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Me: “I’m so sorry, my daughter needs to be picked up from nursery again… I have to go straight away”

Them: “Again? Why can’t your mum pick her up this time?”

Sound familiar at all? Now, I have been very lucky. This comment came from a colleague not from my boss. I have actually always had very understanding employers in my time as a military spouse. I am also aware, through my work with Recruit for Spouses, that many of the employers they work with sign up to the armed forces covenant. But the reality is many don’t and you might, for reasons we will explore here, face some hostility in the workplace if your military life means you require extra flexibility at work.

There are lots of reasons that, as military families, we sometimes find ourselves having to make compromises at work. Perhaps, like in my example, we have no support so if our childcare plan goes wrong we are left unable to work. Or maybe there is a short notice deployment or move to contend with. Sometimes the pressures of moving frequently and saying repeated hellos and goodbyes to the people we love can take a mental or physical toll that mean we need time off too. Last week we put these challenges into perspective and noted that, while these things are difficult for an employer, civilian employees may also present with any of the above difficulties. I hope that blog convinced you not to discriminate against yourself! But the fact is not all employers share this perspective.

Today we are talking about how to handle it when your boss (line manager/ supervisor/employer) reacts unhelpfully to the challenges you face. First, we need to understand WHY they may react unhelpfully (spoiler alert, it isn’t about you!)

In the blog series I wrote about strong emotions and anxiety during the pandemic I talked about our primitive “threat system.” This is the response that gets activated when our ancient brains think we are in danger. It gives us all the typical symptoms like fast heart rate, increased blood flow etc but it also shuts off parts of our brain that make us less efficient when battling a sabre tooth tiger. These include our ability to work out what is going on in someone else’s head and our ability to creatively problem-solve. Unfortunately, this “threat” response can be switched on by things we think about and imagine (like the dire consequences of missing the targets this month) as our brains only have one threat response that has to serve us whether we are fighting a tiger or trying to make a spreadsheet balance.  If someone who you report to at work is making hurtful comments, setting unreasonable demands or is in some other way making it hard for you to do your job they are most likely very feeling “threatened” in some way.

Signs your employer or manager may be feeling threatened

“Snapping” at you or seeming irritable

Avoiding you or others


Refusing to make eye contact (or making a scary amount of eye contact)

Aggressive behaviour (including angry emails, shouting, etc)

Appearing anxious or tearful

Making assumptions about you

Making “jokes” at your expense

Giving very “black and white” options – e.g. “you’re in or out”

Sending emails or responding to emails/calls outside of normal working time.

Indigestion and other physical health effects problems

Why would your manager be feeling threatened?

There are a million reasons why your manager/employer might be feeling threatened right now. Some are NOTHING to do with you at all. Maybe there are problems at home or in the wider company that you can’t even know about. Some, however, could be triggered by the challenges of employing someone in the military community. Here are some ideas to think about if you are struggling to figure out what could be threatening your manager:

  • Are they worried about their ability to manage you effectively through a challenge?
  • Could they be receiving pressure from someone higher up to meet unreasonable expectations?
  • Could they be worried about their “popularity” with other members of the team who may think you are getting “special” treatment?
  • Are they worried about looking “weak” in front of someone or a group of people?
  • Could they be worried about their future or career prospects?

You probably won’t be able to answer these but it is important to step back and ask yourself what might be contributing to their behaviour that has NOTHING to do with you. This will help you take a step back from the situation so you can approach them more confidently. And yes… you do have to approach them eventually!


Action plan:

The problem is, even though we rationally know it isn’t really anything to do with us, we are hardwired to be very sensitive to disapproval. So if your boss behaves in any of the ways described above it is likely you will start to feel shame and your own threat system will light up like a Christmas tree.

The first step in dealing with a difficult employer is, therefore, to get your own shame/threat response in check. It is essential that you regulate yourself before you talk to your employer because when two threat systems collide the results can be explosive.


