my husband’s boss is overworking him, and my husband won’t push back

A reader writes:

My husband has worked at his job — a small business — for a year. He was hired as a low-level worker but was paid more than most and told that the boss (aka owner) had big plans for him. After 3 months, he requested and received a raise. By that point, things were already getting bad because he was constantly being called and asked to work extra shifts. He always agreed, taking away from our time together and wearing him down physically. He was afraid to say “no.”

A couple of months later, he was given a supervisor title and another raise. That’s when things got really bad. His responsibilities grew enormously. As time went on, he gained more and more responsibilities. His supervisor was demoted and he began handling many of those responsibilities too. He was given on-call 24/7 but has never been compensated for the time (he is hourly). He gets calls and text messages at all hours. It wakes both of us up and requires him to spend 15 minutes to an hour dealing with problems. Again, he refuses to set a boundary because his boss is volatile, unpredictable, and passive-aggressive at times.

In light of his hours — sometimes being 2-3 hours later than planned and never working a regular shift — I’m feeling more and more left out of the picture. He is acting as an administrator with high level responsibilities, but he is being paid as a low-level hourly supervisor. The other supervisors don’t have any of these responsibilities. I have begged him to set basic boundaries (insist on being paid for the actual work time required on-call, not be available for shifts longer than 12 hrs, not be on-call 24/7, etc.) and to ask for a significant raise and title appropriate to his duties. He refuses because he says he is afraid of being demoted. This is not just hurting our relationship — it is hurting his health. Suggestions? I appreciate his commitment and understand his fears (he is over 50 and is afraid of not being able to get another job, yet he has no time to even apply) — but how is it ok for a boss to act like this?

Your problem is not with your husband’s boss; it’s with your husband.

I know it’s much easier to blame the boss for all this … but your husband is the one who’s answering those calls, agreeing to work those extra shifts, and not setting boundaries.

In some regards, you’re actually being unrealistic by expecting his employer to set boundaries for him; if he’s showing willingness to pick up extra shifts and take off-hours calls, it’s not surprising that they’re going to take him on up it.

Now, they’re absolutely in the wrong if they’re not paying him for the time he’s spending working … but if he hasn’t even raised this with his manager, there’s a limit to how outraged you can be. He needs to raise it. It doesn’t need to be a big, scary thing; it’s just a matter of saying, “During my on-call hours this month, I did 12.5 hours of work. How do I report that?”

It’s also possible that this is simply the job. Having to work 2-3 hours later than planned is actually normal in some jobs. So is being on-call. This might simply be the nature of the job, not any particular abuse by the employer — and if that’s the case, then your husband has to decide if he wants this job, with these particular conditions, or if he’d rather look for something else.

Regardless, your husband is making the choice not to set any boundaries, so it’s not surprising that there aren’t any boundaries in effect. If he’s willing to try to start to set some, the easiest place to start would be with the extra shifts. The next time he’s asked to take on extra shifts, he needs to say, “No, I have plans that I can’t cancel.”

And the next-easiest place to set boundaries is with the on-call time. He should talk to his boss and say, “I need to cut down on the amount of time I’m on-call” and work out a better schedule for that.

My advice is to encourage him on those two fronts, and lay off him on the raise and title fronts (since as an outside observer, you’re really not in a position to know if those are sensible or not, and you’re going to need to defer to his judgment there). But you’ve also got to think about what kind of “encouragement” will be most effective with your husband; you don’t want him to feel like he’s getting as much pressure from you as he is from his boss, so be thoughtful about what he would find most helpful from you here.

And ultimately, you’ve got to accept that this all comes down to your husband needing to be willing to assert himself in very reasonable ways. If he’s not willing to, I’m guessing there are other issues going on too (i.e., is this the only area of life where you’ve noticed he has trouble asserting himself?) — and it might be worth addressing those issues separately.

Good luck.

