural people pleasers. We’re trained that our people-pleasing behaviours will be rewarded. Which leaves us more likely to comply (and less likely to set boundaries).

Instead, we want everyone to be happy and get along. Because that’s our sign that “all is well”.

In reality, it’s actually far healthier to have a discussion, review any problems, set appropriate boundaries and then move forward with that support in place. Rather than glossing over the surface to pretend that everything is “fine”.

Setting boundaries at work is not always easy, especially if everyone around you is used to you doing what they want, when they want you to do it!

How to set boundaries at work step-by-step (with scripts)

Step 1: Get clear on your internal rules

Before you can set your boundaries you need to be clear on what your internal rules are. These will help you determine what your workplace boundaries are.

How do you feel? Where do you stand? What do you need?

If you’re struggling, take a look back at your why. When you check in with the “why” behind your work, it becomes easier to decipher what self-protection mechanisms you need in place to get you there.

You can also keep a workplace diary to note down any situations that make you feel uncomfortable or overwhelmed. That’s typically a sign of your boundaries being crossed.

Step 2: Be clear and firm when you deliver your boundaries

If your colleagues are going to stick to your boundaries, your message needs to be clear. If they don’t understand what you’re telling them, your boundaries will continue to be crossed.

For example: “I don’t work on weekends”

This makes it very clear where they stand. You’re not available for weekend work, so it’s obvious that they’ll need to come to another arrangement.

Step 3: Be assertive and ask for the support you need

Setting boundaries at work often includes asking for extra support or assets. When this is delivered clearly, your colleague is then able to understand what you need in order to fulfil their request.

For example: “Once you have an agenda for our call, let’s schedule the date and time” or “I can meet that deadline if Sandra is able to help me with the graphics”

Both examples make it quite clear that you’re very happy to meet their request, if they provide the support you’re asking for.

Step 4: Set consequences for your boundary being crossed

There may be times when you have to be a little flexible with your boundaries. When that happens, it’s important to make the other person aware of what will happen as a result.

For example: “I’m on holiday then so will be owed an additional day leave when I return if I join that meeting” or “If that task is urgent, it means task B won’t be completed until Friday”

Those boundaries show your coworker that you’re able to be flexible to meet their request but that you’ll also be making certain adjustments in order to do so. They can then decide whether those adjustments are worth having their request fulfilled.

Step 5: Provide alternatives that allow you to stick to your boundaries

Just because you’re setting a boundary at work doesn’t necessarily mean you need to cut off your colleague’s request entirely. Instead, you can offer a viable alternative that enables you to stick to your boundary whilst still helping them meet their goal.

For example: “I can’t have a call over the weekend but Monday morning works for me”

This ensures that your colleague knows when you’re able to help them, whilst still protecting your weekend time.

Step 6: Repeat repeat repeat

Rome wasn’t built in a day and your boundaries won’t be set overnight.

Your colleagues will need to hear your boundaries over and over again before they start to sink into their memory. You’ll find yourself repeating yourself and that’s okay! Stick to your message and help your colleagues learn your new way of working.

Step 7: Get an accountability partner

Like I said earlier, setting boundaries can be hard. But it’s a lot easier when you’ve got someone doing it with you.

If you’re struggling to hold your boundaries, ask a friend or colleague to prompt you when they see your boundaries being crossed. You could even set your boundaries together, helping to shift your company culture towards a more balanced way of working.

Or, work with an executive coach to help you develop your own boundary scripts for each workplace situation.

Step 8: Keep a bundle of workplace boundary scripts up your sleeve

Need some more boundary scripts? Add these to your “save” folder:

“I can’t do this right now. But I could do this on [insert an alternative date/time] or [insert another alternative date/time] instead.”

When you’re new to setting boundaries at work, it can feel easier to suggest an alternative that works for you. That way, you’re not giving an outright “no” but you’re still the one in control.

“I don’t work on weekends. But I will get to this during my work week which is [insert your chosen workdays].

This boundaries script reassures the colleague that the work will still get done, whilst making it clear that you’re not available to them seven days a week.

“I’d be happy to schedule a meeting once you’ve provided me with the proposed agenda that you’d like to discuss.”

This is a brilliant option to reduce the number of unnecessary meetings in your calendar. Use it with the people who request meetings but then show up unprepared, wasting everyone’s time!

Add some personalised boundary scripts to your vocabulary:

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About the author

Lisa is a mother, a business owner, a founder, and an executive leader. She's been through it all and has come out the other side to thrive. Now she's helping you to do the same! Learn how you can find clarity and support through her services for individuals and organisations.