my boss is burned out

by Ask a Manager on September 3, 2013

A reader writes:

My boss is big-B burned out. He’s one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever worked for, and normally an excellent manager; but lately, he’s visibly tired (and will tell you so, when you ask him how he’s doing), and “off” — he’s abrasive, argumentative, impatient, disinterested, unfocused, and not the guy I’ve been working for for a lot of years before now.

He’s also a straight shooter – not the kind of boss who will use his staff as his therapist, but definitely the kind of boss who will give you a straight answer when you ask him what’s going on. I’ve said to him “I’m worried about you. I notice that you seem like you’re in a slump. You’re smiling less. You seem tired. When I give you an update on a project that I think you’ll be really excited about, you seem uninterested, or bored. Or, if I bring you a question I need some help with answering, where you would previously take interest in that and give me great advice, now it seems like more of a nuisance to you, something you’d rather not be dealing with. Is something going on?” And he answered yeah, he is tired, and he’s been doing this job for a long time now, and maybe he’s ready to be doing something else, something that would let him have more time at home with his kids.

He’s also the big boss, in charge of the whole shop. And while the idea of him moving on stresses me out, I understand that change isn’t bad, and sometimes people need to do what they need to do. I get it. I want him to be happy, wherever that is. But in the meantime, until he decides to make a move, I still look to him to do his job – manage the rest of us, you know? I need him to do his job and stay engaged with the work and with his staff. And lately, I’m not always so sure how to ask for what I need. I try not to bring him problems without solutions in mind, but we never seem to be able to move those solutions forward. I try not to bother him with the insignificant stuff, but there’s a major personnel issue I need his advice on how to manage, and he doesn’t have any to give, saying “yeah, that’s hard, you’re right, I don’t know what you should do.” I know he’s going through stuff, and I’ve got sympathy – real sympathy – for that. I don’t want to add more stress to his life, I want to relieve his stress by continuing to do a good job and take things off his plate and manage my own work successfully. But there are some things I’m responsible for where I need his buy in and support, and it’s not there. It’s making me feel stuck, and sad. And it’s also making me pull back – things where I could normally use his help I’m just handling on my own, and I’m not sure I’m always handling them the right way. I miss his leadership. And I don’t know how to ask for it in the middle of everything he’s working out – but I feel myself starting to get resentful that he’s not leading us the way he used to. I want my boss back.

What should I do?

It doesn’t sound like there’s anything you really can do.

You’ve spoken to your boss about the issue and he acknowledged that it’s a problem, but he hasn’t changed his behavior.

You’ve asked him directly for the type of advice you need for your work, and he’s not giving you any.

You can’t make someone give what they can’t or won’t give, and right now he’s not giving it.

So your options are to accept that this is now the way your job works, at least for the foreseeable future, and either stay under those changed conditions or decide to look elsewhere.

I suppose that you could have one more conversation with your boss about the issue, but I doubt it’s going to change anything and might only succeed in irritating him (since you’ve already brought it up and received a “yes, I know” in response). If you wanted to try that, though, I’d change the focus a bit from what you said the first time. The first time, you made it about your concern for him. This time, you could be more explicit that it’s making it harder for you to do your job as well as you used to.

It’s possible that would nudge him into realizing that he has to change something and can’t just continue on with the status quo. But it’s also possible that you’ll get a response that says, essentially, “deal with it.”

And if that happens, then you’ve got to adapt your thinking and realize that this is how the job works now. Do you still want it?

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{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

Joey September 3, 2013 at 2:38 pm

See , I see this as a huge opportunity to do more. To make decisions (with a quick yay/nay from him) and to really take on a lot of his normal responsibilities. Yes it’s a lot more work to come up with answers/solutions without the fallback of a trusted boss being there, but what are the alternatives? Throw up your hands and/or leave. Besides, whose going to be prepared to step in when he leaves. Again, a great opportunity if you work it right.

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Jamie September 3, 2013 at 2:58 pm

That was my exact thought – there is a huge opportunity up for grabs here. Grab it.

Either he comes out of his slump and is really grateful for the way you stepped up when he needed you or he leaves and you couldn’t be in a better position to make a case for a promotion.

And he likes you and you have great rapport…seriously, this is on a silver platter.

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Ruffingit September 3, 2013 at 3:52 pm

This assumes though that the OP wants to move into management or even has the skills to do so. If she doesn’t, then this is just a huge problem that makes her life very difficult.

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Joey September 3, 2013 at 4:26 pm

She mentioned working for him for a lot of years so I’m assuming she has a lot of the skills necessary to step in. Regardless of whether or not she wants to progress it still benefits her. Even if she doesn’t want a promtion the mere experience of taking on additional higher level duties even on an interim basis will make her a better manager.

