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

A reader writes:

I have this colleague, Belinda, who’s kind of a stresshead. We are on the same level of seniority and she works more closely with her line manager than with me, but some of our work does overlap. We’re all busy and juggling multiple priorities, but with her it’s somehow more on display, if that makes sense. This isn’t the sort of place where people are unreasonably overloaded with excessive workloads. Most people just get on with it and steadily, calmly get their work done — whereas there’s always a sense of chaos around her. I don’t know if her working style is a hangover from a previous toxic workplace or more her personality or problems outside work or what.

Belinda makes a much bigger deal out of everything than necessary. Example: There is a ticket for each repair we do, and we take turns managing the repairs queue. You’re meant to open each ticket and assign it to the correct team or, if needed, follow up with the customer for more information, then move on to the next one. If you don’t get to all of them, that’s okay, although you usually can. All she needs to do is leave any unprocessed ones unread for the next person. She takes longer to do them and leaves more undone than anyone else. Until recently, she was opening them all before doing any, then leaving a big stressy handover about how she was too busy to finish them all, along with details about how many she didn’t do, which was a completely pointless waste of time both to write and to read as the next person could just look at the tickets. I’ve suggested several times that she just does what she can and reminded her (kindly!) that it’s okay to leave some, but she’s making a bigger deal than necessary out of the whole thing.

Another example: Belinda was arranging some seminars for other teams to learn about a product. I covered this for a few days while she was on vacation. She went through a handover with me and suggested really circuitous ways of completing some tasks. For example, one thing I needed to do was collate requests to attend and then allocate places (which were limited) based on organizational priorities rather than first come, first served. Her instructions were to print out all the emails requesting a place (she said to “print them all out” several times and wrote it in her handover notes), go through them all, discuss them with the head of seminars, and work out who should get a place. I don’t understand why she suggested this and would apparently would have done it this way herself. In the same time it would have taken to open, print, reread, and discuss each email, I opened each one, noted the person’s name, job title, and preferred date in a spreadsheet in order of what I thought was the correct priority, then sent this to the head of seminars and asked her to approve or suggest changes to the list or let me know if we needed to discuss it (we didn’t).

I don’t understand why Belinda makes life more complicated and difficult for herself, or why she doesn’t see the connection between making things more difficult and finding it harder and more time-consuming to get them done, but I categorically don’t have standing to criticize her working practices in general. But I would like to find a way of saying something to her when they impact me, especially as I’ll be working closely with her on a specific project in a few weeks and I’m completely dreading it.

What I wish I could say is:

• When you flap and make a huge deal out of everything, I start to feel quite stressed. I’m not sure if you realize that it affects the people working with you. It makes the atmosphere needlessly unpleasant. I don’t want you to share your stress with me.

• Okay, I’ll get that result for you, but not using the steps you’ve suggested as I’m going to do it in this other, more sensible way.

• Please stop telling me about how busy you are or how you’ve got lots of emails you haven’t managed to read or anything at all about your workload or how you feel about it. You always mention these things in a way that makes them seem like they’re relevant and necessary (e.g. “I can’t help to do X as I have 15 Y to deal with”) but you give too much information in too much intense detail and it feels like you’re venting at me. Please just say you can’t help as you need to focus on Y at the moment and stop there. If you’re too busy, talk to your manager and not me please. And if you’re too busy to help, maybe don’t waste time writing emails about how busy you are.

• Have you ever noticed that the people who spend less time flapping and talking about how busy and stressed they are also get more done and are happier and calmer and much more pleasant to work with? Do you think there could perhaps be a correlation? Have you ever logged the amount of time you spend moaning and flapping and generally being like a sort of office Dementor who sucks the joy out of anything I have the misfortune to collaborate on with you?

Are any of those things I can somehow convey (probably not the last one…!) and if so do you have any suggestions for a script? Or do I just need to suck it up?! Thank you!

Ugh, secondhand stress. I just had a version of this conversation with my mom, who genuinely derives pleasure from discussing all the minor aggravations of her week. In detail. Lots of detail. I’m pretty sure it relaxes her to do this, but it was leaving me tense every time we talked. I’ve tried to imposed a ban on it, but only one of us remembers the ban.

Anyway, I think you could say versions of at least the first three things you want to say — although, yeah, probably not that last one unless you’re very close with her (which it doesn’t sound like you are).

The easiest part of this is pushing back when she tries to get you to use 25 steps for something you can do in two. It’s fine to just say, “I don’t think I’ll do it quite like that, but I’ll get it taken care of” or even not to get into it at all and just say you’ll cover it, without giving her details about how.

The spewing stress everywhere is a harder issue. For that, I’d start by saying something in the moment when it’s happening, since that will usually come across as less of a big deal than a whole separate “we need to talk” conversation will.

So for example, when she’s pouring her stress all around, say something like, “Wow, you sound really stressed out, and it’s stressing me out!” Or “You’re making me panic from how stressed you sound and it’s making it harder to stay calm and focused.” Or even just, “You’re stressing me out right now.”

And when she’s overloading you with details about why she can’t help with something, you can cut in with, “Hey, I don’t need an explanation — just knowing that you can’t help right now is all I need. Thanks.” If she keeps going, you can say, “Ack, too many details! I’ll just consider you a no for this.”

If you say this kind of thing a few times, who knows, she may start pulling it back around you. But assuming that it continues, you’ll now have set the stage to more easily have a bigger-picture conversation with her. That would mean saying something like, “Hey, can I talk to you about something? I know I’ve made a few comments lately about your stress level. I didn’t know if it was clear what I meant, but when you talk a lot about how overloaded and stressed you are, it can make the environment in general more stressful. If you’re that stressed all the time, I think you should talk to (manager) — but I wanted to ask if you can be aware of how talking about it so often can end up really spreading that stress around.”

You could add, “I don’t mean to sound unsympathetic, especially when I know you’re feeling frazzled. But I’ve found that it really does take me from calm to anxious, and I imagine it probably does for you too.”

Hell, you could even say, “I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but I’ve actually found that the more I talk about or think about how busy or anxious I am, the worse it makes it. If I tell myself that things are under control and I work to not feel frazzled, it actually makes me feel calmer. Maybe you could try that and see if it helps you.”

That said … to some extent, this is probably just part of the package of working with Belinda, unless her manager is willing to coach her on it. So more than trying to get her to change what she’s doing, I’d focus most of your energy on setting your own boundaries — cutting her off, declining to engage, and asking her in the moment to stop spewing stress on you.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 466 comments… read them below }

  1. Namast'ay In Bed*

    I love the term “office dementor”, I think I’m going to save that for future use.

    1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      I lol’d. It’d burn a bridge, but I love that script.

    2. Tuesday*

      Same. I also like “print out all the emails” as a general expression for office inefficiency.

      1. Marillenbaum*

        That made me chuckle–I’ve definitely worked with people who took this approach, and it always drove me batty!

        1. Sharon*

          Me too. I get the feeling there are two types of people who work like this:
          1. Genuinely inefficient because they just can’t figure out better processes or are afraid to miss something important.
          2. It’s unkind but I have encountered the occasional person who I suspected did this on purpose to inflate their perceived importance or busy-ness. Like “this is why I’m so critical to the company, I have to do allllll this work!”

          1. Hermione*

            I definitely agree with all of this, but I would contend that there is a third group – a very, very small set of (generally older) people for whom technology is a struggle, but who are very, very good at the things they’re supposed to do on paper (usually because they’ve been doing it for 20+ years).

            The director at my law firm circa 2010 was brilliant, spotted every contextual mis-wording and/or typo in a printed 40 page brief but could barely type out an e-mail. The dean at my current office doesn’t use our student system, but knows every faculty member by name, face, course(s) and affiliation and edits a 500-page printout (double-sided) over the course of a weekend for our implementation each term.

            They’re both relics of an older system who admit their time is coming (both are pushing retirement) but they’re both going to take irreplaceable institutional knowledge with them that is going to be hard to replace.

            1. Gabriela*

              Oh yes! I have a colleague who is not necessarily in that age bracket, but would fall into the third group. She is brilliant at her job when you assess what she holistically accomplishes, but even some of the most straightforward, user-friendly technology flusters her noticeably.

            2. Lizzle*

              Yes! My boss right now is like this. I’m generally irritated when someone can’t be bothered to learn basics of computing, but she’s got so many more important things on her plate and is so close to retirement that I can’t really blame her if she doesn’t make time to learn how to operate Word. (Although this does lead to her printing out and handwriting on anything she wants edited.)

              1. FoodieFoodnerd*

                George Costanza did that for awhile — looking and soundung annoyed whenever a higher-up tried to talk to him.
                It actually worked for him, which is shocking enough.

            3. Lionheart*

              Agreed, but it’s not always about age. I have a coworker (not older) who is very tech-savvy, but doesn’t retain information if she reads it on a screen. For important procedure documents etc, she prints everything and highlights. She’s an extreme example, but research shows that this is pretty common, and most of us actually learn more effectively on paper.

              1. Hellanon*

                There’s a whole book on this called The Social Life of Paper by Paul Duguid, who was at XeroxPARC back in the day. It talks about paper as an information system & gets into fascinating detail about how it lends itself to collaboration/manipulation in a way that electronic systems really don’t (or at least, didn’t at the time). I’m very comfortable online, and made the shift to first-drafting and editing on the keyboard about 15 years ago, but if I really need to engage with something I print it and annotate it – I’m not sure I can break that habit, nor should I, according to current neuroscience!

                1. Vvv*

                  Do you mean The Social Life of Information by John Seely Brown & Paul Duguid? The Social Life of Paper appears to be a Malcolm Gladwell article.

              2. BeautifulVoid*

                Proofreading is a pretty big part of my job, and I have at least one coworker who still prints off every single thing she needs to proofread (even if it’s a 100+ page document) and does it off the hard copy before making the edits in the electronic file, which gets processed into the end product that goes to clients. We’re only about 10 years apart in age, but just the thought of it makes me crazy. (And vice versa, I’m sure.)

                1. SarcasticFringehead*

                  I’m 30, and I think I might be right on the edge of the paper/electronic divide (not trying to make a generational distinction, just that the amount of exposure kids had to technology changed drastically over my time in grade school). It’s just mentally so much easier for me to closely proofread a printed document than one on a screen, and I’m not really sure why. (There’s some advantage to having the document not be in the same place as my incoming emails etc., but that’s definitely not the whole reason.)

                2. fposte*

                  Ha. I’m proofreading a second round today. First round is onscreen, second round is on paper. It’s amazing how much stuff you see differently in the different media.

                3. MegaMoose, Esq*

                  I am a huge fan of doing everything possible to avoid printing things out… except for final proofreads. And everywhere I’ve worked has generally required this as well. It could just be a hold-over, but I genuinely think that doing at least one proofreading pass in hard-copy is vital.

                4. Emi.*

                  I definitely prefer proofreading on paper.

                  @fposte, do you mean that you spot some errors better on screen and others better on paper, or do you find paper generally better but still do an initial proofreading on screen?

                5. fposte*

                  @Emi.–I catch different things different ways. I don’t know if it’s so much that screen and paper are importantly different as *any* formatting difference seems to shake up the proofreading brain some–I also catch stuff when it’s publication-formatted in PDF that I missed in Word.

                6. Cath in Canada*

                  My favourite proofreading trick is to change the font and/or margins when printing the pre-final copy. Making the paper copy look drastically different to the screen version makes it much easier to spot anything that’s out of place that your eyes have just somehow skipped right over for the last few drafts.

                7. Sparrow*

                  This thread is so interesting to me. If I’m just proofreading, I’ll do it on the computer. If I’m editing for larger conceptual or structural issues, I’ll do an initial review on paper. Laying everything out next to each other helps me look at the big picture issues. I’m 32, if that helps your acecdotal data collection. :)

                8. Honeybee*

                  @SarcasticFringehead – The prevailing theory in psychology is that our brains set the speed of our reading and processing depending on where we are reading something. According to this theory, our brains are trained that electronic methods are for skimming/quickly reading something and that paper is for digging into something deeply. So our brains slow down and process printed words (making it easier to catch errors) while they speed up and prepare to skim on electronic methods.

                  I’m 30 as well, and while I think the quality of my proofreading is probably better on paper I prefer to do it electronically for a variety of reasons. I hate having gobs of paper floating around my office or in my work bag, and I like the tools that electronic applications give you (like tracked changes). My preferred way of doing this is actually using a stylus on a touch screen – it feels like pen and paper but all happens electronically.

              3. OhNo*

                Seconding this. I’m a millennial, but I print (and highlight) work stuff all the time. For me, it’s just a matter of how my brain works. It’s easier for me to spot trends or process information if I can do it spatially, by spreading out papers, rather than trying to keep a mental tally or mess around with a spreadsheet.

                Admittedly, sometimes it takes me longer to process things that way. But between me and my coworker who uses spreadsheets for everything, I’m always the one who remembers who was on the list three years ago, who we passed over, or how the organizer prioritized people last time, so…

              4. OperaArt*

                Not always an age thing. My 84-year-old mother has no trouble using her computer for email, Web searches, Skype, etc. She was born in the middle of the Depression.

            4. FoodieFoodnerd*

              It would be terrifying to gradually but steadily become obsolete before you can afford to retire, to feel you need the job far more than it needs you.

              Obviously not the company’s fault or problem, which makes it all the scarier.

            5. Meg Murry*

              There is also a 3A – people who aren’t doing it to be inefficient, but because they know the system they are stuck using is unreliable and/or that they are screwed if it breaks down. For instance, I worked with someone that also followed a “print out all the emails”, photocopy and file everything system and at first it drove me batty. But then I saw a “paperless” department nearby lose 2 years worth of data when they found out their backup system hadn’t been working the hard way, and another time we were able to save ourselves about 5 full days of work by being able to pull a file of papers out of a drawer instead of having to go back through emails and electronic systems and ask for copies of receipts and invoices, etc, when it turned out that a bunch of envelopes contain the originals were lost somewhere within the system. Paperless is great if you have a good electronic system and workflow – but if it’s just scanning and awkward electronic filing stuck on top of an old paper based system, often printing and putting in a filing cabinet is faster and easier than scanning and putting into an electronic filing cabinet.

              In general, I found that the paper and filing based system probably added a couple hours a week to our workflow – but at least that was steady and predictable (and some of the filing could be back burnered slightly to slow times), as opposed to working crazy overtime trying to re-create lost work when the system had major breakdowns.

              1. fposte*

                Ha. We still do a regular design thing with a b&w photocopier and paper because it’s the easiest way.

              2. JessaB*

                How does any place that does back up not at least do a fake restore (or check over of whatever kind their system allows) every 6 months or so or sooner if the data is really large and critical? How do you NOT check the backup files ever in two years? Somebody ought get fired in the IT department for that.

                Also depending on your type of back up there should be TWO of them (whether that’s odd or even days or whatever.) That both died simultaneously of a crash event in the workplace screams IT messed up badly.

                I am going to date myself badly here. My first out of school job was on off days keypunching for my dad when he went into work. I got paid in beautiful porcelain animal statues. They had a back up set of cards in a fire resistant warehouse (and since the original set took up practically a building floor in NYC,) that’s a nightmare of extra space to be paying for. Every so many whatevers they’d clear out the poor old Univac and run a test with the back up cards. If it worked, they switched out the cards so they wouldn’t get all ratty.

                When I was in High School (I love to brag that my first year there would have been Neil deGrasse Tyson’s last. Shout for Bronx HS of Science. Mind I never met him and nobody had an idea he’d become the Utterly Cool Face of Science Learning) We did the same thing with giant magnetic tape reels. Every so often you swap in the backups and see if it’s okay.

            6. Parenthetically*

              I had a coworker like this for YEARS! He still calculated his grades completely by hand, including weighting grade categories (he was a math teacher, so…), and actually refused to enter them into our online grading system because he was so overwhelmed and intimidated by technology. He was quite good at teaching up until he got the retirement flu, but it sure made a lot of extra work for other people.

              1. Jayn*

                My parents did all their bookkeeping on paper until they sold their business in 2015 (I understand their accountant hated it). They had tried going digital but found the software they were using didn’t always allow what they wanted, and I doubt it was really any faster since they didn’t have a lot to do to begin with–off season I might have done half an hour a week, and even during the busy season I doubt it would be hard to keep on top of (the technical work on the other hand…)

                The new boss already had a system set up so now they’re connecting to that.

                1. Pixel*

                  Some of my clients still hand me the blue ledger book every year! When done right, ledger accounting is as good (or better than) spreadsheet or accounting software accounting – I’ve seen messed-up Quickbooks and Simply files and believe me, I’ll take a blue ledger any day over a file that’s FUBAR.

                1. FoodieFoodnerd*

                  There is also what’s known around here as short-timers’ syndrome: the ones whose work quality and quantity plummet during their final days after officially giving notice of leaving the job.

                  I’m just explaining it here, not endorsing it! To me it shows a lack of character and self-respect.

            7. Serin*

              I’m married to one of these, though he’s not really old enough that it makes sense to blame his age. It’s like — for most of us, once we learn how to use technology, it becomes like a transparent window to us — we don’t look at it, we look through it. But for him, no matter how many times you explain it to him, it never becomes transparent; he always has to look at it, and it dominates his attention to the exclusion of the thing he’s trying to use it to do.

              (It doesn’t help that he somehow gets more than his fair share of those inexplicable glitches. I mean, some of them are his fault, but I’ve watched him, and if the keyboard battery is going to come loose, it’s going to come loose when he’s using the keyboard … if a monitor is going to die, it’s going to die on him and not on somebody else … in addition to the mistakes that he makes himself, he also seems to activate a higher level of Murphy’s law in anything he touches.)

              You cannot imagine how happy I am not to work in the same office with him.

              1. Nelly mcsmelly*

                This is my husband, and I do share an office with him! The amount of curse words that get yelled at that computer is astonishing. other than that, lovely to work with.

              2. WildLandLover*

                Hahaha! This is my husband too. If something’s going to go wrong with our computer, it will do it while he’s using it. I just BARELY got him to use email and news sites maybe 5 years ago . . .

              3. JessaB*

                OMG Mr. B found a way to break the system on a closed box ancient Tandy. It was under warranty and we brought it to the local Radio Shack and they said “You’re lying that can’t happen.” I said “Okay re-initialise the system and he’ll show you what he did.”

                Freaked out an entire sales floor of RS Geeks (way before Best Buy.) They had to send to their programmers to find out if there was some kind of thing that could be done to make sure that if crazy fingers gets at the machine they won’t brick it.

              4. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

                There are a lot of people who view computery things as a recipe: like, to check your email, first you click the blue icon with an O and an envelope, and then you go to Send/Receive, and then your email arrives. There’s zero understanding, just rote memorization of how to do discrete tasks.

              5. FoodieFoodnerd*

                This is a perfect way to explain both the differences in our view of (at vs. through) technology, and how he continually attracts legitimate bizarre computer quirks along with constantly finding new and unique ways to create them.

                I would swear you’re talking about my longtime co-worker and beloved friend. :^D :^D
                At least daily one of us jumps up, calmly walks to his desk and clicks the little arrow flipping back to ascending order (his most recent emails showing first), as he’s yelling, flapping and about to stroke out because ALLOFMYEMAILSAREGONE!!!

                And that’s just one example of dozens. But he’s exceptional at what he does, and would do absolutely anything for a friend in need.

