Setting healthy boundaries at work

Setting healthy boundaries helps support mental well-being. It includes prioritizing adequate self-care and establishing work-life balance that optimizes energy and focus in both personal and work settings. Learning how to do this well may take a lifetime, so why not start now?

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In our work around psychological health and safety, we recognized that sometimes even in the best workplaces, there are people at risk for stress, burnout and other health issues, largely because they don’t have good personal boundaries. This can mean being unable to say no, taking on more work than is reasonable, feeling uncomfortable voicing concerns, having a fear of failure or being unable to balance personal and work responsibilities effectively. 

Setting healthy boundaries is something we do for our own benefit, not actions that we impose on others. In your personal relationships, setting healthy boundaries may require support from a therapist. This is especially true if you’re in an emotionally, psychologically or physically abusive relationship. The information that follows is focused primarily on boundaries at work, and is not intended to deal with serious threats of harm from discrimination or harassment.

Taking intentional steps to create and maintain boundaries at work, whether that is at home, on a worksite or working remotely, is important for preventing burnout, avoiding compassion fatigue and enhancing your work-life balance.

If you’re looking for your leader or employer to agree to boundaries that support your work in spite of a mental or physical disability, that may fall under their duty to accommodate. Whatever your job role or employment contract involves would not be affected by the boundaries discussed. 

Try our short eLearning module which includes key concepts related to this topic. You can share this with others or use it as part of a more in-depth learning program.

These steps can help you to set healthy boundaries related to how you take care of yourself while at work.

Set a healthy boundary

We outline 7 steps to creating healthy boundaries using an example.

The example we are using here is a boundary of not working overtime. Of course, for some people working overtime provides added income, allows them to be targeted for advancement or promotion, provides involvement in special projects and does not have a negative impact on their well-being. In this case it would not make sense to choose not working overtime as a boundary. If you had family or caregiver responsibilities, a health condition that required routine medication or caused fatigue or had to work 2 jobs because neither paid enough, the boundary of no overtime could be critical to your well-being.

Step 1: Write out your boundary

Write out the risk to your well-being and the boundary that can help to protect against it. For some examples see Work boundaries.

Example: The risk is burnout from juggling personal and work obligations. The boundary that could help is declining the overtime to reduce stress at home. 

Step 2: Ensure your boundary doesn’t infringe on the rights of others

Ensure that in setting this boundary for yourself, you’re not infringing on others’ rights. For example, if your boundary is that you feel you should only work 4 hours a day but are paid for 8, this wouldn’t be fair to your employer. 

Example: Your employment contract is for 37.5 hours per week. Although most employees work overtime hours, it’s not a requirement. Your boss or co-workers may be disappointed, but you’re not infringing on anybody’s rights. On the other hand, if your contract stipulated that overtime would be required, this boundary would be infringing on the right of your employer.

Step 3: Draw your line

Specify where the line is in crossing that boundary. Some boundaries need to be flexible while others should have a hard stop. For help with this, see The difference between hard and soft boundaries.

Example: Your boundary may be not working overtime. You may make an exception a few times a year when demands are higher. But you draw the line at working more than 50 hours in any week. 

Step 4: Predetermine your action(s)

Identifying in advance the actions you’ll take when your boundary is crossed makes it much more likely you’ll continue to respect it. 

Example: Say you’re being pressured to work overtime. Your first action may be requesting a meeting with your manager to ask if there is a way for you to continue working regular hours while respecting your boundary of not working overtime. You might agree to help out by working overtime only one day a week. If it isn’t possible to come to an agreement that works for you, you need to be clear in your own mind about when you need to look for a different job or make other adjustments for your well-being, like hiring a caregiver for your children.

Step 5: Communicate your boundary

Communicate your boundary to those who’ll be affected by it. Remember that this is your boundary, and not a boundary that you are placing on others. It is up to you to respect your own boundary and it shouldn’t infringe on others rights.

Example: You may want to say to your boss, “My personal obligations as well as my own health and well-being mean that I will not be able to work overtime. I will however do my best to get my tasks done in regular working hours, or consult with you about prioritization when there are not enough hours available.”