Adjust your oxygen mask first

As discussed in previous blogs, shame can’t be rationalised with but it can be soothed. We need to reassure the animal parts of your brain that you are safe and not at risk of being exiled from the pack. You may (justifiably) think I am a broken record because I mention this in every blog but the best way of starting this process is to connect with your body in the present moment. Try balloon breathing, mindfulness to the body meditation, gentle yoga or dropping anchor. You can find detailed advice on each of these in the series I wrote on dealing with anxiety.


Reach out for support

Next, we have to find someone to support us. Someone who will listen with a compassionate ear and reassure us that we have an ally, even if our employer becomes threatening. Find someone who has known you for a long time and get their wisdom on the story. They will most likely reaffirm that this is not your fault but most importantly they will help you to feel understood and cared for.


Talk to your employer

I’m afraid you do need to tackle this situation. If you feel your employer is being unfair or unkind towards you YOUR threat system is going to go into overdrive. This will limit your performance and work and erode your mental health at home too. If you follow these steps there is a good chance you can help your employer to activate their soothing system and come out of threat mode. This will give you both the best opportunity to solve any problems creatively.


  1. Give space for regulation. There is no point starting this process when your employer is upset (with you or otherwise) so don’t attempt to talk to them until they appear otherwise calm.
  2. Highlight shared values and priorities. Begin your conversation with something you have in common. Ideally, something you both care about. For example, you could start with “we both want the team to hit February’s target.”
  3. Show that you are trying to help them. Make a “helping statement” that shows that your intention is to be an asset to them. Talk about yourself with confidence and respect but acknowledge any “problems” you may be aware of. For example, “I’m aware that my sales are down slightly as I haven’t been able to come in on Fridays for a while. I was wondering if we could talk about how I might be able to get them back up?” (respect not deference)
  4. Talk about your feelings. Showing some vulnerability is a good way of ensuring the other person does not feel threatened so own up to it if having this conversation is making you anxious. Simply saying ‘I’ve been really worried about the impact on the team and I don’t want to let them down” can help the other person switch out of fight/flight/freeze mode and into the co-operative, problem-solving state. Stay away from anything that references “them” though. Statements like “you make me feel” or “you did X” can inflame the threat response.
  5. Use confident but relaxed communication. Take your time, speak slowly and calmly. Bring a cup of tea, breathe deeply and relax your muscles before you begin. Create an open body posture (no folded arms or hands on hips). Choose words that emphasise the fact you are on the same team like “we” and “us” and “together.”
  6. Suggest solutions. Creatively problem solve and present solutions if you possibly can or bring in someone else who may be able to see solutions you can’t (like HR). If you can make it clear that you aren’t just dropping a load of work at their door with no intention of helping the conversation is likely to go much more smoothly and they may even be grateful that you raised the issue.


If the situation is serious

Above is a good plan for if your employer is being “unhelpful” towards you. If what is happening is actually more similar to workplace bullying then you need to take a different approach, gathering support around you before you approach an employer. This could include support from a union representative, from your HR department and/or from a colleague you trust. If you are frightened of someone you should also consider getting the police involved. In any case, make sure you document all of your interactions with them, what was said, what was agreed and any emotional or practical impact on you.


If they are still being difficult

Sometimes the pressures people are under are too strong or complex for us to problem solve with them effectively. Your mind will try to blame you for this (thanks mind) but the truth is there is a lot you cannot influence in this situation. Last week we talked about using a leaves on a stream meditation to “let go” of thoughts that you should be doing “more” if rationally you know you have done all you can. Practically your next step may be to either find a new employer or to go to someone above them in the organisation and (using all the skills above) attempt to gain their support to solve the problem.

I hope this has given you a way forward if you do face problems in your employment. Finally, I would encourage you to speak up and gain virtual support from all of us in the RFS forum if you find yourself in a difficult situation with an employer. Knowing there are like minded people out there facing similar challenges will help soothe that threat system!