what to do when your boss wants you available 24/7

When your job is increasingly encroaching on your evenings and weekends, and you’re regularly finding yourself emailing late at night or working on non-urgent projects over the weekend, is there any way to push back?

If your office expects you to be available outside of work hours more often than you would like, here’s what to do.

1. First, be realistic about the requirements and norms of your field. Some fields are notorious for having long hours, like law, political campaigns, and start-up companies. In some fields, the norms of the field mean that 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 work. If you don’t, there’s no shame in that – but in that case, realize that you need an exit plan and a way into a field with different hours and expectations.

2. Second, be sure that 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 time, your manager will be just fine waiting until Monday and is just emailing you on 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 that 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 and your manager is a decent manager – 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 in fact you areexpected 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, not just leave the topic unexplored.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 27 comments… read them below }

  1. Bee Eye LL*

    Being available 24/7 is a regular issue with IT workers who work in offices than run 24/7. In order to help things run more smoothly we’d try to define what constituted an emergency then also set on-call times for techs. It doesn’t always work out that way, though.

    1. Anonymous Educator*

      A while ago, I saw a job posting at Pixar for tech support (they had a fancier name for it, but I forget what it was), and the job posting said you’d have to be available 24/7 for 365 days of the year. I didn’t apply for it, but I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, that stinks. On the other hand, at least they’re honest about it.

      That said, having worked in tech support for a while now, I realize I am pretty much on 24/7, whether my job description says so or not. The only things to consider are how often that really gets taken advantage of and how much you can spread it around (are there other tech support people in your organization?).

      1. CA Admin*

        I think they call it the Tools department. I had a friend who worked for them–most of the time it was a pretty great gig, but if a movie went off the rails, then they had to put in some really long days.

  2. AdAgencyChick*

    I bet Alison says this in the article, but I’ve had a lot of success just examining the assumption that all after-hours requests must be dealt with after hours.

    Some people just like to work after their kids have gone to bed, or right when they get up in the morning, or on a Saturday afternoon. But just because they’re pushing items off their own desks doesn’t mean I need to deal with them before the next day. I’ll check email in a very cursory way (because I get all OCD about that little red circle with a number in it!), but won’t respond or even read the whole thing unless the subject line makes it clear it’s an urgent matter. If something’s urgent, people can text.

    I haven’t gotten any feedback about being unresponsive or “not a team player,” so I’m going to keep (non)responding this way until someone tells me to be different.

    1. Meg Murry*

      Yes, after having a few screw-ups where I checked my email over the weekend on my phone, which marked it as “read” and I then missed adding the items in it to my to-do list on Monday morning, I developed a system with my boss’s support. My policy was that I would NOT be reading email during my off hours (and I turned off auto-syncing on my phone), and if there was something truly urgent in my email that needed taken care of before the next business day he would text me “check your email, urgent message RE: [whatever project]”.

      It worked for us, but it helped that my boss was a sane and normal person (and didn’t give out my cell phone number to anyone else but offered to text me on their behalf).

      1. Judy*

        At my last job, I gave my personal email to my team (I was leading a team on 3 continents), with instructions especially when on vacation that I would not be checking work email, if they needed something to send a “check work email” message to my personal email.

  3. MissPeggy*

    I had a manager who was often sending me emails in the middle the night but that was when he was thinking of things. He never expected a response. It was more I want to talk about this in the morning. He also once sent me a text at 5am and after telling him it woke me up (he didn’t think I had my phone next to my bed) that never happened again.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      Emails are fine unless you have notifications turned on. I keep my phone next to my bed only in case of tornado alerts and burglars. I’m glad he got the message.

  4. Jane*

    I am in one of the exception professions mentioned at the beginning of the article (law – Biglaw to be exact, as not all jobs in this field are like that) and I still find this tricky. Sometimes it’s obvious something is urgent (e.g., deal is signing imminently and a question comes up or a document needs to be finalized) and other times people create fake emergencies or emergencies arise due to poor planning (the latter isn’t really something I can do anything about but often times I do push back or simply send something in later than the requested time when it is clear to me that something is really not that urgent despite what the sender says). Even though we are expected to be “on call” “24/7” there comes a point when people can become unreasonable and make unnecessary demands and finding the balance of where to push back can be difficult, but I think it’s just judgment that you develop over time.

  5. Brett*

    At least with my job, when a 24/7 emergency happens the weather alert radio goes off :)

    Really sucks though when I am woken up in the middle of the night and have to immediately jump into a “minutes count” situation. We have reached formal definitions (as in a fully drafted plan) of when people should and should not work outside regular work hours, just because we have had a few 120+ hour weeks in the past. It is extremely helpful to have it written out when people must _stop_ working.

  6. Anon Accountant*

    My boss called 4 times in a 30 minute period because I didn’t answer my phone while I was at the grocery store. Thinking there was something urgent I called him back. He wanted a status update on a client that afternoon. On a Sunday afternoon.

    Another time he called me repeatedly while he was reviewing a tax return and I told him all the tax return support was with it he asked me to come in to “help him find it”. I lied and told him I was shopping in a city that’s 1 hour+ way and he said never mind. It was a late Saturday afternoon when I was off work. The funny part was when I asked him if he found the tax return supporting documents he did. Right with the return in a file folder marked “tax support”.

