I want to start by saying that I know I'm in a very privileged position right now: I have a stable job, which I've been doing remotely from the comfort of my apartment for the past month. The issue I'm having is with setting boundaries.
Since we started working remotely, my workload has really ramped up. I'm generally happy to step up my game, keep the business moving, and help satisfy my company's founder, who is (understandably) pretty stressed right now. What I'm finding difficult are the expectations that because we’re at home all the time anyway, we should be online and available at almost all times. (And, to be clear, this is not a "we are desperately trying to keep things afloat and this is just for a few weeks or so while we’re in crisis" situation.)
It’s gotten to the point where I'm eating every meal (breakfast, lunch, and some dinners) in front of my laptop, and I'm checking Slack on my phone while I make a coffee from my kitchen. I'm also being asked to do extra work during the evenings some nights—not exactly because of the pandemic, but because everyone knows we’re all here anyway. Without the normal excuse of having plans, I'm finding it hard to say no.
I know it's a difficult time right now but, just a few weeks in, I can already feel myself and my colleagues getting seriously burnt out. How do I push back and set reasonable boundaries without looking like I'm not thankful for having a job or aren't willing to go the extra mile during desperate times? Please help!
It's one thing to ask employees to pitch in more during a crisis, but it’s not reasonable to treat you as if you’re on call 24/7 simply because your employer knows you’re stuck at home.
You’re allowed to do other things with your evenings and weekends! You’re allowed to watch movies, cook dinner, hang out with other people in your home, nap, stare out the window for hours recalling more carefree times... whatever you want. You haven’t given up your off-hours just because you’re working from home.
For that matter, you’re allowed to untether yourself from work for brief breaks during normal work hours too. If you were still working in an office, you’d wander to the kitchen, chat with colleagues, close your door so you could concentrate, and all sorts of other things that might make you temporarily unavailable to others. If you wouldn’t be nervously checking Slack while you made coffee at work, you don’t need to do that when you’re working from home either.
To effectively push back against this, the first thing to do is to examine how much of this is truly expected by your employer, and how much (if any) might be mistaken assumptions on your side. If your manager is explicitly asking you to do non-urgent work in the evenings or has directly told you that you’re expected to respond to things more quickly, that’s pretty clear. But sometimes work can make us feel like it expects constant access to us when in reality we could push back without repercussions.
For example, if you have a manager who emails you well into the evening, it can be easy to feel like you’re expected to respond right away. But in many cases, that manager just happens to like dealing with emails in her off hours but doesn’t expect anyone else to do the same. The same thing can be true of assignments that come in at the end of the day—you might assume you’re expected to tackle it right away, while your manager takes it for granted that you won’t deal with it until the next day or even later. Similarly, the fact that Slack messages are coming in at a far greater rate now might make you feel you need to be more responsive, even if your boss doesn’t actually expect that.
If you can’t point to anything more than the increase in communication, experiment with what happens if you just set different boundaries. You might find that you can take back your evenings and your coffee breaks and no one cares.
If these expectations are coming directly from your manager, you should still try setting boundaries and see what happens. If she asks you to do non-urgent work in the evening, try saying, “I’m not free to work on it tonight, but I’ll make it my first priority in the morning.” If she’s shameless enough to ask why you’re not available that night (and know that reasonable managers will definitely not do that), it’s OK to say, “I’ve got existing plans that I can’t move” or “I’ve booked that time with my family” (which you can say even if you live alone; it could be a scheduled group Zoom call, for all she knows) or so forth.
If needed, you can also address it head-on: “I’m finding that since we’ve been working at home, I’ve been feeling pressure to be available 24/7 and I’m concerned about burning out since we’re going to be doing this for a while. I’m trying to be disciplined about making sure I have time away from work where I can recharge, so I can continue to work at the same level.”
Don’t be afraid to talk to coworkers about this, too! You might find that when people see you setting healthy boundaries, they feel empowered to do it themselves. Sometimes these situations can become very “Emperor’s New Clothes,” where no one wants to be the first person who speaks up—but once one person does, other people feel comfortable joining in too.