can my boss tell me how to manage my vacation time — and my “energy”?

A reader writes:

I work at a very small (<10 people) mission-oriented company. In addition to aligning our business practices with our mission, management also makes an effort to ensure that employees feel happy, heard, and valued.

In reality, management’s approach to ensuring that the team feels happy, heard, and valued often feels overbearing and quite condescending to me. My boss will reference in check-ins that I am taking in so much right now, wanting to get me support (but being very unspecific about what type of support), and making sure that I am “protecting my energy.” The truth is, what is “so much” in her eyes is just me doing my job — which does often involve putting out fires and managing high-stress situations, but it was what I signed up for and I mostly enjoy it. As another example, I will volunteer to work on projects that are interesting and exciting to me, but then will be shut down by my boss in the name of me having “too much going on right now,” even though I feel capable of taking on the work and have received nothing but positive feedback about my ability to handle my workload.

Recently, this trend of my manager dictating where my energies should be directed to what I feel is an inappropriate level has really crossed a line for me. My boss asked me to consider taking some vacation time this quarter. I am in my second year at the company and at this level, I get just 10 vacation days/year. Given my limited opportunities for vacation and no specific plans in this quarter, I didn’t get back to her because I didn’t have the desire to take off any planned vacation. Well, she followed up three separate times saying that I was the only one on the team who wasn’t planning a vacation this quarter, and that I really should not be banking vacation days. I essentially felt backed into a corner and to get her off my case, I submitted a few dates which she approved.

I know that I sometimes struggle with being told what to do. Is she within her rights as a manager to dictate my vacation (and energy) to this degree?

Well … yes and no.

It’s fine for a manager to nudge someone to take some time off if it’s been a while since they have, and especially if they have a high-stress job. In fact, that can be a really good thing since otherwise some people won’t take off any time — because of their own preferences, or because they feel like there’s never a good time to do it, or because they think it would be frowned upon — which can end up being a problem for everyone if they eventually burn out. (And in some industries you’re required to take at least one full-week vacation every year because that’s a good way for companies to detect fraud.)

But a manager should also accept hearing “I don’t have any vacation plans this quarter, but I’m planning to take off some time later this year and am saving my days for that.” You didn’t say that, so we don’t know if your manager would have been satisfied with that or not — but she should be. It’s also okay to say things like “I find it more restful to save up most of my days for one big vacation” or “I have some family stuff going on and am saving my days in case I need them for that” or so forth. You felt pressured by her, which isn’t great, but then you just gave in without explaining your own needs, which also isn’t great. It’s okay, and sometimes necessary, to speak up and explain what works for you.

Something similar is true for a manager expressing concern that someone is taking on too much work and needs to protect their energy. This is fair game for a manager to worry about! If you take on too much, it can end up meaning that you’re not at your best when she needs you to be, or that you start making mistakes or getting burned out. And even that stuff aside, a good manager wants to make sure she’s not overloading people and won’t just pile more and more onto one person. However, this should be a two-way conversation — not just your boss announcing that you can’t handle anymore, unless she’s also explaining her reasons for thinking that (like that you’ve already had to push back other priorities or have started making mistakes).

So ideally, when your boss says that she thinks you’re taking on a lot and wants to make sure you’re protecting your energy, you’d give her a substantive response. For example: “Actually, my workload is fine right now — I’m busy, but I enjoy it, and I’m not in any danger of burning out. I’d really like to take on project X and I can make room for it without sacrificing my attention to other work.” Or, “I hear you that you’re worried I have too much going on right now, but actually I’m really excited to take on X and I can fit it in without overloading myself. I’d appreciate being allowed to do it, because it’s important to me to broaden my experience in that area” (or “because I get a lot of satisfaction from that type of work” or so forth).

And if your boss says she wants to get you support, rather than being annoyed that she’s not being specific about what that means, ask her! Say something like, “I think I’m doing fine, but what type of support did you have in mind, specifically?” Yes, she should tell you proactively, but since she’s not, you should ask. I think you’re currently reading it as “there’s nothing real behind her offer and that’s annoying” — and maybe that’s true. But maybe if you ask, you’ll find out there are options you didn’t know about, like pulling in helpers from other teams or hiring a temp to take some of the lower-level work off your plate or all kinds of other things.

In other words, all of this should be a conversation. Right now she’s doing her side of it, but you’re not really picking up your end of it — you’re just getting annoyed that she’s overstepping. But she’s not really overstepping — or at least, we don’t know if she is, because we don’t know what will happen when you pick up your end of the conversation and say “I need this but not that” or otherwise express your own needs.

You said that you sometimes struggle with being told what to do, and my hunch is that right now you’re bristling at that piece of this, and that bristling is preventing you from seeing your manager’s comments as dialogue rather than dictates — dialogue that you can play an active role in. Try that and see what happens.

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