Does Your Job Expect You to Be Available Around the Clock?

Chinese businesswoman working late in office
By Alison Green

If you're like a growing number of Americans, you might feel like your work is increasingly encroaching on your evenings and weekends and that you're regularly expected to be available outside traditional work hours. If you're finding yourself emailing late at night or working on nonurgent projects over the weekend, you might be wondering how to regain your personal time – or whether that's even possible.

If your office expects you to be available outside work hours more often than you would like, here's what to do:1. Be realistic about the requirements and norms of your field. Some fields are notorious for having long hours, such as law, political campaigns and startup companies. In some fields, the norms mean you are indeed going to be expected to stay constantly plugged in. If you're in a field where this is the prevailing way of operating, you may need to decide whether or not you want the lifestyle that comes with doing that kind of work. There's no shame in deciding you don't, but in that case, you need an exit plan and a way into a field with different hours and expectations.

2. Be sure you're interpreting your workplace's expectations correctly. You might be assuming that when your boss emails you late in the evening or over the weekend, she's expecting a response quickly and that you can't wait until you're back in the office to field her query. Or you might assume that because you see others around you working long hours, the same is expected of you. And sometimes that may be the case. But plenty of the times, your manager will be just fine waiting until Monday for your response and is just emailing you on a Friday night because it happened to be the most convenient time for her.

If you're not sure, have a direct conversation and ask! It's reasonable to say something like this to your manager: "I'm assuming it's fine for me to wait to reply to emails sent over the weekend until I'm back at work on Monday, unless it's an emergency. Is that safe to assume, or do you prefer that I respond in the evenings or over the weekend?" You might find out that it's fine for you to wait. But if not ...

3. If your boss makes it clear that she does indeed expect round-the-clock availability, and you don't want to work that way, try pushing back a bit. For example, you could say: "It's important to me to have time to recharge outside of work. I will of course put in extra time when something is an emergency, but otherwise I prefer to use my evenings and weekends to recharge so that I'm refreshed when I'm back at work. Assuming I continue to perform at a high level, can we try that and see how it goes? If it causes problems, we could revisit it at that point."

4. Offer a compromise. Even in offices with demanding hours, you might be able to find a middle ground. For example, you might agree to check your email once each evening, but that you'll only respond if something is truly urgent; otherwise it will wait until the next business day. Or you might agree that you'll be reachable most evenings, but that on weekends you'll be truly off the clock.

The idea here is to have a discussion with your manager about what might work for both of you. (And if you're a good employee, your manager is a decent boss and the work allows for this kind of compromise, your manager should be motivated to try to find a solution that works for both of you.)

5. Know your bottom line. If your manager tells you that you are expected to regularly work in the evenings and over the weekend, and that that's not going to change, then you need to decide if you want the job under these terms, knowing that this is part of the package. But the key is to have this conversation and find out where things really stand, rather than just leave the topic unexplored.

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search and management issues. She's the author of "How to Get a Job: Secrets of a Hiring Manager," co-author of "Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results" and the former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management.
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