Broken Boundaries in the Office: Setting Boundaries in Your Dental Job

by | Feb 27, 2023 | Dental Assistant, Dental Hygienists, Dental Job, Dental Professionals, Work Life | 0 comments

Setting boundaries with yourself, your spouse, friends, family, and even your phone has become a very popular talking point these last few years.  

It is viewed as one of the most important pieces to mental health and self-care, and many have felt the positive effects of setting boundaries.  

Setting boundaries in my work setting has always been challenging for me. Of course, I don’t want to disappoint my boss, clients, or coworkers. But when I set boundaries, I find more success and happiness in my career.  

Setting boundaries in a dental office, though… that brings on a whole set of challenges. Everything about working in a dental office is so intimate.  

  1. You work in extremely close proximity to your employer (literally within inches of each other for hours a day).
  2.  Your team is small and close (like a family), with everyone having a very specific set of duties and skills that only they can do.
  3.  Your patients tend to ask pretty personal questions that make you feel uncomfortable but for some reason you feel obligated to answer them.  

In a work environment, setting boundaries might feel impossible. But if you are starting to feel burnt out, anxious, or are in a constant state of feeling uncomfortable, setting boundaries in your Dental Job may be your saving grace.  

First off…

What does setting boundaries mean? 

According to IPFW/Parkview Student Assistance Program:

“A boundary is a limit or space between you and the other person; a clear place where you begin and the other person ends . . . The purpose of setting a healthy boundary is, of course, to protect and take good care of you” (n.d.).

Healthy boundaries are a crucial component of self-care. That’s because “in work or in our personal relationships, poor boundaries lead to resentment, anger, and burnout” (Nelson, 2016).

I interpret this to mean that in order to set boundaries, you need to figure out what makes you uncomfortable, anxious, resentful, etc… Then, you set a boundary in any areas of your life where you feel those feelings coming on. 

One simple boundary I have is that 2 cups of coffee makes me anxious. So 7 or 8 months back, I set the boundary that I would only have 1 cup of coffee a day. The first few weeks were extremely uncomfortable and challenging, but now my anxiety levels have dropped drastically.  

How to Set Boundaries

This is actually a pretty tricky process. First, you have to do some soul searching to find out where you need to set boundaries.  

This process can be different for everyone, but I took steps to set my boundaries. 

#1  Write down and document how you feel throughout the day. Nothing big, my daily to-do list, as a corner that includes actions and causes. 

For example:

  • Ate a cookie – tummy hurts
  • Gave a client (who didn’t deserve it) a discount – annoyed and resentful towards the client.
  • Husband left his dirty plate in the sink – told him to put the plate in the dishwasher – happy :). (clearly the husband boundaries are strong).

And on any given day, I end up with 5 or 6 of these.  

#2 Review your notes  – As I’m wrapping up my day, I look at feelings and work through how I am going to set boundaries to not have that happen again. 

  • Ate cookie – tummy hurt – next time I want a cookie, I will remember the tummy ache and reach for something more nutritious.  
  • Gave client a discount – I make talking points about why we don’t give out discounts and why our service is worth their time and money. I will practice this so next time I’m prepared.
  • Husband/dish – celebrate my win in holding my boundaries.  

#3 Get uncomfortable – Setting boundaries is uncomfortable. It really is. And it is like mastering any skill. You have to stay consistent in order for it to work. And then it simply becomes 2nd nature.  

#4 Cheat – Not cheating per se, but you need to set boundaries if you know. You are struggling to document your feelings (You are running around an office all day, it’s not like you can stop and journal whenever you need to), you can look up common boundaries and how to set them, and simply get started with the ones you feel are most important.  

This article is one of those cheat sheets. I am going to discuss boundaries that often get crossed in a dental office and give you ideas on how to set them.  

Common Boundaries Crossed By Patients

Touching or inappropriate comments – We have all been there, and depending on the interaction, we could be left feeling icky for days or sometimes years.  

If you have a handsy patient, try:

“I’m not a hugger; we can shake hands instead.”

If inappropriate comments:

I love the “I’m not sure what you mean, can you explain?” That usually shuts them up.  

But the quickest way to stop them is “Inappropriate jokes (or comments) never sit well with me.”  

Asks too many personal questions – These patients mean well, but they also don’t know what triggers you. So when a question is asked that you don’t feel comfortable answering, try these. 

  • “Oh, a lady (or gentleman) always keeps personal matters out of the office.”
  • “I was raised to never talk about politics, religion or whether the toilet paper roll should go over or under.”
  • “Oh goodness, I love coming to work for a little reprieve from all this stuff.  How about you tell me about your favorite vacation destination.” 

