How to Set and Maintain Boundaries at Work

Two people discussing work boundaries

Pictured: Two people discussing work boundaries/Taylor Tieden for BioSpace

Setting and maintaining workplace boundaries can help any employee achieve a work-life balance that supports their physical and emotional health. They can be especially important for life sciences professionals, according to Stefanie Pluschkell, founder and CEO of InScope Coaching & Consulting. 

Pluschkell, who has over 25 years of biopharma experience, told BioSpace that life sciences employees are a vulnerable group because many companies have missions of changing and saving people’s lives, which can drive these professionals to potentially overextend themselves in the service of others.  

So, how can you set and maintain boundaries at work to avoid taking on too much, which could cause physical and emotional stress as well as burnout? Transparency and clarity are key, according to Pluschkell. So is saying “no” when needed. 

Transparency and Clarity When Setting Boundaries

When it comes to the workplace, boundaries are rules you set for yourself on issues such as:  

  • Personal information you share with colleagues: For example, you may decide you’re comfortable making small talk about your recent vacation but not sharing about relationship challenges at home. 

  • Topics you want to avoid: You may decide you won’t talk about politics or get involved in office gossip. 

  • Managing your workload: You may limit working outside of regular business hours or avoid working on weekends.  

Having clear lines between work and home is a significant issue for employees, according to the American Psychological Association’s 2023 Work in America Survey. Results show that 95% of workers said it’s very (61%) or somewhat (34%) important to work for an organization that respects the boundaries between work and nonwork time.  

While communication and transparency are important to setting and maintaining all types of boundaries, they’re especially important for workload issues, as those directly relate to your employment. 

“I think what is in one’s own control is to try—preferably from the very beginning, but even later, if necessary—to insist on a certain amount of transparency regarding ‘What are the goals of the work that I do? Where’s my job description? What’s in, and what’s out?” Pluschkell said. 

She noted that this approach isn’t about being rigid. It’s about being clear and setting goals so your boss knows what you’re working on, and you know what you’re supposed to be working on. Otherwise, she said, you could end up doing more than what you signed up for. 

If you notice something isn’t going as expected and is beyond the boundaries you think are realistic or normal, you should raise that issue to your manager, according to Pluschkell.  

Saying ‘No’ to Maintain Boundaries

To maintain boundaries related to your workload, there may be times when you need to question requests—and even say “no” to them. As Pluschkell explained, while you want to be seen as a solution and not a problem, that doesn’t mean saying yes to everything.  

For example, if you’re asked to take on additional work, it’s OK to ask when it really needs to get done to understand the requester’s must-haves versus nice-to-haves and what’s driving the request. If the timeline would negatively affect high-priority projects, you can say no.  

If you do say no, Pluschkell said it’s important to say a firm no rather than what amounts to a partial no such as “No, but you know what, let me see if I can squeeze it in at the end of the week.” This is especially important if the requester is your boss. 

“Don’t be sort of ambiguous about it, because bosses don’t necessarily understand that,” she said. “They walk away hearing, ‘I think she’s going to do it. I think he’s going to do it.’ And actually, you meant something slightly different.” 

Pluschkell also noted “you will notice that the world doesn’t come to an end when you say no. And you can say no with an explanation. You can say, ‘No, I do not have time this week. Here are my priorities. As long as we still agree that these things are needed, it does not fit.’” 

What to Do When You Can’t Maintain Boundaries

If you’re having trouble maintaining your boundaries, Pluschkell said to consider where else you struggle with shifting boundaries and why that happens. 

“Another way to think about it is, ‘Where am I good at setting boundaries outside of work? And what am I doing there that has served me so well?’” she said. “Is there something that you can translate over and try in the work environment? That has helped a lot of people, I think, to just sort of think about, ‘I can do this. I’ve done it before.’” 

If someone isn’t respecting your boundaries, you can talk to that person. Share how it’s affecting you and discuss how to solve the issue moving forward. Pluschkell noted that you also might need to start looking for another job and recommended considering what is and isn’t serving you at work.  

“Some people say, ‘Look, the paycheck is serving me. I’m not leaving,’” Pluschkell said. “And that’s a reality that I think also needs to be respected.” 

Angela Gabriel is content manager, life sciences careers, at BioSpace. You can reach her at angela.gabriel@biospace.com and follow her on LinkedIn

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