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How to set boundaries at work


If you’re finding yourself reviewing documents from the toilet, sending emails with small children in your lap, or you’re frequently finding yourself saying, ‘Sorry I just need to respond to this Slack message!’ at the dinner table – you might need to check in with yourself and your boundaries at work.” So says Cate Sevilla, editor-in-chief of HuffPost UK and the author of a transformative career book; How To Work Without Losing your Mind.

One of the central tenets of Sevilla’s approach to the workplace is simple: your career should not come at the expense of your wellbeing. Sevilla headed up our mental health panel at the 2021 Bazaar At Work summit and spoke about one of the most important components of protecting your mental health at work: setting boundaries.

This is particularly important if you’re in a leadership position, she adds, “because you’re constantly displaying what success looks like in your company – and your industry”. Ultimately, it all comes down to communication. “A healthy leader who communicates well and enforces their boundaries is doing a greater service to their team than someone who is flapping around at all hours, making everything seem urgent and basically signalling to everyone else that they need to behave that way, too.”

Here, she shares her ultimate guide to setting – and maintaining – boundaries:

1/ Check in with your boundaries

“I think, firstly, you need to know if you are crossing yours. It’s so difficult with many of us still working from home or doing more hybrid-style working, but as well as ‘always being on’, if you have that constant feeling of guilt because you’re not feeling present when you’re meant to be off – or perhaps you’re trying to juggle more domestic matters when you’re meant to be available to work – the feeling of being spread too thin and never resting is a big red flag. Equally, listening to your body (headaches, stomach aches, etc) and your own anxiety levels are a pretty good indicator if you’re asking too much of yourself, as well.”

2/ Understand the benefits of boundaries

“Without boundaries, you will never get any rest. Equally, you’ll never get proper, productive work done. Working without boundaries means you’re on the fast track to burnout, stress, and exhaustion. We need boundaries because they help us divide what is our personal life, what is our work, and where our attention needs to be devoted. It teaches people how to communicate with us, and when to do so.”

cate sevilla

Cate Sevilla COURTESY


3/ Start with your schedule

“The best way is to approach it simply – look at quick, easy wins and ways to get your time back. Your diary and working schedule is an excellent place to start. For example, if you need time to do childcare pick-ups and drop-offs, then block out that time and set it to automatically decline meetings. Block out time for your lunch. Block out time to actually work and not be in back-to-back meetings. You are responsible for your time, your bodily functions, making sure you have water and time to eat – and when we’re working without boundaries, we lose sight of this! It’s easy to feel that if you’re not in a virtual meeting you’re not working, as nobody is there to witness your work. However, this is not the case.

“Sit down and take some time to figure out what would make you feel more calm and productive at work, and then start matching some actions against those. Is it cancelling meetings? Is it more time to brainstorm? Is it not having Slack notifications turned on your phone out-of-hours?”

4/ Be firm with others

“People who are used to contacting us at all hours – whether that’s a needy colleague, a demanding client or a micromanaging manager – are going to be surprised when they can’t reach you out of hours, or get a speedy response at 7am.

“This is especially so with managers. Some managers who have terrible boundaries themselves are actually quite respectful of other people’s. If you’re not this lucky and your manager expects you to work as they do, you might just need to have a tactful but transparent conversation with them if they start pushing back on or questioning the boundaries you set up. Saying something along the lines of, ‘For me to be the most efficient at work, I need to start managing my schedule differently, and the way I’m currently managing my time isn’t working very well for my mental health.’ You’re going to have to be firm with them, and follow through with what you say. If you say you’re no longer available from 5:45pm onwards because it’s nursery pick-up and dinner time with your family, don’t then answer their emails at 6:10pm. You’ll have to try your best to teach them how to treat you and respect their time.”

5/ Don’t be your own biggest hurdle

“Most of the time, I think we’re our own hurdle! I hear from a lot of people that they’re afraid that setting new boundaries and pushing back on things or saying no more often means they’ll be seen as difficult. But having boundaries in place doesn’t mean you’re just saying no all the time; you can still be flexible. You can still be accommodating, but your schedule and your time does not belong to other people – they don’t own it, you do. This can be as easy as, ‘I can’t actually do next Wednesday for that meeting as my office hours don’t start until 9:30, but I see we’re both free at 4:30 the next day?’ Just remember that, above all else, setting boundaries is about prioritising your own mental health and wellbeing at work – it’s not selfish and it’s not a trend. It’s essential to maintaining a healthy relationship with work.”


From Harper’s Bazaar UK

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