A recent study conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard School of Public Health found that “more than one in every four Americans say they had a great deal of stress in the previous month.” That would come out to about 115 million Americans, give or take.
While that’s a sizeable amount of people, Princeton University psychologist Eldar Shafir tells NPR that “everything I know suggests that this is a pretty massive underestimate,” because that’s only the stress that we’re aware of.
It’s no secret that work-related stress can have serious implications for our health and productivity, and so much of it depends on the kind of relationships we have with our bosses. At some point, many of us find ourselves working for someone who either expects too much from us or demands more than what we were initially hired to do.
That’s certainly not to say that you shouldn’t go above and beyond when possible, and for the right reasons. It’s just that it isn’t always clear when we’re giving more of ourselves to our work than we should be. Sometimes, it’s smart to remind yourself what healthy dedication to your job looks like, and when that spills over into something worse.
Here are four things many of us unconsciously hand over to our employers, even if they don’t explicitly ask us to–or even need them.
As Travis Bradberry, author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0, writes for Inc., “Allowing stress to build up, losing sleep, and sitting all day without exercising all adds up.” He adds, “Before you know it, you’re rubbing your aching back with one hand and your zombie-like eyes with the other, and you’re looking down at your newly acquired belly.”
Sometimes that slipping health can be the direct result of a manager’s expectations, but other times it’s the consequence of more subtle, unspoken pressures. At a previous job I held, my boss expected me to work additional hours each day, pointing out that he was there before me and stayed after I’d left. After a full year of putting in extra time and realizing that 10-hour days had become my new norm, I decided I had to do something.
So I began taking small actions to set clearer boundaries with my boss. Instead of parking it at my desk simply because my boss had asked me to, I told him that I’d be taking my lunch break and began making plans in the evening. I started leaving work on time and not working overtime unnecessarily–careful, all the while, to make sure that the quality of my work didn’t slip.
He’d still make the same remarks, but I gave him no evidence of poor performance. And I started gaining around two extra hours to myself each day. That’s when I started my payments blog and a few other side projects. (I later found out that this is where you can truly make money!)
I’ve been married twice in my life. My first marriage was very hard, thanks largely to demanding work schedules on both our parts. My boss demanded a lot of my time, which put enormous pressure on our relationship. While that wasn’t the only reason we split, work expectations can generate steady, unrelenting stress that takes a toll on the relationships that matter most to you.
You don’t need to be reminded that maintaining a healthy work-life balance is difficult. But reminding yourself that you have a finite amount of energy to pour into your relationships–at work as well as at home–can help you keep things in check. Just as you owe it to your boss to give it your all during working hours, you also owe it to your family and friends to be there when you’re off the clock.
If your career, and more specifically your boss, are getting in the way of your personal time, then it may be time to look for another job. Only you can decide which relationships are most important to you.
I’ve found that contacts are gold, and just because someone asks you for them doesn’t mean you have to open up your Rolodex. I’ve had several bosses in the past demand that I make an introduction to someone. You’ve earned your contacts through hard work. Even if you share those connections with your company, they still belong to you and no one else.
This can be a tricky situation that you may want to tread lightly over at work. One way to set limits, though, is simply to help others (including your manager) realize that you’ve built trust with the people in your network over time. That trust can’t be instantly transferred simply by making an introduction.
If you do choose to introduce a professional contact to your boss or someone else in your company, just make sure you’re part of the conversation the entire time.
As an employee, you’re required to follow a set of rules that square with your company’s ethical code. Your boss is also required to follow those same guidelines–which makes this one simple in principle, if hard in practice. If you’re asked to do something uncomfortable or unethical for your boss, don’t do it.
The pressure can be enormous, but it’s worth sticking to your guns, even if the immediate fallout of not complying is real and significant. You can always find a new job if it comes to that, but your professional integrity won’t bounce back so easily if you let it be compromised.
“Everyone’s integrity is vital in having a stress-free work life, and if this integrity is sacrificed, it will only lead to greater anxiety levels. If your beliefs and actions at work no longer stand side by side, it is time to think of your actions again,” writes Eleana Stylianou on Career Addict. “Talk to your boss and let them know how you won’t be able to do things their way anymore, and if they disagree, then it might be time to part ways.”
Sticking up for yourself isn’t always easy, especially if you foresee serious risks to your standing at work. But make sure you know what you’re working so hard for–and that it isn’t jeopardizing everything else that matters in your life.
John Rampton is the founder of Palo Alto, California–based Due, a free online invoicing company specializing in helping businesses bill their clients easily online. Follow him on Twitter @johnrampton.