On call 24-7? How to take your life back

April 17, 2015, 12:00 PM UTC
working late
working late
Photograph by Jetta Productions—Getty Images

Dear Annie: Would I be committing career suicide if I asked my team leader to back off a little? When I started this job five months ago, I assumed that, since he has three small children and a wife who also works full-time, my boss would honor my need for some personal time on evenings and weekends.

Boy, was I wrong. Right from the get-go, he has texted and emailed me at all hours of the day and night, and several times I’ve been handed a project on a Friday that has to be finished by Monday, so the weekend is shot. My coworkers, who have all been here a lot longer, seem to be used to this, but having essentially no downtime is starting to get to me. Now that I’ve been putting up with it for a while, is it too late to speak up and set some boundaries? — Fed Up

Dear Fed Up: No, it isn’t too late. “Some people have to be on call 24/7, but it can’t go on indefinitely. Even webmasters and surgeons get time off,” notes Dana Brownlee, head of Atlanta-based executive coaching firm Professionalism Matters. The sooner you bring this up, the better. “You don’t want to wait until you begin to burn out and the quality of your work starts to suffer.”

And suffer it probably will, eventually. Evidence is growing that helping employees set boundaries leads to fewer mistakes, less needless stress, and lower turnover. Since your boss doesn’t seem to have gotten that memo, you’ll have to train him yourself. Brownlee has these suggestions for you on how to do that:

Ask for his advice. “Say something like, ‘I really want to do my best work here, and make sure you get exactly what you need, but to do that, I need to preserve some balance in my life,’” says Brownlee. “Then say you’d really appreciate his thoughts on how to do that.”

Most managers will say they want to respect people’s personal time, she notes, so “ask how you should handle it if, in the future, your workload seems to dictate violating your boundaries. You’re in essence asking for permission to push back” — and putting him on notice that you’ll be incommunicado nights and weekends.

Honor your own boundaries. Stick to your guns. Old habits are notoriously tough to break, so even after he knows you aren’t available around the clock, your boss may keep pinging you. In that case, “ask him to help you prioritize” and identify, for instance, which tasks really have to be done immediately and which can wait a little. “This approach minimizes your risk of being seen as a whiner,” Brownlee says, and puts the emphasis on the work.

“If you get assigned on Friday to do something that’s due Monday morning, simply state that you have an important outside commitment. Don’t feel that you need to explain it,” she adds. “It’s completely appropriate to gently remind management that, barring emergencies, you don’t work weekends.”

Let’s say that, once in a blue moon, you choose to email your boss during your downtime. “Acknowledge it as an exception in the email, as in ‘I wouldn’t normally send you this on a Saturday, but…’” Brownlee suggests. “Or consider setting up a delayed email that will send during regular business hours.”

Consult your coworkers. Brownlee says that a workaholic boss is usually “the elephant in the room. If having no boundaries is frustrating to you, it probably is to others as well” — but, like you, they may be hesitating to speak up. Anonymous 360-degree evaluations “often bring these work-life issues to the fore,” she adds, but if that’s not an option at your company, “talk to one or two peers you trust, and plan to meet with the boss to bring this up together.”

If at all possible, suggest a solution that could benefit everyone. Brownlee has advised overburdened teams, for example, who “were able to hire an intern or an assistant to take on the routine work, so that everyone else’s time was freed up a bit for the more time-consuming tasks.”

Give it a couple of months first but, if all else fails, think about looking for a different boss, either inside the company or elsewhere. But this time, don’t assume anything. Try to speak with at least a couple of people who already work for this person, and “not just the ones [the hiring manager] has handpicked for you to meet,” Brownlee says.

“No company or boss is perfect, but a good question to ask is, ‘If you could change two things about working here, what would they be?’” she adds. “And if you can, instead of asking prospective colleagues something general like ‘Does this manager encourage work-life balance?’ be specific. Ask them how often, if ever, they get emails and phone calls on evenings and weekends” — and, of course, how many project deadlines happen to fall on Monday mornings. Good luck.

Talkback: Have you ever reported to a workaholic boss? How did you handle it? Leave a comment below.

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