For many people, the days of clocking out of work at 5 p.m. seem to have gone the way of the typewriter. But that doesn't mean it's cool for work communications to regularly invade your nights and weekends. In this week’s Good@Work column, career expert Amy Odell—whom you may know as the former editor (AKA HBIC) of and founding blogger of New York magazine’s The Cut—advises a young professional dealing with a boss who is chipping away at her work-life balance, one after-hours notification at a time.
My boss recently gifted me a work phone, which was a total score for my monthly bill. Lately though, I’ve been noticing that she’s texting me later and later (even on the weekends). I suddenly feel trapped by the notifications popping up at all hours on the +1 smart device in my purse. Help! How do I set healthy boundaries with the phone…and my boss?
Turn off work-related notifications. In fact, I’d suggest turning of all notifications on all your devices because the main purpose of notifications is to keep you glued to your phone(s). They’re a mechanism tech companies use to divert your attention from important things, like eating tacos on a Saturday afternoon with your significant other, to completely unimportant things, like Instagram Stories and Facebook and email.
Notifications about work messages are particularly insidious. I’m assuming your boss texts you at odd hours because she forgot to tell you something during work hours, and probably is too lazy to draft and save emails to send to you at more reasonable times. She could also be incredibly stressed out and believe that everything is urgent because she has a boss who believes everything is urgent. The way a boss behaves usually has to do with the way their boss behaves, so it’s possible her boss is texting her and demanding things and she’s unknowingly passing that anxiety along to you by doing the same. Giving her the benefit of the doubt might allow you to approach the whole situation with less anger.
As a first line of defense, I’d suggest responding to her messages during hours that feel reasonable to you. Check your work phone at set times throughout the day—say 8 a.m., while you’re at work as needed, and then an hour after you leave, say 6 or 7 p.m. On the weekends, decide what feels manageable to you—maybe you can check Saturday at 3 p.m., and Sunday at noon and 6 p.m. I suggest checking twice on Sunday because it’s closer to Monday and that's when bosses are more likely to send anxious messages. Don’t check too late on Sunday, though, because you don’t want to get the Sunday Scaries and be up all night worrying about work.
I suggest checking twice on Sunday because it’s closer to Monday and that's when bosses are more likely to send anxious messages. Don’t check too late on Sunday, though, because you don’t want to get the Sunday Scaries and be up all night worrying about work.
When I worked full-time in an office, I often had trouble sleeping on Sunday nights because I was always too wound up about the week ahead, replaying the various nuisances of my workplace in my mind over and over again, until they turned into nightmares when/if I actually did manage to fall asleep. I’m sure most of that anxious, unproductive ruminating stemmed from the compulsive phone-checking I did while lying in bed at 10 or 11 at night. This obsessive and unproductive relationship to my phone surely caused me to lose sleep other nights during the week, too. Obviously, none of this made me better at my job.
Try scheduling your phone checks for a week or two, and then reassess. If your boss realizes it’s fine for you to respond on your schedule instead of hers, and your relationship doesn’t seem to be getting more tense or onerous, keep it up for a month, and then try to cut back your phone checking even more. Cut out one of your Sunday checks, and two of your weekday checks. Keep cutting until you’re looking at your work phone as little as possible.
If your boss gets mean after you cut back, or tells you that you need to respond to her immediately, then you have to have a conversation with her about the demands on your time. Make sure that you don’t attack her or blame her for her unreasonable demands. Use “I” statements like, “I was hoping to spend nights relaxing away from my phone so I’m ready for work the next day, so I’m trying to limit the amount I check my phone,” instead of something like, “YOU ARE A CRAZY MONSTER, STOP TEXTING ME.” Not that you would dare speak to your boss in all caps, but you get the idea. Come up with a plan with your boss for the time outside of normal business hours that you will be available to her. You could always offer to be immediately available during particularly stressful times, and limit your hours when it’s business as usual.
If your boss refuses to come up with such a plan to make the demands on your time more reasonable, then you might want to look for another job. The reason I suggest you try to negotiate with her before quitting is because we would all benefit from workplaces that didn’t contribute to America’s worsening culture of unbearably long hours. And if you don’t advocate for yourself, no one will.
Amy Odell is a journalist and author living in New York. She is the former editor of, which became one of the most popular and award-winning sites for millennial women during her tenure. She is passionate about mentoring people starting off in their careers. She is from Austin, Texas.
Have a career question for Amy? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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