            8. anon (the other one)*

              Can we stop with the age thing? Imagine your phrase “…very small set of (generally older) people…”, with any other personal identifier in place of older. Pretty sure you wouldn’t do it.

              1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

                In general, though, you don’t run into this with people under 50. Exceptions to the rule exist, but they basically prove the rule.

                1. Honeybee*

                  Actually, I don’t think this is true at all. I’m 30 and I run into a lot of people in my millennial age group (20-40) who lack basic facility in some or many technological tasks – I’m talking things like setting up email, running a basic Internet search, finding things on an electronic library catalog, operating their own smartphones, etc. I know a lot of 20-somethings and 30-somethings who can operate some technological things but not others, where the “others” are things they actually need to do work (like use tracked changes, use basic Excel functions, etc.) I’m pretty tech savvy and I spend quite a bit of time helping friends in that age group work their devices.

                  I think it’s a common misconception that the over-50 crowd is less technically savvy, but let’s also not forget that they’re the generation who invented computers and software.

            9. SheLooksFamiliar*

              In the mid-2000s, I worked with a gentleman who hated computers in general (‘I never needed these things before and did just fine!’), and especially his laptop. He refused to take it when he traveled to our branch offices, and our boss got on him because he didn’t reply to critical, time-sensitive emails. This fellow said he couldn’t figure out how to log onto the local network to read his email, which was a little more involved back then. Why bring his laptop when he wasn’t going to use it? Help Desk walked him through this process several times, and they taught the rest of us how to do it without a problem. But this fellow just couldn’t – or wouldn’t – get it.

              Somehow he convinced our department admin to log into his Outlook with his credentials when he traveled, and she would either read his emails to him on the phone, or print and fax them. If there were a lot of them, he asked her to FedEx them. Our normally easy-going boss was pretty angry when she found out he was wasting the admin’s time with work he should be doing for himself. At least he didn’t try the ‘I’m too busy to learn’ ruse!

              1. Adlib*

                Oh man, the “I’m too busy to learn” thing. As someone who regularly trains very intelligent people on systems, this comes up quite a bit and drives me nuts!

            10. HisGirlFriday*

              I would argue there’s a fourth group, and that’s people who like don’t learn technology when it doesn’t suit them but otherwise are fine.

              Our office manager, who is in theory responsible for things like updating our web calendar and making sure our website is running, claims all.the.time. ‘Oh, I don’t understand this Internet thing, I don’t know how all that technology works.’

              She has a smart phone and an iPad. She regularly Skypes with long-distance relatives. She spends upwards of an hour a day texting her son and husband. But she “can’t” (read: won’t be bothered to) learn how to use WordPress to run our website.

              Drives me batty.

                1. HisGirlFriday*

                  Oh, believe me, I’m right there with you. And Grandboss is OK with it, because (a) Grandboss also doesn’t like technology and (b) Office Manager has a ton of institutional knowledge.

                  But most of OM’s knowledge can be replicated. She, like Belinda of the letter, is very good at appearing to be busy, appearing to be swamped, appearing to be the only person who can do what she does. In reality, nothing she does couldn’t be done in half the time by someone else.

              1. Hermione*

                Interesting! I didn’t think she would be – if she were wildly competent yet technology-adverse your letter would read completely differently. It sounds like she’s just one of those who can’t see the quickest way from point A to point B, and instead does a panicky excursion from C to Z before getting back to B.

                No advice, but good luck, The OP!

            11. Admin Assistant*

              This is my boss’s boss to a T – brilliant in her field, needs me to come show her how to attach a file to an email.

          2. happy cat*

            this: The bane of my work life is working with people who fit 1 & 2. The worst part? Management / Supervisors ALWAYS seem to react with ‘oh we must all band together to help ‘Fergus’! Fergus is so busy!’
            And even worse, if that is possible, is that Fergus is somehow seen as doing more work, even when it is very clear Fergus’s output is less than anyone else in a similar role.
            In the end I feel frustrated that these tactics work. Yet, since they do, I am not sure I can fully fault Fergus, as Fergus gets to have more importance and less work and more help.

            1. NoMoreMrFixit*

              It’s been my experience that when coworkers start on about how overworked they are, the real goal is to dump their workload on me so they have more time to complain/slack off/play office politics. Given this I tend to push back fairly hard when people start this sort of behaviour.

              Some folks mentioned discovering the hard way backups failed. If your IT crew are not regularly testing their backups and disaster recovery plan then you don’t have a backup at all. An emergency is not the time to find out whether your backups are valid.

          3. The OP*

            I think it can become like a snake eating its own tail, at least in the case of this person: talking about how busy and stressed they are just fuels that.

            1. fposte*

              I ran into a friend and co-worker once outside of work when we were both stressed, and our brief conversation ramped us both up so much that an outsider noticed and intervened.

              1. Emi.*

                Whoa, can you elaborate on that? Did a stranger just break in and say “You guys sound stressed; dial it down a notch,” or what?

                1. fposte*

                  Sorry, that sounded weirder than it was! We were both there for appointments and it was somebody we both knew who just moved us away from the joint frenzy and toward our destination.

          4. CS Rep By Day, Writer By Night*

            I khave a manager in my organization that I very strongly believe is a #2 person.

          5. DosGotos*

            Agree. People that make sure everyone knows how busy they are and how stressed they are make me think that they are actually very insecure in their position and realize that they really don’t have that much to do . The phrase “thou doth protest too much” comes to mind.

          6. Sereknitty*

            I have a colleague who does it but doesn’t fit in either groupd. She gets easily stressed, always suspects the worst possible outcome and stresses about things which she can’t influence. She realizes she does this but can’t stop it when it happens. When I talk her down at the end she often apologizes and tells me she doesn’t know why she can’t see it the same way I do.

            She is actually pretty good. What makes her inefficient is the time she spents stressing about things instead of just doing them. I definitely accomplish more things a day she does but I will readily admit that she is more experienced and better at the tasks we do.

      2. Anansi*

        I once asked someone to forward me an email. She printed out the email, scanned it, and sent it to me as a non-searchable PDF attachment.

        1. nhbillups*

          I laughed out loud really suddenly at this one; I’m getting funny looks from coworkers now. But that is hilarious. Did you point out the obvious to her?

          1. Anansi*

            I did, and the best part was her response, “Oh I know but I prefer to do it this way.” Not really a situation where preference matters.

        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I had a coworker like this, too. It was a generational/computer-literacy issue. Once I showed her how to forward, she was way less stressed out.

          1. Dust Bunny*


            I mean, I had a coworker who was a printer-outer, but not only could she not attach documents to emails, she couldn’t use the scanner.

          2. FoodieFoodnerd*

            My 77-year-old mom will not touch a computer and has absolutely zero concept of how searches work, but always wants me to “look it up on your internet,” Foodie.

            After literally hours of digging, searching, her asking constantly if I found this story follow-up she was especially anxious to see:

            Me: “OK, I finally found him — it took so long because he’s a man, not a woman; he’s 25, not 40; he lives in Guatemala, not Thailand; it was a virus, not a fungus; he was helped in Spain, not France, and it was five years ago, not last month.”

            Mom: “See, I knew it was right there on your Google thing!”

            Another call:

            Me: “How are you?”

            Mom: “Good, but frustrated! The game isn’t televised so I can’t find out how they’re doing.”

            Me *tap-tap* “Mariners are up 5-2, bottom of the 7th.”

            Mom: “OH MY GOD!!! How do you DO that?!?!?”

            1. OhNo*

              Are we related? Because my dad does the exact same thing. Except his phrasing is “look it up on your computer!”

              … And he constantly does it when I’m trying to do something else, and when I refuse he like to complain that “It’ll only take a second!” (No, it won’t. It might take a second to search, but then he’s going to hover behind me while reading over my shoulder and get sucked into a three-hour Wikipedia spiral, except I’m the one stuck doing the clicking and hoping he gets bored.)

              1. FoodieFoodnerd*

                Ha, now I’m especially grateful that she loves getting a stack of print-outs of her requested stuff when I visit or take her shopping.

                (won’t touch a computer is literal here — she’s convinced she can crash and destroy it just touching a single key or the screen.)

          1. Anansi*

            I just asked her, “Hey, you know you can just forward the original email, right?” And she said she preferred to do it her way. I was kind of stunned, but I almost never have to work with her so I let it go.

            1. MJH*

              I wonder if she had a situation where someone forwarded a chain of email and changed the text in the chain. I just know that sometimes we make things PDFs because we don’t want anyone to alter any part of it. This way she guarantees that you can’t hit”forward” and make her look bad (not that you would want to, but I could see an extremely paranoid person doing something like this.)

              1. Anansi*

                That could be, although in this particular context the entire point of the email was sending it around our department so people could update their various sections. I am fortunate I very rarely have to work with this person, but another coworker complains she also does this with Excel spreadsheets and it drives her nuts.

                1. drashizu*

                  I would have a very, very hard time replying professionally if someone did that to me with an Excel spreadsheet more than once. We get text-searchable PDFs that were originally created in Excel sometimes and those are enough of a pain to convert back as is.

              2. FoodieFoodnerd*

                I had a manipulative, pathological liar actually try to do that.

                My only regret is not getting to see her face when the boss angrily produced his copy of the original version, that I’d BCC’d him right along with sending to her.

              3. Honeybee*

                Even if that was the case, you can save the email as a PDF without printing it. Or, if you’re using Outlook, you can use permissions to lock the mail so no one can edit it.

            2. FoodieFoodnerd*

              You know that overly casual, “I meant to do it just like this!” expression your cat gets when he doesn’t stick the landing and/or skids over the edge, splatting onto the floor?

              Yeah. :^D

        3. Tableau Wizard*

          My grandpa used to do that to my dad, except instead of scanning it, he would print the email and SNAIL MAIL it to my dad. My dad would get so frustrated every time.

          1. Catabodua*

            Awww. We have a 89 year old family friend who does this to me. I find it rather endearing.

            As for the technology bit – the worst one for me was the opposite – a young woman directly out of college who would use a hand held calculator to perform a task and then type the number into an excel file. We showed her how excel would do that math for her but she never trusted it. She continued to “test” the excel math results on her little calculator. Thank goodness she got let go during her probation period.

            1. The Not Mad But Sometimes Irritable Scientist*

              If you were allowed to vote before color TV, I think you get an exeption from the “It’s 2017, y0u need to know how to do basic computery things” rule.

              1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

                But the Excel-checker was young! The 89-year-old is of course exempted.

            2. drashizu*

              I had a coworker (briefly – now moved on) whom I trained in some of the ways we use spreadsheets, and he said repeatedly during our training sessions, “But can we trust it?” and “Oh, I don’t trust Excel, so I’ve been doing that part by hand…” and made comments about how Excel might have messed up basic functions.

              Like, dude, it’s totally possible that Excel could give you a bad answer because of human input error, which it is my job to train you not to do. But if you ask it to calculate the sum of a big ol’ column of numbers, I really hope you’re not checking that by hand to make sure Excel didn’t make any “mistakes.”

              1. Honeybee*

                Also, why do you think Excel will make a mistake but not your trusty calculator? A calculator is just a small, simple computer that does one thing. It works the same way!

              2. AthenaC*

                “But if you ask it to calculate the sum of a big ol’ column of numbers, I really hope you’re not checking that by hand to make sure Excel didn’t make any “mistakes.” ”

                Exactly – if I do it in Excel I can SEE each number to double-check it and fix accordingly.

          2. That Would Be a Good Band Name*

            My mom once handed me a handwritten letter [i]in an envelope[/i] and asked me to email it. She does not get technology.

            1. Cath in Canada*

              I remember hearing somewhere about a boss who put confidential documents in an envelope before running them through the fax machine. Apparently he thought fax machines worked like Star Trek transporters.

          3. Nelly mcsmelly*

            My mother in law prints emails and drives them over to me. At work. And then wants to discuss the hidden meanings in each email. At work. Ugh.

          4. Editrix*

            My grandma prints them off and drives them over to my mom’s house to leave them on the credenza. Mom will come home to little piles of printouts all the time of whatever Grandma found interesting in her email that day.

          5. Joan Callamezzo*

            An employee did this to me. Then he left me a voicemail asking me to email him to let him know I got the snail mail. *headdesk*

        4. Merula*

          I once had someone SNAIL MAIL me a FAX. It was amazing. We have a system that makes all faxes e-mail attachments, so this person received a fax for me in his email, looked up my physical address in the company directory (right next to my EMAIL ADDRESS and FAX NUMBER THAT GOES TO MY EMAIL), find an envelope and send it out.

          I’ve saved it. I’m not really a paper person, but that one I saved.

          1. Anansi*

            Yeah, years ago when I was doing constituent work, a guy called me up and asked for help with a hospital dispute. He told me had copies of everything and would send them to me. He did. Hand written comments. This poor guy copied out several hundred pages of medical billing files by hand and sent them to me.

        5. Meg Murry*

          I have to deal with someone that just does NOT understand that you can create a pdf directly from Word (or other Microsoft software). If someone asks her to send them a pdf, she prints it, puts it through the scanner on the photocopier, and then sends the pdf created that way. And since the scan settings are set to really high, she winds up inflating the size of the original file at least 100x larger (or more), and then bumps into issues with the files being too big for her to attach to her email.

          Luckily/unfortunately this is not at my regular job – but it means that I have no standing to try to teach her to do it properly – and any suggestion that she isn’t doing something in an efficient/best way gets her super huffy and bent out of shape. And since it isn’t in a traditional office but rather people who mostly work elsewhere, we have to communicate via email or by paper most of the time. To make it worse, if she feels insulted, she responds in a passive aggressive manner. For instance, after someone complained about her giant pdf files that weren’t getting through, anytime someone said “Jane, please send Person X/Group Y the ABC document”, unless they specifically said “Jane, please *email* the group the *electronic* document” – she would respond by printing out the document and either putting it in the person’s internal mailbox, which required the person to drive to the office, or by putting the paper document in snail mail, which takes almost a week to reach the recipients.

          The worst part is that this person recently received a Masters Degree and is constantly complaining about how she is so underpaid after all the work she put in to get the degree – and those of us stuck working with her want to yell “Go take some computer classes at the public library or community college or from your tween-agers and then maybe we’ll support your petition for a raise/promotion”. But of course, we can’t do that, because she’d make our lives even more miserable.

        6. MWKate*

          Not quite as an extreme, but I’ve asked customers for screenshots before and had them fax in printed out copies of their screen.

        7. oranges & lemons*

          I once sent a client a form to fill out in a Word doc, and he printed the form, typed out his answers, printed those separately, cut them out (word by word), glued them onto the form and snail mailed it to me.

        8. Beanie*

          Former Boss needed us to know some vital info? Or maybe not so vital but he wanted us to be informed? He’d type up a memo (via typewriter), take a picture of it, attach the jpg to an email, and then ask us in the text of the email to “read the attached memo”. Instead of, you know, just saying it in the email.

        9. SarcasticFringehead*

          I have a coworker who does the same thing. It’s exhausting sometimes (and of course, she’s otherwise extremely competent).

          1. FoodieFoodnerd*

            If there is such a circle of hell we can only hope it’s circular — these techno-sadists deserve no less!

        10. Mona Lisa Saperstein*

          We always send our clients announcements/releases that need their approval as both attachments and pasted in the email body, and one client, instead of making changes in the email or the attachment, prefers to print out the relevant email, write his corrections on it, and fax it back to us. (This client also doesn’t have voicemail set up, though they’ve somehow been in business for over 30 years, so it’s honestly not that surprising.)

          1. ABC123*

            My office (in Europe) stopped using voicemail several years ago. I haven’t had voicemail on my personal phone for at least 8 years, maybe longer. It just isn’t done here anymore.

            People either call, text, or send emails (or use newer ways of getting in touch).

        11. Emilia Bedelia*

          This morning, my boss told my coworker that to save a single page of a PDF, she should print out the page and scan it.


        1. drashizu*

          Or the coworker who opened a browser, typed in “,” and then googled the URL of the website she needs to visit so she could click the link in the search results.

          Followed by 10 different pages of navigating the links of the company’s website to get to the page she wants. Nevermind there was a direct link to the relevant page in the file she had open on her computer at the time…

        2. Security SemiPro*

          I do that. For incident management and disaster recovery procedures. PDFs on my local machine and network storage, paper copies at the office and home.

          The network being down is an emergency, and those procedures have useful stuff in them I’ll want, but don’t have memorized.

  2. TychaBrahe*

    Alison, your mother needs a Bullet Journal. Not only can she dump all of her aggravations without stressing other people (read: you), but she may start to see patterns that will help her prevent these aggravations.

    1. Allypopx*

      Love my bullet journal! I use it as a multifunction things for scheduling, recording, listing, and venting, which is so good for my anxiety which tends to get so overwhelmed with unitask notebooks that I give up on them. And it definitely helps me organize my stressers and notice patterns!

    2. Marillenbaum*

      I love, love, LOVE my Bullet Journal! It really has helped me in that regard–I have a Weekly Review page that has tasks for the week (that don’t need to be handled on a specific day), demerits (a thing I’ve messed up), and a gold star (for something or someone that has made my life better).

    3. Tris Prior*

      Ha, I apparently have the same mother as Alison, and my mother would say she’s too stressed out to ever consider keeping a journal!

    4. LadyL*

      I dunno, I’m a verbal processor as well and journals never seem to do it for me. I need the back and forth with another person to feel satisfied. Also in my case preventing the aggravations wouldn’t help, I’d just find something else to rant about because I love complaining. I swear I’m actually a fairly positive /perky person, I just love the feeling of a good self-righteous rant about something. My tactic is to befriend similar people who don’t mind when I unload on them, because they do it to me. I vent all the complaints to someone who is ok with it, they vent to me, and then we both exit the conversation feeling relieved and sated and ready to pleasantly go about our lives.

      So maybe Allison’s mom can find like a book club or some such, with some like minded friends that all enjoy venting :)

      1. Anlyn*

        I’m part of stitch and bitch group; sometimes I don’t even work on my projects because I just need a space to rant.

      2. Adlib*

        I am the very same way! I rant at my husband a lot and have had to back way off because he gets second hand stress pretty easily. Also, he tends to want to “fix” whatever problem I’m ranting about which is totally not the point. I also just go to a friend very similar to me, and this definitely helps!

      3. FoodieFoodnerd*

        I’m not a venter, just a Dear Abby type that attracts them. :^D I don’t mind it at all, as long as the person is doing something about the problem — to keep coming back in the same situation repeatedly, without learning or acting, would be annoying.

        Asking input, or just using me for a sounding board or to let off steam is welcome as long as it actually helps your progress and the team.

      4. Misquoted*

        I’m that way, too. It drives my partner nuts, and I really don’t want to add stress to his life. Luckily for all involved, I have a good friend who also processes verbally, likes the phone, and is a venter.

        I might try a bullet journal, though.

      5. Lissa*

        I now have this idea of you and Alison’s mom becoming ranty penpals for the good of you two and Alison!

      1. Aurion*

        My mom is the same way. Mostly I half-listen over dinner with a tolerant smile (food is a helpful distraction from paying full attention), but sometimes I interrupt her with “mom, get to the point (of your original rant)”. She often gets sidetracked into subrants about the details of whatever she was originally ranting about.

      2. JoAnna*

        Whenever I call my dad, his favorite topic of conversation is anyone who has died, any funerals he has been to recently, and which members of our family will be the next to pass away (he reminds me every time we talk that my grandmother, who is 89 and in poor health, will likely not live out the year). I find it so incredibly morbid and macabre.

