‘Does My Boss Expect Me to Work Too Much?’

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Photo: Debrocke/ClassicStock/Getty Images

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Dear Boss,

I’m having a workload issue that I’d like to bring up with my manager, and I’d love some advice on how to frame it. I’ve been at my job for a little over a year, and it’s my first job since getting my master’s degree. I work for a biweekly magazine — I’m often working on short deadlines and juggling a lot of projects at once, but it’s not the sort of publication that covers a lot of breaking news. I’ll usually work nine to ten hours a day at work and then often send emails/do small tasks at home in the mornings or evenings or on weekends.

Even though we all work a lot, the general culture at my office is not one where people are expected to be on-call all the time. But lately, I’ve been getting many last-minute demands for things to be done urgently when they don’t need to be, to the point where it’s frequently causing me to cancel plans I’ve made in advance for my out-of-work hours. Sometimes they’re concrete commitments — I’ve had to miss classes that I’ve paid for in advance. Or sometimes they’re commitments to myself — like, I blocked out this evening to go to the gym and cook a healthy meal that’ll feed me for the next few days. If I don’t take this time to take care of myself, I know I’ll spend the rest of the week feeling behind and will probably blow my food budget on takeout. 

I work really hard, do far more than the minimum, and have never missed a deadline. My most recent performance review (from this manager, no less) was glowing. I often do say yes to these requests.
And of course, if something is actually urgent, I’ll attend to it promptly. So, it bothers me that when I do say that I’m not available for something outside of work hours that’s not actually urgent, I’m made to feel like I’m being unreasonable. 

Right now, I say something like, “I have plans tonight, but I can get this to you by 10 a.m. tomorrow” or “Yes, I can do A by X time, but I already have B, C, and D on my plate. How would you like me to prioritize these things?” But often, the response is one of tacit disappointment that I’ve given anything other than an enthusiastic, unequivocal YES — even though I know she won’t look at the thing until 10 a.m. the next day anyway, or that there’s no way I can reasonably complete A, B, C, and D in the time frame she’s asking for. I want to please my boss, so I usually end up taking on everything. But then I feel overburdened and end up skipping out on the things that I know make me a healthier, happier person, and frankly, a more productive employee.  

My boss definitely has a bit of the “I worked my butt off and worked terrible hours to make it in this field, so the next generation should too!” attitude. But I don’t see other employees at my level being asked to meet the same demands. How can I communicate more effectively to enforce some semblance of work/life balance without coming across as unmotivated?

Yeah, that’s annoying. If you were working a strict eight hours a day and refused to occasionally stay late when needed, I’d tell you that you needed to be more flexible — that many jobs, especially the interesting ones, will sometimes require that you deviate from a strict schedule.

But that’s not your situation at all. You’re routinely working longer hours, plus doing more work from home in the evenings and over the weekend, and you’re getting great feedback. And it sounds like you’re flexible when something is time-sensitive or important — you just don’t want to give up more of your own time when something could easily wait.

That’s all incredibly reasonable.

The fact that you don’t see other employees at your level being pressured in the same way is interesting. I’m curious about whether they do the same type of work as you do, since if their responsibilities are different, that could explain the disparity. But if they do roughly similar work to you, then the plot thickens! It could be that your manager has come to expect more from you — that you’ve been so flexible in the past that she now holds you to a different, higher standard, possibly without even realizing it. Alternately, it’s possible that your manager thinks you’re not pulling your weight in some way — for example, that you’re working at a slower pace than others — so she’s leaning on you harder than she’s leaning on them. But given the glowing performance review she gave you, I’m skeptical that that’s the case.

Whatever the explanation, the solution is the same: talk to your boss. Sit down with her and say something like this: “I want to make sure that we’re on the same page about how I’m managing my time. I put in a lot of hours and often work from home in the evenings or on the weekend. And when something is time-sensitive, I try to be flexible and accommodate it, and a lot of times have canceled existing plans to do that. So, I hope I have a good track record of being reliable and responsive!” (This part is important — you’re reminding her that you’re not someone who’s shirking work.) Then say, “Lately, though, I’ve been getting a lot more requests at the last-minute that would require me to stay late and cancel previous plans — which I don’t mind doing on occasion when something is truly urgent, but it seems to be happening more often. When I’ve tried to prioritize things, like telling you that I can’t do it that night but can have it to you by 10 a.m. the next morning, or that I need to reprioritize other work to fit it in, my sense is that you’ve seemed disappointed in me. But I didn’t want to assume that without talking to you about it directly.”

Stop there and see what she says, because it’s possible that you’ve been misinterpreting her signals. It’s possible that, yes, she’s a little disappointed when you push back on a timeline, but it’s still fine for you to do it. It’s also possible that your desire to please her is causing you to over-correct and cancel plans when she actually doesn’t expect that. If that’s the case, then the solution here doesn’t lie with your boss; it’s about you getting comfortable with the idea that it’s sometimes okay to say no at work, even when people aren’t always delighted by it in the moment.

But if that’s not the case, then say something like this: “I want to make sure that I don’t burn out in the long-run, and so when something can wait until the next day without real harm, I’d like to be able to make that call — and not have you think that I’m shirking my work! If you ever have a concern about my judgment in that regard, I hope you’ll tell me. But otherwise, I want to make sure that I can make responsible decisions that balance the needs of the work with my own need to have some down time.”

It’s possible that your boss just hasn’t stopped to think about how her last-minute requests for non-urgent work are coming across to you or how many of them she makes, or that she hasn’t thought about how often you are available after-hours. People in your shoes usually figure that their boss must be aware of these things — but as a manager, it’s easy to fall into a pattern of just throwing work at people without thinking too deeply about where the boundaries are. To be clear, good bosses don’t do that, but it’s a really common pattern for managers, and sometimes an explicit conversation will solve the problem.

If your boss is at all reasonable, the two of you should be able to get better aligned on how you should be prioritizing. But even if your boss isn’t reasonable, this will still be a useful conversation, because if it turns out that she does want you to be on-call 24/7 with no time for yourself, that’s important for you to know. At that point, you can decide if you want to stay in the job knowing what she expects (which still wouldn’t mean that you should bow to those demands, but you’d at least be prepared for her to be disappointed when you don’t).

Assuming your boss is reasonable, and that she agrees you shouldn’t cancel plans unless something is a true emergency, then after that some of the work shifts to you. You’ll need to believe that it’s okay to set boundaries and decline to cancel plans for non-emergencies. Your manager still might be disappointed in the moment when you say no, but you’ll need to resist whatever pressure you’re feeling (from her or from your own desire to please), and know that her momentary disappointment is not the same as thinking you’re not doing a good job overall. Hopefully, it will be a lot easier to do that once you’ve had an explicit conversation with her about it and laid out where you’re coming from.

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Does My Boss Expect Me to Work Too Much?