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How to talk to your boss about coping during COVID

man looking frustrated as he sits next to young boy while trying to work

While listening to a podcast, I heard a series of stories about people struggling to manage the new realities of work — dealing with childcare issues while working remotely, worried about safety or stability in their current work, nervous about finding a new job without knowing what the risks may be.

headshot of Elizabeth Schrimpf
Career counselor Elizabeth Schrimpf offers tips on sharing concerns with your supervisor.

It was heartbreaking, and I empathize with their struggles. Many of us are facing major change and uncertainty. Without support and empathy from employers we may have to make difficult decisions about the future of our work. One way to navigate these situations is to share your needs and concerns with your boss, but having those conversations can be nerve-wracking at best and downright terrifying at worst.

If you have concerns and you don’t know how to approach your boss, here are some steps to get you started:

  • Prioritize your needs and be prepared to shift your position. Think about what you really must have to do your job. Bombarding your boss with every concern will distract from the conversation about work.
  • Plan your conversation using what you know about your boss and their style. Reach out using the communication tool they prefer and schedule a time to talk.
  • Use clear language to make your point with direct statements that express your concern without blaming others.
  • Try to focus on specifics and give reasons to support your position. Helping your boss understand why you have a need will make the conversation easier.
  • Avoid ultimatums when asking for change or support — you may not get what you ask for, and creating a “my-way-or-the-highway” situation might end up with you on the highway!
  • Finally, understand that asking doesn’t mean getting. Even if your request is reasonable and you advocate well, the answer might be no. In this case, your best option might be to think outside of the box, get ideas from trusted friends or colleagues and consider changing your situation.

By using these steps, you can turn a confrontational statement like, “You gave me too much to do; this workload is unreasonable. Don’t you know I have three kids?” into something more collaborative: “Being home with three kids and no childcare is difficult. I’m having a hard time balancing professional obligations with personal responsibilities. Can we meet tomorrow afternoon to discuss some of my projects and look at the timelines?”

Most importantly, trust your instincts. Expressing a need means being vulnerable, and that is scary. It’s okay to give yourself time to work up to the conversation or to transition from asking your boss for something to asking a friend or neighbor for support — the steps will still work! Look at what you need most and decide what the best solution is for you.

For more information on how UW–Madison’s Adult Career and Special Student Services can support Wisconsin residents with career and educational planning during this difficult time, see our website at acsss.wisc.edu.

Elizabeth Schrimpf is a career and educational counselor with UW–Madison Continuing Studies. She can be reached at elizabeth.schrimpf@wisc.edu. This column first appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal.