Setting boundaries is a challenging task for many of us (hello, people pleasers!) — and the challenge becomes even greater when the person you’d like to set boundaries with is, say, your boss. But given the unsettling times we’re in now, setting healthy limits on our bandwidth and working hours is of utmost importance. 

“Boundaries are difficult to maintain when things are turbulent, but that’s also when you need them most,” Umbreen Bhatti, J.D., the Constance Hess Williams ’66 Director of the Athena Center for Leadership at Barnard College, tells Thrive. So next time you find yourself in a situation that could use some boundary-setting, give one of these compassionately direct strategies a try: 

“I’d like to help. How should I reprioritize?” 

Picture this: Your boss requests your help on an important client deliverable, but your plate is already full (actually, it’s overflowing). That said, you recognize that working on this project could be a great opportunity to grow your skills and help your team. Instead of pushing yourself to your breaking point in an effort to get it all done, talk to your manager about how you can accommodate the task. A phrase like, “I’d be happy to help, what would you like me to reprioritize in order to do so?” will communicate your willingness to pitch in, but signal to our boss that your to-do list will need some adjusting.

“I’d like to join this meeting, but I can’t at this time. Can we reschedule?”

When work starts to eat into our personal lives, it’s important to remind ourselves of the things that matter outside of our jobs. “I think of my children anytime I’m struggling to decide whether I should take that extra thing on, and suddenly, the decision becomes a whole lot easier,” Bhatti says. “And to be clear, I’m not saying that they help me say no — sometimes they help me say yes.” 

Grounding ourselves in our values and personal priorities — our families, side hustles, fitness routines — can help us make decisions with our well-being in mind. Just be sure to share what’s important to you with your supervisor. Your conversation could sound like, “I’d like to join this meeting, but eating dinner with my family is important to me. Can we reschedule for 30 minutes earlier?” 

“I’m not able to help with that today I wouldn’t be able to give it my all.”

There are many situations at work (and in life) when saying “no” simply makes sense. Karen Dillon, an author and speaker, tells Harvard Business Review that being straightforward with your no is the best route to go. A phrase like, “I would be unable to do a good job on your project and my other work would suffer,” should do the trick. 

Sticking to your boundaries and acting with compassionate directness will ultimately be a win-win for everyone involved: You’ll find that work-life integration you deserve, and because you’re putting your well-being first, your workplace performance (and your boss) will benefit.


  • Jessica Hicks

    Managing Editor at Thrive

    Jessica Hicks is a managing editor at Thrive. She graduated from Lehigh University with a degree in journalism, sociology, and anthropology, and is passionate about using storytelling to ignite positive change in the lives of others.