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When You Work to Live And Your Boss Lives to Work

By Kayleen Schaefer

Question: I am a working mother. I work a flexible schedule, from 7 to 4, which I discussed with my boss and he agreed to about eight months ago. Even though he agreed to it, he schedules meetings for 3:30, when he knows I have to leave at 4. Sometimes he asks me to stay late when I am already walking out the door and it's too late for me to find a backup to pick up my daughter. I have to say no, and then he is obviously annoyed. He doesn't have children and lives to work. I am not behind in my work and believe that I am doing a very good job. How should I deal with his belief that work is the be all end all, when I don't agree?

Answer: We make personal decisions at work each day (Do I prefer the pink highlighter or the blue one? Should I eat soup or a sandwich for lunch?) and most of them don't have consequences that last longer than an hour. But when you decide how (or if) you want to balance your work with the rest of your life, you're making a choice that has lasting repercussions.

"If you devote your life to work, you'll be more likely to rise to the top," says Stephen Worchel, a professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, who specializes in conflicts at work. "But you may feel alienated outside of work or you may not have the opportunity to get to know yourself. Just like if you make the decision to balance your work life with your private life, you may get the satisfaction of being with your daughter, but you have to recognize that you are making a decision that may impact your work situation."

The downside for you is that your boss and co-workers aren't basing their work schedules on when you are in the office. If they need to have a meeting and you're not there, they are still going to get together.

Part of your stress is coming from feeling like your boss is annoyed with you for not being present whenever he wants you to be. Psychologists say women tend to be more concerned than men about people's feelings and the general well-being of the group. And, in your case, this gender stereotype seems to be true.

But, among the emotions you could choose for your boss to have, annoyed is not so bad. It's not as good as pleased, but far superior to throwing-pencils-at-your-head angry.

"You can't go through life not annoying people," says Dr. Worchel. "There are going to be times when people prefer you do something else. Annoying people is probably not the worst thing any of us do during the day."

Accept the fact that you're going to irk the boss once in a while (think of Peter Gibbons in Office Space cleaning fish at his desk). Then move on, and make your flexible schedule work better for you. To do this you need to talk to your boss about the late meetings and last-minute requests to work overtime.

"Stress is most often created by events that are uncontrollable and unpredictable," says Dr. Worchel. "The stress is coming from the fact that she doesn't know when these special meetings will happen or when she'll have to stay later for work. There's a lot of unpredictability there. She doesn't know how to control it."

To your boss, say something like, "I'm uncomfortable with the way things are. I'm missing meetings and I have a great deal of conflict whether to leave at the appointed time or stay for an hour. Can we talk about it?"

During this conversation, your feelings about him not having a life outside work are not relevant. Nor is the time you need to pick up your daughter. You should not pit your personal problems against someone else's unless you are a guest on "Divorce Court." The troubles created by flexible time are the real issue. Why you have that schedule is immaterial.

"She doesn't have to say, 'How could you do this to me? There's more to life than work, work, work,' " says Kris Ludwigsen, a senior clinical psychologist at Kaiser Permanente in Antioch, Calif., who specializes in work stress.

It will also help to think of when your boss has been supportive of your schedule and to thank him for that. Remember that he values you enough as an employee that he agreed to let you work different hours in the first place.

"Are there times when he is flexible?" says Maynard Brusman, a consulting psychologist and executive coach in San Anselmo, Calif., who specializes in balancing work with life. "Are there times she leaves when it isn't a problem? If you see behavior you want, in some way, you've got to reinforce that. Now you're focusing on the negative."

The two of you should be able to agree on a solution that will make you feel better about your flexible hours. Perhaps your boss could decide to have late meetings on Wednesdays and ask you to work from 8 to 5 those days. Let him know there may be the rare Wednesday when you need to leave at four. This way, you've made an effort to be available to your boss, and he's given you some more control over the situation.

"She's not putting him on the defensive," says Dr. Worchel. "Her feelings are there, and she's trying to improve the situation. She's not painting one person as evil and one person as good."

Save those designations for your highlighters.

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