update: my coworker won’t stop talking about how stressed she is, and it makes me stressed out too

Remember the letter-writer whose coworker was constantly talking about how stressed out she was? Here’s the update.

Thanks so much for the advice and sympathies. It’s allowed me to give myself permission to deflect this a bit more than I was and to do the things Alison mentioned in the last line like setting boundaries and cutting her off.

I haven’t summoned up the nerve to actually outright tell Belinda she seems stressed or that she is stressing me out, but I have taken to saying things like: “Oh dear. I’ll leave you to it,” or “I’ll let you get on with things,” and then just immediately walking away or turning back to what I’m doing. This is pretty neat as she can’t argue with it. It’s not like she can say: “No, come back! I don’t really want to be left alone, I want to complain some more!”

Since my letter was published, I’ve realised something I think is key: Belinda works well on more absorbing tasks that she can focus on for a long time, but struggles with switching between tasks or dealing with more time-dependent, comparatively urgent issues which categorically aren’t avoidable in this job. I’m pretty sure her manager is aware, as she’s missed some deadlines. I’m also pretty sure my manager is aware, as she’s not involved her in some tasks she should be doing which I assume is because she’s not coping with the ones she already has.

I’ve also pushed through my annoyance a bit and started to just feel a bit sorry for her and take the ‘observe her like a strange creature in a nature documentary’ approach that sometimes gets talked about on here.

I still have flashes of irritation though. Like when Belinda spent a chunk of the team meeting complaining about how she deals with teapot repairs on by far the busiest day, so I offered to swap days with her and she said thanks but she’ll “keep trying to muddle through for now”. Would it be cynical to suggest she wants the dementor-leverage of claiming to have the busiest day? Either way, I offered a solution, she refused and I’m therefore out of sympathy.

Also she sent an email to complain that sending emails about the details of a particular thing was inefficient and couldn’t we have a meeting. I explained why (we are sending brief but important updates for people in multiple locations not all working on the same days) and she said she just dislikes inefficient systems. I really wanted to say: huh, well just imagine how I feel about you then. Instead I pointed out that we could use Slack. Which she agrees would be useful, but she’s the only one of the recipients who doesn’t use it. Plus sending emails to complain about emails is never a great idea…

Thanks again for everyone’s advice!

{ 114 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Random Grad student

    ‘Sending E-mails to complain about e-mails is never a great idea’
    I think someone could make a great webcomic or meme out of this.
    Glad to hear she’s coping better though!

    Reply
    1. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain

      My favorite is when someone replies all to complain about people replying all to an email announcement. And then, someone else replies all to admonish the person who replied all to complain about replying all… AND THEN, someone else replies all to admonish the admonisher… it’s hilarious! It happens at my university at least once a semester. I work with adults, I think.

      Reply
      1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist

        And you’re rolling 50 Reply Alls deep within an hour or two, and you’re like “I will murder all of you in the face unless this chain dies now.”

        Reply
      2. Gabriela

        Ha! This happens at my university as well. We are HUGE- over 40k students and ever semester our Title IX coordinator emails all of the mandatory reporters reminding them to file any necessary reports. In they past they have added, “If you have nothing to report, please respond to this email with that message”. I am always shocked at how many people hit reply all with some variation of “I have nothing to report”.

        Reply
        1. OhNo

          At least they don’t reply-all with the reports.

          Wait, do they? Because that sounds like a nightmare waiting to happen.

          Reply
          1. CDL

            I worked with people who were jerks about the bcc – I’d set up professional development training sessions and bcc people whose managers recommended them for the session. I would ask them to reply to me if they were able to attend, and every time, I’d get someone who’d say, “I can attend, but you only emailed yourself.”

            ….these were the same people who would show up and complain about the meeting not having any cookies….

            Reply
            1. winter

              I cannot figure out if they were making the most tired joke or if they really don’t understand that they were emailed when they get … an email.

              Reply
      3. Tammy

        We had a rash of “please remove me from this email thread”…”me too”… storms recently when people replied all to an email from IT Security about something. I found it boggling how many people didn’t understand that the only way to be removed from an email thread is for people to stop sending reply all emails to the thread, and the (admittedly justified) entreaties of the people who were upset were perpetuating the problem.

        Reply
      4. NW Mossy

        This is the situation for which the “Ignore Conversation” feature in Outlook was invented. Sends all future replies straight to Deleted Items, no fuss, no muss.

        Reply
        1. Arjay

          Right up until some clever person decides to change the subject line from whatever it was to “Please do not reply all!” Then there’s just more to Ignore.

