How Do I Set Boundaries at Work? Here Are Some Tips

Work in Progress is a column about finding your way in the working world. Have a question for Rainesford Stauffer? Send it to

"How do you stand up for your boundaries and not become a workaholic?" - O.S., 26, works in media

How Do I Set Boundaries at Work? Here Are Some Tips

When I read this question, my mind immediately flitted to one of my first jobs. Technically, I was working with kids, but I ended up spending a remarkable amount of time scrubbing a single-stall bathroom that saw too much action to ever feel fully clean. I was in high school and stayed late, unpaid, nearly every day, taking on tasks that had nothing to do with my job description — including, more than once, cleaning vomit off the floor [that] my boss had clearly seen and left behind. Back then, I thought of it as "going above and beyond.” It never occurred to me to say, “No.”

My experiences are nothing compared with some boundary violations too many workers endure. But I’m sharing this story because there’s a misconception that we all enter the working world knowing what a boundary is and how to enforce it. I operated from a baseline level of panic that any objection would lead to me being fired, and that I needed to “pay my dues.” I built those habits like a staircase, climbing steadily toward “workaholic” not because I aspired to have my life consumed by work, but because I let every job run me.

The fact that you’re asking about standing up for boundaries leads me to believe you’ve identified them, which feels like a huge step. But I’ve noticed so much well-intentioned advice about having boundaries between work and life comes in the form of “just say no,” and “make time for rest,” which feels unhelpful if you have no idea how to tell a boss no, or if resting stands in the way of you being able to pay rent. To really answer this question, we have to start interrogating why work makes it so impossible to set boundaries to begin with. (TLDR: capitalism.)

Much of the advice out there about achieving work-life balance — or setting boundaries between work and life — puts the onus on individual workers, Meghan Racklin, staff attorney with A Better Balance, tells me: “That won't necessarily help workers whose workplaces and working conditions make work-life balance difficult to achieve.”

Depending on the job, your lack of work-life balance — or boundaries between work and life — might look like the boss emailing you at 11 p.m., a lack of days off, or a workload that’s disproportionate to your pay. It can also mean unfair, inflexible schedules and practices that make it nearly impossible to control your time. For example, Racklin tells me, lots of low-wage workers are subject to mandatory overtime policies, unpredictable scheduling, and punitive attendance policies, which make it challenging to take time to care for themselves and their loved ones.