{ 20 comments… read them below }

  1. Neeta*

    Oh maaan this is exactly the situation my dad’s in, although he claims the entire company’s like that. Basically everyone is afraid to say something, because their boss is such a tyrant.
    Basically, he often goes to work during bank holidays too, and not being paid extra. The law here (Romania) states that if your employer requires you to come in during bank holidays, they have to pay you twice as much. He doesn’t even get paid the overtime.

    The younger employees have all left, unfortunately my dad has about 2 years until he can legally retire. So finding a new job is going to be quite impossible, at this stage.

  2. Liz*

    You know, he should definitely be reimbursed for the time he works. But this is typical of a lot of workplaces. You work when you work. And the attitude of “Oh no they’re making him work odd hours” sounds really unusual to me. I don’t know a work culture where people work a set hour and then go home. I’ve certainly never worked in a place like that.

    It used to be mostly white collar workers who stayed late. But now I think it is almost everyone. Teachers stay late. Police officers have reports to finish after their shifts… I think this is just what the workplace is like now, and the unemployment situation just makes it almost impossible for anyone who needs more balance to speak up because we are all very easily replaced.

    1. VintageLydia*

      I think the fact he’s hourly and not salaried is what makes the difference. It sounds like this is IT which is generally an exempt position anyway, if he were salaried, so I have no idea why the boss doesn’t classify him as such.
      Also, if it is IT, this is often the nature of the work. My husband gets amazing benefits to make up for the often odd hours (his company has clients all over the world so he may be asked to work in the middle of the night, though he hasn’t yet.)

      1. Jamie*

        I didn’t get an IT vibe off this – this is sounds like a scenario pulled right out of manufacturing (although the not paying for every hour is bizarre.)

        Sme places work like this, and some industries don’t lend themselves to work-life balance in the sense a lot of people use the phrase.

        He’s been there a year and advancing really quickly. This is your husbands situation to handle as he sees fit. I know for me nothing is more irritating than when well meaning people who know me, but not the specifics of how my workplace opertates start opening about what I should plant a flag over and how to do it. Credit me for knowing a little more about protocols and politics than one whose never worked there.

    2. HR Gorilla*

      I sadly have to agree with the “you work when you work” post above. But damn, is it depressing to have to do so. Yes, some industries do need their employees to work long shifts, odd shifts, middle-of-the-night shifts, but the fact that it’s now expected of nearly everyone is really just blech.

    3. Joe*

      This is a major problem in our current economy, and studies have shown that it’s actually responsible for some of the economic problems we’re continuing to experience. Which makes sense, since unemployment is the major negative economic driver right now, and companies are getting away with getting more work from fewer people, so they don’t have to pay to hire the number of people they ought to, and that perpetuates the bad employment environment and makes people scared to speak up for themselves.

      Unfortunately, as you say, it’s scary for anyone to speak up for fear of being replaced. We need to speak up together, not individually, since there is strength in numbers. This is, of course, exactly what unions are for, but many people are in non-union jobs and don’t have that protection. Maybe it’s time to spread organized labor to higher levels, and protect workers across the board from managerial abuses.

  3. EngineerGirl*

    This isn’t a work issue at all, really. It is a relationship issue and a health issue. I suspect your husband sees himself as the provider and needs to do whatever he can to fulfill that position. You may want to let him know that you would prefer seeing more of him than his money. Or better – you need to see more of him instead of the money.

    There is nothing to stop your husband to look for work at other places too. I suggest he do so, as his skill set is now much enhanced.

    But you really need to have that conversation. Are you willing to settle for less money so you can get your husband back? Let him know that.

    1. anonymices*

      I would suggest that the key communication not happening here is between yourself and your husband, and that the job-any job-is in periphery to the core relationship that needs to exist. Please talk with him openly about what you need from your partner relationship.

    2. Aaron*

      I agree this is the key issue. It sounds like you’ve already talked with your husband about declining extra work, and he’s said that’s not an option. Frankly, you need to trust him. A gentle nudge can be helpful, but it’s not so surprising that this kind of commitment is required to be successful in a supervisory role at a small business.