        1. Temperance*

          So you know my in-laws. I find them unpleasant and spend less time with them because of said unpleasantness.

        2. Cath in Canada*

          My parents are both a bit like this. They’ve unfortunately lost a few close friends to cancer over the last couple of years, and now my Auntie isn’t doing very well, and every single conversation with them involves incredibly detailed descriptions of how the person is declining and how terrible it is. It all comes from a place of love and concern, which makes it more or less impossible to push back against, so I just have to accept that talking to them can get pretty bleak and depressing sometimes.

      3. Anansi*

        Yeah, my mom does too. Usually it’s a mix of personal grievances, Catholic guilt/guilting, and gossipy drama that doesn’t actually impact her in any way (always amazes me how many Christians can’t quite get a handle on that “judge not lest ye be judged” bit). Over time, I have trained her to not talk about this stuff to me, by continually changing the subject or ending the conversation if that fails. The first few times were pretty awkward for both of us but eventually she picked up on the fact that when she injects gossip and drama into the conversation it goes badly and she stopped doing it.

      4. E*

        Maybe she can find someone else to vent to, because stressing a family member out by making them listen to this isn’t healthy.

      5. Another Lauren*

        Oh god, I think I might be like that too. What would you suggest to curb that tendency? I’m trying to become more self-aware, but it’s too easy to fall into old patterns.

        1. Nic*

          The bit of comment thread below has some advice, a good bit of it being looking for a solution rather than just venting.

          I personally try to do something like a feedback sandwich when I vent. The traditional is Good Bad Good with feedback. When I’m venting I try to do:
          Background (as needed for my audience)
          Situation that I’m upset at.
          Mitigating factors (If Sally at work is making life miserable, what could be going on in Sally’s life to cause her to do what is making me miserable. If X policy is in place, look at WHY it’s in place, and suggestions for improvement).
          Possible solutions (as appropriate. Sometimes you just have to vent).

          I find that forcing myself beyond the “oh man, this sucks” to “this is what caused it” and “here’s some ways I can make it better” tends to turn stuff around for me. I become more solution oriented.

          Also, I’ve found that I tend to vent more than I glorify the good. I’ve made it a personal goal to talk about the good things specifically more. I honestly think it’s changed my whole outlook on life. YMMV

  3. Katie the Fed*

    Another way to get people to stop venting at you is to either not really respond (try just saying “mmm”) or encouraging them to actually solve their own problems. Like “ok, so what are you doing about it?” or like Alison said “you should really talk to the manager about solving this.” People who like to complain usually don’t want to actually resolve their issues – they just want to complain.

    1. Squeeble*

      Yes! It makes the interaction totally dissatisfying for the complainer and they’ll eventually learn to take it somewhere else.

    2. Allypopx*

      “Ok, so what are you doing about it?” is a magic phrase. As someone who has been on both sides of this interaction. So helpful.

      1. LawCat*


        I’ve also been on both sides. When I was the complainer/venter, it gave me pause and really made me think.

      2. Matea*

        I’m a giant stressball and have a lot of anxiety, and honestly, my answer to that question would be, “What I’m doing about it is letting you know there’s an actual reason I’m over here shaking and near tears and that I’m not just trying to get attention or being overly dramatic.”

        1. Katie the Fed*

          But if the person you’re venting to doesn’t have the power to change anything, what are you hoping to accomplish?

          1. Matea*

            I’m hoping that they’ll not think I’m reacting badly on purpose or think less of me for not being able to control an underlying issue that definitely needs medical attention but can’t be afforded currently.

            I’d do the same if I had an actual physical issue that people couldn’t see that was causing me stress. “I’m sorry I’m taking so long getting up the subway stairs. I just had surgery and so it’s taking me twice as long to get where I’m going. Please don’t think I’m just lazy or don’t care about others. I understand you have somewhere to be and I apologize for delaying you.”

            1. TL -*

              I think if you take 30 seconds or less to say, “Oh, I’m super stressed about Project X,” then no one is going to care. Or, better yet, if you say once that you just have a really high stress levels and not to worry about it if you seem really stressed out.

              If you’re going over and telling people, in detail, every time you’re so stressed out, why you’re stressed out, I don’t think that’s going to go over very well. Especially if it’s taking up a large chunk of their time and especially because they may not be noticing or may have already learned that you are a stressful person and they don’t need to worry about it.

              I’m sorry you’re dealing with this though – I hope that meds become affordable for you soon.

              1. Matea*

                I definitely don’t just go up to people and talk about why I’m stressed out every time it happens. I typically only say something when I see that someone has noticed that I’m having a freak-out. And I typically limit it to “I’m freaking out because I cannot currently see a way to finish this thing by the deadline and that is Bad and my brain processes Bad by reacting like this.” I get stressed out about regular stuff and then I get stressed out knowing people are seeing me stressed out and then I get stressed out thinking they think less of me… it’s a very deep spiral and I am just constantly on edge worrying about how people perceive me because my brain doesn’t work properly.

                1. Katie the Fed*

                  I think that’s something you need to work with your manager then on, if you really need help figuring out a way to finish a thing. That’s not really something you should be putting on a coworker. As a manager, my job is to help you figure out strategies to deal with these issues.

                2. TL -*

                  If you’re handling it like that, it’s not at all the situations we’re talking about. That’s a super appropriate way to handle it – you’re not inordinately venting to people, you’re just letting them know you’re stressed when it’s appropriate.

                  Very, very different from any of the other situations being discussed.

                3. Halpful*

                  *jedi hugs*

                  Anxiety really sucks. Especially when it’s feeding on itself. Mine likes to split itself into two parts, one insisting I have to do the thing right now, the other insisting I can’t do the thing… which makes my mind so noisy there isn’t room to think about the thing itself. :P

                  CBT/mindfulness/meditation stuff has helped, but I’m having to reduce (maybe change?) my adhd medication because it was feeding the anxiety in very sneaky ways, and now I’ve got a whole new layer of anxiety to start working on (one that’s very good at coming up with Reasons I “can’t” work on it just yet…)

                  and now anxiety is trying to tell me I’ll annoy people if this comment isn’t done Perfectly. but it’s also insisting that the comment must be submitted. both sides are unreasonable, but with little grains of truth that make me hesitate to dismiss them completely. it still feels like annoying people would be The End Of The World. … which is probably anxiety catastrophizing again, but it’s pretty persuasive. It’s terrified of other people’s judgement, but I haven’t figured out why yet. …but I just remembered a thing. :) I should go write somewhere else now though :)

            2. Kit*

              The thing is, once you’ve told someone you’re anxious they don’t need to be told that you’re anxious at length every time the stress peaks. It doesn’t sound like that’s what *you’re* doing, but it *is* what Belinda is doing, and it’s unfairly burdensome on other people. In the workplace, people simply cannot choose “spread it around” as a coping mechanism.

            3. Katie the Fed*

              Ahhh ok that makes sense. That sounds really tough – I’m sorry you’re struggling so much! I’ve dealt with anxiety in the past as well.

              Can you just say something once like “I’m struggling with some anxiety lately – I just want you to know because I don’t want you to think I can’t handle routine things. It’s just how my brain works sometimes.”

          2. Mena*

            A person always has the power to change how he/she reacts or responds to the situation, though. Along the lines of not being able to control other people .. no, you can’t but you can always change how you react to them.

            1. TL -*

              Yes but it takes a lot more work to change your reaction if you have anxiety. I can just say I’m not going to worry about this any more and after some start and stops, I usually have success. If you have anxiety, you may need a lot more tools – CBT, therapy, medication – than “just don’t think about it anymore.”

      3. SophieChotek*

        Good idea…!
        Although, I find myself wondering, if in this case might this not lead to:

        “Here are the 15 steps I am taking to do this 1 simple task and I am just so stressed thinking about these 15 steps….while I also have to do X, Y, and Z too…? …. so I’m just so stressed!”

        or have others found this question stops them and makes the really think about it versus just listing all the things one has already done/is planning on doing?

        1. TL -*

          So when I have the conversation, it would go like this.

          Stressed: THINGS SO MANY THINGS!!
          Me: Okay, so what are you going to do about it?
          Stressed: uh….[conversational trails off]
          Stressed: LIST OF THINGS
          Me: Okay, sounds reasonable. I think you’ve got this. [conversation done.]

          1. Rebecca in Dallas*

            I had a coworker like this, every morning she’d come over and start listing ALL of the things she had to do that day and if one particular task came up she’d have to go over HOW LONG it would take her to get it done. I started saying, “Guess you better get started then!” She didn’t get started any sooner, but she did at least find someone else to complain to!

            1. Katie the Fed*

              ha, I love that.

              I don’t actually mind when people vent to me too much, but really only if we’re friends. Even then I don’t want it to comprise more than, like, 25% of our discussions.

              1. the gold digger*

                Exactly! The people who are allowed to vent to me are the ones who have built up goodwill, that is, my friends. We share good stuff and bad stuff. I vent to them, they vent to me.

                If you want a one-way relationship where you dump on me and there is no reciprocity (and really, I don’t want reciprocity with a co-worker – I just want you to do your job so I can do mine), you need to pay me $500 an hour for therapy. Otherwise, I do not want to hear it.

                1. Clever Name*

                  Totally. Having a coworker, who I’m not true friends with, vent to me constantly, just makes me feel used.

        2. Newby*

          Instead of asking what she is doing about it, it might help to say “I’ve noticed that you tend to add a lot of steps to simple tasks. Instead of doing task X like you have been, you could (insert short method here).” She may not know that she is making her job harder than it should be.

          1. Amy*

            My experience with people like this is that they ignore or don’t trust your short cut. I taught someone how to do something with a pivot table and now she does it with a pivot table but still checks it with her old method so now it actually takes longer.

            1. Newby*

              It is unlikely to work since she is probably just looking for sympathy, but if you give advice instead of sympathy people like that complain to you less.

      4. Anna*

        I think I would be cautious with that phrase. I don’t vent often, but when I do it’s because I need to verbally process what is causing the stress so I can figure out a solution. If someone asked me what I was doing about it…It would probably have the same effect as someone telling me to calm down. Like gasoline on a fire that would erupt in angry, angry flames.

        1. Anna*

          I should add that I work with a woman who is incredibly talented and competent but who tends to never have average days; there’s always some fire she MUST put out and I’ve just to the point where I nod my head and say, “uh-huh.”

          1. Whats In A Name*

            I think this co-worker of your is more like Belinda than you are, so the “uh-huh” to the lady who walks through fire is the equivalent of “what are you doing about it” to Belinda.

        2. Morning Glory*

          Yeah, I think it’s a reasonable phrase to use for the chronic venters like the OP wrote about. But I don’t mind if a colleague vents a bit every now and then.

        3. Katie the Fed*

          I’d counter that your coworker’s job doesn’t include helping you process what’s causing the stress so you can figure out a solution. If you need to figure out a solution, that’s something to talk to your manager about.

          With friends and family – totally different. When I vent to my husband he know (because I tell him) I just want to work through some things.

          1. Anna*

            And I would say if you work in a collaborative environment like I do, then talking it out with a coworker is normal and not something that needs to go higher up.

            I would also add that I *AM* a manager and my boss is the Big Boss, so it’s often better to talk to someone in the department I’m working on a project with than to go to someone who has a lot more on their plate.

            1. Katie the Fed*

              It sounds like this is normal in your work environment then. In the OP’s case, it sounds really disruptive and frustrating.

          2. hermit crab*

            Yeah, I’m a total verbal processor type… and I talk things out with my husband or my mom, with whom I have very well-established “mutual venting about work” relationships. Or I literally take a walk in the woods and talk to myself!

        4. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

          Then I think you need to work on that reaction, because your need to “verbally process” the stress does not necessarily obligate them to be the one to put in the emotional labor of helping you process it. Because it is emotionally laborious, and that’s an unfair thing to demand someone do on pain of getting blown up on. And if they don’t have the time/energy for that right then, they’ve got the right to cut to the chase, or cut you off.

          1. The OP*

            Emotional labour is the perfect way to sum up how I feel about what Belinda is trying to get from me. I think I’d heard the phrase before but hadn’t quite put my finger on it here.

        5. Dust Bunny*

          Yeah . . . don’t do this with me. If you think you would blow up if somebody asked you what you were going to do about it, you don’t want to see what would happen if somebody used me as their involuntary processing partner and then yelled at me when I objected. One, I’m not a good auditory processor in the first place so if you want feedback, I won’t be able to follow you well enough to provide it. Two, if you just want to talk at somebody, get a mirror. If you have an actual problem and want help on a solution, yes, absolutely, I’ll work with you, but literally just reading about somebody doing this to me to process their own feelings feels draining.

          1. Anna*

            You’re not objecting, though. You’re not saying, “Hey, I can’t right now.” You’re being passive aggressive. Don’t do that.

            1. The Not Mad But Sometimes Irritable Scientist*

              The “Okay, what are you going to do about it” approach is not passive aggressive. It’s cutting to the chase.

              1. Anna*

                Eh, I don’t see it that way. It’s not saying they can’t right now, and it can lead to a longer conversation. If you’re dealing with someone in process mode, (although it doesn’t sound like that’s what’s happening with Belinda, but since we’re addressing me and how I sometimes process) and you ask a question…That sort of invites an explanation, don’t you think? It doesn’t stop the conversation and make a person go back to their desk in a Eureka moment of clarity.

                I’ve never actually had someone ask me this, mostly because I don’t tend to go on and on. Like I said, it’s a verbal processing and I’m frequently doing it with people who are in problem solving mode, so this is what we do.

                1. The Not Mad But Sometimes Irritable Scientist*

                  That’s not a bug, that’s a feature. I am probably available to discuss a solution right now, and I might not mind a longer conversation, if it’s goal-focused. But I generally do not want to be talked at and nod sympathetically for the same amount of time.

                2. Newby*

                  One of the reasons the response can work is that if the coworker actually wants to work on the problem, it gives an opening for that and channels the conversation in a productive direction. If they only want to vent, then that will be unsatisfying for them and they will stop venting to the OP without the OP having to do something that feels rude or critical.

        6. Clever Name*

          Okay, so as someone people seem to love to vent to, I would be a lot more receptive to being your sounding board if you approached me first and said what you said above about needing a sounding board to verbally process something. I’ve totally gone to coworkers and said, “Hey, I’m really struggling with how to word this conclusion. Can I bounce some ideas off you?” and those conversations usually end up being awesome and remind me how cool it is to work with other scientists and be part of a team.

      1. C Average*

        When my stepkids were small and we were all still getting to know each other, I explained to them that I wanted to help them when they needed help, but that I couldn’t respond effectively to declarative sentences (mostly because I was still learning their likes and dislikes). “I’m hungry” would get you a shrug, as would “I’m bored.” (These were the ones I got on a regular basis.) I trained them that if they wanted results, they needed to formulate an actual request, like “Can I have some string cheese?” or “Will you play Rat-a-Tat Cat with me?” It worked really well, especially because the answer was pretty much always, “Yes! And thank you for asking me.”

        Not sure you can train a colleague likewise.

    3. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      I had a coworker like this up until about a year ago, and variations on this were my stock responses. I’d just brutally interrupt and say “Okay, I get the picture. What do you need from me to move forward?” “So, what’s your next step?” “So, have you brought this up with Jane?” “Sounds like you need to come up with a simpler process.”

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        I do this, too. I start out kindly but get increasingly more blunt the more a person doesn’t help themselves. I’m not unkind, but it’s also about not indulging the stress-fest. Which is not to say that people can’t be reasonably stressed—they can—but Belinda’s problems sound unnecessarily complex and in need of management-level intervention.

    4. Lily in NYC*

      Hm, I have this issue with my mom but she second-hand vents to me. Her sister vents to her about all of her kids’ problems and it stresses my mom out so she vents the same stream of crap to me. So I can’t say “what are you going to do about it” because these are all my cousins’ problems, not hers. And she gets very upset with me if I gently try to stop her. I’ve started completely changing the subject; it’s the only thing that works but it’s only a short-term solution.

      1. Katie the Fed*

        can you ask why she’s telling you this? I know that’s fraught though – I have to resist the urge to tell my mom “why are you telling me this? I don’t care!”

        1. SophieChotek*

          My mother does this to me too. But if I came back with ‘I don’t care’ she would respond with that I don’t care about her, because I’m shutting her down and not allowing her to express what is happening to her or frustrating her at the moment. Which I guess I kind of see her point because if I vent to her, then I want sympathy…but my grandma vents to her about all assorted family members, then my mom vents to me…
          so, yeah, Katie the Fed, I have to resist the urge too!

          1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

            I think it’s reasonable to still draw a line. “Mom: I’m happy to let you vent about stuff in your life that’s frustrating you, but I can’t take the second- and third-hand vents. If Grandma venting to you stresses you out so much you need to vent on me about stuff in my cousins’ lives, you need to ask her to stop oversharing more than you can deal with.”

            1. CM*

              Similar pattern here, and after a while she will turn on me and start mocking my non-answers and complain that she KNOWS I’m not listening. Then I just look at her. She really hates that. Or I might shrug and say, “I’m here listening to what you’re saying.” And I am there listening to her vent, even if I’m not willing to give her whatever interaction it is that she’s looking for. I think that’s pretty good.

          2. Lablizard*

            My mom is notorious for this. One time she was venting about some drama in what I thought was a branch of distant cousins. Turns out it was a freaking soap opera, literally, as in on TV. My head nearly popped

            1. The Not Mad But Sometimes Irritable Scientist*

              I just cringed so hard my face might stick like that.

      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        My mom and grandma love to get together to do nothing to vent/complain and then talk ish/gossip about people. I find it exceedingly draining and bad for one’s headscape and their development as a human. So I started by telling them why I don’t enjoy these convos, and now if they switch the discussion back to one of those streams (which they always do), I cheerfully say goodbye and walk away. Even if it’s to go into a different room and read a book. I think they’re too set in their routine to change, so the only feasible option is for me to change how I respond.

        1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

          I wonder how regional this stuff is. Like, I’m from a part of the country – the intermountain West – where minding one’s business is pretty engrained in the culture, and gossip and venting isn’t really so much a thing. “You do you” is a very Colorado kind of sentiment. The culture here is cordial, friendly, helpful….but discreet.

          Which made it really weird for me when I lived in Texas for a bit, where people seemingly have no boundaries and will editorialize for hours about their family, friends, and neighbors, and have few boundaries when it comes to nosing into someone else’s business, even a stranger’s.

          1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            Ah, here comes a mind-bender for you: They’re Midwestern. I have no idea where my grandmother gets it from (other than having gone to a British, Catholic-administered school in a former British colony). My mom definitely gets it from her mother. They think it’s inappropriate to vent/gossip to “outsiders,” but it’s ok “within the family.”

            Although people certainly gossip/editorialize where I grew up in CA, they find unfettered gossiping or smack-talking distasteful, as do I, but there’s no taboo on commenting on other people’s business. But it’s certainly less reserved than the intermountain West.

            1. OhNo*

              That “keep it in the family” sentiment is very Midwestern, I suspect. I come from generations of Midwesterners, and if my family stopped gossiping the walls would probably fall in because there’d be no wind to hold them up.

