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How to Set Boundaries With A Nurse Coworker

Gayle Morris, BSN, MSN
Updated April 6, 2023
    Setting boundaries with a coworker benefits your professional development and patient outcomes. Consider these tips for a smooth transition.
    Credit: LightFieldStudios / Getty Images
    • Setting boundaries with coworkers creates a healthy foundation for professional and collegial relationships.
    • Boundaries are not giant fences. They are ways to define relationships at work and home; nurses must develop professional, interpersonal, and personal boundaries to maintain their physical, emotional, and mental health.
    • Poor boundaries can make you feel taken advantage of and increase your workload, so it’s important to understand your limitations, communicate clearly, and address boundary violations early.

    Without boundaries, your personal and professional life can become overwhelming and stressful. Boundaries aren’t giant fences or stop signs but rather ways to define relationships that can lead to openness and transparency. Good boundaries help you build great relationships with friends, family, and coworkers.

    Some people can’t say “no” to a request, but that leaves them unable to say “yes” to something that may be more important later. This can have significant negative effects on your career and your personal life.

    Review the different types of boundaries and explore helpful tips to set boundaries with a coworker.

    Types of Work Boundaries

    Boundaries can help protect you and your coworker by clarifying your responsibilities, keeping you focused on productive actions, and preserving your mental and emotional energy.

    Boundaries Around Job Responsibilities

    This is a clear definition of the job role and responsibilities that establishes the accountable individual and does not leave room to blame others. Examples include:

    • Say “no” to working overtime when you are too tired, and it increases your risk of burnout.
    • Share two-person tasks with a coworker instead of only helping and getting no help yourself.
    • Identify when your boundaries have been violated and work with your coworker toward an equitable solution.

    Interpersonal/Communication Boundaries

    This describes the types of communication and interpersonal information that are shared during work. Examples include:

    • Communicate your feelings directly and responsibly without gossiping about other coworkers.
    • Define the information you choose to share about yourself, like thoughts, opinions, and private life, without allowing others to bully information out of you.
    • Keep your relationships with colleagues professional. Define clear structures for work.

    Personal Boundaries

    These boundaries help define a healthy work/life balance and reduce the potential you’ll experience burnout.

    • Prioritize self-care activities, such as exercise, good nutrition, time outdoors, and time with friends.
    • Expect your coworkers to treat you respectfully; politely stick up for yourself when they don’t.
    • Recognize your emotional reactions at work and be honest with yourself and others.

    5 Tips for Setting Boundaries With a Nurse Coworker

    Establishing and setting boundaries with a coworker can be challenging, but it’s critical to maintaining a healthy connection and working together as a team to provide excellent patient care. A lack of boundaries can make you feel taken advantage of, increase your workload, and raise the potential risk of burnout.

    Consider these five tips to help set healthy boundaries with a coworker.

    1 | Recognize Your Limitations

    To stay in control of your resources, you must be clear about your priorities. Before setting boundaries, you must know how much time and energy you have. You will have difficulty advocating for yourself when you’re pushed to your limit. This increases your risk of burnout and, for some nurses, can lead to leaving the nursing profession altogether.

    It is possible to identify your personal and professional priorities while considering the needs of the organization.

    2 | Communicate Clearly and Don’t Over Explain

    You must establish and communicate your boundaries clearly and professionally. Always address an issue calmly and directly with the other person. When you know and understand workplace policies and procedures, you’ll often find they are on your side.

    Use concrete language that leaves little to the imagination while also being respectful of the other person. For example, if your charge nurse asks you to take an overtime shift and you’re already feeling overloaded, don’t vent your frustration. Instead, communicate with a concrete statement like, “I would love to take the shift, but I’m so exhausted it will not be safe for me to work.”

    3 | Just Say “No”

    Most people have a problem saying no because it’s easier to sacrifice your own needs so you don’t upset someone else.

    However, when saying yes goes against your principles, forces you to sacrifice something important, or is just overwhelming, it is okay to say no clearly and politely. Although “No” is a complete sentence, you may feel more comfortable with a softer statement, such as:

    • “I would love to, but my plate is full right now.”
    • “I appreciate the offer, but I’m not interested in participating.”
    • “Thank you for thinking of me, but my schedule cannot accommodate that right now.”
    • “Thanks so much! I’m overcommitted now, but maybe I can help you in the future.”

    4 | Know Your Rights

    In every relationship, you have rights — whether this is with a nurse colleague, your nurse manager, or a personal friend or family member. To help establish your boundaries, you should know your rights. You have the right to:

    • Feel safe
    • Have your boundaries respected
    • Feel validated
    • Be appreciated
    • Be treated respectfully

    5 | Be Prepared for Boundary Violations

    Sometimes it won’t matter how clearly you set your boundaries. At one time or another, you will find someone who disagrees. It’s helpful to prepare yourself for confrontations by understanding where you can compromise and practicing patience with the other person.

    If someone tests your boundary, calmly explain your limitations but don’t over explain your reasons why. This only encourages the other person to debate your reasons.

    Many people over explain because they feel guilty about saying no or the boundaries they have set. Yet, boundaries allow you to advocate for yourself, protect your mental health, and improve your productivity at work.

    Addressing Boundary Violations

    When a boundary has been crossed at work, it is important to address that violation as soon as possible. Waiting to speak with the individual can let things fester and increases the chances you’ll be angry when you speak to the person.

    It’s also crucial that you are calm and address the issue professionally and assertively but not aggressively. Use clear and concrete statements so the individual has a better chance of understanding what you’re saying. Concentrate on communicating compassionately that you expect your boundaries to be respected.

    Some people find it easier when they have a response prepared. For example, you could say “I don’t feel like you’re respecting my boundaries” or “That doesn’t work for me.” Not addressing violations can take a toll on your emotional, mental, and physical well-being.

    It is helpful to understand and believe your worth to the job so you have the confidence to address a boundary violation. You are your first and most important patient. Your mental health plays a unique and primary role in your ability to advocate for your patients and protect your boundaries.