Knowing your limit and working within it

Establishing boundaries early and reinforcing them gently (but often) will remind people of the expectations you have set for yourself

Among the notable boundary-breaks in the workplace is the “responsibility creep.” This is when your job description slowly increases over time (or all at once) following a big event, like a team member leaving
Among the notable boundary-breaks in the workplace is the “responsibility creep.” This is when your job description slowly increases over time (or all at once) following a big event, like a team member leaving.

Toxic environments do not just “happen.” They do not just blow in with the season like hay fever and cause everyone in their path to have stuffy heads, irritability, and contagiously bad attitudes. No, toxic environments are grown and nurtured—mostly from neglect. Veterinary teams are comprised of individuals; we might neglect to address issues at the root of our emotions until we feel ready to explode. Toxic environments thrive where boundaries are not found.

What do you think of when you think of boundaries? Does the word drum up feelings of aggression or conflict? Do you feel you have a good hold on your personal and work boundaries? Do you know your limits? Do you go until you crack, or can you feel when a limit is approaching and adjust?

“Boundary” is not a bad word. It simply refers to the level of comfort we have within any given situation. Another way to think about boundaries is to equate them to the standards and values we set for ourselves. In a veterinary practice, we have standards of care and hospital policies we adhere to and enforce as a team. Your personal and career boundaries should be held in a similar way.

Sadly, however, we do not often think about our boundaries until someone pushes up against or past them. Repeated invasion of personal boundaries can lead to emotional fatigue, burnout, or worse.

Embrace the B-word

We all have a limit on the personal resources we are able to expend before we need to step back and recharge. We also have our own unique set of boundaries.

Unfortunately, this variance can cause a lot of drama and tension amongst veterinary team members. Can you play a game when you do not know the rules? Of course not. No set of unspoken internal and external standards could ever be fairly applied to everyone. We start to think a place is toxic when we repeatedly have the same neglectful invasion of our boundaries play out without any clue as to how to stop the problem.

Incursions of our boundaries sap our emotional batteries. Our “battery levels” increase and decrease every day based on our experiences—some things refill us, while others drain us. Each incremental change directly correlates with a personal boundary being pushed and its importance to the individual person.

Most of us have stories and experiences of people who only take from us; they are our energy vampires. Eventually, we find there is simply nothing left to give in these relationships. There is no longer any desire to communicate with the person because they have entirely drained you of your ability to care about them (and their drama).

These people need to be managed in our lives. More importantly, when someone can affect us this way, they serve as a big red flag that our boundaries are not properly fortified. After all, they are doing what their nature dictates, unchecked; it is up to each of us to protect ourselves from them.

Of course, boundaries in the workplace are hard to express and enforce. We are conditioned to believe, “I’m being paid to do this. It’s my job. I should be grateful. It could be worse.” With this mindset, however, you are the first person to stomp all over your boundaries.

I’m not here to buck the leadership team or target practice owners and managers—quite the opposite. I am simply opening up a discussion about boundaries and exploring how we might be infringing on boundaries, both as employees and in leadership roles. Sometimes we do not think about what we are saying in the moment because we “need to get the job done.” As a practice manager, I am speaking from experience. Let’s dive into some common scenarios seen and heard in the practice.

1) “We stay until the job is done”

Patient care is our main priority. As veterinary health care team members, we all understand this and are in complete agreement. However, this priority does not mean the consequences of poor time management and lack of staffing resources are a technician’s to bear.

If some team members are OK with staying late and the leadership is OK with them staying late, this can easily become a cultural norm for the practice. This is not good or bad; it’s just the norm. However, when team members are pressured to stay at work, skip events, or cancel plans because of their job, the expectation encroaches on personal and professional boundaries.

While those in leadership roles may apply this type of pressure, it is actually far more common amongst peers on the team than one may realize. Sometimes this comes in the form of, “Hey, we’re behind. Will you stay and help me get this done? If we work together, it won’t take very long.” We have work wives, hubbies, and besties who may take this hit repeatedly due to the nature of this bond. Use caution when having those relationships at work. Consider your BFF’s boundaries—do you know what they are? When do you know you’ve crossed them?