Step 6: Respect your boundary

There will be times when you choose to ignore your own boundaries, but you should do your best to respect them. 

Example: You may feel that your co-workers are tired from all the overtime they are working, and that they would appreciate you taking some of the hours. You crossing your boundary and ending up stressed and unwell ultimately doesn’t help anyone. By respecting your boundary, you may be able to encourage a different solution such as hiring more staff, improving processes, setting more realistic deadlines and rethinking priorities. 

Step 7: Review your boundaries

Our boundaries can change for many different reasons. You should be flexible enough to re-evaluate if the boundary is something you’ve been able to maintain, whether it has been effective in its purpose of supporting your well-being and whether it is still necessary.

Example: You may find that things have changed and you no longer have caregiving responsibilities or health issues that would be adversely affected by working overtime, and you may welcome the additional income. The boundaries you set are there for your own benefit, so when they’re no longer benefiting you, they can be changed.

The difference between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ boundaries

A boundary is a limit that you choose and enforce through your actions and communication. It’s not something that can be imposed on others. 

Knowing the difference between a hard and soft boundary can help you to choose the actions and communication necessary to help you respect your boundaries. 

For example, a hard boundary might be refusing to work beyond regularly scheduled hours so that you have the mental energy to take care of your child with disabilities. This boundary protects your well-being and personal relationships, while also avoiding poor quality of work due to being overextended. It does not violate your employment agreement, as you are still working the agreed number of hours.

A soft boundary could involve only responding to emails at certain times in the day for non-emergency requests. This boundary protects your stress levels by avoiding constant shifting of focus. It is a boundary that you may cross from time to time, at your own discretion, perhaps because you want to help someone out who is anxiously waiting for your reply or you’re excited about a new opportunity. Crossing a soft boundary occasionally is unlikely to cause you harm.

The hard boundary helps to minimize harm, whereas the soft boundary is more of a kindness to yourself.   

Three types of work-related boundaries

  • Work boundaries – these define the limits of what’s required in your role, ensuring clarity about your duties and responsibilities
  • Working relationship boundaries – these define the limits of what you’ll accept in terms of respectful and safe interactions with others  
  • Self-care boundaries – these define the boundaries of what you require to stay mentally, emotionally and physically healthy  

Work boundaries

This is an ongoing process, not a one-time goal. Regularly revising and refining your boundaries as situations evolve ensures they stay helpful and meaningful (Bella, 2023).

Strategies to support work boundaries

  • Block out chunks of time in your calendar to focus solely on one task at a time. If possible, also include time protected for organizing, reviewing and planning. As you may know, the idea that we can multitask has been debunked. What we are really doing when we take on more than one task at a time is switching focus back and forth, which reduces efficiency. This can lead to stress and burnout
  • Minimize interruptions by communicating to others when you are available and when you are focused on specific tasks.  There are many ways you can communicate your availability to coworkers, to name a few:
    • share your calendar
    • share your availability in a work meeting
    • create an internal email notification to explain your availability
    • use task management tools
    • if using an online platform, adjust your availability status
    • put up a sign in your workspace inviting people in or telling them when to return
  • Practice saying no. Saying no to someone isn’t always an easy thing to do. If you can say it in a respectful way, without resentment or fear, it can be surprisingly well received most of the time. Often, people are asking because they think you have the capacity to meet their request. It’s up to you to say no rather than compromising your well-being or performance.  For example, you may be able to take on an additional task when you’re already at capacity, but doing so may impact the quality of your work or take the opportunity for growth from a co-worker. Read before you say yes or no, ask why, to see if you can help meet the needs of the person asking without crossing your boundaries. 
  • Be honest about your feelings and needs. If you are feeling overwhelmed at work, ask for more clarification on project expectations, or request resources that can help you get the task done effectively. You can use the Workload reflection and discussion tool | PDF to help with this.
  • Honour your boundaries. Even when we effectively communicate, there will be times where our boundaries are tested by others, even if it’s unintentional. Of course, our boundaries should not dictate what other people do, but it’s okay to remind them about why you need your boundary for your health or well-being. For example, if asked to work late because of some work that is “critical”, you might say, “Thank you for including me, but my family situation is also critical at the moment, and I need to be there. I’ll be in first thing tomorrow and will work very hard to help you with this.”
  • Time management at work is dependent on your job role and non-negotiable demands, but you may be able to:
    • Take all assigned breaks to avoid burnout rather than working through them
    • Use break time to refresh. Healthy break activities provides many ideas for this.
    • If you prefer having your breaks alone, communicate that to your coworkers so that they don’t interrupt your quiet time. 
    • Ask permission to attend only meetings that are relevant for your job
  • Avoid workplace gossip or malicious talk - choosing not to participate in conversations about coworkers when they are not around. 
  • Limit multitasking. Taking on several projects at once doesn’t serve you. In fact, it breaks up your attention, focus, and ability to produce better quality work. Communicate to coworkers when you are free to talk, letting them know that you want to be able to give them your undivided attention.  
  • Set better boundaries. You may have crossed your own boundaries when it comes to work-life balance, such as answering emails, messages, or project updates during personal hours. Whenever you regularly cross a boundary, consider revising it to make it easier for you to honour. For example, having notifications related to work blocked on your personal devices outside of office hours minimizes the temptation to respond. If you are worried about an emergency, give your phone number to whoever would need it and agree on what would constitute an emergency. 

