How can they miss you when you won’t go away?

(With apologies to Dan Hicks)

Have you ever worked with one of those people who’s always on? You can call at 2PM… or 2AM… and they’re right there on alert and ready to help. Maybe you’ve been that person. It’s a funny thing: Over time, gratitude turns into being taken for granted. Eventually, someone is mad that you didn’t answer the phone at 2AM. And let’s face it, it’s the always-on person’s fault… your fault… because the expectation has been set.

In the past, there were people who had work-life boundaries, and people who didn’t. But today, when the distance between home in bed and in the office is as little as clicking “Accept Call” instead of “Decline,” it’s getting harder to be one of those people with boundaries. You no longer have those visual cues that you’re in one place or the other. This is a dangerous time, and the greatest risk to your long-term health may not be COVID, but overwork and burnout. At the same time, the greatest risk to your career may be being taken for granted.

In the past few months, we’ve all seen the articles about taking a vacation, even a staycation, just to keep your sanity and pretend the world is still normal. And that’s important. But there’s another thing to think about, as I note in my title. Right now, roles are shifting and expectations are changing. Some people are going the extra mile because they’re scared and want to hang onto their jobs. Others, though, are just doing it because they don’t have anything better to do. When life returns to normal and people start wanting their lives back, how do you plan to position yourself? Are you setting people up to be grateful to you? Or to take you for granted?

There was a time when the best career advice was to be indispensable, that way they could never let you go. But let’s be honest: If anything ever happens to you, you will be replaced and people will figure out how to get on without you. But if you’re indispensable in your current role, it’s not convenient for you to be moved somewhere else, even up! And as I said, roles are shifting right now. You need to be careful what role you find yourself in.

One of the great things about vacation is that people start catching on to all those things you take care of. When you get back, they’re glad, even relieved, to see you. But if they’re just cranky about all the problems that came up without you there, you’re in the taken-for-granted zone. Time to look for someplace that will appreciate you. But, how do you get that appreciation?

Did I mention that right now, with all the work-at-home, roles are shifting? If you want to come out of this in a better place, there are three things you need to do:

  1. Take your vacations. Even staycations. Let them miss you and realize life is easier when you’re there. You can recharge and everyone else can reflect.
  2. Learn something new! Do not… repeat… do not… become even better at your current job than you ever were before while working from home. Instead, learn something that complements your current skills but gives you room to pivot.
  3. Make yourself a little more replaceable. When half the country is still working from home, this is the time to squeeze in conversations where you help your colleagues learn to handle some of the little things you do when you’re not there. Show one person your tracking sheets, another short cuts to rework the brochure from marketing… This is an especially great time to help someone else learn to do those mundane tasks you’d like to get rid of. If someone below you can do it, that will give you extra cycles to take on new challenges.

Key takeaway: With much of the country still working from home, this is a critical time to make sure that you’re setting work-life boundaries that protect you while using the uncertainty to shift your role to something better for you. Learn something new, then take that vacation. Let them miss you a little, but set yourself up to return to something better.

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