Its a slow pitch down the middle- a test drive of the position without actually committing to it long term.

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Jamie September 3, 2013 at 4:29 pm

Also – you can take on added responsibility by which, if done well, can help you make a case for more money without necessarily going into management. Depending on their structure, of course.

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Scott M September 4, 2013 at 3:59 pm

I completely disagree with this.
1. The OP may not have the authority, knowledge, and skill to take over their boss’s job.
2. Who is going to be prepared to step in when the big boss leaves? Perhaps the company will hire someone from outside. Perhaps there are other people who might apply for the position. People who, you know, actually WANT the job.

I guess my pet peeve is the default assumption that everyone is looking to move up. Not everyone spends their days training for the next promotion, ya know.

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Zahra September 3, 2013 at 2:58 pm

I agree, make it about your ability to do your job. For your major personnel issue, if you can, find a solution, bring it to him and say explicitly : “This is how I want to manage this situation, are you okay with it or is there anything you’d change?” Follow up with an email with a summary of your conversation, and put your plan in execution. At some point, you can’t wait on him to be back to normal, because worklife still goes on and it needs to be managed.

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LisaD September 3, 2013 at 3:06 pm

Time for you to “lean in.” You see the value of leadership because you’ve experienced it from him. Are you ready to step up and BE a leader now? Even leaders need leadership sometimes.

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Sarah September 3, 2013 at 3:15 pm

My first thought was that you need to transcribe all of the institutional knowledge he has, especially if he moves on. So often one person knows everything about the business and never puts it in writing. You may already have these things in place, but be sure policies and procedures are up-to-date. Create manuals that will help others. You will help yourself and your coworkers if he decides to leave.

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Elizabeth West September 3, 2013 at 11:18 pm

Excellent point.

You know what else? Part of his issue may be that he feels he CAN’T leave, if he really has all the nuts and bolts in his head. I think he truly does need to at this point, or get out of there for a little while. Perhaps this would make him feel better about taking some time off so he can figure out what he wants to do.

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Another Anonymous September 3, 2013 at 3:26 pm

Great suggestions already about taking on more responsibility. As to your concerns about his “buy in” on things you need to do, come to him with your ideas and plans and your top recommendation for how to handle the situation or accomplish the task and just say something like, “Unless you see something I need to do differently, these are the steps I plan to take.” Or “This is how I intend to deal with the situation. Do you see any obstacles or have any objections?” You have a great opportunity to demonstrate leadership and also support a boss who has been a great support and role model for you. Time to step up. (And maybe in one of your heart-to-heart discussions, you can suggest your company’s EAP as a resource for confidential counseling.) I wish you success.

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Mena September 3, 2013 at 4:08 pm

This isn’t your problem to fix, unfortunately.

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Jessa September 3, 2013 at 9:03 pm

Yes but the OP still needs it fixed in order to go on with their job. There are elements of the managers job that need to be done. And the fact is nobody else in the company is stepping up while work needs doing. This may be because it looks like the manager in question is near to the top of the proverbial food chain without anyone really above them the OP can go to with “I need x and can’t get it from Mgr. Y., what do you want me to do?” Which the OP doesn’t want to do anyway as Mgr. Y is normally a nice guy.

I agree with everyone else who suggest that you (the OP) go the “here’s what I’m going to do, unless you say otherwise,” route on the tough call situations.

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Andie September 3, 2013 at 4:08 pm

I agree with everyone else. This seems like a growth opportunity! It may be tough but seems like a worthwhile effort to dig in and increase your own skills if you are open to it.

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AdAgencyChick September 3, 2013 at 4:33 pm

OP, you say this is the big boss — “in charge of the whole shop.” If he decides to move on, is there a business or does it close down? (ie, I’m not clear whether he’s a high-level manager or the owner.)

Because if he’s the owner, no matter what else you do — whether you decide to step up as other posters have suggested, or else put your head down and decide this is the new order — if I were you I’d start job hunting simply as a safeguard against what happens if your boss decides he’s so burnt out it’s time to close up shop.

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Leslie Yep September 3, 2013 at 4:49 pm

It’s uncanny. I came to AAM just now to verify Alison’s email to send nearly the exact same question.

While I agree to a large extent with the other commenters that this is a huge opportunity for personal and professional growth–and feel personally like being in the OP’s shoes has been a huge driver of my success in my role–there’s a cost to that, in your time, your work-life balance, and your sanity. I’m starting to feel that cost now.

My own riff on this question–which may bring us too far off topic and if so, Alison you’re welcome to end this little thread–is this: From the OP’s boss’s perspective, what can be done to rebuild after burning out? Is there hope for the OP’s boss? For my manager? What needs to happen for that guy and his ilk to get back on track?

