Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

I have brought a burden upon myself, and I know it's completely my own doing. I've been in my current role for a year and a half. In that time, I've become the de facto compassionate listener and person whom co-workers turn to when they want to confide in someone.

Everyone comes to me to pull me aside and vent about their personal and professional problems, stresses, and anxieties. Every week, I endure stories about fights with boyfriends, wives, and girlfriends and drama about annual reviews, salaries, and promotions. I'm very good at keeping secrets and I don't ever offer solid advice, just lend a listening ear and support for when people are upset. That said, I'm seriously sick of performing this emotional labor for everyone when it's not a mutually beneficial relationship. I don't share these kinds of things with co-workers when I have issues. Playing therapist is costing me hours that I could spend at my desk doing good work.

It happens at least daily. Not all of my co-workers are offenders, just the majority. They will ask me to go get coffee, come downstairs, walk to a neighboring hallway, etc.

How do I set boundaries now when no one has any with me? It's gotten to the point that my co-workers text me obsessively during my time off to demand to know when I'll be back at the office again and I know it's because they want to dump on me, not because they need anything work-related. Is there a way to distance myself without hurting feelings? Help!

Green responds:

Spread everyone's secrets far and wide so they don't want to confide in you anymore?

Maybe not.

But I do think you can put a stop to this. I'd try a combination of a few things, depending on what feels the most comfortable in a given situation:

1. Be busy. When people come to you for this kind of nonwork thing, say right up front, "Sorry, I can't talk. I've got a big project" or "I'm on deadline and can't stop -- sorry!" or "I'm got to prepare for a call" or whatever other reasonable work-related excuse you can come up with. If you haven't done this before, it might feel rude at first, but I promise you that this is a very, very normal thing to say. Other people say it all the time, and your employer almost certainly expects you to manage your time in this way. (More on that last part in a minute.)

Bonus points if you can find one big project to point to -- "I'm going to be swamped for the next few months with the website redesign and will need everyone to pretend I'm not here!"

2. Consider saying something about the bigger picture to people you feel comfortable saying it to. For example: "I know I've been able to spend a lot of time talking in recent months, but I'm realizing that it's been impacting my work. I'm going to need to rein it in and won't be able to talk as much." You could add, "I do enjoy talking with you and that makes it tougher, so I'd really appreciate if you can help me not get drawn in to nonwork topics for a while."

3. Stop accepting the requests to get away from your desk. When people ask you to get coffee, go downstairs, or otherwise leave your office so that they can vent to you, say something like, "I can't -- I'm swamped. Is it time-sensitive?" If the response is, "Well, I'm really upset about this fight I had with Barnaby last night," then you say, "Oh, I'm sorry -- I don't think I'll be able to talk today/this week; I've got a bunch of deadlines I'm working on."

4. Stop responding to texts outside of work hours and when you're on vacation. Just stop entirely. When you get back, if they ask you about it, you can say, "Oh, I was ignoring everything from work while I was away" or "I didn't have my phone turned on until I came back" or "Hmmm, I didn't see it -- was there a work emergency?"

5. Know it's going to take a while to retrain people. People will eventually get used to a different pattern, but this stuff gets ingrained and it'll take a while. Don't get discouraged if they keep it up for a while; keep setting and enforcing boundaries.

And brace yourself for the possibility that someone's feelings might be hurt. It would be nice if you could avoid that entirely, but you can't control how people feel; all you can do is act reasonably and hope others will do the same. And, really, the best way to avoid hurt feelings is to be straightforward with people, so they don't mistakenly think you're upset with them or you're snubbing them. If you explain to them why you need to pull back and they hold that against you, they're the problem, not you.

6. Perhaps most important, reframe your thinking a bit. I suspect you feel an obligation to listen to your co-workers and be a supportive presence for them (and that's how this all started), so keep in the forefront of your mind that you have a higher obligation to your employer to focus on your job. Unless your employer has specifically hired you to play office therapist, continuing to do it is shortchanging them. It's also shortchanging yourself -- you're putting yourself in a position where you're not going to be as productive as you otherwise would be, and that will have very real ramifications on future raises, project assignments, promotions, and your reputation.

If it helps, pretend to yourself that your boss told you that she noticed how much time you're spending in these conversations with co-workers and asked you to stop. That's something that really could happen at some point, so pretend that it already has and take the actions that you'd take if it did (presumably the ones above).

Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to alison@askamanager.org.

Published on: Mar 3, 2020
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.