How to set boundaries and improve life balance


This veterinarian found happiness by taking charge of her career. Here's how.

It's OK to say “no.” Dr. Micaela Shaughnessy, a relief veterinarian in Alexandria, Va., has learned that those two little letters can have a dramatic impact on your life, leaving you with more time for family and friends-and yourself. Here's Dr. Shaughnessy's take on six types of boundary setting and how you can use them to find balance between your career and your personal life.

Work day boundaries

When I began relief work, I asked myself when I'd be willing to work-or perhaps more accurately, when I was not willing to work, and could I be paid enough if I only worked those hours? Was I willing to work weekends? Was I willing to work overnight shifts? Evenings? Holidays? Was I willing to be on-call? If I were on-call, how would I charge for that? Would I charge more for non-traditional hours? Did I want weekdays off so I could work harder on weekends for more pay? How many hours a week did I want to work?

I decided to limit my work to weekdays. No weekends-ever. No on-call situations. No overnights. No holidays. No exceptions

At first, it was awkward to turn down the weekends. I felt so guilty. I'd squeak out a small “no,” followed by a profuse apology, followed still by a long explanation of why I couldn't do it. I then offered suggestions for other relief veterinarians who could do it. It was crazy.

After a while, saying “no” became easier, even second nature. I realized that the world did not depend on me showing up whenever anyone asked me to. Owners found other veterinarians to work weekends, nights, and holidays, but they still kept me on for the weekdays. It was amazing.

To this day, most owners continue to ask me if I've changed my mind about weekends or other odd shifts, but now they aren't surprised when I simply say, “I'm sorry, I'm not available for that.” No explanations. No long-winded apologies. No guilt.

Work hour boundaries

Ah, the “split shift.” This, I discovered, is an opportunity to be away from home for an additional two unpaid hours during your workday. Despite what some potential employers have suggested, I do my shopping during my days off. I have no need or desire to go out to lunch during my workday. I am at work to earn an income, not to sample restaurants or comparison shop outfits at the mall.

A split shift is a double whammy. You are not paid for a two-hour lunch break, but you must take one. That forces you to go out and likely buy something (even if it is just lunch). This simply dilutes your daily wages and gets you home two hours later than you normally would.

With split shifts, I used the handy “no” again. I began explaining up front that I'm not available for a split shift. I've found that most veterinary practice owners are fine with that; they will ask, but are not surprised if you say “no.” If they unconditionally need someone to work a split shift day, then we are not a good fit.

Slow day boundaries

I've frequently been told, “You can go home now because it's so slow today.” This has turned into another great opportunity to set boundaries. As a relief veterinarian, it's my job to see clients, evaluate and treat patients, and perform surgeries. It's not my job to bring in clients. Why should my pay be docked for slow days?

Relief veterinarians' days are notoriously under-filled with appointments. I make it clear up front that I require at least eight hours of work. This has stood the test of time. Without my eight-hour minimum, I would have been told to leave work early on many occasions because the clinic hadn't filled appointment spots.

My mortgage company doesn't care whether a clinic is slow or busy. They demand a full payment at the beginning of each month. If I can't pay creditors because I didn't get paid a full day's wages, they come after me, not the clinic owner for whom I worked. So I set a clear boundary about my eight-hour requirement.

Payment boundaries

Before I began relief work, I talked to my accountant. I explained what relief work was and asked her how I might best benefit. She recommended not to let employers handle my taxes and that I should use legitimate business deductions (for example: insurance, professional memberships, home office space, and so on) that I had been missing. Based on her advice, I set up a Sub-Chapter S corporation for my veterinarian relief business. I became an “independent contractor.” I was no longer an employee. That concept alone helped me set boundaries.

I now pay my own quarterly estimated taxes and use all the business deductions that an S-Corp allows. Most importantly, I take home more of my hard earned money.

Now when I talk about compensation with potential employers, I clearly state that I'm an independent contractor-not an employee-that I have my own insurance coverage, that I will submit invoices, and that I need to be paid in gross wages. I've found that most clinics are relieved that I am not an employee. They don't have to worry about withholding taxes or handling paperwork, and they don't need to worry about their own workers' compensation or professional liability insurance coverage.

I also require payment within 14 days of working. In nine years I've had only three clinics not pay me on time. I went after those clinics. They eventually paid-and afterward, I terminated the relationship.

Driving boundaries

I used to drive all over the place on my own dime. Now I charge a daily trip fee for my relief work. I charge it based on time spent in the car, not distance. I live in a highly congested area. It can, at times, take me an hour to drive five miles. Miles and time in stop-and-go traffic greatly wears out a car. Additionally, gas prices have skyrocketed. If I don't get compensated for the depreciation on my car, gas, time, maintenance and upkeep of my car, and insurance costs, my hourly working wages are automatically depreciated.

Wage boundaries

There are three basic ways to charge for relief work. I've learned that two of the three prevent me from being justly compensated.

The first way is to be paid “per diem.” This is the situation when you are paid a set amount per day. Sounds promising, but the problem comes at the end of the day when an emergency comes in, or clients need to be called back, or appointments are behind schedule. These are all factors beyond my control. I realized that every minute I spent working over my allotted time, I was working for free. That's unacceptable.

Another way is to be paid based on production or on partial production. This also sounds good in theory. I have found, though, that clinics often have far too few trained technical assistants, that the appointments can be slow, and that the scheduling is disorganized due to an inexperienced or inefficient receptionist.

Often the most important factor beyond my control is the person entering charges. As the veterinarian, I can check off all the boxes on the travel sheet for the services that I performed, but if the fees for those services are not entered into the computer and the client is not charged, I'd be underpaid for my time due to factors beyond my control.

The last way is to be paid by the hour. It's the only way that assures I'll be paid for all my time spent at the clinic. If an emergency comes in as I am walking out the door, I'll be fully compensated for overtime. If the clinic is having a slow day, I'm still fully compensated for my time. If charges for services that I preformed are not actually being billed, I'm still compensated. In other words, the factors out of my control do not impact my wages.

I set my hourly rate with clinic owners before I begin work. The practice owner has a personal choice to hire me based on hourly wages. On some occasions I have not been hired. On other occasions, owners want to bargain with me. But those instances are rare, and I always remind myself, “Why would I want to work for someone who does not respect my wage boundaries?”

I also give myself a cost of living increase every year with respect to my hourly rate.

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