For employees, here are some practical applications for how these scenarios can be handled:

  • Safeguard against scheduling and work-expectation miscommunications by discussing potential issues before there is a problem. Once you have clarified with management what is expected from the job, consider whether or not your boundaries align with what is expected of you.
  • Establish expectations for personal time. Are you off duty, or are you expected to still answer your phone if someone needs something?
  • Set a standard for yourself to not be the person who is always volunteering to stay late to get things done. “Every once in a while” is an exception, but don’t set a rule. Every single person working in the practice should abide by this. Respect one another’s time.
  • Repeated instances of working past close are more significant signs of management and resource allocation issues. Be sure you have the right people doing the right things to ensure efficiency and accuracy are happening simultaneously. Change the flow, adjust the schedule, or get more clarity on team responsibilities, if needed.
  • Take time off. Email and communications channels have status settings. Set your digital status to “away” to remind others you are just that—away! Display this status to reflect your commitment to your time off.
  • Do not respond to text messages or emails on days off. It can be hard to avoid knowing things are happening, but turning off notifications and avoiding email during a day off is certainly doable. People will learn not to reach out to you on these days because you will not get the message.
  • Use caution with workplace besties. Be sure to communicate with each other about what your boundaries are and what is important to each of you regarding your respective jobs and career. Murky boundaries can lead to the breakdown of a friendship and leave one (or both) parties looking for a new job.

2) “We’re short-staffed. Can you take on a few more tasks?”

Also called the “responsibility creep,” this boundary gets broken when your job description slowly increases over time (or all at once) because of a big event, like a team member leaving. Here’s a news flash, though: The practice will always be short-staffed. Management will always need to hire more people.

Shocking as it might seem, managers citing “staff shortages” as an excuse for overworking their team is not an impactful a rallying cry. Indeed, for most team members, the immediate internal reaction when they hear this is, “Yeah, that’s not my problem”—and they aren’t wrong!

Unfortunately, this becomes our problem when we allow the behavior to happen and take on the added responsibilities. If we do not express our thoughts and feelings, others are being conditioned to believe everything is fine. If you are not sure about what type of boundary you should adopt for this scenario, it may help if you question whether you are willing to be the permanent solution for this problem. Also, consider whether or not you have time to complete this additional work without compromising the main functions of your job. Remember, you are being evaluated on job performance and effectiveness in your role. Taking on more responsibility may hurt your chances of raises and promotions instead of helping.

To help set boundaries regarding staffing issues, consider these tips:

  • Ask your manager if you have time to complete this work without compromising the main functions of the role you were hired for.
  • Discuss if there are other parts of your current role you no longer need to complete to effectively take on the new tasks.
  • Ask yourself: Is this task something able to be delegated to someone else so you can perform your job at the optimum level?
  • Clarify and ask for a new job description outlining your added responsibilities. Discuss pay adjustments to accompany the new role. If this is a temporary situation, discuss the temporary pay adjustments during this timeframe.
  • Ask how long the search for a new hire will take. (While we all know it is impossible to guess how long it will take to replace a team member, it is important to make it known you are viewing this as a very short-term solution).

3) Double standard, easy solution

Staying late every once and a while to help out a colleague is OK, but no one should feel obligated to cancel or reschedule plans to make up for staff shortages.
Staying late every once and a while to help out a colleague is OK, but no one should feel obligated to cancel or reschedule plans to make up for staff shortages.

We have all worked with challenging team members. Often, these people are argumentative or combative, and management does not (or cannot) effectively deal with them.

Situations such as these are genuinely infuriating and exhausting for team members and leadership alike. I have had to manage a few of these scenarios throughout my career. It required diplomacy and finagling, and it wasn’t easy. In fact, these are among the most stressful management situations I have faced. It is challenging to try to please practice owners and team members while navigating a person with a complex personality, all while keeping human resources laws in mind. These pieces do not often all fit together.