          Reply
      5. Nessie

        This happened a lot when I was in college. Some giant listserv gets created, an email gets sent out, and then everyone replies all asking to be removed from the listserv. It then devolves into people yelling at each other about how to remove yourself, and what kind of idiot would hit reply all, etc.

        Reply
  2. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist

    “Would it be cynical to suggest she wants the dementor-leverage of claiming to have the busiest day?”

    If it is, then I’m cynical.

    “I’ve also pushed through my annoyance a bit and started to just feel a bit sorry for her and take the ‘observe her like a strange creature in a nature documentary’ approach that sometimes gets talked about on here.”

    Ah, the Office Dementors in the Mist approach! :D

    “These shy, annoying creatures are beginning to accept my presence amongst them, I believe, and are becoming increasingly comfortable complaining to me about routine work tasks.” /janegoodall

    Reply
    1. PollyQ

      If by “cynical” you mean “accurate,” then sure, it’s cynical. OP, congrats on finding ways to keep her stress from affecting you.

      Reply
      1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist

        Yes, and that is why I’m humorously implying agreement with that assessment….

        Reply
    2. PB

      I was going to say the same thing regarding the first quotation. I’ve worked with Belindas, too. They complain about something, you give them an out, and they say “No, thanks.” Honestly, some people like to complain, and will create things to complain about.

      Reply
      1. turquoisecow

        I’ve been friends with people like that. They complain, I give them solution options or whatever, and they immediately give reasons (/excuses) why they can’t do that. Okay. Then the next day, a return to the original complaints.

        We stopped being friends after a while, for largely this reason.

        Reply
          1. Kately

            This so much. In seemingly dead-end situations like these with friends. I try to remember to ask “Would you like advice, or would you just like to be heard?” Sometimes, people just want to be heard, even though you or I may find it immeasurably frustrating.

            Reply
        1. The OP

          Oh man, I can’t stop laughing now. Can I please keep Belinda in a magic suitcase and let her out to steal things?

          Reply
    3. Artemesia

      I would have been sooooo tempted when she refused to switch days to say “Oh so you would rather complain endlessly about this than actually fix it?” Probably a bad idea, but some day someone is going to explode and say something worse.

      Reply
      1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist

        Mildly rude, but honestly, I doubt anybody would blame OP for it.

        Reply
        1. Not So NewReader

          Going back a bit would work. “Well, you sounded pretty upset. So I thought I could help.” Use a sincere tone of voice, even if not feeling very sincere.
          It will take a few times of saying this before she hears it once.

          Reply
      2. Lissa

        I would seriously consider using a slightly puzzled tone and say something like “Oh, then if you don’t want to switch, was there another reason you were bringing it up?” But that’s so passive aggressive it makes myself a little ill…but sometimes it’s so tempting.

        Reply
      3. Not That Belinda

        “Oh, cool! What solution did you come up with, then?” In a conversational tone.

        Reading these, I think the trick might be to force the person from their script into making actual conversation. That, anytime we hear a script, we should ask the same kind of open-ended questions we’d use to start a conversation.

        I’m going to try this on my own serial complainer and see if it works.

        But keep in mind she might just love her problems too much to let go. “Argue for your problems and you get to keep them” a great quote by Richard Bach from his book “Illusions.”

        Reply
  3. Abby

    Since she isn’t your direct report, I think you have to just ignore things such as not using Slack (although my employer requires us to use it), or not switching days. You offered, she said no. It does sound like she might either like to complain or like to be in a state of stress but she could also just be really bad at prioritizing or realizing that there are possible steps to take to reduce stress/busyness.

    To the email complaining about emails, I would just simply respond with the reasons that you do send this information via email. If she continues to send emails complaining about this, I would ignore them.

    I had a boss who used to Don’t let someone live rent free in your mind. Her problems are hers and you have offered to help, I assume you will again if it comes up and is possible or appropriate. That is all you can do.

    Reply
    1. The OP

      She doesn’t report to me, no, but it’s quite hard to ignore someone who complains a lot and refuses all solutions, especially when you don’t manage them and have no standing to coach her on this stuff.

      It’s not that she’s renting space in my mind. She’s in my office, renting space in my ears.

      Reply
      1. Not So NewReader

        I have said things like, “Yeah. But we power through it all somehow, right?’

        For some people complaining is on a par with a vital sign. “Is she breathing? Does she have a heart beat? Is she complaining? Yes to all? Then she is okay.”

        Reply
    1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist

      It’s great. I love the original quote, “office dementor,” just as much.