I am good at providing structure and I’m working really hard at it on my team, but it seems like every hour I manage to free up from inefficient systems is immediately replaced by new “emergencies” that never seem to end. I’m trying to decide whether to look for new opportunities or to stick it out here. What should I look for? How do I start to see progress? Have you had success in breaking a culture that leads to this cycle of overwork?

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anon o September 3, 2013 at 4:54 pm

If you and the OP and I are in the same city I think we need to form a support group!

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Leslie Yep September 3, 2013 at 5:20 pm

Burnout buddies? I’ll bring the wine.

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Joey September 3, 2013 at 4:58 pm

Its different for everyone. If its something outside of work he may break out of the funk later. Could also be a mini mid-life crisis. Or something medical. You just can’t tell.

Sometimes people just need to reprioritze their lives. And frequently its easier to do that with a job change. In the ops bosses case that might mean that a demotion with less responsibility relieves all of the pressure. There’s not nearly enough info to tell.

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anon o September 3, 2013 at 4:52 pm

I have this exact problem too and while I agree that it’s a great opportunity to step up that’s not really a solution to the OP’s problem. It sounds to me like they are already stepping up – bringing solutions, trying not to bother them with minor problems, etc. But there are various problems here:

- If the boss is not managing the office the OP might not necessarily have the authority to manage their co-workers.

- If the boss is not doing their job properly and you step in, great, but you still also need time to do your own job.

- It’s easy to say “oh just step up and do it” but that’s often easier said than done. First of all, if you’re not the big boss you might not have all the information you need to made decisions, take action, etc. Further, the OP is looking for assistance and guidance from their manager, which is an important part of a manager’s role. It’s easy to say step up but when the garbage hits the fan and you’ve just gone ahead and done things without consultation or authorization (and an email covering your butt doesn’t solve a problem you’ve created. It just keeps you from being blamed, you still have to fix the problem.) If you’re learning by trial and error it’s tough!

- I don’t know if the OP has any reports but I find I’m often really caught – I’m supporting both the boss (who is burned out and doesn’t care) and the people I manage (who need me to manage). I don’t have time/energy to do both properly all the time.

- Sometimes my boss will be engaged and decide to do stuff and sometimes not and I don’t know one day or another what he’s doing or not doing. It’s incredibly frustrating.

- This scenario happens a lot with me: Something needs to be done, boss decides he’s going to do it. I remind him that it’s very important that he do it by X day. “Yeah yeah yeah, I’ll get it done.” Day before I remind him again. “I have a lot of work to do, I’ll do it.” I offer to help. “No, you have work to do.” X day arrives. Not done. Boss is off taking his brother for lunch or something. He has actively told me not to do it because he’s doing it. “Just step up” doesn’t help.

Good luck OP! I agree with the advice upthread suggesting to send an email saying “I’m going to blah blah blah, is that OK?” But that only helps you so much. You’re going to have to decide if you can live with this situation or not. I worry a lot about how all of this is affecting my reputation. It’s very frustrating but ultimately I remind myself that it’s his company.

I have a new person who reports to me who is really struggling with letting this stuff go. It’s really hard to do when you’re conscientious but it’s best for your own peace of mind.

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Ruffingit September 3, 2013 at 4:56 pm

You make a lot of very important points, which I think the “step up and do it” people miss sometimes. You cannot just step up and do the work your boss is not doing for a lot of the reasons you mentioned and it is very frustrating. The only solution in this situation is to deal with it as is or move on.

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Jennifer September 3, 2013 at 4:59 pm

Yeah, you can only take on as much more work as you are allowed/equipped to do. The OP will probably have to take as much workload off of him as she can, but that might not be everything.

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Joey September 3, 2013 at 5:08 pm

Some of what you’re talking about is different. If your boss tells you not to do something of course you don’t do it.

And of course there are risks, but I don’t think we’re saying ignore the boss and do his job. We’re just saying make it easier on the boss by doing as much as he’ll give you while going to him only for approval of what you’re going to do, not all of the sausage making.

And obviously if you can’t commit the time and effort well that’s another management level decision that you can choose to try and solve.

I’m not saying its the only option, just a great one if you’re interested.

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anon o September 3, 2013 at 5:17 pm

From the letter, I got the impression that the OP is already doing that. But I might be projecting!

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Sophie September 3, 2013 at 9:01 pm

I agree re the difficulties in stepping up. My situation is slightly different – my boss is away for 3 months on a massive european trip, putting several cases in my lap. He’s a big boss (owner) and I am a junior. The answers and feedback I am getting is similar – he haphhazardly answers questions, doesn’t tell me what to do, gives his opinion but then says don’t do it, and doesn’t answer questions for weeks at a time. This would not be so difficult, if he gave me the power to make decisions myself. But he won’t, and regularly says he will make the call on things – and then doesn’t, despite several reminders.