              But there’s a trick to true Midwestern Gossip: you can talk to other members of your close family, or friends who are as close as family, but not strangers or distant relatives. You can talk crap about Distant Cousin Sue to Mom until the cows come home, but you never, ever talk about Mom to Distant Cousin Sue. That’s why most Midwestern Gossip comes in the form of a chain: Second Cousin told First Cousin told Auntie told Grandma told Mom that…

          2. Jojo*

            I think there’s some truth to this. I’m from a small town in Alabama, and moved to the Midwest, and sometimes I feel like I have No Boundaries compared to my coworkers. I just.. I really don’t care if you know that my grandmother has alzheimers and my dad was a preacher and my older brother is the black sheep of the family. (Also, I’m a therapist, and maybe you have to be inherently a little nosy for that? I don’t know.)

            1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

              In the Midwest, they’re just confused that you’re talking about all that with someone other than family. In New England, they’d be confused that you’re talking about it at all. In California, they’d be confused that you’re telling them rather than your therapist. In Utah, they’d be wondering why you’re not praying about it. In And in Colorado, they’re sitting there, trying to look neutral, wincing inwardly because they’re feeling very awkward.

        2. Emi.*

          I think they’re too set in their routine to change, so the only feasible option is for me to change how I respond.

          If you printed out enough copies of that, you could put Carolyn Hax out of business.

      3. Lala*

        Oh lord, my mother and brother do this to me about each other. I finally started saying variations on “you should talk to X about what they want to do about it” and (for venting that was about issues between the two of them) “that’s something you two are going to have to figure out together.”

        It doesn’t always work, but it has cut down on the venting overall.

      4. Whats In A Name*

        One thing that might work is a tactic I employed about 6 months ago – I call my dad once a week (we live 16 hours apart). It satisfied his need to talk to me and a lot of the time I can catch him in a good mood. He calls me less as a result – which might sound callous but it got to a point where 75% of the calls initiated by him were a first-hand vent about my step-mom..

        Also, but this sound like it might not work with your mom, I just blurted out (Monday, in fact) “We have literally been having the same conversation for 20 years. Either accept she is not going to change or leave her;I can’t listen to it anymore.” He was shocked, but I *think* it helped open his eyes a little to the burden of stress it was putting on me.

    5. Jillociraptor*

      “I don’t want your help, I just want this to be a problem.” — a Rooster Teeth truism for the ages

    6. The OP*

      True, although it’s harder to ignore when they do this in a meeting you’re meant to be having with them!

      Good suggestions though thank you

  4. Robbenmel*

    I worked with a Belinda at my last job! I didn’t think of it at the time, but “Office Dementor” is PERFECT. I never did figure out how to help her (and I did try, but nothing worked for me or for her.) I also carpooled with her, and found that the stress permeated her life, from the way she paid bills to getting up on time. Yeah, she managed to make waking up stressful. Not to mention, both of us late to work a lot.

    1. jamlady*

      Did you happen to have a third person in this carpool? And was it me? Because dead on with a co-worker at my last job. And she always made us late!

  5. Female-type person*

    You might want to read this: (which could apply to anyone, not just a spouse.) If you turn handling your co-worker as sort of a science experiment, it might be slightly more bearable.

    I had a boss like this. He had to make a crisis to get the thrill of saving the day. From the crisis. That wasn’t. It got old.

  6. TL -*

    Office dementors are the worst! Alison’s advice is perfect – refuse to engage and politely cut her off whenever needed.

    One of the things I was told a lot as a kid is, “Lack of preparation on your end does not constitute an emergency on mine,” which I think is relevant here, though it’s more like, “Lack of good time and stress management skills on your end does not constitute an emergency on mine.”

    Just repeat that to yourself whenever needed!

  7. Rat Racer*

    I have a co-worker like this – for whom everything is “OMG FIRE FIRE FIRE!!!” Some of it is stylistic – she always uses multiple question marks and exclamation points even when she’s not yelling. It used to drive me crazy (I dislike being yelled at over email) and then I realized two things:

    1. She doesn’t realize that asking a question that ends like this???? makes it sound like yelling, but if I want to retain the harmony in our relationship, I’m not going to spend my time correcting someone else’s punctuation

    2. Her stressball attitude makes me feel like a pro at staying cool under fire. Perhaps this also makes me a crappy person. But we have similar jobs, and the fact that I’m not running around with my hair on fire sending extraneous punctuation makes me imagine that I am killing it at my job.

    Man, am I glad this site is anonymous – I really do confess some of my worst sins here…

    1. NW Mossy*

      I work in a department where a huge part of our gig is taking “OMG PANIC FIRE BAD CRISIS INARTICULATE SCREAMING” from other groups. We have all become well-practiced with our “therapist voice” where we calmly ask clarifying questions and steer towards solutions, and it does make us feel like we’re the executive function of the organizational brain sometimes. Sending out waves of tranquility and reasonable responses is a great way of making you feel like you have your own crap together.

    2. hbc*

      About number 2, so much yes. I once got special recognition on a project basically because I didn’t devolve into panic and finger pointing like the rest of the team. I was really new to the workforce, too, and I remember trying to figure out if I was wrong and it could be more urgent to find out who was at fault for the teapot having no handle versus actually getting a handle attached to it.

    3. cleo*

      I did several personality assessment things during my last job search and discovered that I am a Calming Influence.

      It’s not that I’m super calm myself, it’s that I tend not to panic and I also tend to go with the flow (when going with the flow won’t send me over a giant waterfall), and that’s apparently calming to other people.

  8. The OP*

    Thank you so much for answering my letter! I’m at work right now but will be back later to comment properly!

  9. MWKate*

    I have someone like this in my office (with a whole list of other issues), and I know how exhausting it can be. Example: Power walking up to my desk, into my cubicle and loudly declaring, “We have a situation.” and then spending 5 minutes explaining it. Which turns out to be a very simple error and easily corrected. I mentally call him Chicken Little, the sky is always falling.

    I think a lot of it stems from a. inability to prioritize and determine importance of tasks and b. a desire for attention. I’ve tried to not humor b, by speaking to him in a calm manner and not responding to any of his constant flailings of busyness.

    Good luck, this is something that slowly grates on you.

    1. FDCA In Canada*

      I have a coworker like this, and for her I think it stems solely from a desire for attention. If she’s busy freaking out about how much work she has to do, how crazy everything is, etc., she gets lots of attention from our boss compared to everyone else, all of whom are managing their time appropriately and not stressing. It’s the same reason she needs to draw attention to herself for everything else–if she’s having issues at home, she’s stomping around the office and being pissy with everyone, if they’re calling for snow, she has to be the one telling everyone we’re going to get twice as much and it’s going to be armageddon. It gets results–she gets lots of attention, my boss gives her extra time off (don’t even get me started), and everyone is focused on her! Then when you don’t pay any attention to her, she starts the gossip mill and then bam–attention is on her again.

      It’s grating, but as a coworker I don’t think there’s too much to be done other than remain calm and say “OK, sounds like a filing issue” or whatever response you can give that’s just reflecting back the pertinent information without getting sucked in.

      1. Mabel*

        I have been working with a dog trainer for a few weeks, and it sounds like these kinds of co-workers need some of the same training: completely ignoring the bad behavior and rewarding the good (I can just see it: instead of freaking out, the other person calmly says what the issue is, and I say “Yes!” and hand them a cookie). I don’t think it would help anyone to stop these attention-getting habits if they don’t want to stop, but it does seem to cut down on the amount of crap directed at me if I don’t give them what they want (and it works with the dogs, too, but it requires a LOT of repetition).

        1. MWKate*

          My mom is a teacher – and has suggested something very similar. Ignore him when he’s wasting time and being unreasonable, and if he does something positive – say something like, “I appreciate how quickly you summed up that issue.” etc. I have not yet managed to follow this advice, I think tossing a cookie over would be easier.

      2. Serin*

        I actually had a temporary boss once say to me, “When I first started here, I didn’t think you had very much to do. It turns out you just don’t vent very much.”

        1. winter*

          Yeah I’m wondering about that sometimes. I’d really hate it if I had to fear my contributions being overlooked if I don’t loudly discuss them constantly.

        2. we_say_nevermore*

          I’m naturally stressed by very little at work and my calmness led to a former boss (who was very reactionary and panic-y) accusing me of not caring very much. I told him just because I’m not running around doing Kermit-arms, it doesn’t mean I don’t care, it means I’m confident that I’ll always be able to get the work done.

      3. Elizabeth H.*

        I have a coworker who is a little like this. It’s not exactly that she talks about being stressed personally but that she exaggerates, focuses and comments on any perceived stressful situation, often in inappropriate ways (like describing the office as panicked and disorganized to a random outside person who has no interest in hearing about it, exaggerating the difficulty and “annoyingness” of standard processes while explaining them to the people who have to do the things with that process, inserting herself into other people’s conversations about a problem or issue when she has absolutely nothing to do with them). I think it is related to what you describe, but more of a constant need to talk and engage rather than specifically generating attention directed at herself. She gives running commentary on everything, repeats stories over and over again to multiple people and goes out of her way to engage with everyone possible. It’s different from just being extroverted and just seems like very unusual behavior to me.

    2. baby architect*

      Omg, I was just venting about this coworker yesterday! My Chicken Little does exactly what you described, right down to the “we have a situation!!!” I believe he does it out of desire for attention. He has more years of experience than any of us though his role is support/technical, and I think he likes to be the guy who spotted something no one else did. But then why not say “We have a situation, but I think I identified a solution and can add it to my to-do list.” Our project manager is already run ragged, no need to be calling her over to your computer screen six times a day if you can help it.

      1. MWKate*

        It’s so aggravating. I mean, to me “We have a situation!” means something serious, especially since I work in a bank! Not – hey I found this error that is relatively minor but needs to be corrected today.

    3. NW Mossy*

      “We have a situation” reminds me of a story that’s now become a legend in my family. Once, my dad was yelling at my brother and me about something (long since forgotten, but minor) and was getting frustrated by our lack of urgency in response. Finally he shouts “You’re failing to understand the gravity of the situation!” as if he’s chiding incompetent interns.

      My brother and I made eye contact and both immediately dissolved into giggles. And from that point forward, everyone in our family says “You’re failing to understand the gravity of the situation!” in a snarky tone when we want someone to realize that they’re way overreacting.

    4. Kira*

      Sometimes my brain runs into a situation that isn’t really that bad, but then it freaks out and starts to doubt itself and question everything. This week I typed a standard email to a slightly unhappy client and hit send, but then hit undo because, I dunno, what if I was making things worse? I felt that I had to ask my boss just to make sure my initial reaction of “handle this like a normal thing” was correct.

      Then after I checked, and boss told me that this was a normal thing, I felt much better. But also kind of broken for needing that affirmation.

  10. Abby*

    Oh man, I know what this is like. Sometimes I do wonder if part of it is workplace culture where there’s a compulsive need to appear busy and more stressed than your colleagues. I worked in one company where everyone would complain about how busy they were and how little time they had for themselves. Yet at the same time, co-workers would whisper behind each others’ backs about how Fergus is always reading the news or Lucinda always seems to come to work late (9AM) and leave work early (5PM).

    Which is why I’m super happy that, at my current workplace, it’s totally okay to say something like “this week has pretty chill, so I’m glad I was able to catch up on some reading.”

    1. Yup*

      Ugh do we work at the same place? I hate the pressure to always project busy-ness. It makes the slow days more stressful than the busy ones!

  11. Chickaletta*

    What I’ve learned is that some people just aren’t as good as seeing the overall picture or finding an easier way to do things. I’ve worked with people throughout my career who operate like Belinda who take circuitous ways to do basic tasks. I have coworkers literally spend all day doing a task that took me an hour.

    I’ve decided that some people just aren’t as efficient as others, and **that’s ok** because you can’t force someone to work quickly if they’re not comfortable with it. Belinda sounds like one of those who needs to do things slowly and deliberately, printing out emails and whatnot, because that’s how her brain works. It’s not better, it’s not worse, it’s just different.

    If you make peace with this part of the issue, it may help your stress level some.

    1. AnotherAlison*

      Hmm…I definitely think the main driver of Belinda’s stress is that she’s inefficient at her job, but I’m not sure I agree that it’s “ok.”

      Sometimes, people need to be forced to learn new tools. Belinda probably cannot be the person who designs the operating procedures, but it sounds like with several people doing similar work, someone else could design a procedure and Belinda could follow it. This needs to be pushed, imo. People who are strongly wired to be administrative don’t always look for the easiest way to do things, and some of them want to hold on to they busyness of their job because they are afraid they won’t have anything to do if they aren’t sooo busssyyy all the time.

      1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

        I agree. It’s a cliché, but time is money. If you’re wasting time unnecessarily, you need to work on that.

        1. Serin*

          Well, it can be objectively not OK for someone to be inefficient and use their tools poorly and thus waste the company’s money — and yet it doesn’t really matter unless it’s not OK with that person’s boss.

          And if it is OK with that person’s boss, then it’s a waste of our energy to spend very much time letting it be not-OK with us.

    2. TL -*

      There’s a reasonable range of speeds – ie, the same task may take a very quick person 30-45 minutes and a very slow person 1hr 15 – 1 hr 30 minutes.

      But one hr versus one day is not at all reasonable! It shouldn’t take someone 8x the amount of time to complete the same task, unless they are lacking tools the first person has.

      1. Amy*

        Yes, my department takes turns doing a monthly annoying task. It takes most people 2-3 hours to get it done while one person spends all day one it. And she never fails to announce how she can’t do anything else because she is working on x today. I can’t figure if she is really that inefficient or she is just trying to get out of the rotation.

    3. Whats In A Name*

      I think you make a good case for the efficiency part of it; not everyone works at the same pace and approaches tasks differently. So some of problems with her process might be nitpicking, but this part of it isn’t really the crux of the issue… the real issue is the unloading of the seemingly unnecessary stress and pulling co-workers down the rabbit hole.

      The OP says it is ok that she doesn’t get to all the repair assignments… no one is saying to her (or at least I get the impression they aren’t) “If you don’t do all repairs you are FIRED!” but Belinda is over-justifying her inability to complete the tasks, and likely is effecting their efficiency level by absorbing their time unnecessarily.

  12. KTM*

    At some point, (assuming you’ve first talked to Belinda and nothing changes), can OP go to her own manager and explain how it’s impacting her at work? Maybe the OP’s manager can take some action like talking to Belinda’s manager. I’m assuming it would be somewhat out of line for OP to go to Belinda’s manager directly and ask for some help.

    1. The OP*

      At the time when I sent in the letter I would have said no to this as I felt like I needed to manage my own relationship with her. But actually, since then, I’ve had my performance review and my manager asked me some questions (not for the review, just while we were talking about things) about how I felt I worked with colleagues, was there anyone in the team I didn’t work so well with, and I ended up talking to her about it a little. I ended up making it sound a bit like it was mostly resolved and I’m not sure that’s true, but I have at least introduced the idea.

  13. EK*

    It often seems like office dementors are trying to project how important they are. They’re so stressed, they have so much work, they were here until 8pm, the janitor kicked them out, etc etc. It seems like a way to tell everyone how much work they do but in less “braggy” way.

    1. Gabriela*

      This is my take on most Belindas. I myself have fallen in that trap (especially if that’s part of the culture). It wasn’t until I worked for a boss who had more on her plate than anyone else I knew, but still managed to speak to people calmly, warmly and patiently that I learned how the truly important bad-ass people handle stress. That said, I am still working on being like that :)

    2. Katie the Fed*

      This was the environment in my PhD program. There was a competition among the grad students on who slept less, who worked the most, etc. It was super unhealthy. I felt like I was doing something wrong because I had a bit of work/life balance. It turns out I WAS doing something wrong – not marketing myself as a freaking martyr. It was a terrible fit for me. I left.

      1. TL -*

        What’s amazing is that normally grad students hit their 4th and 5th years, decide they actually want to leave, learn time management skills, start sleeping and eating better, and are suddenly so much more productive. :)

        1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

          There’s a definite aspect of playacting to a lot of that stuff. It’s like they’re acting the part of the brilliant young scholar who’s so entranced by the beauty of n-space topology that they can’t possibly be expected to deal with hygiene, eating, and 15-20 hours of TA work a week. I’m like, dude, please, you just suck at time management.

          1. TL -*

            One time I listened two grad students try to set a time to grab coffee in the afternoon. They just couldn’t decide when between 1:45 and 2:30 they could have time to meet for a 15 minute coffee break because they were so, so incredibly busy and swamped that day. But they had to meet to quickly discuss something project-related.

            They discussed this for 25 minutes before I left the room – I had to or I would’ve actually burst out laughing. Surprisingly, they were both late for the coffee break.

            1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

              I’ve watched this exact exchange happen at least twice. Finally, the 60-year-old who came back to get a PhD after he retired just burst out with “Christ, you two, you could have gone for coffee when you started this conversation and been on the way back right now. This is why you’re slammed.”

              O_O O_o

              1. TL -*

                I so wanted to say that but I would’ve immediately gotten pulled into my PI’s office for a lecture on how the staff was expected to be more professional than the grad students and post docs. Sigh.

          2. Government Worker*

            This can definitely be true, but as someone who went back to grad school after working for several years, I’d say that grad school is also a weird environment. All of my actual jobs have had way more structure, way more collaboration with teammates, and many more intermediate deliverables than grad school did. I’m great at time management in general, but when my assignment was to make an undefined amount of progress on a giant, vaguely-defined project by a meeting with my advisors a month in the future, my time management sucked, too.

            Not everyone is self-motivated enough to work well in the lack of structure that grad school provides.

            1. TL -*

              That depends a lot on the lab, though! Some grad students get very little supervision, some get paired with a postdoc/sr grad student for the first year, some meet with their advisers several times a week, formally and informally, and do get a lot of intermediate deliverables. Some are handing a project and told to go ahead and only disturb the adviser if you need to spend over $X.

              Some labs are very, very collaborative (mine is!) and some are 6 people working on 6 different projects with no overlap. Grad school is a weird environment but what type of weird you get depends on the lab you end up in.

              1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

                Very much this. I was lucky to have an advisor who was very helpful in setting intermediate goals and milestones, even in the context of a giant, vaguely-defined project. At some point, though, you’ve got to make your own structure. I’d get up every Monday morning and set out goals and deadlines for the week, plan my field campaigns a few weeks out, make to-do and to-email lists, and then plan out my week in my calendar, in great detail.

            2. Kowalski! Options!*

              Good point. It’s something that I wish I’d had a better grasp on before I went back to school after … uh… quite a few years. I found that the only thing that kept me sane when I was doing my thesis was to project-manage the living bejeepers out of it – GANTT charts, deliverables, milestones, the whole bit. It was overkill, for sure, but it kept the mission creep to a minimum and made me focus on the task, not the process.

              1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

                Yep, same here. I had my weeks planned down to the hour. “I’m grading from 2-3:30, so I can meet with you then, but I’m packing for fieldwork tomorrow from 4-5:30 so we’ll have to keep it quick.”

          3. Marillenbaum*

            This is so true! I’m a master’s student right now, and work 20 hours a week as a TA, and don’t get me wrong–it’s challenging, my commute sucks, and I don’t always get as much reading done as I think I should. However, I make sure I take care of the essentials so I can handle more of what comes up (obsessive devotion to meal-prep, strict devotion to bedtime, sending PDFs to my Kindle so I can read on the subway, that sort of thing).

          4. MWKate*

            I was recently at an event for graduate assistantship interviews. Having been out of college for about 10 years, I’m roughly 8-10 years older than most of them and so most don’t have work experience outside of their school jobs and activities.