      Reply
      1. kb

        I love office dementor because it so perfectly describes people I’ve interacted with, but it also reminds me of that episode of the Office where Michael cites dementors as his least favorite part of prison.

        Reply
      2. AMG

        I really love the use of ‘Office Dementor’. It is a good reminder to me to not take certain people so seriously. More often than not, I think they know what they are doing and are being deliberate for one reason or another.

        Reply
      3. paul

        I work with one of those!

        I used to think I tended to complain a bit too much then she started here. It’s like…damn, can *nothing* be good in your life?

        Reply
        1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist

          I have a Family Dementor who managed to turn my acceptance for grad school into a personal misfortune.

          Reply
            1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

              Some seriously demented dementor talent. The sheer narcissism of it is breathtaking.

              Reply
          1. PB

            This reminds me of my former Office Dementor who turned our supervisor’s pregnancy into personal misfortune. Our supervisor had been struggling with infertility, and Office Dementor knew it. I (politely) let her have it for that.

            Reply
      4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

        Same. I love “office dementor” and it’s new analogue, “dementor leverage.” And I like the increased use of “dementor” as a descriptor in AAM’s letters and comments.

        Reply
        1. The OP

          I want office dementors and also Llamatown to reach teapots and Wakeen-level status.

          (I’m a fairly regular commenter who went anon to write this letter…)

          Reply
    2. Poster Child

      “The Dementors feed upon human happiness, and thus cause depression and despair to anyone near them.” –
      from the Harry Potter wiki
      Hmm, kind of like LCL did on this thread.

      Reply
        1. JessaB

          My cat is called Parker, because she’s a black cat and hangs upside down on furniture. I love Leverage.

          Reply
    3. FD

      /giggle/ IKR? I feel like it perfectly encompasses that feeling of ‘oh God, have to go talk to Belinda, that means getting sucked into the black cloud of doom’.

      Reply
    4. The OP

      My favourite thing to come out of all the comments was the idea of the theatre dementors flapping at each other in darkness. I mean, it helps me handle her just to think of that image.

      Reply
  4. Mimzy

    I have just put my notice at a 15 yr job because of a Belinda! She’s the manager of my dept and I believe that she enjoys the misery and wants everyone else to be miserable too! So happy you found ways to deal with her!

    Reply
  5. Matilda Jefferies (formerly JMegan)

    “Oh dear. I’ll leave you to it” is genius. Sympathetic and boundary-setting, all in a few short words!

    I didn’t comment on your original letter, but she sounds exhausting. Glad to hear you’ve found a way to distance yourself from her a bit!

    Reply
    1. Catalin

      Agreed. It’s up with “That sounds awful. Excuse me” (walks away); and “Oh my goodness, good luck with that!” (walks away).

      I think the common key here is to walk away.

      Reply
      1. DC

        This letter update was super well timed, as I’m struggling with my own version of this- only I sit in the cubicle across from mine, and CAN’T walk away, which you’re right, is the key.

        Help?

        Reply
    2. TootsNYC

      It is genius.

      Part of its genius is that it can remind our OP that fixing Belinda’s problem, and fixing Belinda’s personality, is not her job.

      It’s not only not her responsibility, it’s not her right.

      Belinda is entitled to be Belinda, even if that means she’s annoying.

      Reply
    3. NoMoreMrFixit

      “Good luck with that” is one of the most useful phrases I ever learned. Especially when said in a sympathetic tone. Avoiding these types and ignoring their whining is the only way to stay sane. And office dementor is now part of my jargon collection!

      Reply
  6. Bolt

    BRAVO!

    I’m currently dealing with my own Belinda by giving her a double flip off behind my monitors.

    The rest of the day it is deep breathing, pity, and job searching.

    Reply
    1. Tex

      Careful, I had a co-worker who used to do that. Until one of his friends pointed out that all his actions were visible to the Belinda via the reflection in the window behind him.

      Reply
  7. MegaMoose, Esq

    It sounds like you’ve got some good coping mechanisms going there, OP. Here’s hoping they keep the dementor off your back!

    Reply
  8. Anon for this

    Just had a charming interaction with a Belinda. I had to make a change to a project we’re both working on. Yes, it was a large change, but we don’t have a choice but to accept it and you would have thought someone lit her hair on fire.

    Reply
  9. H.C.

    Yeah, a pseudo-sympathetic one liner and walk away is my strategy when dealing with chronic complainers too. Glad that your level of secondhand stress has reduced significantly, OP.

    Reply
  10. INFJ

    “Also she sent an email to complain that sending emails about the details of a particular thing was inefficient and couldn’t we have a meeting. I explained why… and she said she just dislikes inefficient systems.”