      If you’re willing to settle for less money so you can see your husband more often, by all means let him know. If the problem is that you have different goals, that’s something that you should figure out. But if, for example, you both agree that a supervisory job with bad hours is preferable to an entry-level job with good hours, then trust him to figure out how to best improve the situation.

    3. Rana*


      It sounds to me like the issue here for you is less that he’s got a demanding boss, or that he’s not being paid appropriately, and more that (a) your marriage is suffering as a result of your husband’s work hours, and (b) your husband doesn’t seem interested in addressing that problem.

  4. Janet*

    Agreed that it’s your husband’s issue and he needs to work it out. I have a friend who years ago was being treated like this at a job, we all listened to him complain about the job and encouraged him to find another position. He received the other position and in a few months . . .the same thing happened. He was overworked – constantly staying hours later and working on holidays and weekends. So then after about 5 years of that, he found a third job. Surprise! Same thing is happening there. It’s clear now that my friend has no ability to set boundaries with his job and no matter where he goes, he makes it clear that he can be taken advantage of and the cycle repeats itself.

    If this bothers your husband as much as it bothers you, he needs to figure out how to stand up for himself and not be a pushover at the office anymore.

    1. EngineerGirl*

      Learning to draw boundaries in a nice way is a vastly underrated life skill. So many people would be happier of they knew how to do it.

      1. fposte*

        Sometimes in a life partnership assertiveness one of the skills that’s handled by one member. Which is fine, if you’re both agreeable, when it comes to negotiating with car dealers and returning vacuum cleaners, but unfortunately when it comes to the job you’re on your own.

        I don’t know if that’s the situation here or not, but I’ve certainly seen it add a layer of frustration to a situation like this.

      2. khilde*

        This is such a true statement. I am thinking of my in-laws right now. They have weird boundaries that do not match up with mine. My husband walks a fine line between backing me/us up, and trying to maintain peace with his family (the old “do you want to be right or do you want peace?” dilemma). The problem is that when we identify and try to define those boundaries, they just fly off the handle. I’d be fine to let them fly and never come back….but my husband doesn’t see it that way. I need some more insight and perspective about drawing boundaries with people that are deficient at communicating effectively and just don’t get it. I think about Alison’s trick every now and again about thinking of them as characters in Jane Austen novels. I can never think of it when I really need it, though.

        But anyway – all of this to say that I totally agree on boundary-drawing as a valuable life skill!!!

  5. NewReader*

    This almost sounds like some type of repair job- cash registers, copiers etc. Endless hours. No gratitude.
    The excuse is “we have a 24/7/365 contract with the customer.” Yeah. Okay. The employees have a 8/5/300-something body.

    And companies wonder what is driving health insurance costs???
    Your situation sounds all too familiar. I heard of someone in a similar work environment working 36 hours straight. This person’s spouse had to drive after hour #24, because the employee could no longer use good judgement while behind the wheel.

    I agree with others, that your husband is choosing to stay in this situation.

    I have also learned that is unethical to short change your family/home.

    Can you help him write up a list of his accomplishments, training etc? If he sees that he might realize that he has something to offer. It’s not unheard of for a 50 something to get a new job, just takes a more effort- he could transition and new company would think they hired a gem of a worker.

    A job like this breaks a person- the person starts to convince themselves that they cannot work anywhere else. So this is a tough one. Not a nice position for you to have to decide if you want to put major effort into helping him bail out OR decide to fill up your own life with activities and groups.

    Perhaps you can ask thought provoking questions such as “what is your goal here?”; “where do you see yourself in five years?” Am saying these things in a gentle, non-threatening tone.

    Having seen this type of stuff myself, I think it is best to expect NO change and when little improvements come along I can appreciate the effort a bit better.

    You might like the site “Glass Door”, people write in and talk about their company or former company. Gives you an idea of what others are saying about an employer.

