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No. 64 – Help! My boss is telling me to work from the office or leave

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15 June 2022

My employer originally said we could work flexibly but is now saying we must work in the office or find a new job. Can they do that?

Your question reminds me of the recent edict from Elon Musk to Tesla employees saying everyone needs to return to the office or find another job. It’ll be interesting to see how that approach plays out long-term since it’s far from collaborative but is a demand an employer can make. It sounds like your employer didn’t think through what the consequences of letting everyone work flexibly might have been and has now realised it’s not going to work for their business operations or culture. The challenge is that there will be many people who find flexible working to be valuable to ongoing employment and taking that away may be a deal-breaker.

It’s worth seeing if other colleagues feel the same way and then try speaking to your boss or a leader you trust to see if there is a compromise position like hybrid working. Your boss isn’t going to be able to deal with lots of employees leaving at once and presumably you can also point to your high levels of productivity over the past two years while working from home. Every organisation is grappling with this issue at the moment and there are as many solutions as companies. I am sure, if your employer is prepared to listen, there will be a way forward and if not, you might need to find a new employer.

I currently work in the aged care sector doing laundry and I have been in my job for 14 years. A new company took over the contract 10 months ago and since that time I’ve been working every day, Monday to Sunday, approximately 5-6 hours a day including all public holidays, except two weeks over Christmas. I’ve been told it is illegal to work straight through without days off or days in lieu, is this true? Am I owed money or days from this amount of work?

You can only be expected to work a maximum of 38 hours in a week unless your employer asks you to work reasonable extra hours for which you should be paid overtime. You should also receive additional loading on public holidays. It sounds like the hours per week you are doing is somewhat close to 38 hours per week, but the spread of days you are working is not allowing you a reasonable break for weekends, rostered days off or public holidays.

I’d recommend you get advice about your rights and entitlements as soon as you can. If you belong to a union, contact them and they will be able to advise you on what is in your workplace agreement since this should set out all of your entitlements. You will also be covered by an award so it would be worth speaking with someone at the Fair Work Ombudsman about your rights. They’ll be able to offer you advice on next steps in your specific situation.

I would like to know how to deal with a toxic boss who doesn’t care about my wellbeing. He is only concerned about getting results at the expense of my mental health. What should I do?

You are in a difficult situation and one many will relate to. When you have a boss who is only focused on themselves or financial success, they can trample over everyone else to get there. This becomes an unsustainable situation and sometimes, the best option for your mental health will be to leave. Before it reaches that stage, talk with a trusted mentor at work to get their perspective. Are they seeing the same things as you? Do they have any advice from observing how you respond? If you are able, and it sounds like this would be challenging, can you sit down with your boss and let them know you realise you don’t both always work well together and would like to find a path forward?

If all else fails, is there a leader or someone in HR you can talk to? When you do talk with someone, have clear examples of the ways your boss is causing you concern and ways you have tried to work through the issues. Stay as objective as you can as you explain the challenges you’re dealing with. Ultimately, no boss should be able to lead in a way that causes physical, emotional or mental harm to their employees, and employers have an obligation to address that before it becomes a bigger issue.

Send your questions about work, careers and leadership to Your name and any identifying information will not be used. Letters may be edited.

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Kirstin Ferguson is an award-winning leadership expert, author, columnist and company director.
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