    *bangs head against desk*

    Reply
    1. B

      This, this and this! Some people really do like to play the martyr. I think your “Good luck with that” and “That sounds awful. Excuse me” and walking away are fantastic approaches to this.

      Reply
  11. PersephoneUnderground

    I love your solution to this. And on offering her a way to fix the problem and her declining- you are 100% right. There’s your permission to no longer care or listen to her complaints (as much as you can avoid them anyway!). In personal relationships, I have actually had to state that rule explicitly- “We’ve talked about this. You’re unhappy because of X, which is completely in your power to fix. You can’t complain to me any more about X or its related topics until you are actually doing something about it! It’s not my decision, but as long as you live with X you can’t complain about it to me anymore.” It worked well, actually- he did eventually move out of his parents house (oops- I mean address X) and it wasn’t my problem anymore once I refused to talk about it further. I think my refusing to let him harp actually made it more likely he’d actually address the issue himself, too. I highly recommend this approach!

    Reply
  12. This Daydreamer

    It sounds to me like she is legitimately worried about her missed deadlines and is constantly complaining about how overwhelming her workload is so no one thinks badly of her. She wants everyone to think she’s missing those deadlines because she’s unfairly swamped.

    She’s also rrreeeaaaalllyy bad at setting priorities and figuring out ways to lighten the load.

    Reply
    1. The OP

      I can see why you’d think this but we all know how much work she actually has to do and it’s ending up being less than anyone else. Nobody is falling for this. People might be sympathetic or understanding but not fooled.

      Reply
  13. Noah

    “Sending E-mails to complain about e-mails is never a great idea”

    Sometimes it is a great idea. For example: Multiple people keeps sending personal announcements to the company listserve that is meant for business use. You correct this via email to the general listserve. There are dozens of similar examples. (And, while Belinda is probably wrong in this context, I don’t think her use was particularly inappropriate.)

    Reply
  14. Not So NewReader

    These folks, like OP’s cohort, make me count my blessings.
    I worked with a Person who would excessively complain about every single thing. Eventually, Person discredited themselves because it stopped being complaining and started looking like whining to other people.

    There were days where I timed Person’s whining. A 15 minute task involved an hour and a half of whining. Now. Where would I have to be in my head to think it was EASIER to whine for an hour and a half rather than just jump and do the task before I had a second to dwell on it. I figured I’d have to be in pretty rough shape for some reason.

    Sadly, Person died a few years later.

    OP, not everyone navigates with the same ease. Some folks travel through life VERY encumbered. True, not everyone has an undiagnosed terminal illness. One individual I know had the most encumbered thought process I think I have ever seen in my life. This person has lived a very long life… very slowly. This is an individual who is scared crapless to make any type of decision. Of course, no decision can burn a person worse than a poor decision, as we know.

    My point is OP some times you can simply rejoice that you do not have to carry all this luggage through life. All these things that you are talking about will impact the quality of her work life. What you can breeze right through, she will struggle with for quite a while. At some point you will move up and move on. She may not. These things take a very long time to play out.

    Keep your humor. And keep working on speaking directly.

    Reply
    1. The OP

      I actually didn’t know how to take this comment so I went away to mull it over. I read it as: you’re so lucky, you have no problems and an easy life! BUT after some time and reflection I realised I was responding from a very emotional part of my brain and that’s probably NOT what you meant.

      However, you have helped me to put my finger on something about why this has been, not just grating on me, but grabbing at something deeper. I have a history of not asking for help (survivor of child abuse, big glaring signs that weren’t picked up) and there’s all sorts of stuff mixed up in my reaction to this, but I think it comes down to how I feel in relation to Belinda. That I look like I’m fine, okay and have no problems whatsoever in comparison to her, just like I did when other kids with problems threw chairs while I just tried not to draw attention to myself. Though I now know it was so glaringly obvious something was wrong that I may as well have stuck a neon sign on my head. So I think there was a period of my life in which everything split into a dichotomy of being visible or invisible, where I either hid my problems like a wounded animal or shouted about them too loudly as I didn’t know how to just be a generally okay person who was allowed to have vulnerabilities but not necessarily show them. Yes I’ve had therapy!

      Fortunately I now have the wisdom and life experience to realise that nobody thinks I must have an easy life, or never have any challenges or difficulties at work, just because I don’t do a Belinda. That happened to me in childhood, but it’s not how adult life generally works – insofar as those of us who are emotionally healthy know that others may or may not be more or less okay at different times. We are all carrying full suitcases through the airport of life. Healthy people won’t assume that yours is empty just because you don’t shout about how heavy it is.

