Why setting boundaries at work is essential for mental wellbeing

Sophia Wichtowska, Content Writer

You have an important report due at the end of the day and have blocked out the entire day to focus on it. Your morning routine was relaxing; the journey to work went without a hitch.  After reading through your emails and having a chat with your colleagues, you feel ready to make a start. Suddenly, out of nowhere, your boss asks you if you have time to help with another urgent task due by lunchtime, which has come in unexpectedly.  Do you say ‘no’? Or do you offer up your time, knowing you will be hard pushed to get your report done in an afternoon?


Setting boundaries, particularly saying ‘no’ to your boss, can be a difficult thing to do. We are empathetic creatures, and our survival as a species has depended on helping each other. We are biologically wired to work together in order to achieve more than we could individually. This means traits such as selflessness and compassion are valued highly in our society, and focusing on our own needs can feel unnatural or have a stigma attached to it.

In a work context, setting boundaries is essentially making sure you can negotiate for yourself and ensuring you have plenty of energy to get on with your daily tasks. Although this might sound obvious, when you are juggling the competing demands of customers, team members or clients, as well as your own needs, it can become difficult to find time for everything. It is important to give both yourself and those around you the appropriate amount of attention, and even more important to ensure you feel energised yourself first.

Although occasionally taking on more work than you can manage won’t do a lot of harm in the short-term, over time this will increase your stress levels and take its toll on your body.  Whereas a little stress is necessary for getting things done, excessive stress can lead to poor physical health, difficulty relating to colleagues and underperformance.  Striking a balance is crucial, and carefully setting boundaries is one way to work towards this.

In recent years, there has been a huge shift in work culture, with ‘work-life balance’ becoming the phrase of the moment. Although it initially appeared to be a trend bad managers could pay lip service to, millennials are now demanding opportunities for balance from their roles, and employers have had to step up.  Many companies now go beyond empty reminders that employees need to take care of themselves, and offer structures to facilitate self-care and mental health.  

There has never been a better time for taking care of yourself in the workplace, and setting boundaries more frequently is an effective way to begin.

Five ways to set boundaries effectively

If you have difficulty setting boundaries with your colleagues, particularly around your available time, these are our top tips to help you navigate each situation and communicate with others appropriately.

  1. Time management: Blocking out your time carefully can be hugely helpful for setting clear boundaries for yourself and with others.  You might prefer to organise your time weekly or daily, but whichever approach you choose, having a visual of the amount of time you have available can be helpful. If somebody asks you for help with a project, you can quickly say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ based on how much time you can allocate.
  2. Communication: Letting your team members know how you are feeling or whether you need support is crucial.  If you are stressed or feel like you have reached your limit, communicating this well and offering an alternative path forward can help to take the pressure off. If you need to reset, make your colleagues aware of this.  If you are a leader and have a tendency to take on work that others could be doing, don’t be afraid to delegate, especially if you are under the pump trying to complete a task that requires your level of skill and experience.
  3. Regularly checking in: Mindfulness is now a widely respected and hugely popular tool for managing stress at work. While there are many apps out there to guide you through practice, this approach isn’t for everybody. Mindfulness can simply be tuning in to where you are and how you are feeling in a given moment.  Our thoughts are constantly on the go, and regular practice, however you choose to do it, can be beneficial for keeping our active brains in check. If you feel like your thoughts are racing, take a break and go for a walk. Focus on your breathing while you do this for extra benefits.  Finding a moment of calm during the day can be rejuvenating.
  4. Focus on the task at hand: On the Go1 Blog, we recently discussed the best ways to maintain your focus at work. Your ability to concentrate can be an indication of whether you have taken on too much, or set yourself too much to do that day. If your mind is darting around to the other activities you need to complete, it might help to review your scheduled activities and make adjustments. Over-committing yourself can be a huge source of stress and it is important to be realistic about what you can achieve.
  5. Be wary of traditional ‘to-do lists’: Recording everything you need to do in a long, never-ending list may offer you temporary relief from racing thoughts, but it could leave you open to feeling unsatisfied and frustrated with your work when you are unable to check off every item you have recorded. You also run the risk of accepting more work without considering the amount of time you can spare.  

Remember, setting boundaries is a constant balancing act, not something anybody can perfect. It can also feel as though you are letting others down by saying ‘no’, but ultimately they will be more grateful if the quality of your work isn’t impacted by lack of time or stress. By making it a priority in your life to set limits, you can realise when you need to reset or look after yourself. If you can do this, you will be well on the way to feeling healthier and happier in your work and daily life.

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