Boundaries Are Non-Negotiable: How to Set Your Boundaries in the Demanding Nature of Your Career in Higher Education | Mitchell

written by: MyKella Mitchell

As a higher education professional who has worked in student and academic affairs, my boundaries have shifted from job to job. Despite this, there are a few struggles that higher education professionals experience which remain the same regardless of the position. Post-COVID-19, prioritizing boundaries I have set for myself has become increasingly important. Many of my colleagues’ express feelings of increased stress, fatigue, and burnout induced by an ever-increasing workload. One could think that this stress is the nature of higher education or that burnout in our work is inevitable. This normalization of stress and burnout coupled with the COVID-19 aftershocks (which created job insecurity through layoffs and institutional closures), have caused many of my colleagues to express an inability to avoid workplace stressors.

While stress at times is unavoidable, it can be mitigated by setting boundaries. Such boundaries are imperative for employee well-being. So, the question is – how do we cope with this stress? In this article, I explore the current context and provide suggestions for addressing the overwork of higher education staff based on my own experience.

The Higher Education Work Environment

According to the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources (Bischel et al., 2022)

  • 67% of employees in higher education exceed the typical 40-hour workweek.
  • 63% of staff extend working hours assuming tasks handled by former colleagues.
  • 73% of higher education professionals work additional hours to meet responsibilities tied to positions that have been phased out.

This data corroborates the experiences of higher education professionals and amplifies the need to address issues of pressure and workplace culture related to stressors in the lives of higher education professionals. Furthermore, the National Student Affairs Administration in Higher Education’s (NASPA) new report on the field outlines current trends.

Whitford (2022) reported on the new findings from NASPA, noting that 84% of professionals in higher education who experience burnout cite stress and crisis management responsibilities as the primary source. The author incorporated the testimonial of an unnamed cabinet level professional who further stated that many are working 80-hour weeks without the compensation to match (Whitford, 2022). These insights draw more attention to the urgency of remedying these challenges in the field.

Strategies for Managing Stress

Based on this data and consistent anecdotal information from my colleagues, I encourage professionals to practice setting and enforcing boundaries. Good boundary practices support self-preservation and burnout prevention. Ultimately, the work begins with each of us prioritizing ourselves. Setting boundaries can be difficult, but I propose the following strategies accompanied by tips for implementing each.

Set Working Hours

While professionals’ schedules may vary, this should not lead to a constant encroachment on one’s personal life or downtime to address work-related situations. Establishing a reasonable schedule based on the job and its responsibilities is essential to boundary setting. This can include, but is not limited to, blocking out time for lunch breaks, time for administrative tasks, and blocking out Friday afternoon meetings. Be sure to include business hours in the email signature and post on the office door or wherever most appropriate for the job function. Furthermore, establishing the precedent that emails and phone calls may not be returned within 24 hours, especially during holidays and busy times, can create a reduction of follow-up emails or calls bogging down communication channels.

Working Hours Tips

  • Avoid scheduling meetings during mealtimes whenever possible.
  • If working on an event outside of regular business hours, consider adjusting working hours and, if available, utilize compensatory time (comp-time).
  • Save after hours working for emails labeled as “important.”

Vacation Time

Use vacation time! It is important to rejuvenate and detach. Prior to vacation, inform your colleagues and supervisors if there is limited or no access to email and provide information and contacts for assistance on projects and duties while away. Let people know when you will return and when you will be responding to email. If there is concern that tasks will not be completed, address prior to vacation, if possible. Strategies include adjusting deadlines, assigning specific roles with the accompaniment of accountability, state clearly and explicitly what needs to be accomplished (and by whom) in an email to all affected parties, and/or generate a scheduled reminder email to be sent about these assignments.

Create an away message set for the end of day before vacation through the first day back from vacation to allow for a chance to catch up. A sample I generally use is:


I am currently out of the office without access to my email. I will be out of the office between [start date] through [end date] and will return on [first day in office].

If your email pertains to [insert project or task here] please contact [name] at [email]. Otherwise, I will respond to all emails upon my return.

 If you need immediate assistance, please email my immediate supervisor, [name & email].

Thank you

Additionally, ask the immediate supervisors if remote workdays are possible to reduce distractions while getting up to speed on various tasks upon your return. This is an opportunity to catch up and delegate.

Vacation Tips

  • Use vacation-time as frequently as possible whether it is for a staycation or out of town vacation.
  • If long vacations are not feasible, consider scheduling extended weekends (Thursday through Monday) multiple times throughout the year, preferably before or after a busy period.
  • If working in a position that provides comp days, USE THEM. Take off on a random Friday or Monday to recharge and relax.

