We need to talk about boundaries in the workplace.

It’s critically important that individuals learn how to create and uphold healthy boundaries in their lives in order to be well. But all the boundary-building in the world won’t help your staff all that much if your organizations don’t have policies and a culture that supports their efforts.

Let’s be honest: most animal shelters, veterinary clinics, and other animal care and welfare organizations have weak, if not non-existent, boundaries. We’re not alone in this – most non-profits and healthcare settings are the same. We’ve gotta do better.

Why should you care? Because organizations with crappy boundaries create the perfect conditions for their staff to develop burnout and compassion fatigue. That’s bad for them, it’s bad for those you serve, and it’s bad for your bottom line. So let’s talk action steps:

1. Get real about job descriptions.


If you want to reduce burnout and compassion fatigue at your organization, start by looking at job descriptions.

Sarri Gilman’s book Naming and Taming Overwhelm reminds us that self-care at home can do a lot of things, but it can’t fix a job with a never-ending, demanding, unreasonable list of expectations that can never be met during work hours. It’s a recipe for overwhelm and burnout.

From Sarri Gilman’s Naming and Taming Overwhelm


So if your organization is telling employees to take better care of themselves, but their job descriptions are outrageous…whelp. That’s on you.

What are your expectations of your staff? Can they ever realistically fulfill them given the limited resources they’re working with each day? Are they doing the work of three people? Job descriptions (hours, tasks, responsibilities) need realistic boundaries. Sit down with your staff and work this out.

2. Neutralize taking breaks.

In our work culture we tend to celebrate “selfless giving” and throw shade at people who try to set limits. Taking a break becomes a personal choice fraught with emotion and can be weaponized against them.

Organizations can take the choice away, so that taking a break isn’t a referendum on any single person’s work ethic and there are clear policies about what is and is not okay to do. Normalize healthy limits.

Consider creating mandatory breaks for your foster families in between animals.

For example: implement a one week break after foster kittens go back to the shelter. Try a one month break after a long-term, behaviorally-challenged dog gets adopted.

Help families avoid burnout by creating the norm of taking a break between new animals. It’s not on them to decide. This reduces their guilt.

This also goes for staff. Take a hard look at how much work they’re taking home and the toll that’s taking on them.


Develop a break-positive culture at work to reduce individual decision-making.

My husband is in a union. He is required to take a 30 minute lunch and a 15 minute break every day at the same time. If he wants to skip a break or the team foresees a problem with the break schedule because of something urgent, they need to speak with the Foreman to get permission to work through their break.

He doesn’t ask permission to TAKE the break. He has to ask permission to NOT take the break. Breaks are the norm.

Breaks are not a reflection on an individual’s work ethic or commitment to getting the job done. It’s simply the way it’s done.

If someone resists taking a break, my husband’s coworkers remind them that’s not how it works. There is no decision fatigue. They know it’s okay to take the break, how long to take, and when to do it because it’s decided in advance.

No guilt. No judgement. And no one is abusing their break or leaving their coworkers hanging around wondering when they’ll be back. Clear boundaries for the win!

If your staff refuses to take breaks and vacations, you need to find out why they don’t feel safe enough to take a time out. What are they worried will happen? What do they need in order to feel okay about stepping away for 15 or 30 minutes? How will you, as their leadership, address it?

The same idea goes for communicating after work hours. This is a whole blog in itself. Make it the norm that non-urgent calls and emails are to be ignored until work hours. Set boundaries around tech for your staff, so they can feel safe ignoring their devices for a few hours.

THEY ARE NOT ROBOTS. PEOPLE NEED TO REST.

3. Pay them to transition back to their personal life.

Give them time on the clock to debrief at the end of their shift. This helps them create a boundary between work and home because you’re giving them 10 minutes to process what they experienced that day, so they can leave it behind.

They can debrief with their supervisor, with their team, with the person taking over for the next shift, or by themselves with a journal. The point is to make debriefing a part of their daily routine. Regularly downloading their day helps your staff to create a healthy boundary, so they can go home a little lighter and come back in the morning with the internal resources to take on new challenges.

4. Enforce a zero tolerance policy for toxic, boundary-breaking behavior among staff.


Leadership needs to monitor the boundaries between their employees in high stress, emotionally charged workplaces. As compassion fatigue levels rise, so does lateral aggression aka workplace bullying. Relational boundaries are going to get crossed. It’s the job of leadership to watch for it and address it in a timely fashion.

“If there appears to be animosity between certain employees, be sure to keep an eye on their relationship both inside work and outside work. If a member of your team is taking their work home with them, because another employee is pushing them to, without your consent, you need to implement rules that state staff should only be contacted at work, unless you, as a manager, have granted permission to do otherwise.” – Steve Pritchard, HR Rep

In addition to what’s mentioned above, be on the lookout for: gossip, passive aggressive behavior, individuals being ostracized, and other forms of bullying. These are red flags that people are not doing well and need you to pay attention.

Finally, every leader has to deal with at least one relentless boundary pusher on their staff. This person who refuses to adhere to the rules and always has a good excuse for why they need special treatment.

You want a zero tolerance policy with them too, because they are vampires who will suck your goodwill dry. No matter how much you give, it won’t be enough. So set a hard line and uphold it. It’ll save you a ton of time and energy.

Here are 4 steps you can use to set boundaries with your staff based on the CARS model:

  1. Establishing your boundary, by focusing on the behavior you do want.
  2. Clarifying the policy, by focusing on the behavior the organization wants.
  3. Explaining what the consequences will be for not doing the positive behavior.
  4. Follow through with the consequences if the positive behavior is not done.

These are some of the ways I’ve seen organizations step up their boundary game to create healthier workplaces. What’s working for your org? Tell me below in the comments. I really want to know!

Further reading: Setting Boundaries at Work by Penn Behavioral Health

How to handle employees who are relentless boundary pushers

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