Andrew Boden: APSA Executive Director

When Trin came to see me, she was planning on quitting the job she’d held at SFU for five years. She told me that her new supervisor had her work long hours three to four times a week and would text or phone on her weekends about work issues, sometimes late at night.

“I felt that I had to pick up,” said Trin. “If I didn’t, the texts and calls kept coming. Sometimes we’d be on the phone for an hour or more. One Saturday night, she had me come into the office so that we could go over her expense claim. It started creeping towards twenty extra hours a week.”

Unfortunately, Trin wasn’t being compensated for her extra work. “I didn’t dare ask for overtime,” she added. “My supervisor made it pretty clear that she worked long hours without any extras, and so did we. She set the tone, and the tone was: work first, family and living last.”

Often members like Trin feel extremely stressed, anxious and on the verge of despair. They feel that their choices are very limited: continue to capitulate or quit. You might think, as you read this, that, well, couldn’t Trin get another job? Too often, members like Trin find themselves concluding that their demanding supervisor would sabotage their chances at another job with a bad reference, and so they’re too scared to find work elsewhere.

It’s all a bit like a trance. As our stress and anxiety rise, we find our ability to see context narrowing. Another way of saying this is that as our stress and anxiety go up, we can’t see other options for ourselves: our choices often reduce to simple binaries—stay or quit, suffer or flee.

One of the keys to personal power is seeing other choices for ourselves. After I had listened to Trin for about half an hour, I asked her how she felt. “A bit better,” she said, “just being able to tell someone is helping me.”

Once I could see that Trin’s stress was beginning to ebb, I began to lay out all the possible options she actually had. Sure, she could go on as normal or quit. But she could also start drawing healthier boundaries with her supervisor, too. If she felt that was too intimidating, she could try some coaching (payable through her professional development funds) to help her draw boundaries with her supervisor and assert her needs. She could arrange for us to speak with the HR business partner for her department and note the issues coming up with this particular supervisor. She could also consider a medical leave, if the stress affected her physical or mental health. Lastly, she could also file a grievance.

What’s important here is not necessarily that Trin selected any one choice that I presented (I went through the strengths and weaknesses of each one with her), but that Trin could now see how many options she really did have. She didn’t have to suffer forever or quit her job. There were other choices available to her, and she could decide which one she’d like to try.

The relief on Trin’s face on seeing just how wide her decision space was obvious. From there, I was able to help her select an option that let her keep her job and work more reasonable hours (and get compensated for the extra ones).

About two months later, Trin followed up with me. She was doing much better, smiling and relaxed.

“Do you know what’s ironic?” she said. “My supervisor just quit. She said that the hours were too long. There was no work-life balance.”