Working from home

As hybrid and remote work have become more common, navigating the nuances of maintaining a healthy work-life balance becomes even more crucial.

Recognizing that your home should be your sanctuary, it's imperative to establish clear boundaries to safeguard your overall well-being.  The need for intentional separation between professional and personal spaces, even within the same room, can help. If you work remotely there may be some unique challenges to setting healthy boundaries. You can find more tips in Working from home.

Working relationship boundaries

Setting boundaries related to how you interact with others at work isn’t always an easy thing to do, since you cannot determine anyone else’s behaviour. But once you understand what supports you to bring your best self to any relationship, you’ll be better able to respect your own boundaries.

Examples and strategies for relationship boundaries include:

Physical boundaries

  • If you are experiencing serious violation of your physical boundaries at work, you should reach out for help from your leader, or from legal, medical or clinical professionals. 
  • However, physical boundaries can also be subtly crossed every day, and identifying your personal boundaries can help you reduce stress resulting from this.
    • Depending on your level of comfort, upbringing, or cultural background you may view personal space differently than your coworker. 
      • Understand how close is too close, to better respect your own personal space during interactions. One experiment is to stand arm’s length from someone and rate your level of comfort. If you feel okay, take a small step forward and rate your level again. If not, take a small step back. Keep going until you can calculate your comfort level, and then you can maintain that when interacting with others.
    • Some people prefer to have zero physical contact with others. 
      • A handshake, hug, or pat on the back might be uncomfortable for some people. Identify which contact works for you and which does not, by experimenting with someone you trust.
    • People have different views about privacy and personal items, and some don’t like other people to touch their belongings without asking. This has become more pronounced since the pandemic. 
      • Set up your space so people are less likely to be able to handle your belongings, by putting them beside or behind you rather than in front of you, or in containers that are out of reach. 
      • If you feel strongly about this, you could put up a sign that says, “Please do not touch my pens” etc. 

Emotional boundaries 

  • Personal conversations. Be clear about what conversations you are comfortable having and which you prefer to avoid. 
    • Rather than feeling pressured to share when others are talking about something you feel uncomfortable with, you can:
      •  just listen
      • say you have nothing to add to the conversation
      • talk about the topic from an objective rather than personal perspective
      • excuse yourself to do something else.
    • Think about some topics you do like to discuss, so you can steer conversations towards something that is more comfortable for you. The intent is to have interesting conversation starters on hand that you can use to pivot from conversations that make you uncomfortable.
  • Feedback. In a work setting, feedback is inevitable, so a boundary of not accepting feedback would not be reasonable. Learning to identify and manage your responses to feedback can help reduce your stress, and being able to communicate how you wish to receive feedback can also help. 
  • Negativity from others. While we may choose not to take on or react to other people’s negative emotions or energy as a boundary, we can’t require other people to eliminate their own negativity. 
    • It’s okay to protect your emotional well-being by limiting time engaging with others while they are being negative, to not allow their mood to affect yours. 
    • When you cannot avoid those who are negative, you can learn to more effectively Respond to those who are emotionally distressed.

