Q: My helper keeps working late into the evenings. It’s nice that she’s such a hard worker, but we’d also like some private family time after dinner and for her to rest. How can I express this in a kind-but-clear way?
The challenge: Maintaining healthy boundaries and privacy in the midst of a live-in working situation can be a tricky thing to balance! But it’s vital to address these topics immediately because you never want to feel uncomfortable in your home. If private family time is a priority for you, here’s a few ways to communicate that to your helper while avoiding confusion or offence.
Some background: It’s common for helpers to stay up late working. They may do this so they don’t appear lazy, or because they personally like to “finish their work” before going to bed, or to help alleviate the boredom of sitting in their room alone for hours. Although these reasons are understandable, many employers desire a bit of time in the evenings when their helper isn’t ironing in the room next door or where they can enjoy personal conversations without their helper walking in at awkward times.
A common misunderstanding: Many well-meaning employers will try to tackle this desire by making hints or suggestions to their helper. They might say things like: “You don’t need to finish the ironing tonight; you can finish it tomorrow,” or, “It’s getting late and I want you to get some rest, so please feel free to be off work a bit earlier.” But they may find that their helper still stays up late.
As employers, in an effort to avoid offending, sometimes we mask what we really mean by using indirect words or phrases that can make it sound like we are just making passing suggestions. For instance, if you say, “You can go to bed now” or “No need to finish doing that tonight,” your helper may not pick up on those subtle cultural cues. You may be thinking “I’d actually like to have some private time,” and she may be thinking, “That’s nice of my employer to release me, but I really don’t mind; in fact, I like to finish my work before going to bed.”
The remedy: Consider a more direct approach to avoid misunderstanding.
Provide your helper with a clear understanding of your intent by (1) explaining the why behind your “suggestion,” and, (2) clarifying that it’s not a suggestion. Try sitting down with your helper, telling her that you appreciate her hard work but that you’d really like some quiet time in the evenings where no one is working or cleaning. You could say:
“I wanted to let you know about a change in your schedule and a new household rule that I think will benefit both of us. Since the evenings are one of the only times that we are together as a family, we really value those precious moments when it’s just us three. So, in order for us to have more private time and for you to have more time to rest in the evenings, you will now be off work at 8:30pm (or the time you would like her to be off) on most nights. We’ll start trying this out tonight.”
Due to language barriers, cultural gaps, and different personality styles, you may find it beneficial to clearly define your new rule and maybe even put it in writing. Some tips:
- Define what you mean by “family time” or “private time.”
- Explain why that’s important to you (e.g. “We work long hours and the evenings are our only time to enjoy a quiet home;” or, “In our culture, we don’t have helpers, so we are still not used to living with a non-family member in our home. This will help with our adjustment. Thank you for understanding.”) Sometimes bringing your culture or family values into it can bring clarity without offending.
- Give them a specific time (e.g. 8:30pm) that you would like to be their default “off” time.
- Be clear about what your helper can do once she is off work. You may want to consider encouraging her to go out in the evenings to spend some time with friends or take a walk, so she realises that she is also benefitting from this new rule.
Try this: Ask your helper to set an alarm on her phone for the agreed-upon “off-time at least for the first one to two weeks until the habit has formed. Let her know when she hears her alarm go off, she can say goodbye/goodnight at that time..
This gives you the opportunity to have a quick chat, where you can either say, “Thanks! Goodnight!” or, “Go ahead and finish that; but if it’s not done by 9:00pm, just leave it for tomorrow.” You may even want to set an alarm on your phone as well, if you think your helper may be too shy to initiate those conversations at first.
Keep in mind that many helpers “feel bad” when they haven’t finished the work they’ve started and it may go against their nature to leave tasks half-done, so they may need your reassurance that you are truly ok with them leaving the dishes half done or some of the ironing for tomorrow.
Management Lesson: Clarity is actually kinder than nice-sounding vague words that can leave room for misinterpretation.