Say “No”

“No” is an important word. If you are feeling overwhelmed, uncomfortable, or asked to execute something outside of the job description, “no” is an accurate and important response. In certain situations, you cannot refuse to perform a task, but it is critical not to assume an assignment’s importance unless it has been explicitly communicated as a requirement.  In those instances, have conversations about expectations complemented by what you can offer to the project. This can help everyone involved be more comfortable and provides a chance for compromise. It is also acceptable to assess the request. Afterwards, provide a clear explanation for why the request is not acceptable or conditionally acceptable. It’s essential to recognize your boundaries, and while some colleagues and supervisors may not appreciate it, most will respect your discomfort with the request.

Tips for Saying “No”

  1. When possible, list alternatives when saying “no”. For example, “I cannot assist with the day of the event, but I can help distribute tickets prior to the event or assist with returning equipment the morning after the event.”
  2. Be confident when saying “no”.
  3. Once you say no, stick to it. If you jump in to help after you have said no, you are telling others that you do not abide by your own boundaries, and they will expect you to jump in again in the future.

Candid Conversations

As you begin to set your boundaries, share your rationale to ensure management understands. This proactive approach helps prevent the delegation of tasks from upper management and colleagues while minimizing the overstepping of boundaries. As these boundaries become established, there will be a decrease in requests for assistance with tasks that fall outside of these established boundaries and your role.

Boundaries apply to students as well. Start at the beginning by managing student expectations. Tell them what you are and are not able or willing to do in your work with them. What you do from the beginning sets a precedent for the rest of your work with individual students and student organizations.

Tips for Having Candid Conversations

  • Prepare in advance for conversations about your boundaries. Write down bullet points and articulate your thoughts.
  • Be respectful and professional throughout candid conversations while communicating your boundaries.
  • Document these conversations. This can be as simple as a follow up email recapping what you discussed.
  • Reengage with your supervisor when receiving task related requests to ensure it is in line with the department, job, and your boundaries.


In general, the information in this article can assist you in establishing and enforcing boundaries. As a young professional, I initially struggled with job insecurity upon returning to my home state, leading me to become an overly conscientious employee, striving for a 12-hour email response time and accepting additional tasks without hesitation. This unrelenting pursuit of productivity became the new normal for me and my colleagues, concealing the imminent threat of burnout. My non-work friends could not conceptualize the unique demands of higher education and its distinctness from the private sector. For years, my life revolved around work, homework, defending my lack of boundaries, working beyond the clock, and neglecting my family and friends, despite their proximity. However, the onset of the COVID-19 pushed me into a remote work situation, further corroding boundaries due to a shared bedroom-home office setup and increased workload to compensate for laid-off colleagues. It was during a conversation while waiting for a COVID vaccine that a colleague made me realize the deplorability of my work habits, as I continued to answer work emails on a day off meant for self-care. This moment marked the beginning of my journey to establish healthier boundaries, which has evolved over time in various positions throughout my career, culminating in the recommendations outlined above. I understand that each situation is different – institutionally, in terms of personnel, with various supervisors. There may be some of my recommendations that might not work in your current workplace. Additionally, there might be other strategies not listed here that could be useful. The important thing is to take steps to take care of yourself.

At first glance, you might not feel that these tips will change your current workplace environment and personal stress. But after closer inspection and utilization, you will see these tips may slowly reduce burnout over time. Ultimately, your mental health is at stake, and you are at risk of burnout. These are areas that are critical for boundary setting. In other words, as professionals, we must move forward in our careers by developing a practice of setting and enforcing boundaries. This practice can ease workplace stressors. In the eloquent words of Robert Frost from his poem “Mending Wall,” “good fences make good neighbors” (p.26). Establishing boundaries in life can prevent problems. Embracing these principles can lead to a more balanced and fulfilling professional journey and, ultimately, a more transparent and collaborative work experience.


Bichsel, J., Fuesting, M., Schneider, J., & Tubbs, D., (2022, July). The CUPA-HR 2022 higher education employee retention survey: Initial results. CUPA-HR.          findings-july-2022

Frost, R., Parini, J., & Paraskevas, M. (2017). Robert Frost. Lake Forest, CA, MoonDance.

Whitford, E. (2022, March). Student Affairs Staff Quit Because of Burnout, Low Pay. Inside Higher Ed.

About the Author

MyKella Mitchell (They/Them) serves as the Manager of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, Outreach, Events & Communication at Princeton University, all while pursuing their Ed.D. in Policy, Planning, and Administration at West Chester University. With over six years of dedicated experience in higher education, MyKella frequently mentors emerging professionals and current students, helping them navigate advocacy, boundary setting, and general advising within the field. Beyond their work and studies, MyKella finds joy in watching the Philadelphia Phillies, exploring new culinary delights in Philadelphia, and dispelling misconceptions that locals’ cheesesteak favorites are Pats and Genos.