Business Briefs: Helping Veterinarians Establish Boundaries

Here are tips on setting your boundaries and dealing with people and situations that cross those boundaries. Brought to you by CareCredit.
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Workplace boundaries help you achieve and safeguard that work-life balance (and your sanity).

The Gallup's State of the American Workplace poll in 2017 revealed that 53 percent of employees say that a greater work-life balance is “very important” to them. Workplace boundaries help you achieve and safeguard that work-life balance (and your sanity).

Business Briefs, authored by Amy L. Grice, VMD, MBA, are available in each issue of EquiManagement magazine and are brought to for the remainder of 2021 in the magazine and monthly online by CareCredit

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These parameters may have to do with how much or what kind of work you are willing or not willing to take on—will you collect stallions or obtain spinal fluid in the field? What kinds of relationships you are willing or not willing to establish with colleagues and clients from work? When will you be available to clients and when will you not?

Boundaries are necessary because, too often, people push for what they want with no regard for your well-being. Creating boundaries in practice can seem tricky because there is the real worry of being fired by clients or receiving negative feedback from colleagues. Yet with clear communication, practice and preparation, it can be done.

When you respect your personal boundaries by holding firm to them, others typically will, too. Remember that “you teach people how to treat you” and “you teach what you tolerate.” It is often easier to set boundaries when you first start a job or a practice. “Start as you intend to continue” is good advice. Although boundaries are much harder to change in midstream, it is worth the effort.

Regardless of the appropriateness of your boundaries, there is likely to be pushback. Do not view violations of your boundaries as setbacks; instead, consider these moments as opportunities for you to communicate more clearly and improve on your boundary-setting skills.

Not everyone is going to totally understand your boundaries or even necessarily agree with them, and that is fine. You have them in place for a reason, and you need to respect yourself enough to claim some space.

There are three major types of boundaries:

  • Physical Boundaries: Your physical boundaries refer to the rules that define your personal space and touch (i.e., hugs vs. handshakes) in the workplace.
  • Emotional Boundaries: Your emotional boundaries might cause you to say “no” to certain tasks at work (e.g., euthanizing a healthy horse), and you won't allow others' attitudes to easily influence your own.
  • Mental Boundaries: Your mental boundaries refer to your thoughts, values and opinions on matters in the workplace. For example, you might have your opinion on how things should operate at work, and you won't allow someone else's ideas of how things should go to influence your own (e.g., you prefer to be called “Dr. Doe,” not “Dr. Jane,” and definitely not “Jane”).

Setting boundaries for your work will help you protect yourself from burning out and/or finding yourself in uncomfortable situations that might otherwise be avoidable.

When defining your boundaries, consider the number of hours you ideally want to work each week; under what circumstances and conditions you’ll work after hours; and to which people, if anyone, you’ll give your cell phone number.

Although these types of boundaries are harder for an associate to implement, they can help you to keep thriving in the equine veterinary field.

Setting boundaries is essential, because without them you will likely start to feel undervalued, underappreciated, disrespected or worse. Without this space carved out, your work can become all-consuming until you have nothing left to give.

It will help considerably to utilize the following recommendations:

1. Know your values. Understanding your values helps you figure out how to set boundaries and create systems that help you get your needs met. For instance, you might have several side passions that are important to you, such as your child’s sports team activities and competing your horse. Because you want to make time for those passions, you might have strict boundaries around working weekends routinely or being available at all hours.

2. Communicate your boundaries clearly. Lay out your limits very clearly. For instance, if you don’t want your colleagues and clients to contact you at all hours, verbally tell them the hours you will be available for work-related conversations in a matter-of-fact way. Obviously, it is also important to figure out what constitutes an “emergency” and clearly communicate that, as well.

3. Bring up a boundary violation right away. When your boundaries are violated, it’s not uncommon to get upset, ruminate about the situation for days or weeks, then bring it up much later, especially if (like so many veterinarians) you are conflict avoidant. However, so much can transpire during that time that the person who violated your boundaries might not understand where you’re coming from. Instead, reinforce and exercise your boundary in the moment or very close to it, because if you don’t, it loses its power and authenticity. For instance, if a client calls you after hours with a non-emergency appointment request—and you answer the phone—tell them clearly and politely in that moment that you are away from your appointment schedule. This is much more effective than making the appointment (grudgingly) and having your client share your willingness to cross your own boundaries with the local equine community, with you telling them two weeks later that you wish they hadn’t called after hours.

4. Create structure. One way to create structure and establish or reinforce your boundaries is to commit them to writing. This will help you stay on point and increases the chance that you will consistently follow and stay committed to them.

5. Set boundaries at home. For instance, you could check email before dinner, then set aside your devices (if you are not on call). That way, you can spend the rest of the evening with your family eating, watching TV, having a conversation with your partner, or reading bedtime stories to your kids. It’s also important to try to have at least one day each week when you’re completely off duty so that you can replenish your mental, emotional and spiritual reserves. Consider an emergency consortium of other local small practices to give you that space if you are a solo practitioner.

6. Prepare for violations. It’s helpful to visualize your boundaries getting crossed, then consider and even practice how you’re going to handle those situations. For instance, imagine a good client texts you on Saturday night with information about a pre-purchase exam scheduled next week. Then visualize processing your reaction and creating a plan of action. Will you reply right away? Will you respond Monday morning, apologize and say you were with your family? That way, when a moment such as this comes up, you won’t be hijacked by your emotions. You’ll be able to handle it much more rationally and refer to the protocol you already have in place.

Take-Home Message

Building boundaries takes time and practice, and your boundaries will get crossed. Instead of viewing violations as taking a step back, see them as an opportunity to gain insight and improve your boundary setting.

Examples of workplace boundaries could include the following:

  • saying “no” to scheduling routine appointments on the weekends
  • committing to your family time after work hours by not continuing to check emails and answering non-emergency calls
  • not answering non-emergency calls and texts after hours
  • giving yourself permission to say “no” to job opportunities that, while enticing monetarily or offering prestige, don't suit your lifestyle needs
  • utilizing your paid time off fully, or simply taking time off when you're sick, need a mental health day, have a funeral to attend, want to take a vacation or go to a horse show
  • turning down tasks that aren't within your current professional capabilities or that you simply hate doing
  • staying professional with colleagues, even if some of them are unlikeable, unethical or unsupportive

What are your most important boundaries?

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Disclaimer: This content is subject to change without notice and offered for informational use only. You are urged to consult with your individual business, financial, legal, tax and/or other medical providers with respect to any information presented. Synchrony and any of its affiliates, including CareCredit, (collectively, “Synchrony”) makes no representations or warranties regarding this content and accept no liability for any loss or harm arising from the use of the information provided. All statements and opinions in the article are the sole opinions of the author. Your receipt of this material constitutes your acceptance of these terms and conditions.

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