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Negotiating healthy boundaries at work

Healthy boundaries are limits you set for yourself to protect your physical and mental health. You can use assertiveness techniques to communicate your boundaries to others, while respecting their needs.1


If you are returning to work on a graduated basis, you may find that the work demands are still present despite working shorter hours. You might be asked to stay longer than was set out in the graduated return to work plan prescribed by your doctor or find that your workload has not been reallocated even though you are still working part time. Despite all good intentions to follow a graduated plan, you may find that your “boundaries” are being tested.

Boundaries: What are they?

People set personal boundaries with others to protect themselves. Creating boundaries helps us set our personal limits. Communicating our limits to others helps them learn how to be more aware of how we want to be treated in both our personal and workplace relationships.

You self-assess the culture of your workplace and ensure not to be so rigid that your boundaries hurt your relationships. Ensure boundaries:

are appropriate to the situation:
You read the work situation, culture and expectations to see if your boundaries fit the circumstance and context.
are appropriate to your ability:
You recognize the limits of your work abilities so as not to put yourself in situations that are beyond what you can reasonably do.
promote self-respect and personal dignity:
When you know and state your boundaries, you will feel better about yourself. Others are more likely to respect your boundaries when you are clear about your needs.

Example of setting a healthy boundary

You have a number of tasks to do but only work until 3:00. Which tasks are priorities for you and the workplace?

Examples of communicating a healthy boundary

“This report will take me another two hours to complete and it’s already 2:30. I can only work until 3:00 today, as you know. Can this report wait until tomorrow to be finished or should I ask another team member to complete it?”

There are several tasks to complete, I want to be most helpful, which one would you need first given I need to leave at 3:00 today?”

Example role play

Please see this role play video on how to deal with colleagues when returning to work.

Creating healthy boundaries

Healthy boundaries:

  • encourage safety – Such as not allowing yourself to work in unsafe situations by making sure you clarify your boundaries and limitations.
  • are communicated clearly – If you are vague or inconsistent about communicating your limits at work, those limits may be ignored or tested. Unclear communication may lead to confusion.
  • are consistent – Generally, you do not change your mind so people know what to expect of you. It may be helpful to write them down.

Setting boundaries for yourself

  • Assess your needs in reference to the job.
  • Take time to explore your comfort level; think about your limits.
  • Evaluate your work culture; assess work expectations and culture.
  • Review your current job responsibilities.
  • Consider and set realistic expectations for yourself and your employer.
  • Prioritize. Think about what is most important and what is not. Take stock of your values, sensitivities and tolerances. What might have been acceptable to you previously might not be acceptable to you now.