Self-care boundaries 

Setting personal boundaries involves establishing limits or guidelines to protect yourself from physical, emotional, or psychological harm. Your self-care boundaries may need to be much more rigid if you have a health condition that means you need time for medication, good nutrition or rest. 

A self-care boundary is committing to doing what you need to do in the following areas:

  • Rest. Some people require rest throughout the day to stay focused and energized. Others need to have set sleep and wake times to be able to function well. Know what works for you and take care to arrange adequate rest. Of course, this does not mean taking a nap when you are supposed to be working, but it can mean taking one at lunch if it helps you get through the day.
  • Nutrition. Some people need to eat at regular intervals to sustain their energy, or manage intake of medication. Others need to have access to healthy foods and require time to prep their meals in order for this to happen. Know what works for you and make sure you get what you supports your well-being.
  • Hydration. Getting enough water in a day has many benefits. Know what amount you need and make sure you get it. You might want to buy a really large water bottle that contains at least half of your daily intake and keep it near you all day to make it easy to reach your goal. 
  • Movement. Everyone needs some movement to stay healthy, but how much can vary between people. For some, it is going to the gym 3 or more times a week, while for others, it is getting up and stretching every 90 minutes or so. Know what works for you.
  • Hygiene. There are minimum safe standards for brushing your teeth, washing your hair and bathing, but there is also your comfort level with washing your hands. One of the warning signs that you may not be well is when you have set boundaries for your hygiene and are unable to honour them. 
  • Mental breaks. When you notice you are losing focus on a task, or your eyes are fatigued from looking at a screen, take a moment to go have a snack, go for a short walk or use the washroom. Don’t push through if you have the option of breaking, even for 60 seconds.
  • Self-compassion. Give yourself permission to change your mind, admit you were wrong or made a mistake. Avoid negative self talk. Deal with what you feel is wrong and move forward. 

Many of these boundaries end up just being good habits, but if you struggle in any of these areas, you may need to set a boundary to ensure that other demands on your time and attention do not interfere with your self-care.

These work-related boundaries should be established to support your success and well-being. They are not intended to be unreasonable demands or anti-social behaviours. When you look at some of the most successful people in any organization, you will be able to recognize that they have boundaries in terms of their work, their relationships and their self-care. These boundaries allow them to bring their best selves to work every day, including those days that include challenges or stressors. 

10-minute e-learning

Use this PDF for the setting workload boundaries concepts.

An accessible version is also available.

For more eLearning topics, see Microlearning modules

Additional resources

  • Managing stress.  Learn how to manage your reactions to stress and protect your well-being.
  • The Workload reflection and discussion tool | PDF. is another free resource if one of your stressors is workload taking time to be objective and thoughtful about it can set you up to have a conversation with your leader. This Workload reflection and discussion tool can help you do that. 


  1. Bella, K. M. J. (2023). Creating boundaries to maintaining a healthy work-life balance. International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research in Arts, Science and Technology, 1(3), 24-30.
  2. Gillette, H. (2021, June 5). 7 tips for setting work boundaries in your 24/7 schedule. Psych Central.
  3. Sanok, J. (2022). A guide to setting better boundaries. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved January 15, 2024 from: 
  4. Shore, J. T. (2023). Setting Boundaries That Stick: How Neurobiology Can Help You Rewire Your Brain to Feel Safe, Connected, and Empowered. New Harbinger Publications.
Contributors include.articlesDr. Joti SamraLindsay CrawfordMary Ann BayntonWorkplace Strategies team 2022 to present

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