Why work boundaries matter: how to say “no” at work

Having no boundaries is an invitation to be overwhelmed. In 2019, the WHO announced that burnout would be included as an occupational syndrome that can result in exhaustion, cynicism and reduced professional efficacy. It’s an incredibly prevalent problem, especially as we’re navigating a pandemic-altered world. So how do we properly set up boundaries in our work life? Here are some thoughts.

September 30, 2021 4 mins read

What are the signs that someone might need to set better boundaries at work?

The most obvious sign that someone might need to set better boundaries in the workplace is that they’re working too hard and they’re stressed. There are a lot of bad habits these people have: they’re sending emails at odd hours, they’re not taking breaks, they’re constantly working and giving instant replies on everything. There are times that working extra hours is necessary for certain deadlines. But if overtime is constant and work pressure never relents then you might have a problem.  

Another sign is that they’re not good at collaborating or delegating. They may think that they can do everything and take it on. Yet this behavior leads them to feeling tired, exhausted and with low energy levels. Odds are they’re also feeling angry, resentful and even guilty. They may also be experiencing “reduced professional efficacy”, meaning the quality of their work has dropped or they’re not performing as well. They may be anxious, depressed or suffering from insomnia.  

Sometimes the early signs may come from colleagues who can sense something isn’t right. They may notice a change in their colleague’s behaviour or feel genuine concern about their wellbeing. On a related note, their personal relationships outside of work might be in a mess. They may be having trouble with family and friends for neglecting those relationships. This puts them at a flight risk because they may decide one day that they’ve simply had enough. 


What can be the psychological impact if someone doesn’t have enough boundaries at work, says ‘yes’ to everything, working outside official work hours, and doesn’t factor their own wellbeing in when it comes to work?

The root of the problem with boundaries is saying “yes” to everything. Saying yes makes us feel useful. And if we’re ambitious, it helps feed that drive. We can also be in periods of our careers where we’re trying to make a good impression and get ahead, so working long hours is a necessity. But saying yes can also be isolating. It makes us feel like we have to do everything themselves. This then causes feelings of resentment and anger as we feel like we’re the only one working. 

There are a lot of things that can happen psychologically if we don’t set good boundaries over our work hours. Because burnout is possible for everyone — especially people that are exceptionally passionate about what they do — if we don’t set boundaries, we can end up hating not just our jobs, but everything associated with that field. There can be a sense of emotional exhaustion that sets in, a depersonalization and detachment from friends and family. The things that used to bring us pleasure may not give us any joy. We may also develop insomnia, anxiety and depression. 

In short, it’s bad. 

Setting boundaries is an act of self-care. It’s also about understanding our own value. Saying yes to everything — even if we’re not the best for the job, or its below our paygrade — shows that we’re not valuing ourselves. 

Saying “no” may be difficult but it’s also an act of self-care.  If you can’t say no, then try saying yes with conditions. For example, be clear about your timeline and where the quality of your work needs to be. There’s no need to put in 12 hours on a 1-hour assignment. 


Where’s the best place to start in setting better boundaries, and won’t colleagues think you’re slacking?

The first step to setting boundaries is to be honest with yourself and recognize that there are limits to what you can do. We’re rarely in this on our own, so it’s important to ask for help when we need it. If you’re a leader, that means delegating your workload and trusting that your people will get the job done. 

We can also identify where our balance has gone awry and spend some time fixing that. We can do an audit of our work boundaries and ask where we can shape things differently. For instance, are there acceptable ‘offline’ times and do we follow them? What are the team norms around taking time off?  Are there policies about flexible working that can be applied? Can we take breaks during the day for a walk? Can we spend some time in nature, and switch off? 

After we’ve figured out what we can do better, then we must protect our time. If offline time means no emails after 6, then that’s what it means. Don’t cheat. If it means no emails while you’re on holiday, then make sure that happens!

Our relationship with work must be based on reciprocity. We’re there to do a job and get paid in return. But we also need to feel appreciated and valued as well. Setting boundaries is a way of establishing rules in that relationship. This may mean having an honest conversation with a manager or boss where you negotiate your priorities. 

There is a bit of fear that our colleagues will think that we’re slacking off. And you know what? That’s ok. Prepare for a bit of pushback. If it happens, then that’s a sign that the boundaries are necessary. Be prepared for those situations and imagine how you’ll approach them — that way you will be ready to handle the demand for more work in a rational rather than emotional manner. 

When self-care becomes a priority, our coworkers will take note of our examples and start following our lead, and the world of work will become a better place for everyone.