Boundaries You Can Set at Work

Written by Samantha Wall, LCSW

When we talk about boundaries and how to set them, it’s also important to discuss what work boundaries are helpful to set. Every person has their own needs and emotions, so individual work boundaries will look different for everyone, but there are boundaries that everyone can set to decrease work burnout and increase happiness in their work and personal life. Setting boundaries decreases work burnout because of the existing cycle of unhealthy work boundaries. The cycle starts when people try to infringe on you, your job, and your needs. If you do not set boundaries, you will sacrifice your needs and then others may expect that you will always be available. The expectation: you WILL sacrifice your needs for the person, the team, or your patients, no matter the cost. Again, I want to keep in mind that caring for patients is the job, and yes, it can be an emergency. It is important to assess what is an emergency vs. what is not part of your job. 


Some boundaries to set at work to decrease burnout: 

  • Prioritize the tasks you need to get done during your shift. If you don’t know what tasks you are responsible for, ask your supervisor. Write a check list, check in with your supervisor about what you need to get done, and have it documented somewhere what your specific tasks are for each shift. If you are able to remember all the different tasks you are responsible for and can keep a mental list, that also works! Knowing what you need to get done will help you set a boundary when needed! For example, I am sure you get asked to take on extra tasks; you can set a boundary if you do not have time. Your time is important (just like everyone’s is) and if you are constantly taking on extra tasks, that increases stress and makes it harder to get your job done! 

Example: Co-worker: “Hey, I really need help doing {task}, can you please get that done?”

Reply: “Hey, I am sorry, but I won’t have time to get everything done if I also add this to my list.” 


  • Use your PTO/take time off and do not pick up extra shifts if you need a break! Taking time off is VERY important to reset so you do not get burned out. When we work in stressful environments, our bodies and brains need time off to reset. When I find myself struggling to make it through the day, when little stresses affect me more than usual or my daily routines start to become hard, I know it is time to take a day (or more) off. Recognizing when you are hitting your limit is important so you can take time off when you need to. If you feel pressure to always work or pick up shifts, setting this boundary might be hard. Remember, you are not just your job! You are a human being with emotions, needs, and struggles. Just because your work might not have enough staff, that does not mean you ignore your own signals. You are not responsible for the lack of staff; you are responsible for providing the best services for your patients. If you need a break, you will not provide the best care. Another suggestion is to take time off periodically. You know yourself best, and if you usually need an extra day off every three months, you can schedule it and notify your work that you will be taking time off. Every place of work is different about time off, so talk to your supervisor about what that could look like for you and your needs. 


  • Take your breaks! Breaks are important and necessary, especially in a high stress environment. This provides time for you to take care of yourself and your needs, whether that is eating, using the bathroom, taking a moment for yourself, etc. Breaks are needed EVERY SHIFT. If you do not take a break during one shift because there is ‘too much to do,’ this will create an expectation that you will not take a break during other shifts either. I am not saying that, in the middle of an emergency, you should take a break because it was scheduled for that time, but after the emergency, make sure you set that boundary and take your break. 

Example: Co-worker: “We need you to do x, y, and z still, so you cannot take a break.”

Reply: “I will get x,y, and z done after my break.” 

Co-worker: “Well they need to get done now and then after those tasks there will be more to do, so you need to get that started now.” 

Reply: “I hear that there is a lot to get done, but I need a break to be able get all those tasks done. I will take my break and then I will get started.” 


This is a way to communicate that you understand the tasks need to get done, but you also need a break to be able to complete the tasks! 


Something that has stuck with me throughout my profession was something my first boss always communicated to us: there will always be something to do. Even if you work 24/7, there will always be another task to complete. So go home when your shift ends, turn off the computer, and enjoy your time off. Work boundaries, especially when you are in a high-stress role like nursing, are very hard to set because you want to help support everyone and keep everyone safe. You cannot take care of people when you are running on empty. Setting work boundaries is the best way to prevent that!


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