As a team member in a practice, I have been on the receiving end of the “double standard, easy solution” scenario. I would often get asked to do an undesirable task—one which I was not the best candidate for—because the owner did not want to deal with the backlash of asking a difficult team member to do it. I would take on the task, begrudgingly. In doing so, I definitely trained the owner to know I would do what I was asked. I took ownership of their personal dilemma of being unable to deal with Prickly Peggy and, in turn, I became the solution. Prickly Peggy and the owner were off the hook, and I was on it. Every time I completed a task belonging to Prickly Peggy, I grew angrier and angrier. I was not the only one on the team who was angry. This is how Peggy was given the career of her dreams—doing only the tasks she wanted while others in the practice handled the rest. This frustration bled over onto reviews and raises. It was so deflating when everyone would get raises, including Prickly Peggy, knowing she doesn’t do nearly what everyone else does to contribute.

When setting boundaries as they relate to taking on the tasks of challenging colleagues, consider the following:

  • Be upfront, calm, and professional. Say, “I don’t have any more room on my plate for additional tasks currently. I want to be able to do as great as job as possible and taking on more would be jeopardizing my ability to succeed.”
  • Explain your concerns. Say, “I am bothered with taking on more tasks that are not assigned equally amongst team members.” This tactic is most effective if you share your thoughts in a way that is not up for debate and negotiation. State your feelings and establish your boundary. This reinforces your comfort level.
  • Seek support and ask more questions: “How am I supposed to do this additional work? Is there a plan in place that will allow me to succeed with this new task? Which of my tasks will be given to another team member?”
  • Ask for clarity and realignment: “Which of my tasks should I re-prioritize in order to complete this new one? Is this a new ongoing task I am now responsible for or is it a one-time thing?”

Stay strong

To help create a fulfilling career in veterinary medicine, here are six additional boundaries to keep in mind.

1) Keep it professional; not personal

Regardless of how close we are with our colleagues, the veterinary practice is a workplace. Your career is yours to manage. You can (and should) set limits to what you are able to do or absorb.

2) Be calm

You do not have to come to a fight on demand. Take the time you need to deescalate before attempting to communicate your boundaries. If you need a pause before talking about an emotional matter, simply state you need to table the discussion and will come back to the conversation—then, of course, be sure to actually return to it. Avoidance is not setting a boundary; it is inviting conflict again at an unplanned future date. The other person may want to circle back and finish the conversation when you are unprepared or even blindsided.

3) Say “no” to saying “yes”

Do not overextend yourself. Go above and beyond only when you have the capacity to do so. It is okay to say “no”—and it is a complete sentence.

4) Clarify your role

If you have a job description, review it. If you find your role evolving, discuss it with your manager. Make sure they are aware of what you are doing.

5) Lean into communication

Difficult conversations are just that—difficult. We tend to not express our feelings or boundaries because we do not want to hurt someone’s feelings. Reinforce the statement that a boundary is meant to support you and your health and never to hurt someone else. (Remember: Keep it professional; not personal.)

6) Explore your boundaries

Decide which of your boundaries are rigid and which are flexible. Consistency is crucial when setting these limits. Consider which boundaries are hard lines you will not cross, as well as situations where you would be comfortable making exceptions.

7) Find a role model

Look around you. Find the people you admire and figure out how they enforce their boundaries. Ask to buy them a coffee some time and talk to them about it. Take notes.

Setting boundaries does not always have to be done in the middle of a fight. Establishing your boundaries early and reinforcing them gently (but often) will remind people of the expectations, standards, and values you have set for yourself. Who knows—maybe you’ll end up being the role model someone looks to when setting healthy boundaries in their own career.

Rhonda Bell, CVPM, CCFP, CDMP, is founder and co-owner of Dog Days Consulting, a social media and brand management company. She spent 15 years as a practice manager working the day-to-day challenges of the veterinary practice and experienced firsthand the stresses, joys, communication dilemmas, and wonders of working in veterinary medicine. She now dedicates her work and energy to helping practices succeed online and to coaching team members with the skills that will hopefully prolong their careers.

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