Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images


Does your boss expect you to put your job before your life?

A new survey has found that around 30% of people in the UK would answer “yes” to this question. This needs to change, says Harriet Minter

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By Harriet Minter on

A few years ago I went on a yoga retreat. Knowing that I’d be high up in the Portuguese mountains and that the wifi probably wouldn’t be that good I made sure my out of office would let everyone know I was unavailable. It ran as follows: 

“I’m currently half way up a mountain practicing my downward dog. The wifi is limited so the chance of me getting back to you quickly is also limited. I will be back in a week’s time but if it really, truly cannot wait that long you can contact…” 

When I finally floated into the office, all zen, the following week a few people questioned my wording. Did I think it showed the appropriate level of commitment to my work? Wasn’t I worried that I would have missed something after a week of no contact? And most importantly, what did my boss think?

This fear that our manager might think we prioritise our own life over our work life is one that runs deep. A recent YouGov survey found that a third of us believe our boss expects us to put work before family and that we should be on call 24 hours a day. The survey also found that around 30 per cent of employees came into work even when they were ill, and that 21 per cent felt their manager disapproved if they took time off to care for a loved one. Never mind working from home, it seems we’re too afraid to even mention that we might leave the office at the end of the day. 

This obsession with being constantly “on” has been driven by technology and the globalisation of work. I’ve known people to finish a piece of work by lunchtime but not send it to their boss until after midnight, so keen are they to not be seen as shirking. I’ve also had friends cancel a night out at the last minute because their boss has emailed a request for the next day or sit through dinner twitching with the need to check their email, just in case they’ve missed anything. Worst of all, I’ve been both of those people.

Never mind working from home, it seems we’re too afraid to even mention that we might leave the office at the end of the day

For women, surrounded by messages that tell us to work hard and make sure we finish everything perfectly, this 24/7 work culture can be particularly gruelling. Previously we wouldn’t have been able to take work home with us and so we would spend time with family, take part in hobbies and sleep. Now there’s a voice that niggles in our head as we sit down to watch Bake Off, should we be worrying about Andrew’s petit four or should we just quickly respond to that email that’s come in? And maybe the one after it. 

This all gets so much worse when you have a family. Whilst men with children outearn their childless counterparts, women who’ve dared to breed are financially penalised for it. It’s assumed they simply won’t be as committed or determined, that they’ll put their family before their work. So women come back from maternity worrying about leaving their child and worrying that they won’t be taken seriously anymore. But, why shouldn’t your family come before your work? 

Given a very few exceptions, I’m thinking world leaders and the sort of brain surgeons only seen in Grey’s Anatomy, there is no problem that can’t either wait or be dealt with by someone else. Someone who is regularly abandoning their family in order to check that tomorrow’s pitch is absolutely perfect needs to take a long, hard look at their priorities. This goes for men as well as women.

For women who are worried that they’re going to be judged more harshly now that they’ve had children maternity coach and founder of Bumps and the Boardroom, Lisa Barnwell, says the most important thing is to have confidence in your ability.

“Many of us don’t switch off from work for fear that someone else will be slicker, faster, quicker. Trust in your ability and let go of the competitiveness around you, you will perform better and feel more empowered. Also, make sure you value your time and don’t be bullied into perceived expectations. Many new mums struggle to adjust to leaving early for the nursery pick up or taking time out for pre-natal appointments even though they are delivering in their role. Drop the guilt and deliver what’s due, not way over and above.” 

I really love my job but not even I want to think about it all day, every day and the reality is that this doesn’t make us the best employees. We all need downtime to recharge, reassess and come back with enthusiasm, and really most employers should support this. If you find yourself working for one who doesn’t, then vote with your feet and go elsewhere. Just because we’re able to work 24 hours a day doesn’t mean we should and the best bosses know this.


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