How to set boundaries at work and reduce anxiety

Work stress and depression causes a variety of health problems. anxiety psychoeducation

How to set boundaries at work and reduce anxiety

If work stress is leaving you feeling anxious, follow these tips to set boundaries and reduce work-related anxiety.

Stress caused by the working environment or work overload can leave people to feel anxious and depressed. We spend a considerable amount of our waking hours at work, which means that our jobs have the power to hugely influence our wellbeing and day-to-day happiness. At MindWell Psychology we work with individuals who suffer from anxiety and depression, and work stress is one of the most frequent ongoing problems many people struggle with. 

There are many different aspects that can cause people to feel anxious at work. According to a survey by CareerCast, a whopping 78% of Americans are stressed at work and 38% of people find deadlines to be a major source of this distress. Difficult tasks, harsh working conditions such as long hours and unpaid overtime or conflict with co-workers or bosses can add to the feeling of being overwhelmed and eventually lead to burnout. Some people may begin to worry excessively about their day-to-day tasks or break-out in sweat every time they have a meeting with their boss.


It is well-established that stress plays a major role in anxiety and prolonged exposure to stressful situations or events can cause lasting health issues. Anxiety is a natural response of our bodies to threat. “But if it occurs when trying to revise, or present a talk, or at such a high level that it paralyzes or causes errors, it can interfere with what we want to do,” says Chris Williams, Professor of psychosocial psychiatry at the University of Glasgow. The physical symptoms of too much stress include:


  •     Interrupted sleep or insomnia
  •     Digestive issues
  •     Headaches
  •     Difficulty concentrating
  •     Sweating
  •     Changes in appetite
  •     Changes in libido
  •     Chronic pain
  •     Skin rashes
  •     Rapid heartbeat
  •     Depression
  •     Anxiety


People who face prolonged periods of stress may develop anxiety and depression. And those who are prone to mental health conditions or already suffer from anxiety and depressive disorders may notice that their symptoms worsen as they endure more and more stress. Annie McKee who authored the book How To Be Happy At Work writes that “some people face the reality of their unhappy work situation only as a result of a heart attack, a broken relationship, or a tragedy. Don’t wait that long!” As McKee confirms, overworking is rewarded in our culture, but it isn’t healthy. “Overly competitive colleagues, too little time for what needs to get done and poor leadership are just three of the many problems that can cause constant stress at work, which in turn causes physical, mental and emotional problems,” she writes.


And fear is contagious. When we’re anxious, we release ‘fear pheromones’ in our sweat that others around us can sense. “There may be a hidden biological component to human social dynamics, in which emotional stress is, quite literally, ‘contagious’,” says Dr. Lilianne Mujica-Parodi, Director of the Laboratory for Computational Neurodiagnostics at Stony Brook University, who examined the chemical signals in sweat from skydivers just before they jumped. Similarly, research by Rice University found that participants who smelled ‘fear sweat’ before viewing a series of ambiguous facial expressions interpreted them as more ‘fearful’. The smell of fear biased the volunteer’s own emotional response.


So, how can you manage anxiety at work and set boundaries to keep stress low long-term? If you feel stressed on a regular basis, start by identifying the source of the stress. This will help you adjust your goals and take necessary actions.


Five tips to reduce stress and anxiety at work:


  • Ask for help. If you’re stuck on a problem or you’ve got too much on your plate, ask a coworker for help. Most people are generous and tend to want to offer a helping hand here and there. This could lower any deadline-related anxieties immediately.
  • Set realistic deadlines. Don’t promise your manager quick turnarounds you cannot stick to. It’s best to be honest about deadlines and share realistic goals with those you work together. Remember that managers aren’t super-human either and very often they don’t expect us to be. If a deadline isn’t negotiable, make sure you prioritize it.
  • Meditate. Even a one-minute deep breathing exercise at your desk can work wonders. For an even greater effect take 5 to 15 minutes during your lunch break to meditate. Try it the next time you’re feeling anxious at work.
  • Encourage talk with co-workers. Engaging in conversation with others and sharing a laugh can be a great weapon to calm down anxious nerves. But steer clear of gossiping or negative talk. Focus on positive or inspiring topics.
  • Workout. Physical activity has been shown to boost mood and relieve stress and anxiety. Try and get a workout in before, during or after work.


How to set boundaries at work?


Reducing stress levels is a great way to get started, but to reduce anxiety at work long-term you may need to look at your triggers more closely and set some boundaries. Whether you’ve been with a company for a long time or joined recently, it can be difficult to set rules for yourself. There’s always the fear of being fired. But calm and open conversation is key when it comes to communicating your needs.


  1.   Identify what you need. Life is not all about work and it should never be. If you value certain hobbies or activities after work, you need to make time for the things you’re passionate about. Make a list of the things that are important to you. 
  2.   Open communication. When you establish your limits it’s important that you begin to communicate them in a clear manner. If you can’t work overtime because you have to attend a family event you need to let your boss know. You may still need to stay on longer to work through an emergency, but it’s important to assess whether some ‘emergencies’ could wait for another day.
  3.   Establish rules and action plans. When you’re swamped and have too much on your plate, it can help to make a concrete plan of action. Try to stick to it. If you’re given even more to do during this time, leave some room to prioritize. You could also share your plan of action with your boss so that they’re aware of your workload
  4.   Address a boundary violation. Don’t ignore or wait to bring up a violation of a boundary. It’s best to communicate any issues calmly as soon as they occur. For example, if a coworker eats a yogurt you were looking forward to, let them know that that’s not ok with you. If your boss constantly asks you to stay late or respond to emails on the weekend, renegotiate the terms of your employment. The latter can be hard, but remember that your work is valued and renegotiation may be the only way to solve a major anxiety trigger for you. You were hired for a reason, so don’t undervalue yourself.
  5.   Visualize. It can be a useful exercise to prepare for renegotiation talks or how you would address a boundary violation. This ensures that you’ll be prepared when these things happen and can respond in a calm and professional manner.


If you struggled with boundaries at work up until now don’t feel discouraged if you experience the initial backlash. Most people learn how to respect our boundaries fairly quickly if you stand your ground. You may have to communicate and reinforce your new boundaries once or twice. It is a learning opportunity for you and everyone around you. Consider how much time you spend at work and how much peace of mind you will gain from healthy professional boundaries.  


Livia Freier, Ph.D., licensed psychologist at MindWell Psychology in Providence, RI. – author.

Copywriting author Anne Freier, senior pharmaceutical scientist- Contributing editor.


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