Healthy Boundaries and Positive Refusal: How to Say No in a Professional Setting 

Healthy Boundaries and Positive Refusal: How to Say No in a Professional Setting 

With so many opportunities, companies are often exploring different ventures related to their industry. Although having many projects that yield results can be good for the organization’s success, it can sometimes be unsustainable.

There are times when employees find themselves with too much work on their plate but are still given more workload due to different reasons. In situations like this, how can you prevent overcommitting yourself to work? How can you decline workload without negatively affecting your career?

The answer is through setting healthy boundaries. You need to learn how to say no in a professional setting.


Boundaries as Part of the Profession 

When people think of their profession, they end up thinking about completing tasks to develop themselves and their careers. Although being motivated to work is great, everyone needs to understand that professional life is not made up of non-stop work. It should also include boundaries that can effectively sustain your career.


Importance of Boundaries

Creating healthy boundaries is necessary in a professional setting. Not being able to establish them properly would lead to an overwhelming number of demands. In turn, this would result in negative outcomes such as low physical, mental, and emotional energy.

When the tasks you need to accomplish spill into your time outside of work, you’re stripped of any chances of effective relaxation and rest. This inability to separate work from other parts of your life will then lead to more stress and fatigue.


Benefits of Setting Healthy Boundaries

It’s easy to blur boundaries between work and your personal life. But setting healthy boundaries is beneficial for you. Here are some reasons why.


1. Increased Productivity

Being able to set boundaries at work can prevent you from working overtime on tasks that shouldn’t normally be assigned to you. This is ideal considering how research in 2021 found that the fewer working hours employees have, the higher their productivity rates are.¹ They were also found to perform more efficiently as proven by the fewer mistakes they commit.


2. Reduced Burnout

If employees have a healthy relationship with work thanks to properly setting boundaries, they’d have manageable workloads and responsibilities. Additionally, this could prevent stress and exhaustion seeing as they wouldn’t feel the need to overexert themselves.

This could result in less burnout, increased motivation, and a stronger dedication to your career.

Read More: 6 Tips for Surviving a Busy Workweek 


3. Improved Work-Life Balance

Setting healthy boundaries is one of the most important actions you can do to ensure proper work-life balance. If you’re able to distinguish when work ends and your personal life starts, it would give you the ability to successfully separate the two. It would also allow you to recharge your energy without guilt and even dedicate time to important things like your hobbies and building relationships.


The Art of Saying No 

You’re now informed of the importance of setting boundaries, but the question remains: How do you set healthy boundaries?

It’s easy to decide that you’ll put personal boundaries in place, but it can be a hard thing to do depending on your working conditions. A survey made in 2022 showed that 47 percent of remote workers admitted to not being able to maintain boundaries between their professional and personal lives.²

Read More: The Overworking Epidemic – How to Regain Control of your Time and Avoid Burnout 

There could be many examples of boundaries that could be crossed in a workplace. It could be from your boss contacting you through social media outside of your working hours to your company expecting you to work after your shift just to finish a deadline.

Whether it’s mental or physical boundaries, some people can have trouble maintaining them due to different reasons like external pressure (“The entire team is doing it! Why can’t you?”) to internal ones (“I’m afraid I’ll disappoint my team leader if I don’t put in more hours”).

These often make it hard for employees to say no and set boundaries when talking to their higher-ups. The following are four strategies you could utilize to help lead you away from either nonexistent or unhealthy boundaries in any working context.


Strategies to Navigate Difficult Conversations

It can be challenging to say “no” at first. But here are some things you could help you get through those conversations.


Positive Refusal

The best way to say ‘no’ to additional work is to simply say it. But how can you avoid unprofessional behavior? You can do so with positive refusal.

Positive refusal is saying ‘no’ to someone in a positive and respectful tone. Instead of just declining the request or order given, you also offer alternative solutions that may help solve the issue. This shows that you’re still committed to finishing the task even though you can’t do it yourself.

Think of a web developer in the Information Technology industry as an example. The employee is approached by their boss with the task of improving the newest client’s website but they’re already handling the most in their team. In this situation, a positive refusal would be useful rather than an outright refusal.

  • Outright Refusal: No, thanks.
  • Positive Refusal: I appreciate your confidence in my skills. However, I won’t be able to handle that task right now given my current workload. Is it possible to delegate it to someone else on the team? If not, I can happily do it after my ongoing tasks are done.


Standing Firm

Sometimes, even after positive refusal, higher-ups would still insist their employees should follow their request. When faced with situations like this, you need to stand firm with your response.

Read More: The Manager Impact – Why a Good Boss Makes All the Difference 

Creating boundaries can be easy but maintaining them is hard. You need to stay strong and avoid backing down when your leader rejects your refusal. You should also avoid compromising if you’re the only one willing to adjust.

For example, your leader said, “Just do this first and you can do the rest after your working hours.” Although this is proposing a compromise, you’re the only one actually making concessions.

A proper compromise would be to start the task and finish the rest during your nine-to-five the following day. It could also be working on an additional task while your current one is delegated to someone else.


Tapping into Empathy

To do positive refusal, you need to do more than just listen to the other party. You also need to understand them and empathize with where they’re coming from.

Some mistakes professional empathy as feeling sorry enough to just do what is being asked but that’s not the case. Having empathy doesn’t mean you need to solve all the problems of your coworkers. Instead, it means you understand them enough to help offer solutions that can ease their problems.

Imagine you’re on the manufacturing floor and your coworker complained about having sore feet from standing up too much. Empathy isn’t agreeing to do their job for them just so they can sit. In this scenario, empathy would be listening to their complaints, understanding them, and offering possible solutions that won’t burden anyone.

For example, offering to get a chair so the coworker can sit while working. You could also suggest that they file a sick leave for the day if the pain becomes unbearable.


Reasoning with Logic

As mentioned before, you can’t just give a refusal. You need to also give your reasons for saying no. This would make your decision more valid, reasonable, and easier to accept.

When giving your reasons, you should try to be as detailed as possible. Avoid saying “No, because I can’t”. It would be better to explain your concerns about accepting the job, your current priorities, or how their request can negatively impact your work or yourself.

For example, you can say “No (refusal), I would not be able to do that because that is not initially my responsibility (reason). To do the task, I’d need to dedicate time to learn how to successfully finish the task (constraint) which would affect the timeline of the current projects I’m working on (negative impact)”.

When a response like this is given followed by helpful suggestions, you would have already given a logical and fair positive refusal.



Since 1985, DAVIS Companies has been committed to providing professional staffing and recruiting services for its clients. We’re passionate about helping companies form quality partnerships with dedicated experts through different solutions like Managed Services Programs (MSP) and Human Resource Outsourcing (HRO)

We’re also committed to providing exceptional opportunities for professionals by connecting them to companies in manufacturing, engineering, and IT. We believe fostering real connections and meaningful relationships between people can create a healthy working environment and achieve operational excellence. Improve your company the DAVIS way. Contact us now to learn more!



1 Shangguan, R, J DeVaro and H Owan (2021), “Enhancing Team Productivity through Shorter Working Hours: Evidence from the Great Recession”, RIETI Discussion Paper 21-E-040, Accessed 19 Jul. 2023.

2 The Conference Board. ” Survey: Remote Workers Struggle with Work-Life Boundaries, but is a Return to the Workplace the Answer?”, PR Newswire, 2 Apr. 2022, Accessed 19 Jul. 2023.

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