            This was a very laid back event. There were more assistantships than attendees, and all of the faculty and staff participating were very casual. The event went from 8-5 and everyone had between 7 and 13 half hour interviews. Most had half hour breaks between at least some.
            I had the following conversation with someone:

            “This is the longest day ever, I can’t even stand it.” Me: “Well, it’s not any longer than a standard work day.” “But for really stressful jobs you have to take breaks, air traffic controllers can only work like 3 hours in a row.”

            This is not a hit against millenials – I’m on the high range of the generation. It’s just interesting and kind of mind boggling how people come up with stuff like this. Yeah, interviews are stressful, but – you’re not an air traffic controller and you’ve got like 5 30 minute breaks throughout the day.

            1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

              Just reply “OH GOD SOUTHWEST 510 IS ABOUT TO CRASH INTO A MOUNTAIN” and run off.

      2. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

        This. The grad student who’s constantly pulling all-nighters, sleeping two hours a night, and flapping around is usually the one who, when you see what s/he’s actually doing in the lab, is taking four hours to grade two sections worth of quizzes and walking 20 minutes to the good coffee shop on the Hill rather than brewing a pot at the lab. The ones who actually wrap up in 5 years are the ones who get decent sleep and work steadily and diligently, without putting on a kabuki play of stressing out.

        1. the gold digger*

          I asked a friend about med school – was it as brutal as everyone said?

          She answered that nope, she just treated it like a job. (She had worked for two years as an analyst at Anderson Consulting, when Anderson still existed.) She did her prep work before class, went to class, did her homework and reading after class.

          I used her approach for grad school and it made it surprisingly easy. It’s amazing what doing the readings before class and actually attending every class can do for your grades. (Although this was only business school, not med school!)

          1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

            My experiences in a STEM field were basically similar. Like, no question, it was like a job where I worked six and a half days a week, two in the field, and I was constantly balancing teaching and research, but….I treated it like a job. It wasn’t a lifestyle, it wasn’t a pastime, it wasn’t “my passion,” it was a job.

          2. TL -*

            Med school does depend a lot on the school’s structure, though. One of my friends went to a school where they had a test every two weeks, so very easy for her to get into a nice study pattern. One of my friends went to school where they had all of their tests every six weeks. His study life was a lot more stressful.

            1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

              Med schools also have this lovely “it was horrible for me, so we must subject the new generation to even worse tortures, otherwise it will all have been in vain” mindset. Most of the stress of med school is pointless and exists mostly because “I had to pay my dues too, so no whining, noob.”

              1. Parenthetically*

                Yeah, my hypothesis is that this is why most K-12 schools are so reluctant to do away with nightly homework. Studies show it doesn’t actually benefit kids, so why keep assigning it? Because performative rigor and This is How We’ve Always Done It, You Kids These Days Are So Entitled is why.

          3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            Yes. I actually think this is the best advice for folks going into any graduate/professional program. If you can structure your day as if it were work, it can be extremely productive (and has the added benefit of aligning with your non-grad-school friends’ schedules, which means you can still have a normal, adult social life).

            1. Whats In A Name*

              YES! This is wonderful advice. I went back to grad school at 35 and while it wasn’t med school level difficult, approaching it as a job was the best thing I ever did. Up at 6, gym/run, to office/school, done by 5:30/6. I worked 20 hours per week consulting and spend the rest of the time on school work or class. I never put in time on evenings or weekends, maybe once or twice if needed (like any other FT job).

              Other more traditional grad students in the same program went right from undergrad to grad and worked 20 hours a week as GA’s were always pulling all-nighters, trying to figure out when to squeeze in time to write papers, asking for tutoring help, etc.

        2. Lablizard*

          I had a similar experience in my doctoral program. I never felt super busy or pressured, but everyone else was, “ZOMG!!!! STRESS!!! DEADLINES!!! ZOMG!!!!!”. I could never figure out what was wrong with them and why they seemed so frazzled, especially when I tended to outperform them. I have no idea what they were doing to make themselves so inefficient

          1. Grits McGee*

            Some of my grad school cohort had the same issue, and I think a lot of it came from a lack of self-confidence/impostor syndrome and a fear of failure. It’s a really difficult rabbit hole to pull yourself out of if you don’t have a lot of practice falling down and picking yourself back up again.

            1. Cece*

              This, completely. During my PhD was the first time I had to deal with – as you put it – falling down and picking myself back up. Being used to unproblematic academic success, I just didn’t have all the tools I needed to get through the confidence/fear issues thrown up by so much unstructured time spent defining my original contribution to knowledge and all that jazz.

              (To be fair, I did have a lot of Life Stuff happen one year: death of a parent, death of a beloved old family pet, and got dumped *all within a 4-month window*, while also teaching for the first time, heeey-o.)

        3. LadyKelvin*

          Yep. I finished my degree in 4.5 years (which was 1.5-3 years faster than anyone else in our program) and I rarely worked more than 20-30 hours a week. I didn’t work exactly 9-5 but I found that when I was working I was productive and when I realized I was no longer productive, I stopped working. Sometimes that meant I worked late into the night, and sometimes that meant that I didn’t get anything done at all one day, but I found that by ensuring that I gave myself permission to not be working during my time off, I was highly productive when I was working. Compared to my friend that spent 12-14 hours a day “working” and taking 8 years to finish the same degree, I think I did something right. She also watched TV the entire time she worked, so I’m sure she was not ever fully focused on what she was doing. I’m actually struggling to adapt to the business world because I’m required to be in the office for the same 8 hours a day and there are definitely periods where I am totally unfocused but I can’t just leave. I’m hoping things will get better once I have something real to work on, but right now reading journal articles for 8 hours a day is really draining.

          1. The Not Mad But Sometimes Irritable Scientist*

            Yeah, the watching TV while they’re “working” is not a thing. It’s designed specifically to get and keep your undivided attention. One cannot focus on anything else while you’re watching TV.

            1. The Not Mad But Sometimes Irritable Scientist*

              Gah, accidentally submitted. Meant to also say that I really like your “work when productive, stop working when not productive” approach. I personally found that productivity was a midset I could get into if I started the day that way, but if it wasn’t happening, it wasn’t worth trying to make it happen. I really wish more jobs were okay with this, because my day would look markedly different.

            2. Morning Glory*

              I don’t know – I listen to podcasts during some of my less interesting work and it helps me focus at the task sometimes.

              If someone has a tv show on in the background but is only listening and not watching it, they could probably get data-entry or other lower level work done. Definitely not professional to do in the office, but possible.

              1. The Not Mad But Sometimes Irritable Scientist*

                I think it’s specifically the visual stimulation that does it. I can listen to podcasts during routine work, and music while writing, and it’s not a big issue. But there’s something about all the flashing and colors and jump-cuts that snags my consciousness like a grappling hook.

                1. tigerStripes*

                  For me, it depends on the show and somewhat on whether I’m planning to rewatch it later or whether I’ve watched it before.

          2. TL -*

            Eh, there are definitely some shows that I can put on while working (either very low-key/repetitive work or work I’m thinking about rather than doing). Though I do like Netflix, because I can have the sound running and visually remove it from my screen. :)

            Some kid’s movies I’ve seen a thousand times (basically anything Disney) and some very low-key reality TV shows, like the British ones that are basically an excuse to show off their lovely pastoral landscapes are perfect, because I need 30-60 sec breaks every so often and they’re the perfect excuse to look up and not actually task switch. But it has to be very specific shows and very specific types of work.

            1. sophiabrooks*

              I think it depends on the work. When I am alone, and my work is doing something like sewing a hem on a big period skirt (I work in costumes)- I love to watch tv I am familiar with. I can’t do it with my students around, though because they just end up staring at the tv like zombies. I also grew up in a small house with many generations, and we had the tv on 24/7, so I did everything (reading, homework etc) with the tv at least audible.

      3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Ugh, law students/lawyers are this way, too, and I found it super gross. I’m a recovering workaholic, so I finally stopped hanging out and minimized interactions with people who seemed to derive satisfaction and self-worth by regaling us with their “super busy and so important” workaholic sacrifices. Misery or behaving like a martyr is not laudable.

      4. KG, Ph.D.*

        Luckily, most of my classmates in grad school weren’t of this variety, but I had two labmates over the years (not overlapping, thank goodness) who were compulsive liars AND obsessed about working more than anyone else. They not only talked constantly about how stressed they were, they would also lie about how early they got in or how late they worked. Our advisor explicitly *did not care* how many hours we worked as long as the work got done, so it was incredibly weird and annoying that they’d volunteer false information for no reason at all.

    3. Kowalski! Options!*

      “Braggy” – oh, Lord, yes. Our office Belinda doesn’t Belindarize about how stressed she is; it’s more about how crappy her job and our office is (and for the record, our place of work is actually pretty cool). Part of me also wonders if acting like this is meant to try to gain some kind of social currency by engaging people in sharing disappointment – “misery loves company” kind of thing.

      (And Katie, I totally get what you mean by this sort of thing happening in grad school. Except my reaction to my fellow grad school students went more along the lines of “Well, if you had any time/project management skills…” Not because I was better than they were, but because I was twice as old as most of the people in my cohort.)

    4. Rebecca in Dallas*

      Haha, YES! I’ve worked with several Belindas, they always seemed to think that the company would fall apart without them. Guess what, when they left… everything still got done. Sometimes it got done much faster.

    5. Blue Anne*

      Yes. In my head I’ve always called them the Office Martyrs.

      I’m working with one now. We have the same job title and responsibilities but she is constantly giving small signs that she is way overworked and we must all be crazy if we think she has time to help on anything else or answer questions. She reacts to my lack of stress like… if I think a simple job is simple, it must be because I’m a silly person who doesn’t understand the true scope of the work. Only the martyr can know the One True Way to cut a check.

    6. Adlib*

      I have one of those in the office next to mine. Her counterpart in another department is the same way and likes to “complain” that she doesn’t even have time to take lunch/bathroom breaks! They like to take on ALL THE THINGS though even when they literally should push back on them. I could go on from there, but I have things to get done!

  14. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

    One suggestion: call Belinda on her crap. “I cannot be the target of your venting every time you get overwhelmed. You’re asking me for a level of emotional labor I don’t have the time or energy to provide for you, and it stresses me out. If you need something specific for me to move forward, please ask, but otherwise, I can’t listen to you rant about how overworked and stressed you are.”

    1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      And to riff on this: this is why I hate venting. People who want to vent seem to have no clue that listening to someone monologue about something stressful and upsetting for minutes on end involves a significant amount of emotional labor and investment, and that level of negativity and emotion is stressful for a lot of people to manage – especially when venting often comes with the expectation of bland and total support and empathy, stripped of any constructive discussion or problem-solving. I’ll do it for my wife, but short of that, I don’t truck with venting.

      1. the gold digger*

        I don’t even want to do it for my husband! He is not Belinda, but he wants to explain his reasons for everything. I keep telling him that “yes” or “no” is good enough for me. I don’t need to know why he does not want butternut squash. Just say no, you don’t want any, and I WILL NOT MAKE IT FOR YOU.

        1. Katie the Fed*

          I have an employee who does this right now. She asks things three different times/ways. But she’s generally good natured about it if I tease her a little.

          “Katie, do you mind if I take Friday off?”
          – No
          “I just need the day off to take care of some stuff.”
          – I said it was fine
          “I was just really hoping I could have it off.”
          – If you keep asking, I’m going to change my mind and say no :)

          1. the gold digger*

            Me: You are like this!
            Primo (an engineer – this might be occupational hazard): How can any conversation with more information be worse than a conversation with less information?
            Me: Sometimes people just want to get to the point.

            1. ceiswyn*

              “How can any conversation with more information be worse than a conversation with less information?”

              …and this is why many engineers write bad documentation.

              Don’t tell me about the technological underpinnings of the authentication system! Just tell me how to change my password!

              1. LauraG*

                In one of my first classes as an engineering student, the professor told us “If someone asks for the time, don’t explain how a watch works.” That and a few other gems have been really useful over the years, and I don’t even do engineering now.

        2. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

          My good buddy is like this. It’s like he feels the need to build an empirical case for everything. “Man. It’s been a really rough week for X, Y, and Z reasons, and the two year old is being a two year old, and I’ve got to fix a toilet tomorrow, and I could really use something to take the edge off, so what do you think about going over to the Toad and having a beer? That’d be relaxing.”

          Literally the only thing he needed to say is “Beer?” Maybe head-fake west, in the direction of said pub.

        3. Margaret*

          I’m this person, especially to my husband (ironically, he’s the engineer (well, in training, he’s going back to school for it currently), but I’m an accountant, so I think that stereotypical mindset might still apply).

          Me: I think we should [book a vacation, change where we store plastic bags, buy a house]
          Husband: Ok, that sounds fine.
          Me: I mean, I think the hotels will book up/I hate how the plastic bags fall behind the drawer/prices are going to keep increasing and so is our rent.
          Husband: Yeah, that’s fine.
          Me: And if the hotels are booked we’ll have to pay more for the more expensive one/it’s so annoying when I can’t find a plastic bag/I’m worried how much our rent will keep going up after this recent annual increase
          Husband: has realized what I’m doing and totally zoned out, smiles, and nods.

      2. Dankar*

        I think it really depends. I can’t vent to my partner because he wants to solve all my problems for me. I’d rather whine about it for 30 minutes or so that night and put my solution to work the next morning and he just does. not. get. this approach.

        My best friend, though? She and I can vent about various issues, work or otherwise, for two hours or more. I love those conversations because they’re usually hilarious and it feels great to commiserate.

        I do not vent at work, though. I don’t want people to think I can’t do my job, or that I’m so overwhelmed that I’m not doing things properly. My most-used descriptor in performance evaluations is “quick and efficient” (at home venting notwithstanding).

        1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

          I think one’s partner should be expected to shoulder the odd vent, in the expected fashion. My wife vents to me, wraps it up in 2o-30 minutes, and I listen and commiserate and restrain myself from saying anything that sounds like a solution or constructive advice. In return, she doesn’t do it more often than necessary. That’s a level of emotional labor partners should do for each other.

          1. Lizzle*

            Hmm. Maybe this is part of my missing the point. Usually when I’m venting I’d be very happy to hear any useful solutions. I often vent my way around to a good solution even without input.

            Maybe this is a syntax difference? Because I cannot stand it when people refuse workable solutions to their problems. Is that a necessary part of the definition of venting to you?

            1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

              That’s what I think of as venting – “I don’t want to hear workable solutions or get advice, I just need to talk at you.” It’s kind of a monologue with expressions of sympathy and commiseration from the ventee, who functions as sort of a Greek chorus to our protagonist the venter. And that’s why it’s emotionally laborious for me, because I can’t say anything, it’s not a conversation, I just have to nod and raise an eyebrow and murmur things.

            2. Dankar*

              Workable solutions are only possible if the other person has some experience with what you’re venting about, though, right? If I’m complaining about how the immigration upheaval of the last few weeks is interfering with part of my work, it would be hard for the other person to help unless they knew the regs, too.

              I second Irritable Scientist’s comment about the ventee being a sort of Greek Chorus.

              1. The Not Mad But Sometimes Irritable Scientist*

                It doesn’t necessarily need to be workable solutions per se, but I find it laborious when it’s not a discussion, just a monologue. If the other person is open to questions, suggestions, and my thoughts, it feels much more like a discussion that I’m part of, rather than “here’s my giant load of feels, now you carry it.”

                1. ceiswyn*

                  I find it nice and relaxing not to have to contribute anything but a concerned expression and occasional rephrasings-in-my-own-words to demonstrate I’m listening. It’s not as if I CAN carry someone else’s feels!

                  The reciprocation here is long-term; when you need them to fulfill an equivalent role, they’ll step up. I don’t feel the need to be ‘part of’ every discussion, I just need to feel that, overall, I get my fair share of airtime.

            3. Blue Anne*

              I had a partner who used to ask me, at the start of my venting, “Do you want advice or just sympathy?” and then actually give me what I asked for.

              It was wonderful. :)

          2. Dankar*

            If there’s something terribly egregious, I’ll go to him, but I’m blessed to have a rather large group of supportive people that I can lean on and vice versa. I know it’s so hard to keep from dispensing a solution because it’s natural to want to help the person you love, so I get it.

      3. Lizzle*

        That’s interesting. I will have to keep that in mind next time I think about venting at work.

        Personally I find I have a very different reaction to venting depending on the tone or style it’s presented in (and the subject matter, of course). I have coworkers who can vent to me about our work–this ridiculous thing X said or how stupid is it that we don’t have Y yet–and it doesn’t affect me emotionally in the slightest. I have others who moan or complain and I can’t get away from them fast enough.

        For me, I think it’s largely about the person’s overall presented outlook. Are they generally happy to be alive, glad to be working here, etc. but there are some things that irritate them? Great. Happy to listen.

        Are they just the most put-upon person ever, and everyone else is just an idiot and/or the world has dealt them a hard, hard hand making them work here? STFU, work Dementor.

        1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

          This is a good distinction, and one I hadn’t consciously made.

        2. Anna*

          This. There’s an expected level of gripe with any job. Because you’re all suffering some frustrations that frequently stem from the same source. It’s the difference between being generally chipper and doing your work and having an off moment or day or whatever or consistently feeling like it is all bad and nobody can understand how hard it is for you, etc. The majority of people I work with fall into category A, with a few in B. The few in B get a lot of eye rolls around here.

        3. Lissa*

          For me, so long as the person has a bit of a sense of humour about the situation, I’m OK with it. I have friends who tell stories about annoyances that are just absolutely hilarious, and I love hearing their woes. Other people just manage to suck the life out of the room while doing it. Obviously there’s a whole range in there too, but for me listening to a vent when the person has *no* sense of humour about it is incredibly taxing, because my usual conversational responses involve mild joking (and that’s what I like too when I’m the venter).

          Oddly I have had to tell my partner I don’t need him getting *really angry* on my behalf, I just need to say my annoyance and roll my eyes about it — if he starts having a bigger emotional reaction than me to somebody being a jerk at work, it’s the opposite of useful for both of us!

        4. C Average*

          Basically, most good comedy is complaining in a way that resonates with and/or amuses the audience. (Seriously. Comedy is 90% complaining. I invented that statistic, but I’ll bet it’s pretty close to the truth.) The Belindas of the world are complaining in a way that doesn’t resonate with or amuse the audience, and they’re doing too much of it. Hence the problem.

      4. Butch Cassidy*

        This is why, when I need a good vent, I’ll ask a friend “Hey, may I vent for a bit?” or “Can I talk about something heavy for a minute?” If they say no, I’ll go to someone else and ask them. I’ve had people vent at me enough without any regard to my ability to do their emotional labor to know that I don’t want to put that on someone else.

        1. Joan Callamezzo*

          Some of my coworkers and I do this with each other. If I’m having a frustrating email exchange with someone, I’ll get up from the computer (so I don’t respond out of anger), go to a colleague’s office, drop into the chair across from them and say “I just need to vent for a minute.” They usually laugh, lean back and prepare to listen. They do the same thing to me on occasion. It’s a coping mechanism and we all support each other, and we’re all clear that (a) it will be relatively brief and (b) no problem-solving is expected from the listener, only empathy.

  15. The Cosmic Avenger*

    I immediately saw this as two distinct issues: first, that Belinda is a hurricane o’ stress, spewing stress on everyone in her path, and second, that she’s horribly, ridiculously inefficient. They are related, but the second one is totally Belinda’s manager’s problem, really. The first one seems to be the one where the OP needs to try to find a way to better deal with Belinda (and Allison presented some great ideas). Then, if the OP feels like the stress reactions alone are significantly impacting their productivity and they’ve exhausted everything they can do on their own, then the OP can bring the stress whirlwind up to their own manager.

