A Nurse Practitioner’s Insights on Setting Boundaries at Work

I’ve had one of those weeks when it seems everyone wants something from me. Pick up a shift in the emergency department, send an email of introduction, volunteer for an event and collaborate on a project have been among the many requests de jour. While I’m happy to help out and open to exploring new opportunities, I have my own $&*(*(@ to get done, too! Unfortunately, I’m not so great at saying ‘no’ when it comes to my professional life and at times it can get me in a jam.

Take my job in the emergency department, for example. I hold a PRN position as a nurse practitioner with an employer relatively new to me. It seems this particular hospital is always, always in need of someone to cover a shift. When I first started the new job, I wanted to prove myself a hard worker and was open to picking up additional work. But then the requests continued. A ‘no’ from me was met with an offer for a significant hourly differential enticing me to accept the shift. I caved several times as the pay was well worth the inconvenience it caused me. However, these requests keep coming and coming and coming.

While I don’t mind helping out once in a while, it becomes overwhelming to constantly receive texts on my days off asking me to work. I hate saying ‘no’, so a negative reply stresses me out. An offer for more money leaves me feeling guilty if I decline but don’t plan on using my day productively (everyone needs a day off at some point!). But, it isn’t my responsibility or fault that the department is understaffed. The expectation as to how many shifts I would work each month was clear when I was hired and mutually agreed upon. I should be able to set a boundary and say ‘no’ to overtime guilt-free.

My week of ask, ask, ask, take, take, take, has left me feeling wiped out and exhausted not to mention behind on my own job and life responsibilities. Saying ‘no’ and setting boundaries with an employer is difficult for nurse practitioners. It can feel like a sticky situation. Neglecting to do so, however leads to dissatisfaction and burnout.

Here are a few things I have learned from my recent experiences that can help:

1. Expect boundary violations and prepare for them

Each of us has our own personal set of boundaries, realize it or not. While a request to work 5 days in a row for double overtime stresses me out, it may be a major win for another nurse practitioner on my team. Know and understand your own values and personality. Realize that the boundaries you set based on these values will be overstepped. How do you plan to respond then this happens? Preparing yourself mentally to say ‘no’ or to set expectations based on your personal preferences prevents you from responding too quickly in a way you aren’t comfortable with. Setting boundaries is part of life and doing so within reason doesn’t make you a bad employee or difficult person rather it ensures you aren’t a doormat.

2. Pay attention to your gut

That icky feeling in your stomach you get when you receive a request that oversteps your boundaries is legit. If you have a visceral reaction to a situation at work, don’t let it slide. Take a minute to reflect. Are you compromising the things most important to you like time with family and friends to accommodate a request that holds little value? How do the outcomes of the situation work out for you? There is a natural give and take in any professional or personal relationship. Are you always on the giving end of the situation? If you get a sinking feeling associated with a request or situation, chances are it isn’t in your best interests. So, hold your head high and set a boundary with confidence.

3. Timeliness is essential in addressing violations

When a boundary you set has been violated, whether knowingly or unknowingly, address the situation right away. Letting things slide until pressure builds sets the stage for volatility later. When the boundary-breaking situation is at hand, it’s fresh in your mind and in the mind of the other parties involved making it more relevant and easy to talk about. Avoiding a potentially uncomfortable conversation now only makes things worse later.

4. Setting boundaries doesn’t make you a bad person

Saying ‘no’ or ‘not now’ is part of life. Provided your rational is reasonable and well founded your employer will likely respect rather than resent the fact that you stand up for yourself. By keeping your professional life in check with your values you make yourself better professionally. Allowing others to walk all over you doesn’t serve your image well.

Do you find the need to set professional boundaries as a nurse practitioner? In what regard?


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