  6. WorriedWife*

    Thanks so much for the support! It has really helped me to gain perspective. He worked at the same place for 25 years and was laid off a couple of years ago, so maybe my expectations (based on his old job) are off the mark. He does work in a repair field and there are fewer than 10 employees. I guess I need to accept that the nature of repair work means that he is going to be on call and asked to come in when problems happen. I will be more supportive and understanding so that he can talk to me if he has problems.

    I think part of my problem was because I had the idea that all jobs were like mine. I work in an office and we aren’t supposed to be on the clock beyond our scheduled time. I work the same hours everyday and have for 15 years. I haven’t ever had to take calls outside of work. I need to remember that all jobs aren’t the same. Maybe I will take up a hobby since our youngest will be off to college soon.

    1. NewReader*

      I could fill a book on this topic. But I won’t bore you….
      Yes, OP everything you said here is right on track.

      Some repair areas are easier than others. But many of them are as you describe here, endless days, unpaid hours, etc.

      From watching the repair techs around me, I see that they do derive a huuuge sense of fulfillment through their job. To be able to use their skills to make someone’s day a little easier can be very rewarding. And they get told really nice things like “you work magic!”
      There is always something new to learn/master and some people thrive in that environment of constant learning. Added plus- if the tech likes people there are tons of people to meet.

      Encourage him to eat well and hydrate- because this job will definitely test his endurance. It’s good to fortify.

    2. Josh S*

      Yeah, On Call work is pretty crappy if you’re not used to it. But part of the ‘perk’ of that is that you usually get some minimal pay for the hours you’re on call (regardless of whether or not a call comes in), and then you get paid for the hours you ARE doing work.

      If your husband is hourly, he should get paid for EVERY hour he works (and possibly 1.5x pay for hours beyond 40/week), whether it’s his normal shift or a wee-hours-of-the-morning call. And he could talk to his boss about getting compensated for his on-call time. (It’s not necessarily *normal* to get on call time, but for 24/7/365 on call, there ought to be some sort of compensation.) Really, there ought to be an on call rotation so that your husband gets some days/weekends where he doesn’t have to be on call.

      Ultimately, though, this is your husband’s battle to fight. Tell him where you stand and encourage him to stick up for himself–at the least to be paid for the hours he works. But the long shifts are unlikely to stop (and so long as he’s getting paid for them…cha CHING!), and the on call time is unlikely to stop entirely (though the boss really should look into an on call rotation or some other way to make it not be 24/7).

      Good luck!

      1. NicoleW*

        What he said!
        While the realities of many work environments have changed and eaten up more of what was personal/family time, your husband should be paid appropriately for hours worked.

  7. khilde*

    Sounds like you are coming around to understanding the nature of his on-call work, but that still doesn’t change the fact that his boss is “volatile, unpredictable, and passive-aggressive at times.” I wish I had some real-life experience to share with you, but I’ll refer you to a book “Working for you Isn’t Working for Me,” by Katherine Crowley & Kathie Elster. It gives profiles of all these different kinds of boss types and then how to deal with them. I really think this book is practical because it gives the reader some perspective on the behavior of what drives the boss’ behavior and then gives you some ways to detach emotionally from it. If your husband is willing to read it, it would help him most directly. But perhaps you could browse the book, too. You might pick up some insight that you could subtly slip into conversation if your husband wants to vent about the frustrations of his boss/job.

    I also noticed that in your original letter you said that you are starting to feel more and more left out of the picture. Then in your follow-up comments you said that your youngest is going off to college soon. Aside from the real troubles with a crappy boss, perhaps this gnawing feeling of being left out is because your whole world is shifting beneath you? Your husband is consumed with work that is growing and changing and your baby is flying the nest–neither of which you can control. Maybe taking up a new hobby like you mentioned or focusing on aspects of your life that are still steady and predictable would help ease the feeling of change and being left out? Good luck. :)

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