    1. CAinUK*

      THIS. Follow AAM’s advice on keeping her stress away from you, OP, but I’d also flag with Belinda (and then her manager if necessary) that the work she is doing is inefficient and impacts YOUR work. The first example is perfect – Belinda leaving a big mess with repair logs and not following the procedure to leave unfinished repairs as “unread” – that’s a problem.

      Focus more on where she is making mistakes that impact YOU, and then her manager should focus on the WHY.

  16. thechemist*

    I have a family member like that, I always picture people walking around with balloons and her swooping around and popping them. It’s amazing how she can spin any positive thing into a negative problem. ANYWAY I’ll save it for therapy.

    Good luck OP, sounds stressful!

  17. Rat in the Sugar*

    Heh. Yeah, I’m a bit of a Belinda myself; I derive genuine relief from complaining and real enjoyment from nitpicking things to death in a way that’s hard to explain. My brother had to listen to a full on 20 minute “lecture” this past weekend on how the aesthetic of Fallout 4 is dumb and lazy (why is there trash everywhere??) and that is a game I have logged over a hundred hours on and absolutely adore.

    I am aware, however, that other people outside of my sometimes equally cantankerous siblings seriously Do Not Enjoy the nitpicking and constant complaining. If my coworkers told me that the negativity was wearing them down, I would make a conscious effort to start catching myself in the act and do less of it. (I’ve had to do this before and it results in weird verbal reversals at first. “Ugh, this sucks. Wait, I mean, no, it’s not so bad.”) Hopefully Belinda will be just as willing to change if you call her attention to what she’s doing?

    1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      “If my coworkers told me that the negativity was wearing them down, I would make a conscious effort to start catching myself in the act and do less of it.”

      You’re showing a lot of self-awareness about this, and I don’t want to make you feel bad….but the negativity is absolutely wearing them down, whether or not they’re telling you about it. And they’re probably not telling you about it, because they’re a little scared that they’re going to be the next target for 20 minutes of slagging. I’d recommend making “catching yourself in the act and doing less of it” the default mode, not the exception, unless you’re with someone you know really well who’s willing to shoulder the load.

      1. Allypopx*

        I think that depends on the culture. I’m working really hard on this because I’m trying to make a conscious shift in our office (really company-wide) culture, which focuses heavy on everyone venting and complaining constantly. I think it gets to my boss, even though he does it too, and I know it’s contributing to my (high, medically concerning) stress levels, so I’m trying to initiate a shift. But some places it is the norm. I’ve experienced it at a few different places now.

        1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

          I’d wager it wears on everybody, even those who do it all the time, even if it’s the company-wide culture. Negativity is negativity. Very few people can be exposed to it all the time and remain positive.

          1. Myrin*

            I think I’m one of those rare people (and there’s really no magic to it or something I can explain to others so they can become that way, too – it’s just who I am).

            (As an aside, the inverse of that is that whenever I hear people (mostly here on AAM, acutally) talk about “venting”, I cannot identify with that at all. Because it’s always “When you vent, you only make yourself more upset!” and that’s 100% not how I feel – I vent and then the thing is literally gone from my mind.)

            That doesn’t mean that this wouldn’t annoy the heck out of me, though. I don’t feel the emotional labour component you talk very astutely about upthread – I don’t know why, I don’t know how, but becoming-invested-wise, this stuff just bounces off of me – but I do become aggressive after a while. I want to throttle people like that.

            1. Marillenbaum*

              I feel the same way. Venting is largely an info-dump: I say the thing, it’s out of my system, and we can shift gears–it’s like clearing the table.

      2. TL -*

        Eh, I don’t mind nitpicky rants (I think the same way!) and I have a venting tolerance much higher than yours – it doesn’t stress me out if someone needs 5-10 minutes once in a while. When I reach my limit, you’ll know because I’ll wrap up the conversation and leave.

        Maybe like once a month or so would be okay (total, from everyone in the office)? A little more frequently if it’s a super stressful project, followed by a longer stretch of not-venting. But I love overanalyzing things and listening to someone very occasionally vent isn’t a huge emotional stressor for me, personally.

      3. Rat in the Sugar*

        I disagree; I have one coworker who vents with me and when we need to be done she will just say “Okay, enough venting. Time to get back to work.” and then we will. The other coworker in our 3-person office has flat out told us that she just ignores us when we talk unless it’s something relevant to her and that she doesn’t care.

        Maybe my coworker is just a venter too, and I can see how that could be a problem in other environments, but in our current set up everyone affected has explicitly said that they don’t mind.

        1. Rat in the Sugar*

          Also, I do not “slag” on people; I have always made sure that any complaint about someone is something that I would not be embarrassed or feel unkind to repeat directly to their face. I keep my complaints purely factual and would not “slag” someone for telling me to stop complaining.

          1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

            That’s fair, I’ll retract that. That’s been a concern of mine when dealing with people whose venting tended to be a lot more personally critical of people and their personalities, but it shouldn’t have been generalized to you and you situation. I apologies.

            1. Rat in the Sugar*

              Thanks for the apology, I appreciate it. I know a lot of people aren’t careful the way I try to be, but a few incidents when I was a lot younger of the she’s-standing-right-behind-you variety taught me that I need to be careful of people’s feelings even when they aren’t around.

              1. Marillenbaum*

                I live in fear of that, mostly because I’ve had similar slightly embarrassing situations (I accidentally sent a screenshot of a text convo to the person in the conversation, but that was mostly because I was meeting a guy for a second date at his place and wanted a friend to have the address in case I ended up dead in a ditch somewhere. He wasn’t reasonable about it, but I felt awkward).

        2. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

          I’ve said much the same thing as the third coworker when I was worried about being the cool coworker who was chill what whatever and didn’t feel free to say “actually, it bugs the crap out of me.” Just food for thought. She may be being completely straightforward, I have no idea.

          1. Rat in the Sugar*

            I will take into consideration and remember that for the future, but with this particular co-worker she’s been totally blank on enough of the conversations we’ve had right behind her (not always complaining, sometimes silly stories about our pets or other chitchat) that I believe her when she says she just ignores us. I will be extra careful of other co-workers in the future, though, and t to remember this.

    2. Allison*

      Right, being critical of stuff is fine, as long as you a) know your audience and b) pick your battles.

      I love swing dancing to death, but I have my gripes. Bad teaching techniques, bad DJs, bands that go on too long, annoying things other dancers do, poorly organized events, etc., but I generally only complain about those things with people who have similar complaints, or people I’m just very comfortable talking to, and I try to focus on things that could reasonably be improved. Going “waaaah, the venues are too hot” in the summer isn’t productive, because air conditioning only goes so far, but if we ended up in a venue with no air conditioning, I’d probably mention over post-class drinks that I thought the organizer was nuts for picking that venue.

      1. Parenthetically*

        Oh man, I think “know your audience” is so so important. I love a good gripe about, say, how utterly rubbish the food is at Place X, why do people go there, ugh, or this weather is going to be the death of me, what happened to March, great gods. But I vent for 5 or 10 minutes with a person who I already know sympathizes, and then we are done and ready to move on.

        1. Allison*

          Whereas I hate when people whine about the weather to me, in fact I have a whole rant about *that.* I’m much more interested about how people handle the weather than whether they “like” it or not.

      2. FoodieFoodnerd*

        I love the movie Swing Kids! Had never heard of swing dancing and love watching it. (wow, does that take some coordination, strength and fitness!)

        Time to pop in the DVD again — one of the first I bought when finally switching over from VHS. :^D

    3. HR Bee*

      When I need to vent, I usually have two ways of handling it – one, spread it out over multiple people, or two, scream it at the internet. I’ll either complain a little to my husband, a little to my RL friends, a little to my online friends, and a little to my coworkers, or I will go onto my locked Twitter account that has only a handful of trusted people following it and yell out my problems in a long string of tweets. Very therapeutic, and if one of those trusted people feels like engaging me to be sympathetic or give advice, they will.

      Because I’m in HR, there’s a lot of work-related stress that I can’t repeat to anyone who might repeat it to a co-worker, so yelling it out at the internet has occasionally been my only possible release.

    4. Marillenbaum*

      I feel this so hard. I occasionally enjoy nitpicking and kvetching, but it works for me because the people I do that with are people who work the same way–for instance, having a friend from my program over for dinner and spending a good 15 minutes on why I think the professor I work for has basically started his own cult. It was deeply satisfying, and then we moved on to roast chicken and his upcoming surgery.

    5. BF50*

      There is some really fascinating neuroscience on complaining and negative thoughts about how each thought you have makes it easier to have the same negative thought next time.

      I would also agree that sometimes there is real enjoyment from complaining, but that doesn’t mean that it’s good for you, if you know what I mean. Maybe you feel better after a short vent, but you are also more likely to need to vent the next time that happens instead of letting it roll off you.

      Here is a TEDxtalk on it.

  18. Master Bean Counter*

    “Belinda I’ve got enough of my own stress, I just need to know if I can get X from you.”
    Wait that might be a bit harsh
    “Belinda can we focus on X here?”
    Yes this is what I’d go with. I do this to the long talkers as well. When they keep going on about what ever, stress, sports, politics, etc. I just say, “Okay, now how about X?”
    My advice is to just put the BS that she throws your way to the side and focus on what you need. She’ll eventually figure out that you aren’t going to validate her stress and stop asking.

  19. Recruit-o-rama*

    This is probably not helpful to the OP but I LOVE the use of the word “flapping” to describe her stress release sessions because it gives me a very funny visual.

    1. strawberries and raspberries*

      I have a family member who’s on the autism spectrum and when he gets upset or anxious he literally flaps his arms. That’s what I thought was happening.

      1. Robbenmel*

        My 32-year-old son is autistic, and he absolutely flaps his hands and/or arms when he gets stressed. He started this as a baby (hence the nickname that has stuck to this day: “Ben Bird.”)

  20. Allison*

    People love to use their stress as a badge of honor, like a way to show everyone how hard they work, or a topic of conversation, like the weather or who won Best Picture at the Oscars. I’ve seen coworkers in a few jobs always stomping/speed walking around the office, huffing, puffing, grunting, hacking, flailing their arms, stopping by people’s desks and going “I am soooo busy you don’t even know!” or trying to offload their administrative tasks on junior colleagues (me) because they’re just to busy to do it themselves! They probably don’t realize how much they’re stressing people out!

    To me, a lot of these stressed out people look either angry, or very frustrated with someone. I wonder if they’re frustrated with me, because my workload isn’t as heavy or I don’t appear to be as busy or overworked as they do. I worry that even if the stress is coming from somewhere else, they may bite my head off if I get in their way or, I dunno, behave incorrectly around them.

    Some of these people, I wonder, may be biting off too much, or could benefit from some organization and time management techniques (work smarter, not harder) but they seem to like the appearance of working really, really hard.

    1. fposte*

      I don’t even know that it’s pleasure; sometimes it’s just habit, especially when you came from or are in a workplace where that’s a norm. Sometimes also it’s a distress signal from somebody who hasn’t thought about her response enough to realize that she’s not signaling it to anybody who has the power to change it.

  21. rubyrose*

    OP – I hope just writing down the various ways of approaching it helped you relieve some stress about it.

    As to giving you instructions (several times) on how to do a task in the most inefficient manner possible – when I have had my fill of this, I have been known to state something along the lines of “I’ve been doing this type of work for xx years and know how to get it done, thanks for the advice.” If spoken, say it in a kind but firm manner and move onto the next topic quickly. After doing this multiple times they usually get the message.

  22. Suz*

    I really like AAM’s advice here. One thing I would change about your wording – instead of saying you have a more sensible way of doing something, say you have a more efficient way of doing it. Your coworker probably doesn’t realize she’s adding a lot of unnecessary steps to her process.

  23. LQ*

    I have a coworker who has a similar tendency. She is the hardest working person in the office. But NOT the best by any means. She works really REALLY hard and puts a ton of (unnecessary) effort into everything. I’m senior to her (in work, not years) and so I’ve been trying to coach her on how to work less hard, do fewer steps, and basically…work lazier. She’s exhausting to be around. But every time I feel her start to bluster and do things the hardest way I have this mental image. I used to rollerblade and there was a guy where I bladed that was the hardest working rollerblader, the man had 5 motions for every 1 that someone else would take, it was exhausting to watch. He was plenty fast, but it was funny to watch, and impossible to draft off him. So every time I see my coworker start to do all this extra work I just picture this guy and it makes me less stressed about it.

    It does make it easier to deal with to have a mental image like that.

    (At least for my coworker I think part of it is she values hard work above effective work and so she’s sort of always quick to do things the hardest way rather than stopping to think of a more effective/efficient way. Like printing all the emails….that’s 100% something she would do.)

    1. Allypopx*

      Teaching me to work lazier is the kindest thing someone ever did for me. But some people really think hard work is…better? Like Allison said above, it’s a badge of honor. It’s hard to become results focused if you’ve been process focused for a long time, and if you’re process focused the steps being visible and complicated can become really important to you. It’s not efficient though.

      1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

        I also think that some people are so process-oriented that they don’t have any sense of progressing towards the result unless they’re working super hard. They have no global view of the task and process, and so they can’t see anything but the next step, and unless they’re hitting milestones they have no sense of doing work.

      2. LQ*

        I think it really helps if your office promotes work lazier. Which…for the most part mine does. There are some parts that don’t, but certainly our team and our boss does. I know one of the reasons I’ve been promoted is because I’m always looking for the lazy way to work. Which I’ve been trying to show her, and I think she knows she needs to change, but it’s an uphill climb…(though you’d think someone who tries to work hard would be all over that!)

    2. voluptuousfire*

      I think the better analogy here is working smart, not hard.

      Although I remember a quote from Bill Gates, something like ” I choose a lazy person to do a hard job. Because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.”

  24. Master Bean Counter*

    My predecessor at one job was Belinda.
    It took my boss way longer than it should have to figure I was actually doing my job and improving processes. I did everything in a calm manner and as stress free as possible. I wasn’t complaining to everybody how hard the job was.
    The best end result of that situation was that when I did raise an issue, it got attention.

  25. TotesMaGoats*

    I don’t have any concrete advice but a story. I had a coworker like Belinda at another job. She flapped like crazy all the time. Everything was stressful and stressed her out. To be clear, our boss was kind of a dragon lady. But our jobs weren’t crazy stressful. It was a more than manageable workload, especially for someone who’d been there as long as she had. She actually stressed me out a lot as a new person until I realized that she was making a lot of it up.

    As it turns out, our boss had ZERO respect for my Belinda because of all the “it’s so busy”, “so much to do”, “acckkk!” stuff she did. Belinda ended up leaving but she really stood out to senior leadership as someone who couldn’t handle herself. Again, our jobs weren’t super stressful in the grand scheme of things. She made her life more stressful. Belinda might want to consider how her behavior makes her look to superiors and what impact that might have on career progression.

    1. TL -*

      Every time I get very stressed out, my manager type person tells me (kindly and professionally) to chill and focus on getting it done and/or doing it better (with concrete suggestions if needed). She is my favorite.

  26. Just Stop It Now!*

    Ugh – my mom does this too. She is normally a negative person, but seems to save up things to complain about and seems to think I can or should be helping her to fix these very minor annoyances. My office has a “butt in Betty” who loves to get involved in other employee’s projects (without really helping) and then complaining how busy she is and will need to “stay late again tonight”. The behavior does not go unnoticed and Grand Boss purposely does not give her challenging as it won’t be a priority for her.

  27. Not Australian*

    ‘Office dementor’ is great, but I’ve always used the expression ‘energy vampire’ which is also pretty good!

  28. BethRA*

    Someone should talk to her about how she handles the repair reporting and hand-offs, too – it seems like she winds up making more work and hassles for other people, but it also strikes me as a good way to get at her behavior and work-habits in a concrete, business-specific way.

    1. eplawyer*

      This. You can go to the manager about this because it affects other people. The manager should then ideally look at Belinda and say “Belinda, I need you to open only one ticket at time and finish that ticket before you move to the next one, can you do that?” It gives Belinda a process to follow, she’s been told by someone in authority how to do it (not a coworker saying “it’s easier to do it this way) and makes life easier for everyone else.

      With the upcoming project do the same thing. Cut her off if she starts flapping. Tell her flat out, nope, I am going to do X this way, it’s more efficient and go to the manager if she affects the overall completion timeline of the project. This would like “We have two weeks to do Project 10. Belinda wants to do it as steps 1, 2,3,4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 which will take a month. I suggested we do it as 5+5 which will get us there in 2 weeks. Do I have the authority to do 5+ 5?”

    2. Thlayli*

      I’m really surprised that the first comment to mention this is so far down. I totally understand that it’s not OPs job to help Belinda be better at her work, but if I were OP that is where I would focus my solution. It’s hard to tell for sure but it seems like the two are of similar seniority and neither reports to the other, so I don’t see why there would be any reason not to say something like “I have figured out an easier way to do task x, would you like me to show you?”

      If she says no then leave it for that time but that creates a precedent and the next time she brings up how hard it is / how long it takes you can just say “well if you would like me to show you how to do it more easily/quickly then I can show you that technique I told you about”. If she still refuses to let you show her an easier way she’ll look pretty silly continuing to complain about how hard it is.

  29. MoinMoin*

    Sorry, OP, this would drive me crazy. I think people that do this think that talking about how busy they always are will show how important their work is or how critical they are to an organization. But to me, I always just think they come off sort of incompetent .

  30. C in the Hood*

    I’ve known a few people like this. It’s come to a point where if everything is an emergency, then (really) nothing is. My coworker calls it “drowning in a glass of water”.

    After a while, once the flapper starts squawking, I tune it out. I don’t know if the OP can do that, though.

  31. sheworkshardforthemoney*

    I worked with a Belinda. She arrived every day and immediately started working on 5 things at once while complaining about how stressed she was. However, none of the 5 things got done because she was too busy working on the 6th thing and it was left to her co0workers to finish off her work. (We were supposed to be a team and pick up the slack when someone was busy). But, the work she always started was low priority but it had to be finished before a new task could start. It was enraging to see the messes she created and that she didn’t follow through with. All the managers could see was Belinda rushing around with her busy work squawking about her busy-ness and they never checked to see if she was really swamped. It was beyond frustrating and contributed to my departure. They both remind me of the expression, “too busy fighting alligators to drain the swamp.”

    1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      This is one thing that I consider completely critical to my time and stress management. I do one thing at a time. Unless, like right now, I’m working through the email inbox. But I don’t do 5 things at a time. I do ONE thing at a time. I start with the highest priority and I work down. If I need to switch tasks, I briefly note down what I was doing and where I was, then carry on with the other thing.

      Multitasking is bunk. We’re monotaskers, and our concentration is not easily shifted.

      1. Flapping Dementors*

        “Multitasking is bunk. We’re monotaskers, and our concentration is not easily shifted.”

        ^^^ THIS!

        I want to tattoo this on every flapping dementor in every workplace I’ve ever worked in!

        1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

          On the forehead, Memento-style.

          I love the handle. Keep it forever, please, and comment often.

