Ask The Therapist: “How do I tell my boss that I don’t appreciate messages at 3am? I’ve tried to put boundaries…”

In 2016, the number of people estimated to be suffering from mental health issues like depression and anxiety amounted to roughly 1.1 billion. Since then, numbers have likely continued to rise. Moreover, studies have also shown women especially on average are a) more likely to suffer from mental health issues, and b) less likely to talk about them. The taboo in Pakistan surrounding depression and anxiety disorders only serve to aggravate the individuals suffering even more. For the women who cannot seek out full time therapy, we’ve enlisted the help of a trained therapist. You sent us in your questions – here are the answers!

“How do I tell my boss that I don’t appreciate getting messages at 3am? I’ve tried to put up boundaries and not respond, but waking up in the middle of the night to her messages leaves me with serious anxiety. Is this normal for bosses to do? How can I communicate this to her without it affecting her behaviour towards me at work, or my performance review?”

Shahrukh’s Response:

Dear Anon,

There have been many instances where I have heard of bosses messaging their employees at odd hours. This puts an employee in a very difficult position because really, how can one say no to their boss, right? While the importance of boundaries is often stressed in relationships, as well as the work place, it’s not always as black and white – there is fear and anxiety that factors in. The Pakistani philosophy of “others before you” really comes into play here, and it becomes difficult for people to communicate boundaries. Let’s get into this a little more and see how you can communicate your boundaries.

Working Around The Pakistani Work Culture

While there is a concept of work timings and understanding of personal boundaries, what happens more often than not is that some employers tend to breach those boundaries – sending late messages, keeping employees for longer hours, scheduling meetings well past work hours. What has also added to this practice is the concept of working remotely. During the pre-COVID days, it was easier to separate work from the rest of your day because you would usually be physically present in the work space and head home. This set clear work timings and implied boundaries. However, since people are now working from home, there has been an increased expectation of employee availability. While it is difficult to navigate through certain boundaries, it is important to set them. Here are some things to reflect on:

You cannot be available 24/7: while professions may require more work hours, and their employees are fully aware of this time commitment, if you’re working in a corporation or professions with set hours, you are well entitled to call it a day after a certain hour. 

The problem with making yourself constantly available: people tend to take advantage of this, and bosses are no exception. In fact, they’ll prey on this even more. If the expectation of availability has been created, it becomes more challenging to set those boundaries. Better to make it as clear from the beginning about your work hours rather than creating that expectation in their mind.

You are not required to respond: I hear you when you say that getting messages in the middle of the night is a source of anxiety for you. What I am curious about, Anon, is where the need to respond comes from? What would happen if you were to respond in the morning once you’ve rested? Is the expectation of a response coming from you or from your boss? 

Switching your phone off/putting it on silent mode during the night: keeping your phone aside and out of reach during the night is a rule that has worked for some – it’s a way to disconnect from your work and to rest. 

Try communicating with them directly: having a direct dialogue with your boss in the context of boundary setting can be an uncomfortable situation, but if it’s something that is really bothering you, just tell them that you aren’t available after a certain time. Could be 10 PM, 8 PM – whatever your boundary is. You can say that you’re asleep or just busy with family commitments, whatever you’d like to see, just be as upfront about it. Overtime, they will understand and even if they don’t stop messaging, you will have made it clear that you’re not available. Remember, Anon, unless it’s been CLEARLY and EXPLICITLY discussed that you are expected to be available at all times, you are well within your rights to set boundaries – whether it’s through a direct dialogue or by simply not replying after a certain hour. It may feel like you’re in the wrong, but trust me, you’re not. By consistently disengaging from work, it will also prime your boss into the idea that you are not available after a certain hour and that they cannot hold you responsible. 

Explore the anxiety of having to make yourself available: something to reflect on, Anon, is what that anxiety might be about and what happens when you see a message from your boss in the middle of the night? Search within yourself and remind yourself that it’s okay if you respond later.

Anon, setting boundaries, especially when boundaries haven’t been modelled to you, can be challenging because they might seem “rude” or “disrespectful”. Our culture has definitely played a role here – that being said, sometimes they are more than necessary, especially if your mental health is taking a hit, and no, you aren’t being selfish or unreasonable. Do whatever you can to help yourself feel safe and grounded. I hope this article was helpful and that you are able to set those boundaries for yourself. Best of luck and stay in your power, Anon! I’m rooting for you.

The above article is written by Shahrukh Shahbaz Malik who is trained in humanistic integrative counselling at CPDD in the UK and currently has her own private practice in Karachi. The views expressed in this article are those of one expert. They do not necessarily represent the views of Mashion, nor do they represent the complete picture of the topic at hand. This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical diagnosis, treatment or therapy.

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