Frankly it makes me feel guilty for ruining his holiday, but at the same time he is the one who is deciding that only he can make the decisions, no one else in the office.

Sometimes the big boss won’t allow you to step up, while at the same time refusing to do so him/herself. It’s really hard.

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Michelle September 3, 2013 at 5:04 pm

The only thing I would add is to tell him what you wrote here. From what you wrote, here is what I would say: “I understand that you are going through some difficult times right now but I need you to understand that it is negatively impacting the office and me. I am feeling and I am starting to pull back and not involve you in things that I could use your help on. Instead I’m handling issues on my own, and I’m not sure I’m always handling them the right way. I miss your leadership. I want my boss back.”

I think your words are very powerful and if one of my team members said this to me, I know it would cause me to really think about my behavior and figure out ways to re-engage. Good luck OP!

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Nonprof September 3, 2013 at 5:26 pm

It sounds like you are depending on your boss for a LOT of advice and guidance and “support”. Are your coworkers the same way? Is it possible that this is what it burning him out? I agree with everyone else, stop bringing so much to him and step up into your role!

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Lacey September 3, 2013 at 6:11 pm

It doesn’t sound that way at all to me, OP says they try not to bring insignificant issues to the boss. It sounds to me like OP is doing everything she can to take responsibility for things and that she has a really good handle for how far this can go.

She still needs him to manage, and as others have said, its not as easy as just deciding you’re going to effectively take work from your manager. You will get push back – I’ve had the same thing from a very absentee manager. I say “can I take care of that?”, and she says “no, I will do that”. At that point, you really don’t have a choice. Even though you know you could do it more quickly yourself, if your boss tells you they will take care of something, you really have to accept that.

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mimimi September 3, 2013 at 5:54 pm

Sounds like the boss may be dealing with depression, or family problems, or both. Not much the OP can do about that unfortunately.

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MR September 3, 2013 at 8:21 pm

I couldn’t tell from the OP’s letter, if the boss is the CEO of the organization or is just running one of multiple locations of this particular business.

If it’s the latter, and the boss’ boss is competent in any way, then that boss has a clue as to what is going on. Chances are that the boss’ work is slipping and upper management has begun to notice. However, upper management may not be so kind to go investigating into what is going on and may get rid of the boss if the poor work continues.

I don’t know if it will make the situation better, or worse, but the boss may need to know that upper management is watching…

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Not So NewReader September 3, 2013 at 10:28 pm

He’s tired? All of the sudden?
UH. Has he had a medical check up lately? I am not a doctor but I know that early diabetes symptoms will make a person drop like a rock. No, I am not saying he has diabetes. I am just pointing out one example of what could be going on.
He is having trouble keeping up with the pace at work this is what you are showing with your examples. He is up, he is down – who knows which way the wind is blowing right now.
He is just not himself. I think the most important question to ask is “What steps are you willing to take to help yourself here?” And insist that he needs to seriously think about this. He does not need to tell YOU- but he does need to think.

Unfortunately, leadership is an unending/unyielding role. As a leader he does not have the luxury of dropping out at random points. Your spot is made more complex by that the guy is a talented leader… so of course you want to show deference because of that.
Tell him his roller coaster is a quality of life issue. He needs to do something to help himself. Meanwhile, he has a crew that is dependent on his good leadership. People would lose their jobs if the company tanked. He has done a lot of good work, it would be a shame to toss that effort away by neglecting what he has built up.

Can you find a couple of coworkers who would band together to lighten his load for say – a month? See how things unfold from there.

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Jamie September 4, 2013 at 2:25 pm

Severe anemia will do it, too. Less common in men, but still happens (usually with undiagnosed GI bleeding) and will absolutely kick your ass.

I have been compensating for it forever, but when my RBC dropped below a certain point I went from being me…by which I mean fairly high strung and work focused…to just trying to get through the day. I was just completely beaten and spent.

10 weeks of infusions where the side effects were as bad as the anemia and I was really getting scared abo9ut the future…but one week after the last treatment I woke up in the middle of the night with the solution to a code glitch I’d been working on and have been really excited about audit schedules and costing numbers again…I’m baaaaaackkkk.

Not sure everyone thrilled, but I am.

So yeah, I’d also recommend some blood work – a full CBC. Hopefully someone in his personal life will, since I’m not sure there’s a tactful way for a report to do it.

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ThursdaysGeek September 4, 2013 at 7:14 pm

Yeah, for my pa-in-law, it was colon cancer. But the sudden no-energy blahs were concerning enough that he went to the doctor, and it was caught early. There were no bad effects other than now having a semi-colon instead of a colon (fitting for a retired English teacher).

I hope the boss has checked with his doctor.

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Jackie September 4, 2013 at 2:16 pm

Sounds like the boss is suffering from depression.

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