      The sad thing is that Belinda doesn’t know how to get the support she needs and is making it very hard for people to offer it. Maybe she likes to complain. Maybe she doesn’t know how to seek support from others in a healthy way.

      A couple of weeks ago I realised I was feeling very pressured by what would have been a stretch project. It involved doing some work in a new area (which I’ve flagged as an area where I need training) under immense time pressure. I recognised the first signs of stress in myself and thought: uh-oh. So I spoke to the project manager and explained that I didn’t think it was feasible for practical reasons and also that I had noticed some signs of stress in myself, so I was concerned that if I followed the existing plan it would not be good for me or the project. The PM thanked me for speaking up now, when things can still be moved around fairly easily.

      I don’t think Belinda knows how to ask for help by using her words and using them well, or that she knows how to rely on others both to help her and also to see that she is a human being who sometimes struggles unless her struggles are on display for everyone to see. Or maybe that’s all just me projecting my own stuff onto her. But I think I’m going to view her from now on as someone who doesn’t know how to be vulnerable with others.

      Reply
      1. nbbuyer

        OP, I don’t have a lot to add to your situation here, but I just wanted to tell you how awesome you come across. So many people truly don’t even think about other people; they are literally just absorbed in their own world. Personal experience: I used to get so perturbed at “idiot” drivers (those who drive way too fast, weave in and out of traffic, those who drive way to slow and hold the traffic up, etc.). Then, my SO and I got a call that my stepdaughter had a heart donor for her transplant, and that if we left immediately, we could *probably* see her before surgery. The speed limit was 70 mph on the highway to the hospital she was in (roughly 1 hour away); I drove close to 85 the entire way. The point being: you never know where that other person is going, or where they’re coming from. This has literally changed my entire outlook on life, and I look for the positive and the good so much more frequently now, and I am so much happier with myself and my life as a result.

        Perhaps Belinda is complaining because that’s how she was taught as a child that her needs would be met. Perhaps her parent or grandparent or sibling always did this and it was rewarded. I say this not to defend Belinda, but for me, understanding why she’s like this would really help me pity her instead of be annoyed by her.

        My SO is a chronic complainer. Everything is the worst ever because it’s happening to him. I got to the point where I told him I couldn’t deal with his issues, and if he wasn’t going to fix it, he needed to quit telling me about it. I offered him my advice for the first several times, as to what I felt would help him, but he never took any of it, and just kept complaining. And when I’m around his mother, I completely see why he does it, because she does the same thing, complains, complains, complains, and then waits for everyone else to fix the situation for her.

        Like I said, I don’t feel like I had anything to add to your situation really, but I was really touched by your response, and wanted to share my own experiences with you. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I hope it helps to know that what you wrote was really meaningful to at least one person.

        Reply
  15. Bunny Purler

    I wonder whether Belinda has another goal in mind when she complains about how busy she is and then refuses to give up any work? I used to work at Ridiculously Dysfunctional Workplace where no raises were ever given. One of my colleagues complained mightily about his workload. The rest of us were all slackers, he did all the work, blah blah. (Spoiler: this was not quite reality.) We got a new manager, someone who was efficient and a great manager. She spent a long, long time looking at workflow, concluded that yes, our colleague was volunteering to take on too much of the work (all the interesting stuff, fancy that!) and made sure that it was redistributed. Colleague was incandescent with fury: this had all been part of his plan to make our spineless big boss give him extra dosh, which had apparently been done for him several times in a row. (This was a really big deal, because in our corner of the British Civil Service, salary increases were utterly forbidden at that time.) Sadly, this time it didn’t work out. Maybe Belinda is going to make a play for the ‘ohhhh, I do ALL THE WORK around here, I should have a promotion/more money’ option?

    Reply
  16. No more nonesense

    I am extremely cynical and it sounds to me like she is manipulating things so that she does not have to do certain tasks. She is so busy and inneficient that she is not being asked to do things she should be doing? As her manager, I would give her a clear step up or step out talk. And inform her that others in her position handle this amount of work with no problem and no drama. As her colleague, I would push back on having to pick up her slack (once she has had some time to adjust to the position, of course).

    This happens where I work: some tasks are more glamorous and desireable; others are more gruntwork. Everyone is expected to pitch in, even on the undesireable ones. Previous employees have been very “inept” at these in order to push it off on others. Yet were somehow so efficient and competent at the glamorous ones. I dont want people like that on my team – don’t want to be on guard against having things pushed off on me and don’t want the people who work for me to develop that attitude.

    Reply

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