For more help to set boundaries with patients:

6 Conversations to Avoid in Your Dental Practice – and how to avoid them.
How to Handle a Difficult Dental Patient

Common Boundaries Crossed By Coworkers

Oversharing – you spend 30 to 40 hours with your coworkers every week. As a result, you end up feeling more comfortable with them than with your own family sometimes. But setting and keeping boundaries is needed to keep a harmonious work environment.  

So when a coworker overshares, whether that be gossip, their relationship or financial situation, or how much they hate their job, it will do you some good to nip it quickly. Try these –

  • “I’m gonna be honest, I am not in the right headspace for this conversation right now.”
  • “I feel like this is something you might regret telling me later, are you sure you want to proceed.”
  • “I’m going to give you a few minutes to work through your thoughts, I’ll be back once you have calmed down a bit.”  And then obviously step away. 

Asking you to do their job – This one seems to be happening more and more from what I hear. And this should be the most manageable boundary to set.  

I mean, if they are being rude enough to ask you to do their job on top of your job, then you can be rude enough to say no. 

With that being said, I am all for team player action, but if it is a repeat offense, or they are asking you to do something you hate – cough “recare calls,” cough – then here is your response. 

“I’m too busy with my own work right now. Sorry.”

“I’m terrible at those; how about I help with [item you don’t mind doing], so you can get those done.”

“I feel like I have been helping out a lot with this lately; I think you should talk with [office manager or dentist] to let them know you have too much on your plate.”

In the beginning, talking to your coworkers like this might be scary, so if you need to work your way up to it, a simple “I have to pee.” Getting yourself out of a sticky situation will work. But only use it once or twice; you NEED to get comfortable being UNCOMFORTABLE, so you can properly set boundaries. Plus, you don’t want them thinking you have bladder issues. 

You can find more co-work boundaries you can set in these posts –

8 bad habits that are making your dental job less enjoyable.
5 tips to handle negative coworkers

Boundaries Crossed By Dentist or Manager

Asking you to do something when you are off the clock – This could be innocent. You are hanging out in the breakroom, and the office manager comes in for something else, sees you there, and then asks you to do something. Even if it is simple, it crosses a boundary that you need to set.  

  • “Sure, just let me get clocked back in.”
  • “No prob, can it wait until my break is over and I’m clocked back in?”

Asking you to do something after you clocked out for the day – If it is something you are supposed to do and didn’t, then she is in her right. But make sure you clock back in to do it. If it is something you don’t usually do…

  • “That’s new, is this a new duty I should add to my daily routine?  Let me get clocked back in and I will do that.”
  • “I already clocked out, can it be done tomorrow morning?”
  • “I’m running late to [pick up kids, workout class, etc.], I will have to do it tomorrow. Bye.”

Asking you to clock out when there are no patients This one is always wrong and should never be tolerated no matter the circumstances.  

  • “I was promised 32 hours a week when I accepted this job, if that is not the case, please let me know.”
  • “How long do you want me to be clocked out, I will go run some errands.” -if they ask you to stay in or close to the office say “If I’m clocking out, I am going to use that time as I see fit, now what time do you want me to clock back in?”
  • “I have work I have to catch up on like, stock the shelves, I am going to stay clocked in to do that.”

Keeping the schedule ridiculously full even when short-staffed or not scheduling the appropriate amount of time for the patient’s procedure – 

  • “I can’t handle this schedule, you will have to reschedule a patient.”
  • “This procedure needs [x amount] of minutes, the schedule needs to be reworked to accommodate that.” 
  • “I am having lunch at [time]. Just so you are aware.” – You can even start putting your lunch breaks into the schedule if needed.
  • “If you keep scheduling like this, and don’t hire someone, I will have to look for work elsewhere.” – this one needs to be saved if you are at your absolute breaking point.  But with the market being as it is, your office will likely rather accommodate you than lose you.  If they don’t change their ways, head to DirectDental and start looking for work.  

These are just a small handful of boundaries that get crossed in Dental Offices. I hope this list helps you identify and set those boundaries for a happier and more productive work environment.  

Please note – these comments can sound aggressive when just reading them. So make sure you practice saying them in a way where your body language is friendly but still firm. And I know saying these will feel uncomfortable at first, but once they are said, you will feel a weight lifted off your shoulders. So please try it!

Here are a few more articles that may help you identify and set more personal or professional boundaries.  

Self Care Tips for Dental Professionals
12 easy tricks for Dental Professionals to Increase Their Energy
5 things Dental Professionals Stress About but Shouldn’t
How to make your Dental Practice Less Awkward 

Do you have any boundaries that you need help with? Leave them in the comments!


Holli Perez 

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