Your phone keeps ringing at 10 p.m. on a Wednesday. You wake up to a pile of emails at 8 a.m. on a Sunday. It’s not your bonkers ex — it’s your boss, bugging you with questions or information you don’t want to deal with during your down time: Your typical workdays are long enough.
Alas, it’s not just fictional bosses in films like The Devil Wears Prada who are “on” 24/7 and expect their direct reports to do the same. In a controversial interview published July 17, Erika Nardini, CEO of sports and lifestyle site Barstool Sports told Business Insider she expects employees to be “responsive” and even texts prospective hires on a Sunday to see if they will respond within a three-hour window. “I think about work all the time,” she said. “I want people who are also always thinking.”
Does this sort of attitude make you want to run for the hills? How do you say “stop” if your current supervisor constantly pings you long after work hours have wrapped — without losing your job? In some fields, that’s not an option.
“For some industries or positions, being on call 24/7 is actually the norm,” Marc Cenedella, CEO and founder of career site, Ladders, said in a phone interview. “Jobs like being a nurse, a systems administrator or a personal assistant for a rock star are all positions where you could be on call at any time.”
But those jobs are exceptions. Most regular nine-to-five (or even eight-to-six) gigs don’t truly require the type of attention that certain bosses demand. Alas, the growing intensity of American work culture doesn’t help matters — and millennial workers in particular feel guilty taking breaks, as a 2016 study by Project:Time Off and GfK found. Fears of being seen as replaceable or not dedicated enough are to blame.
That might be one reason why you feel compelled to take a call from your boss at midnight: “This is the first totally connected generation,” Katie Denis, senior project director of Project: Time Off told the Harvard Business Review. “From the day they came into the workforce they’ve had email. They’ve never really left a physical place and said, ‘OK I’m done for the day.’”
So how can you combat the pressure to be on call all the time — and still keep your job (and reputation)? Here are five big moves to make to break the cycle.
1. Get inside your boss’s head
Yes, your boss is sending you emails at 11 p.m., but does that mean you have to respond right away, or is it something that can wait until office hours? You might be pleasantly surprised by the answer if you simply ask for clarity.
“Find out what your boss is thinking, because sometimes they’ve found a quiet space late at night and are just able to send over information,” Cenedella said. “That may not mean you need to respond immediately, but you need to find out how they want you to respond.”
Arrange a one-on-one meeting with your boss and say — with a smile and in a friendly tone — “I noticed you are emailing me at 11 p.m. and I wanted to clarify with you what are your expectations,” Cenedella suggested. “Ask if the boss wants an immediate response or is the communication more of an FYI that can wait until business hours.”
This move alone could resolve the issue, especially if you ask in an open, flexible way — and suggest you just want to avoid miscommunication. Avoid a tone that makes it sound like you are angry or complaining.
2. Push back (gently) if your boss wants you to be on call nights and weekends
Say you ask your manager for clarity and get the answer that off-hours responses are expected — what then?
If that seems unreasonable because your industry does not actually demand 24/7 communication, carefully push back. Very graciously let your boss know that sure, you will respond immediately to any emergencies — and you plan to continue to perform at a high, productive level while at the office or otherwise officially on the clock.
But follow that up by saying you feel it is important to have some personal time — to rest and get ready for your next work day, as hiring management expert Alison Green suggested in U.S. News and World Report. After all, you’ll do better work if you are refreshed.
It’s okay to ask for boundaries. “As a general rule of thumb, 9 p.m. is the cut-off for all work calls,” Ladan Hayes, senior career adviser at CareerBuilder, said by email. “Ask that your boss only break this rule in the event of an emergency.” You can present a compromise solution, too, by suggesting a backup employee handle off-hour communication.
Just be sure you deliver this message in person, as texting or emailing your boss may make your point get lost in translation. There’s no replacing a face-to-face meeting, in which you can use body language and tone to express your position in a professional manner.
3. Negotiate your role
If the simple push-back method doesn’t work, it might be time to renegotiate your role. Whether it’s the 24/7 communication cycle or how you constantly have too much to do to fit within normal office hours, you may need to meet with your manager to discuss changing your position to work for both of you.
“Negotiate what you can both live with and come to a solution,” Cenedella said. Maybe, for example, you can agree to start work a little earlier each day so you can go off-duty earlier — or perhaps you can shift certain off-hour responsibilities onto a more appropriate employee.
If the agreement ends up requiring that you work additional “official” hours, you should always try asking for some compensation in return, whether more pay or vacation — or even a promotion.
4. Settle or search
If your boss takes a hard line with demands, it may be time to look for a job elsewhere. “If you’ve been reasonable and professional, but your boss has different expectations, it might be time to search for something new,” Cenedella suggested. And be wary if your boss catches wind you are looking for a new job — and then makes vague promises of a promotion or other advancements if you stay with the company.
“Get any promise of an advancement in writing, whether it’s in an email or through Slack,” Cenedella advised. Never hang your hat on any implied or vague offer, as your boss may never come through.
5. Make sure your next job is not 24/7
If your free time is precious to you, avoid working in an industry or position that demands round-the-clock work. “It isn’t uncommon to have a systems administrator in tech be on call late at night,” Cenedella said, for example.
You can check career sites like Ladders, Monster or Bureau of Labor Statistics for job descriptions that could help. If you are unsure about the level of communication commitment for a job during the interview process, be sure to ask the hiring or human resources manager.
You could also hit a professional social networking site like LinkedIn and ask others in a given field if they tend to be on call during off-hours. For inspiration, you could also check out Mic’s list of top jobs for work-life balance.
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