  32. Kit*

    My workplace involves relentless urgent production and neither myself nor my boss tolerate this level of panic. I generally remind my staff that none of our work is emergent and that I only expect them to get done what can reasonably get done in a day, but I have a few staff who need to be told this on a monthly basis. Heaven forbid they take it up with *my* boss, though! Her go-to is a snarky, “Well, what you should probably do is panic. That will definitely help.” :|

  33. RVA Cat*

    Have to say, I was an Office Dementor and stress addict in my life in general – until I went on an antidepressant. My mom is pretty much like Alison’s and I think growing up with it “normalized” the stress-offloading behavior. Reading Captain Awkward also helped me realize the effect it was having on others.

    All of this is outside of the OP’s control, but it may help reframe the OP’s perspective that it may not be entirely in Belinda’s control either – and if it isn’t, her self talk is exponentially worse. Do you have an EAP?

    1. The OP*

      We do have an EAP. I also know she’s in therapy and I think she has anxiety – but so do I…

      1. eplawyer*

        Her anxiety is probably making it worse. Her mind is telling her “everything is a big deal and if you get it wrong the world will end.” So she starts thinking that the tickets can’t be opened one at a time, they must be opened all at once so she doesn’t miss anything importnat. Or the conference, it can’t be a s simple as first come first serve. Someone will want something and I might miss it in an email. But if I don’t do this exactly right I will get in trouble. Better check with the boss every step of the way. Next thing you know her mind as turned to mush from all the rabbit holes she has gone down and she is all stressed out. So she vents to you. Cuasing you anxiety.

        So you need to cut it off. You need to talk to your boss about having a sit down with Belinda about managing things better so she hears from someone in authority that it is O.K. Not everything is a major priority. She won’t lose her job over an mistake. Etc.

  34. Newby*

    If she is adding a lot of extra steps to simple tasks, you might want to talk to your manager about establishing some sort of best practices protocol. For example, only opening the tickets when you are going to deal with it instead of reading all of them first. It sounds like her stress might be coming from not doing the tasks in the correct (or most efficient) way and she can’t figure out why she is so much slower than her coworkers.

    1. The OP*

      We have this in place and it could not be simpler! She just seems determined to make life hard for herself.

  35. Anlyn*

    Oof, I’m a Belinda. For me, I think it stems from some mental issues that are undiagnosed (I’m going to see a doctor this Friday in fact to hopefully get a diagnosis), but I know it’s hard on my coworkers when I’m constantly jumping the gun or flipping out over minor things. And I’m terrible about assigning tickets to myself and not doing them that day, so they pile up and I feel like I should be apologizing for not getting my work done. And if I don’t assign any to myself because I can’t get to them, I feel like I’m not pulling my weight. It’s not really a workload issue for me; I’m simply bad at stress and time management.

    So I feel for you OP, because I can only imagine what it’s like to work with me. I also feel for Belinda if she’s anything like me.

    1. Marillenbaum*

      For what it’s worth, it’s really awesome that you have recognized that this isn’t a situation that works, and that you’re proactively working to change it. Also, one thing I found helpful (so of course, YMMV and feel free to ignore) was the Tumblr Unf*** Your Habitat, which is focused on cleaning but has tips and tricks that are helpful for people who have various brain weasels that can make cleaning or task-work a challenge.

  36. notyourtherapist*

    this happens to me all the time! i am def a complainer but ive been working on my attitude and the way i approach things. but my classmates, my cowokers, my mom!!! feel like they dump all their stress on me. it gets really exhausting and it honestly gives me anxiety. ive been just simply ignoring them and giving them short responses. no more therapy long responses!!! ive also used the do not disturb option on my phone to not get their messages throughout the day. it really helps!!!

  37. Rebecca*

    Wow, this is so timely for me! I was thinking about how to word a question in open thread this Friday about this very subject! I share an office with two of these, one worse than the other, and no matter what I suggest, I get “I’m too busy to do X!” or “another effing email from Jane, she’s driving me nuts” or “I don’t know how I’m supposed to keep up with this”. And on and on and on. I have tried to make helpful suggestions, always approaching it like “oh, that happens to me too, and I handle it this way, and it’s a lot quicker and easier”, that type of thing, not “you should do it this way”. There are lots of system related tools they could be using, but neither of them wants to learn or do anything differently. I guess it’s easier to swear at their computers and complain, but it’s getting on my nerves. I’m done mentioning ways to help. I’m just wasting my breath at this point.

    I’m ready to pull out my earbuds and listen to podcasts rather than listen to the constant whining and moaning all day long. I’m hoping to come back later this evening to read comments above in hopes there’s something else I can do rather than go to my manager and request a move the next time offices are shuffled around.

  38. PB*

    OP, I feel for you. I used to work with a Belinda. Some things that helped:

    If there’s a particular time or activity that you know will make her stressed, just stop engaging. For example, we had to work mandatory shifts on our front desk. I used to ask my Belinda – let’s call her Susan – how it went when she finished. I quickly learned that, no matter what, it was bad. If it was busy, she was stressed. If it wasn’t busy, she was bored. So, I stopped asking. She’d come back to the office, sighing heavily and throwing things around her desk (yes, it’s as mature as it sounds), and I just didn’t engage.

    Susan also had some of the same procedural issues, wanting to do things in 20 steps that could be done in 2. Worse, she’d go in behind me and check to make sure that I did the 20 steps. They weren’t even just a waste of time. They would have resulted in the work being done wrong. First I explained this to her, and she agreed with me. A week later, it came back. At this point, I had to involve our manager. Susan was not supposed to be checking my work at all, so this was a huge issue, and stressing me out to the point that I didn’t want to go to work.

    Finally, I had to learn to just disengage and recognize her crazy for what it was. This wasn’t always easy, but it got better over time.

    Good luck. I know this isn’t easy.

  39. medium sized chicken*

    Does anyone have any tips on how to slow their roll into Flaptown? I have a high stress job and I manage “okay”, but I’m concerned that when things really heat up (Director forgot that he needed this, like, yesterday; the phone’s ringing; no one set up the new intern’s log in and of course I had a dentist appointment scheduled so I really needed to leave on time for once) that I become a total flapper and MAKE MORE MISTAKES than I would if I was calm. I can even recognize physically when I’m getting into flapper territory (my heart beats different, my sweat changes, my thought process changes) but I don’t know what to SAY or DO to stop myself from going full-on Flap … and thus making even more mistakes, which I then have to correct, which I then flap about, and suddenly one hour of crunch is still affecting me 7 hours later. Tips?

    1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      Honestly? I stop. I go, have a cuppa tea, take a walk around the building, listen to some music, and come back in ten minutes. Obviously, that doesn’t work when you need to leave for a dentist appointment, but I generally find that ten minutes is not enough to impact anything task-related, but it’s enough time for me to pull over into Chillville.

      I wonder what Guy Fieri would say? He seems to spend all his time in Flavortown. That seems like a fun place to be, even if Hawaiian shirts with flames on them and spiky bleached hair isn’t really my style.

      1. Adlib*

        I have a feeling that Chillville is a short drive from Flavortown. Agreed, would love to visit!

    2. ZTwo*

      This is something I’m working on (for different reasons, but the same idea) and what I’m trying to do is give myself the space to plan and think about stuff. There are definitely urgent things on that list, like the phone, but most things can wait a few minutes while you get your bearings. I’m trying to use sentences like “can you give me [reasonable yet short time frame] to think about/strategize that and then I’ll get back to you?” As long as you do the follow up it’s actually a time saving measure.

      I’m also a manager and I’ve been trying to remember that I can (and should! for many reasons!) delegate to my direct reports. I don’t know if that’s an option for you, but it’s one I think too many people (self included) forget that in the moment. Does it have to be you answering the phone or finding the interns log in or can those reasonably be given to someone else (even if that means they take a bit longer than if you did them)? If not today, can you document out those issues and their solutions so that you could reasonably hand it off to someone else in the future? Documenting processes definitely takes time upfront, but I find doing it 1) helps me in the “I need time to strategize” step and 2) helps me hand it off to someone else if I can’t.

    3. HR Bee*

      I don’t have much in the way of specific tips, but if your job offers counseling through an EAP, please consider giving them a call! A trained therapist would be able to talk to you about your specific reactions and processes and give you customized advice, and EAPs are well-versed in counseling for controlling work-related stress. Most of them are free, too.

      (I’m assuming you’re in the US; I admit I have no clue if EAPs are a thing or work the same way in other countries.)

    4. justsomeone*

      I stop for a few minutes take a deep breath and write out a priorities list. Sometimes that means I’m pushing things off for the next day, but it means that tomorrow when I get it, I can sit down right away and know that I need to do X first thing, and it saves me time that day too.

      1. LadyKelvin*

        +1 This would be my advice too. When I’m super stressed out I just pause and think through all the things I need to do and write them down. By writing them down your brain knows it no longer needs to try to remember them and it will calm down too so you can focus on the first thing on your to do list.

      2. It's Business Time*

        Yes, I rock a list like no one else when I start to get really busy… By writing it all down, reviewing and prioritizing, I always start to feel more in control and then I start doing everything I need to get done, in the order it needs to (even breaking down larger tasks into smaller ones, so that I can work on just the important part, then go back to the rest when I can) . When somethings have been done, and new things are added, I take the few minutes to rewrite the list, and continue on. It really helps to give me focus and a sense of what I actually need to do and what is just filler stuff.

    5. Marillenbaum*

      One thing I learned from the podcast “Happier with Gretchen Rubin” is the idea of “Go slow to go fast”–sometimes, the best thing you can do is actively resist the urge to go fast and actively slow down. It can be hard ot practice instituting a stop in the script, but it makes a big difference.

      Another thing I learned from doing stage management in college was “Never go above an 8”: the idea here is that, on a scale of 1 (slooooow) to 10 (running), you never go above an 8: brisk and purposeful walk. As a stage manager, being responsible for so many multiple threads and panicky designers and panicky actors can make you want to flap, and the best thing you can do is actively choose to portray efficient, competent calm. It rubs off on the rest of the cast and crew, and makes you look more professional.

  40. INTP*

    No advice here, but commiseration. I worked with a Belinda who had the added charming trait of trying to trick me into taking on work she felt overwhelmed by. Because our bosses were higher level, she was expected to bring me into projects herself without our respective bosses sitting with us to detail who did what, but I found out she was also bringing me into “projects” that I was never intended to work on. I already have an issue with absorbing people’s stress REALLY easily and finding it difficult to be in the room with someone who is frazzled or in a hurry, so it was a crash course in being able to listen to her freak out about how many nights she wasn’t going to sleep that week because of some assignment and just respond with “That sucks but it’s not my problem” (in nicer words).

    The assignments she stayed up all night working on for days were things I probably could have done in one workday, like “Get me a name from these 50 colleges that we can contact to pitch our software to” (idk what she was doing, but she could only get through about 10 names a day). But I found that it wasn’t really worth it to try to help her, because new information had to get past her wall of anxiety and perceived victimhood (HOW could [boss] expect a person to figure this out!?) first, so attempting to show her one little time-saving trick would become a long and stressful experience for me. All I could really do was improve how I reacted to her, like minimize the amount of energy I absorbed from her freakouts and learn to not feel uncomfortable when telling her I wouldn’t help with [super basic assignment] even if it meant she didn’t get to sleep that week.

    1. Allison*

      I feel that, I definitely absorb people’s stress. It was a problem growing up because my whole family goes to Stressville when we’re packing for a trip, and when they get frazzled and start running around all frustrated, I get anxious because I’m never exactly sure how I’m supposed to respond to it.

  41. Weekday Warrior*

    Just on the ‘complaining mom’ aside. I had a rule that my extremely negative mom had to tell me one positive thing for every 2-3 negative things. She was a bit miffed at first but she tried and we started to laugh about how hard she found it. I have this rule for my sister too when she gets on a venting jag. :) It also helps not to fall into being “solution person” when they vent. Just acknowledge their feelings and don’t engage. This really changes the dynamic.

    On the work front, acknowledge (within reason) but don’t engage can be helpful and otherwise, everything Alison said.

    1. TL -*

      I have a similar rule for myself! I can vent but then I have to wrap it up by coming to a positive conclusion. It can be as simple as “This situation sucks but everyone is being really supportive,” or whatever, but I have to find some positive spin on at least one part of it and I have to end on that.

      Otherwise, I get really grumpy and negative and it’s not good.

    2. Catherine from Canada*

      My mom complains about everything too.
      Well she did, until I turned into a broken record, “Wow that sounds really difficult. But you are a smart woman and I’m sure you’ll think of a way to handle it.”
      Now she only complains sometimes, about things that she genuinely can’t do anything about. Like arthritic knees.

  42. C Average*

    Let me lead by saying I am not internet-diagnosing anyone. However, I’m on the autism spectrum myself (nonverbal learning disability) and I recognized in your description a lot of behaviors I’ve exhibited in past workplaces. I’d like to shed a little light on why I acted like this and what I’ve done to try to stop acting like this.

    The why: because I have impaired executive function. It affects my ability to prioritize and to structure tasks logically if I don’t have some kind of template to follow. When I’m facing a stack of tasks that specifically tap into these weaknesses, I get overwhelmed and I melt down in ways that don’t even make sense to me. And the only way I can even START to make sense of them is to talk them through, including acknowledging the feeling of being overwhelmed. And the stuff that overwhelms me isn’t always the same stuff that would overwhelm someone neurotypical.

    I can’t fix my brain. (I know there are medications for things like anxiety disorders, but my situation is more akin to a head injury: there’s no fix for it, just self-awareness and behavior modification.)

    What I have done is this:

    –read a lot about my condition
    –learn what my meltdown patterns look like so I can catch myself early and pause and gather myself up
    –learn what irritates other people and find ways to process with a therapist and through self-care rather than aloud to other people (AAM and other advice columns are invaluable for me, because they get down to the micro level of human interactions in ways that even the best books don’t)
    –find ways to remove unnecessary stress from my life (I left a stressful job that didn’t play to my strengths and I would be very reluctant to ever take a job like that again; I’ve specifically sought out, and will continue to seek out, work that’s relatively repetitive in nature and has pretty clear measures of success, because ambiguity is a big trigger for me)
    –not emulate people with similar work styles who have somehow found success (for a long time, I didn’t recognize the extent of my issues because I had a boss who appeared to be well-liked despite a tendency to flap and moan and catastrophize and dement; only with some distance did I realize that she’d achieved success DESPITE these things, not because of them)
    –learn to ask for help in constructive ways
    –get a great therapist who can kindly but firmly help me learn to cope with my vulnerabilities and limitations in a way that doesn’t make me too much of a pain in the ass to everyone I encounter

    I have no idea what’s going on with Belinda, but it’s probably way less fun to BE her than to work with her. If you do ask her to change her behavior, please make your criticisms as concrete and actionable as possible. I suspect that only effective therapy could begin to get at why she’s like this and what she might be able to do to change.

    I wish you both well. It sucks to be her, and it definitely sucks to be you stuck working with her. If you do manage to deliver criticism in a way that gets through to her and prompts correction, she may not love you for it in the moment, but professionally and personally speaking, you will have done her a mitzvah.

    1. C Average*

      Oh, and one last thing: the worst for me was being assigned work that was genuinely beyond my capabilities, stuff that hadn’t been part of the original job description but shape-shifted its way into my role. I really struggled to identify and articulate the problem, because the recommended remedy (“just try harder”) led to more failure.

      Belinda may be telling you, nonverbally, “I can’t do this job.” Some kind of structured training and improvement plan from her manager might help her feel more in control and also help surface and, if possible, correct areas of inability.

    2. Serin*

      This is a great comment, and also I have to draw attention to the use of “dement” as a verb, which should be adopted into daily work language immediately.

  43. LaterKate*

    I work with one of these people. Every single day, she acts like the sky is falling. She doesn’t want help, and if you offer to help she declines. Then she spends the next 20 minutes telling you how busy she is and how things are falling apart. The result is that when there is actually a problem, no one really believes her, since her default setting is “hair on fire in the middle of a desert”.

    1. Rebecca*

      Yep, that’s what I encounter. I can literally be doing nothing but fielding emails, and can make time to help (on the same type of work I do, and can do well) but no help will be accepted and the whining continues. And yes, these people spend more time whining about the work, and if they’d just sit down and do it, or accept help, it wouldn’t be so bad! Ugh! So frustrating!!

  44. Mrs. Fenris*

    The nature of my work is a lot like that of the OP and Belinda, so I recognize Belinda very well. I’ve developed a pretty good shield against other people’s stress, just from repeated exposure. To the point that I stay dead calm almost no matter how chaotic and busy it gets. So that people don’t always realize that I’m working as hard, often much harder, than the stressy people. Sometimes I wonder if I should start faking a few freak-outs. :-(

    1. The OP*

      Might be worth noting I changed the details of what we do to make it unrecognisable. They’re not really repairs!

  45. ellis55*

    My supervisor is a Belinda! Doubtless she’s busy, but her secondhand stress is completely out of control. Since she’s my supervisor, I need to be delicate about it. The best way I’ve found to deal is a deep breath, a genuine smile, and a sympathetic, “Wow, that sounds hard. I don’t want to tie you up – you sound swamped – so I’ll take it from here. I think I have everything I need. Thanks!” or “Hmmm, I think I have a process that will work for this, so let me give you some much-needed time back. I’ll come back to you if I have questions!”

    By making it about *believing* how busy they are and wanting, charitably, to let them get back to the Very Important Things they are doing, you side-step a lot of their need for Busy Theatre. It’s wow, okay, I certainly believe you so I’ll let you get to it, thanks!

    Here’s a secret: her inefficiency and her desire to appear visibly busy and stressed all the time are related. People who aren’t performing at the level of their coworkers usually have some sense that their output is low, so she’s probably feeling like she needs to show everyone she isn’t lazy. You’re just collateral. As much as possible, give her the validation that you know she’s working hard, and she’ll have less to prove while you get some much-needed silence and breathing room.

    1. Catherine from Canada*

      Can I just say I love Busy Theatre as much as Office Dementor?
      I can picture it: a darkened stage with frantic, flapping, squawking people on wires swooping around and banging into each other.

  46. Wduos*

    I think a lot of the complaining sounds like a defensive strategy to me. She is not as productive as the rest of the team, so she goes out of her way to loudly complain about how much stress and work she deals with so it doesn’t appear as though she’s slacking off.

    A guy at my work does this a lot, claims to be in at 6AM, weekends, always has a lot of fires to put out, but I’ve had to collaborate with him a lot recently, and he just works slowly and is very hard to get ahold of. I’ve actually heard my manager recently discussing and checking with other people who were working overtime whether he really was working when he claimed to be. I think they are catching on to his complainabrags.

  47. knitcrazybooknut*

    Oh Letter Writer. I hear you. I feel your pain. I know this world far too well.

    My experience with one of these individuals was that she had nearly been laid off, and had learned from that experience to constantly express how busy she was, and how much work still needed to be done, and by doing so, justify her position ad nauseum. This continued for years after the possible layoff, after her position had changed so much that it was clear she was vital to the team.

    I also dealt with someone who was brusque to a default because (IMO) she thought that the meaner and more abrupt she acted, the more people would avoid talking to her. Unfortunately, that’s not helpful when you’re supposed to be serving customers as part of your job. She had learned from bosses who modeled that same behavior.

    There are various reasons people do these things. I think Alison’s advice is spot on. I also think that she is using you as a wailing wall, a sounding board, a venting junkyard, and you can put up walls between yourself and her emotions. They are not your responsibility, and acting a little more removed and distant from her will serve you well. My technique is to picture myself in a clear plastic pneumatic tube where her words are all squiggly and her emotions cannot reach me. I am fine and centered in my own little world. But that’s just one option. Good luck!