    Had to share my $.02

    1. BadPlanning*

      I had a boss who would would do similar. After a couple times of “crying wolf,” I always delayed on answering. Usually an hour later, it wasn’t a thing any more. And he called/texted me less, in general.

      If my current boss calls me off hours, I know something is ON FIRE and needs help now (not literally, thankfully).

  7. Jessa*

    I really wish that companies that wanted 24/7 would say that at the interview stage. I’d rather self select out than take a job and find out after that I now have to find another new job right away. Worse if I left a job to take the new one. Even when you ask a lot of times they lie. And it’s not always a direct lie, they’re not supposed to want you 24/7 but you can feel the subtle and not so subtle pressure to do it anyway even if company policy on paper says otherwise. There are people who like this life. I didn’t mind it when I was 20 but at 54 I can’t do it anymore. It’s silly to spend the money to bring someone on, when this could be handled and you can go to the next person on your list.

    1. Jill 2*

      I couldn’t do it in my 20s. I value my personal time way too much.

      I’ve had employers lie about this too. What can you do about that? I’ve been turned down for jobs because I asked about work/life balance. Obviously it was a bullet dodged for me, but I think everyone acts like if you ask about this stuff, you’re automatically a slacker. So I am scared to ask, especially if I really need a job.

      1. James M.*

        IIRC, AAM has a number of posts on how to ask about workplace culture without setting off those kinds of assumptions, or maybe just good questions in general. E.g: ask your potential manager “Could you tell me about a time when your team missed a deadline?” (followed up, of course, with questions about causes, analyses, resolution, and prevention).

        There are certainly questions that are detrimental to the interviewee who voices them. Maybe ask in Friday’s open thread about other readers’ experiences with such?

        1. INTP*

          There are ways to bring it up but if you don’t get a candid answer the first time, it’s difficult to follow up without looking like you are harping on how little you have to work. It’s so common for them to say “40 hours with overtime as needed” and then there’s an overtime-worthy crisis every week or you get hints about how people who succeed in the company voluntarily work extra. Or that you should check email once in the evening, which seems reasonable, but then you’re expected to do it at 10pm after you’re normally in bed or you get lengthy action items. And if you are the candid one and say “I can’t work more than 40 hours regularly” it brings up red flags for the interviewer, who has to question if you’ll be unavailable for legit emergencies.

    2. INTP*

      I totally agree – and not just about constant availability but hours in general. Don’t tell me it’s a 40 hour job and then subtly hint that I should be staying at work later for non-urgent work. But there isn’t really a way to ask that in an interview that doesn’t make you seem like a clock watcher or lazy person if the interviewer doesn’t offer a candid answer to “Can you tell me about the expected hours and schedule?”

      I’m in my 20s but I can’t work long hours regularly because of ADHD (if I don’t get my 9 hours sleep and some exercise, I have a much harder time focusing) and some physical health concerns. But there seems to be an attitude that all young people should be up for long hours or else they have a bad work ethic and won’t “pay their dues” so managers will just say it’s 40 hours with occasional overtime and expect you to be fine with the bait and switch.

  8. G*

    This “24/7” work culture/expectation/mentality is EXACTLY what is wrong with our society today (particularly in America, I think).

    1. Sharon*

      This x 1million. If someone added up all of the “overtime” hours worked by salaried exempt people in the U.S. and multiplied it by some random average salary figure, I’m sure we’d all be shocked. There’s a reason wages are stagnant and I think it’s primarily this because it kind of hides the fact that you’re being paid a lot less for your work.

    2. Jill 2*

      Yup. But if the entire economy is going this way, what can we as lowly workers do about it?

  9. Catherine*

    This is soooo timely for me!! I just posted in the open thread about my insane boss expecting me to work all hours of the night and day. Just today he called me at 5:30 am to tell me about a non-critical item to do when I came in. It’s called email, Bossman. And you had already sent me 20 of them Since 3 am.

    I’m totally up for working outside of normal hours on big projects. I have no problem working 50ish hours/week. But I am NOT ok with answering non-urgent phone calls 24/7, especially when it interferes with family time.

    Time for a new job.

  10. LadyTL*

    I’m lucky my new managers are fine with me pushing back on this sort of thing but it was a bit of a shock to find them expecting me to be reachable 24/7 for them. I’m finding this attitude cropping up more and more in retail as well which seems bizarre to me since barely anything in retail is urgent. I’ve had multiple retail jobs get irritated if I set limits on when I can work because I use public transit as well as expect me to be able to be called in on less than an hours notice any day of the week even if it means I end up with no off days at all.

  11. olympiasepiriot*

    As I am at the office on a Saturday afternoon and read this during my tea break, I just need to say that even firefighters are not on 24/7. You really need something covered around the clock every day of the week? There is this idea called “shifts”. Day shift. Swing shift. Night shift. It works for emergency responders, hospitals, factories, hotels, 24-hour diners, the list goes on.


  12. mary*

    i work for a small motel 11 tooms i live on the property as well. can the owner have me still rent rooms 24/7, example if i am. sleeping the bell. rings i have to get up. or can he have me here with no off time or overtime.. i live in Wisconsin?

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