Calm nurse setting boundaries

How to Establish Boundaries at Work: A Step by Step Guide for Nurses

Nurses are stretched thinner than they’ve ever been before, especially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. During the emergency response to COVID-19, and even before it, nurses are faced with situations every day that they’re either uncomfortable with, are too stressful for them or aren’t safe for them or their patients. On top of all that, hospital boundaries often don’t match individual boundaries, which can cause internal conflict and lead to more stress.

So how do we change that? Nurses can learn to set boundaries that keep themselves safe and happy in their careers and aid in their mental health. The process of setting boundaries can be hard to start and even harder to maintain, especially for many inherently helpful nurses. But you’ll find that the work is worth it when the result brings you stress-free shifts. Use this guide to help you begin the process and advocate for your own wellness in the workplace.

8 Steps to Setting Boundaries

Boundary setting is difficult and often overwhelming. Follow these steps to help make the process more manageable as you begin:

1. Clearly identify your boundaries

Define your boundaries. Make sure you know where and how you want to set these boundaries and why. Identifying your why is crucial and keeps you motivated to follow through with your plan. Not sure where to start? Reference your job description as a starting point.

2. Be clear and straightforward

Don’t beat around the bush with yourself or others about your boundaries. This makes it worse for you and everyone else involved in the long run. Say what you mean and do what you mean; it’s kinder. However, this doesn’t mean you have to broadcast your intentions. Subtlety and tact can go a long way. 

3. Don’t apologize

Apologizing or giving long-winded excuses and explanations undermines your authority when you have established boundaries. You’re not doing anything wrong when you set limits, so don’t act like it.

4. Stay calm

Keep your emotions out of it, especially anger. Getting defensive or angry fosters the same feelings in others, making it more difficult and possibly more damaging to your relationships.

5. Begin with tight boundaries

You can always loosen your boundaries, but tightening them can be difficult. Starting with something strict helps show people you’re serious and sets you up for success in the long run.

6. Address violations early

Don’t let things slide. The more you relax with your boundaries, the more people will think they can take advantage of you and your boundaries. When you address it early, there isn’t any confusion, misunderstandings or repeats. Again, be firm, but also respectful.

7. Don’t make it personal

Your boundaries are about you and no one else. Use “I” statements when discussing boundaries with others and avoid personally attacking what others are doing in relation to your boundaries. 

8. Trust yourself

Only you know what’s best for you. Listen to yourself – your thoughts, feelings, etc. – and do what feels best for you.

Put it into Practice

You’re probably thinking the steps above sound great, but do you know how to put them into practice as a nurse?

Here’s an example:

You’re a new nurse working on an intensive care unit that’s incredibly short-staffed, and they’re always asking people to work overtime. But, you’re also in school to get your master’s degree, so you have a lot of homework and obligations outside work. You work your full-time hours as required, but know you can’t work extra at this time. 

How do you respond when your charge nurse comes up to you and asks if you can work an extra shift tomorrow?

  • First, clearly state your boundaries: “I’m not working extra shifts right now.” This statement is clear and straightforward.
  • Don’t apologize for it. You don’t have to. It’s not your job to staff the hospital, as much as it might feel like it is. It’s also not the charge nurse’s job to staff the unit, but the hospital puts them in the position to do so. It’s not personal about you for them, either.
  • Don’t make excuses. You have a valid reason for needing to do school work, but your charge nurse doesn’t need to know that. Wanting a day off to rest is a valid excuse, so don’t feel like you need to justify yourself. 
  • Stay calm and focused on respecting the boundaries you have set for yourself.
  • Don’t get emotional or angry. Remember – it’s not personal, it’s work. 
  • Always trust yourself. If you want to make an exception and can work an extra shift, do it. But if you need the day, don’t do it. You have the authority to make the choice.

Now that you have a framework for setting boundaries, are you ready to put it into practice? Start with these steps to make your work days better, your shifts less stressful and help you be the best nurse you can be.

Alison Shely, DNP, FNP-C

Alison Shely, DNP, FNP-C is a nurse practitioner, nurse coach, yoga teacher and nurse writer. She’s been a nurse since 2014, working as an RN and FNP in intensive care, women’s health and primary care. She also serves as a mental health coach to other nurses and healthcare workers, concentrating on healthy lifestyles and mental health.

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