Are you constantly expected to be available, work late and respond to your boss’s every demand? Two women share how they broke free from an overbearing boss.
Ever had a boss message your personal phone at the weekend or insist that you join a call when you’re already winding down for bed?
Hybrid working and our always-on culture has blurred the boundaries of our work and home lives more than ever before. With many of us able to take Zoom calls from our kitchen table or get Slack notifications on the go, it’s hardly surprising that over a third of UK employees say that they work outside of their contracted hours.
But for some of us, the expectation to be available after our 9-5 ends goes far beyond the occasional emergency email. Stylist spoke to two women about how bosses with no boundaries impacted them.
Sonya, 28, lives in London and works in technology. She founded a social enterprise to empower minority women in tech after struggling with an overbearing boss.
“In the beginning, I had a cordial, professional relationship with my managers. However, as time passed, things started to go wrong. It began with microaggressions passed as ‘office banter’, or even getting my name wrong. But soon things started to escalate to a point where I felt isolated and miserable at a job that I was supposed to love.
There were so many instances where my bosses had no boundaries. I was often asked to come into the office earlier than everyone else, sometimes as early as 7.30am. Once, I went to an event at 6pm – outside of my usual working hours – and had constant messages on Slack asking why I wasn’t answering my phone and why I wasn’t coming back to the office to get work done.
My manager even asked me to cancel holiday because I had taken sick leave the week before, and there was a lot of administrative work to be done. The worst part was when I was told I was the best at operations and admin because I was Indian – the manager was caucasian, and I am actually of Pakistani heritage, not Indian.”
“I realised how toxic the environment was when it started to impact my mental and emotional health. I was going into work early and staying late. I was distancing myself from my friends and family, and I felt like I was losing my sense of self.
I wrote down all of the incidents in a document, which I sent to my manager and to HR. I asked for regular meetings and structured catch-ups so that we could find a solution, but I eventually ended up leaving because I realised that it just wasn’t the right space for me. Although I left an excellent salary, healthcare plan, and benefits, I got back my mental health.
Thanks to these lessons, I understand the importance of boundaries now that I’m a boss myself. I encourage my team to take days off so that they have a work-life balance, and I appreciate that when someone is working long hours I should try to compensate them in any way that I can. My experiences have taught me what bad and toxic managers look like, and now I can actively avoid any action or behaviour that can lead to that.”
Eva*, is a 31-year-old digital marketer from Manchester. She believes that a lack of boundaries is normal in the industry, and has struggled with the demands of her bosses.
“I’ve been in my industry for so long that it’s hard to know what’s even normal behaviour anymore. Beginning to work from home blurred the boundaries between work and home life, but to be honest, even before the pandemic I was expected to be available at all hours.
For me, the lack of boundaries is often social. For example, my boss once told me that we’d never be close because I didn’t smoke. I was also told that I’m not authoritative enough for being ‘too nice’ and asking people if they wanted a cup of tea. Pre-pandemic, my team would often socialise outside of work hours, and you would be expected to go out every Friday night or risk being excluded.”
“I’ve often had to make excuses to leave before 8pm, even when I’ve worked until 11pm most nights. I’ve been told before that I have to be online 24 hours a day, because when you’re working with social media you never know when there’s going to be a crisis. I was even told off for not being on emails when I took my first holiday in over six months, despite the fact that I was constantly on WhatsApp to my team throughout.
The worst incident was when I was seriously ill and taken to hospital – my boss was still insistent that they needed to ‘speak with me for five minutes’ about work. When my partner called them, they eventually conceded that I could take the afternoon off, which really should have been a given considering how unwell I was.”
Amanda Augustine is a career expert at TopCV. She shares her advice for dealing with a boss who doesn’t understand boundaries.
Identify your priorities and values
“Before you approach your manager with your concerns take a moment to consider what matters to you most, and what situations have compromised your happiness at work,” she advises. “For example, if your children are your priority and your manager constantly interrupts your time with them by setting up impromptu meetings, that could be your deal-breaker.”
Have a candid conversation
“It can be an uncomfortable conversation to have, but if your manager doesn’t seem to understand or respect your boundaries it’s important that you speak up and clearly communicate your needs. Take your manager’s communication style into account – for example, if your manager doesn’t appreciate people who beat about the bush then it’s best to be direct. However, if you’re concerned that calling a meeting specifically for this conversation might put your boss on the defensive, consider working it into another meeting instead.”
“It’s much easier to provide feedback to your boss when you can offer up clear and recent examples of when your boundaries were violated,” Augustine explains. “If you haven’t already, start documenting occasions when your boss said or did something that you found inappropriate that you can reference during this discussion. These can also help you to provide the records you need should things escalate and HR becomes involved.”
Explain your intentions
“Whenever you’re providing feedback, be clear about why you are doing so. For example, you might explain that you want to ensure that you and your boss’s expectations for workload or working hours are aligned. Or you could explain that you’re burning out and want to make sure that you can remain a productive part of the team. If you can tie your feedback to a business goal – such as revenue, productivity improvements, or reduced employee turnover – you might find your manager more attentive to your concerns.”
Reinforce your boundaries
“If your boss is a natural workaholic who doesn’t share the same values and priorities as you then you may need to do more than simply broach the topic. You should also look for ways to reinforce these boundaries through your actions – for example, by enabling working hours on your online calendar so that all of your colleagues can see when you’ll be available. It might be hard at first, but you’ll need to get comfortable with declining meetings outside of your working hours or delegating some of the items on your to-do list where possible. If your manager tries to engage you in gossip or overly personal conversations, be polite but don’t engage further.
Hopefully, your boss will take the hint.”