  48. Another Lawyer*

    I have a coworker, whom I work quite closely with – same level, occasionally collaborate on projects, etc. and she has a similar demeanor. I finally adopted a professional icy-ness with her and keep my headphones in at all times. Even when I can hear her stressing I pretend I can’t until she directly addresses me re: her stress and then I just say “Sorry, what was that? I’m in the middle of something”

    It drives me bonkers still, though, so all my sympathy OP.

  49. AD*

    I just had a version of this conversation with my mom, who genuinely derives pleasure from discussing all the minor aggravations of her week. In detail. Lots of detail. I’m pretty sure it relaxes her to do this, but it was leaving me tense every time we talked. I’ve tried to impose a ban on it, but only one of us remembers the ban.

    This sooooooo struck a chord with me, Alison. And the “only one of us remembers the ban” I can relate to as well, big time.

  50. M*

    This is a huge pet peeve of mine. I had an annoying coworker who would stand and around and talk, non-stop, on 3-4 hour rants. This is not an exaggeration. She would begin with interesting topics such as, “…and then my chicken made a weird noise,” and just never stop. This was made even more amusing when she claimed to be super busy and try to push her extremely light work load off on other people. She had multiple executives complain about her not doing her job over the years, but our boss always defended her. I complained as well as several other people, but my boss would collect the complaints and shelve them, similar to how HR handled Dwight on The Office. No one could stand her. I’ll never forget her 50th birthday, she arrived at work looking happy and excited. There was an email circulating that it was her birthday (without her on copy), and I watched as not one person in our office said happy birthday to her all day. Kind of mean but no one could stand her annoying behavior. I was eventually told it was considered a personality tic and there was nothing they could do.

    1. winter*

      Well if you (meaning her boss) don’t try to do anything about it, it will certainly seem like part of her personality *eyeroll*

    2. Candi*

      That reminds me of the Animaniacs episode “Chairman of the Bored”.

      I’m also very surprised your boss kept his job after all that.

  51. Dankar*

    I just want to throw out that this is probably my favorite letter I’ve read on AAM. It’s a problem I think everyone has encountered in some way, shape or form and I laughed my way through OP’s list of four comments he/she might make.

    If it would lighten your day a bit, OP, I suggest coming up with a Patronus and keeping a small reminder of it on your desk. That way, when the Office Dementor, comes your way, you can rest easy knowing you’re protected. (Making an inside joke of it would be the only way I could cope with just having to set boundaries and deal until her manager decides to step in and address her negativity.)

    1. The OP*

      I totally love this idea, thank you! Even just thinking about this idea is going to make me relax when she’s around. Awesome suggestion.

      1. Dankar*

        Best of luck! And thanks for writing such a hilarious letter–I know it’s hard to wring the humor out of an annoying situation. :)

        1. The OP*

          Oh, thank you. I was worried I would sound like I was just getting at Belinda by writing it.

      2. Parenthetically*

        This is delightful.

        “Did you just say ‘expecto patronum’ under your breath? AT Belinda??”


    2. LillyBea*

      Love this idea. I did my patronus on Pottermore a while ago and I think I was an otter. Will be printing a picture and strategically placing this on my desk tomorrow

  52. Cruciatus*

    I have something related to this. My one coworker in a 4 staff member office who is really stressing out lately. The stress is really making him seem dim-witted. I know that’s an unkind thing to say, but when it first started happening I didn’t realize it may be stress-related and was surprised at his lack of comprehension about things I would talk about. He has trouble comprehending things I say, or he takes everything defensively even when it’s not anything directed at him, just a question or basic conversation. I’ve been debating whether to tell my supervisor because he won’t say anything to her about feeling like he has too much on his plate. He never says no, and faculty do take advantage of this, and I think he thinks nothing can ever change. He’s also super stressed about not having money (we aren’t paid a lot) and is even considering a part-time job (which feels like a horrible idea at the moment but…). And we don’t get raises unless job duties are reevaluated (we do get a dinky 2% yearly merit increase). He has a one-on-one with our supervisor tomorrow so she could bring it up with him then. I work 5 feet away from him so I hear/see a lot of it. It’s not affecting my work really but with him I have noticed I interact less because I don’t enjoy it as much lately. I don’t like to “tattle” but is it worth just telling my supervisor “Hey, so-and-so has seemed on edge lately. I just wanted to mention it”?

    1. bryeny*

      You know, I think it would be worth saying that to your supervisor. Sounds like your coworker needs help and if he’s not asking on his own, you might be his only hope.

  53. Purple Jello*

    Belinda causes herself more stress without even knowing it. Alison is correct, you need to set boundaries. By having scripts in your head, you’ll be ready to respond in the moment. She also does not think in the same manner as you do: she’s methodical, and probably very good at her method, but cannot easily jump to new ways of thinking which may be much more efficient.

    I’m working with a Belinda. My Belinda has to come to me with new-to-her problems. What I end up doing is listen, re-state the problem – which is not always what she thinks it is – ask her what she’s tried or thinks will work, and offer my suggestions or solutions. We’ve also created some tools for her to use: flow charts, templates, and other references. Since I’m senior to her, it probably is easier than working with your Belinda.

    The trick for me is teaching her to think in a more efficient manner. Other than sucking away a bit of my time, she does not directly impact my job. It can be a slow process, but as I guide her into looking at her problems and tasks in a new way, it will hopefully make her a better employee.

  54. Margaret*

    This would probably be harder with someone senior to you, than with someone junior (whether they’re a direct report or not), but can you attempt to guide Belinda to more efficient methods by giving her “tips” based on what you “learned” while doing something?

    For example, if you had any reason to follow up with her about the seminar placement project, could you say “oh, by the way, I realized as I was starting that, that it wasn’t really necessary to print each email – instead I just made a spreadsheet summarizing the information, and then I was able to easily sort and prioritize it, and then I just sent that to Head of Seminars to approve. Just wanted to share in case you have a similar project in the future!”

    Shares the information in a way that sounds respectful and like you’re just trying to be helpful or share your own experience, rather than pointing out how dumb her approach was.

  55. The OP*

    Thanks so much for all your comments everyone – lots to think about. Interestingly since I sent in this letter a couple of things have happened: firstly we had a wrap-up meeting for a project and Belinda said something about how she’s been struggling a bit generally and has missed some deadlines. Her manager was there and she alluded to them having talked about it already. She mentioned some of the reasons but it took a little self-control not to point out how much time she wastes stressing…

    Also she made a comment the other day about how I’m really good/quick at things and I felt a bit awkward as I don’t think I am? She does seem to just make things hard for herself. But her manager evidently knows so that’s something.

    Going to take my time to read through all the comments, thanks again everyone.

    1. MommyMD*

      Good luck. I’ve have this happen multiple times over my career and just responded with a very low key “truthfully, you’re stressing me out” and it always worked for me. I did not elaborate or get long-winded.

    2. ellis55*

      Same! I’m a fast worker so I can keep a decent output without really breaking a sweat. While it can be annoying to see folks generally suffer through stuff that seems manageable, I try to just be thankful that I’m analytical enough to not have those issues.

      Part of my annoyance is usually a tiny dash of imposter syndrome – that is, why does this seem so hard for everyone else? Am I missing something huge? But you seem fairly self-actualized. I bet this clears up quickly with some tweaks.

    3. Parenthetically*

      “she made a comment the other day about how I’m really good/quick at things”

      OH BOY! See, this is a beacon of hope, IMO. I’ve had a somewhat similar situation with a coworker and it was a good opportunity to say, “Ah, no, I’m not a very organized person naturally, I’ve just developed a really simple system over the years thanks to a few great resources.” It turned into a conversation where I was actually able to show her my system and point her to a couple of good resources, without it seeming like I was saying, “Merciful heavens, your time management is stressing ME out, can you get a grip please?” or “Learn at my feet, incompetent peon!”

  56. MommyMD*

    Our parents can sometimes drive us crazy but they are still our parents and they do love us. Unless someone has had an abusive childhood, I’d say don’t denigrate them in public. Private reminders. I would never want to embarrass them or hurt their feelings. But I do understand the feelings there.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Oh, my mom is the most open person in the world (often to my chagrin, which she knows). I plan to send her a link to this post and she’ll be delighted.

  57. Barbie*

    My supervisor is like this in some ways.

    She loves telling people how busy she is when it suits her. For example, when someone has a question for her and/or needs her assistance on something in which she is the go-to person, she’ll say that she’s “too busy.” When Big Boss comes into the office, she’ll sit up straighter at her desk, run around like she’s on a mission, and tell him how “she’s stretched thin,” but “loves wearing so many hats in the office” (she doesn’t really).

    On another note, she’s web surfing or texting 75% of the time I go into her office. She also spends 30+ minutes nearly every day talking to an employee of her choice about her personal life. I have nothing against casual chit-chat with coworkers throughout the day – but, it’s the fact that my supervisor will chat with employees for extended periods of time, and claim she’s too busy 5 minutes later when she is given work to do.

    I think there are many people like this; expressing verbally how busy they are in hopes that other people will believe it, even when actions support otherwise.

  58. Scarlott*

    I think some people thrive on being negative, and acting miserable. I truly think they don’t feel this way deep down, but it’s tough on everyone around. I noticed when I changed desks, and then jobs away from a very negatively driven department, my happiness sky-rocketed.

  59. AthenaC*

    Couple of quick things jump out at me –

    – I think I disagree with the advice to tell Belinda that her stress has an impact on others. That’s going to come across as callously self-centered.
    – I do very much agree with the advice to tell Belinda that not talking about or not focusing on her stress may make her feel less stressed. That comes across as helpful to her and will hopefully pay dividends for the rest of you.
    – Belinda sounds like an overthinker and someone who has a hard time working in a state of incompletion and partially-finished tasks. So I do want to challenge your thoughts that there’s “obviously” more efficient ways to do her tasks. Sure – they are obvious to you but perhaps not obvious to her. Since you’re not her manager and don’t have standing to say, “I would like you to experiment with trying to work through your tasks this way,” you could instead thank her for the compliment she gave you re: how fast and efficient you are, and tell her, “Here is how I approach / work through things to be so efficient. I found it really helped with my stress level AND my productivity to do it this way – you should try it! It might feel weird at first, but see how much better it works fro you!”

    1. The OP*

      Is it callously self-centred to tell someone they’re having an impact on others, though? Really?

      1. AthenaC*

        I said that it’s going to come across as callously self-centered – what Belinda is likely going to hear is, “Your feelings don’t matter; only mine. So you need to sanitize your emotions for me.”

    2. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      “I think I disagree with the advice to tell Belinda that her stress has an impact on others. That’s going to come across as callously self-centered.”

      What? No. Hell no. It’s not self-centered to let someone know their habits affect you.

    3. drashizu*

      To clarify a distinction about Alison’s advice that I think is important – she didn’t tell OP to say to Belinda “Your stress has an impact on me.” I think it would be callously self-centered to tell someone they’re not allowed to feel certain emotions because of their impact on other people, but that’s not what’s happening here.

      The advice is focused on Belinda’s behavior, such as the constantly-talking-about-how-stressed-she-is-in-a-dramatic-tone-of-voice thing, which is what actually does have an impact on OP, and it is not self-centered to try to address it with Belinda to see if it’s possible for Belinda to manage her stress in a way that doesn’t impact the stress levels of those around her. (Belinda’s management of her stress is currently an exercise in dumping that stress on everyone around her, which is more than a little self-centered, although that’s neither here nor there for OP’s first steps in trying to address the problem.)

      And it’s only callous if OP approaches the situation in a nasty or unproductive way, as opposed to honest, direct, and compassionate.

      1. AthenaC*

        What I’m struggling to understand is how that could possibly be phrased in a way that would clearly separate the behavior from the emotional state causing the behavior. I don’t think there’s a way to reliably do that, which is why I would caution against even trying to put words around this specific thing.

        That’s why I would focus on things that address the underlying issue, such as my second and third point above.

  60. AnitaJ*

    I FEEL YOU SO HARD ON THIS ONE. I have worked with a number of Belindas, or Belinda-lites. It’s one of my most important issues when it comes to a workplace.

    I think in our current culture where ‘busy’ is glorified, it’s very hard not to say “I’m busy” when someone asks how things are, for a few reasons. 1–it makes you look/feel important. 2–it makes you look/feel needed. 3–other people are saying it and you want to fit in, even if you’re not really that busy. 4–other people are saying it and you’re afraid that if you don’t say it, you’ll look like a slacker. 5–you’re one of those people that gets into a tizzy and/or thrives on drama. 6–you actually are overwhelmed, and you’re not asking for help. 7–other miscellaneous reasons!

    At my last job, I sat in a group of four people who complained all. Day. Long. Every. Single. Day. I was miserable. It affected me so much that I eventually left. I’m one of those people who soaks up negativity like a sponge and lets it ruin my day, my week, my life. (Yes I’m in therapy) At my job prior to that, my boss was literally a Tasmanian Devil of whining–she never stopped talking, ever, even when others talked, and she huffed and puffed around the office as if everything happening in life was a personal affront to her.

    I’ve made a conscious effort over the last few years to be almost aggressively positive instead of negative, and it’s really helped my attitude. “Hey, how are things?” “Things are great, thanks! (insert one positive thing even if it’s about the weather)” It often throws people off of their game when they’re expecting you to moan and complain about life, but it’s nice to cheerfully remind them that life can be a-ok sometimes.

    I’m so lucky now to be in an organization that emphasizes positivity, work-life balance, and a happy work environment. I actively try every day to contribute to that, and I do think it makes a difference in not only how the company is run, but how happy the employees are.

    When I encounter a Belinda, I will gently challenge it. For example: someone said ‘I can’t believe that person would email all of us instead of just getting us on a conference call! That’s insane! She shouldn’t do that!’ I responded ‘Well, I think there could be lots of reasons why she would email instead of call. Perhaps she has had issues in the past with tracking information, so she needs a paper trail for either her or her boss. Perhaps she gets flustered on the phone with large groups and is working on that but this is the fastest way to accomplish this task in the meantime.’ …..I did get a HUFF and an eye roll, but you know what? That’s rude. That person was being rude. And I don’t find that acceptable. (I ignored the huff and the convo ended)

    Blah blah blah, thank you for letting ME vent. :)

    1. Channel Z*

      Aggressively Positive. That’s makes me smile, I am thinking of UniKitty, or Ren and Stimpy the Happy Helmet episode. Sing with me, Happy Happy Joy Joy…

  61. Emi.*

    I knew a lot of Belinda-ish people in college, and was one myself. There was definitely a cultural aspect to it–not our cultural backgrounds, but the weird culture that lots of high-achieving youngsters create for ourselves in a high-pressure environment: everyone had to be busy and stressed and on the verge of a mental breakdown all the time, but also be weirdly blase about it. We answered “How are you?” with “Lol, I’m dying,” to which the response was “Lol, same.”

    I think it was partly a sort of pre-emptive self-handicapping, so we had an excuse if we messed up. But it was also a way to prove we were Working Hard! and Making The Most Of Our Precious College Years! Also, it felt oddly embarrassing to be the only one with good time-management skills and a sense of calm, like being the only one with three lake houses and a pony.

    Could there be something like that going on, either in your workplace that you’re not part of (because it wasn’t universal), or that she carried over from a previous situation?

  62. Lemon*

    Oh man, I once had a coworker exactly like this. Reading the letter was basically like reading a description of them (using third-person plural for anonymity’s sake) – including all of the things you wish you could say. I will say, though, my coworker was not excelling at the job, and I think that a lot of the stress was coming from a place of feeling unsuccessful in the role. And I don’t mean that they were just taking a lot of time to do stuff, they were also just fundamentally not understanding some of the basic aspects of the job and the organizational culture. It was bad and frustrating for all involved, and I unfortunately never figured out a way to address it.

  63. Noah*

    I’d say there are three likely explanations to the Great Email Printing Scandal of 2017 (2016?):

    1. Belinda isn’t very competent and she never thought of doing this differently. In that case, OP could choose to be a mensch and suggest Belinda use her own approach. Or not, but that option is out there. The challenge, though, is for OP to figure out if this is actually the situation, because of no. 2.

    2. Belinda isn’t very competent and her manager requires her to do it this way because she has found that this results in the best outcome in light of Belinda’s weaknesses. Belinda may even believe that this is company policy, as opposed to a “Belinda policy.” In that case, OP should probably keep her mouth shut, but do it her own way when she takes on a Belinda task.

    3. A combination of nos. 1 and 2, where Belinda knows her approach, in theory, isn’t the most efficient approach, but she sucks so bad at using Excel, this is the best approach for her. I’ve definitely worked with people like this. In this case, OP should encourage Belinda to get Excel training.

  64. bopper*

    For complaining mom’s:

    If you think your mom (or other person in your life) is beyond annoying and into toxic/disordered or even if you just want tools to use, check out Out of the FOG (where FOG = Fear, Obligation, Guilt) at

  65. (another) b*

    Guys this is my real name and it is so bizarre to see it being written here (as it’s fairly uncommon). I hope I’m not the next Wakeen!

  66. Sourdoughbread*

    I had a co-worker like that once. I found that trying to be kind and reason with him didn’t work because he was so deeply mired in being hyper-stressed. It got to the point where, once he got going on a particular greivance I would put my head in my hand and and just say “oh my god Steve you are killing me right now”. He didn’t like it but it did make him realize how he was acting and it did taper off some with time.

  67. Fabulous*

    I have one of these people that sit kitty corner to me in a sea of cubicles. I can’t see her, but I can constantly hear the stress in her tone of voice or ruffling papers around. She prints literally EVERYTHING except she doesn’t know how to format something in Excel to print on one page (even though she’s been taught multiple times…per day). She can never keep track of anything. I’ve gotten so well at tuning out her mess. But I got good news today at least – she’s moving to another desk!! Light at the end of the tunnel!!

  68. Channel Z*

    “Please stop telling me about how busy you are or how you’ve got lots of emails you haven’t managed to read or anything at all about your workload or how you feel about it. Please just say you can’t help as you need to focus on Y at the moment and stop there. If you’re too busy, talk to your manager and not me please.” This is a shortened version of your script number 3. Linda (Belinda’s twin) worked with me, and I wish I had said something like this earlier. I tried 1 and 2, but she tried to frame it like it was my problem for getting upset, and also how she had been doing all my work on top of her own (not an ounce of truth.) This cuts the drama short, the essential message is No sympathy from me, leave me alone and do your job, without going down the Office Dementor path. Good luck!

  69. Pickles*

    I really want “office dementor” to reach the level of teapots and Wakeen.

    (My office’s Belinda is named Mike. Who is now known as Office Dementor.)

  70. Expecto Patr-oh no you didn't!*

    Yes, but what do you do when the Office Dementor comes for your soul? Mine screams at me when she’s stressed, throws me under the bus constantly, badmouths me to anyone who will listen, and has been actively trying to get me fired. She also overcomplicates everything and can’t function efficiently. We’re an office of 5 people, so she has a huge impact on me every day. I’ve gone to my managers about it repeatedly over the course of a year, but nothing has been done. :/

  71. No more stressing*

    I am a Belinda in a way. Although I have not been overly busy due to doing processes in a long dragged out way unless my manager requires it. In my case the work load DID increase and several others have been complaining amongst each other about how stressed they are with unobtainable goals. Only in my case, I DID bring it up to my manager because my coworkers are all too scared to even ask her a question and action was required. In my several years there, I never once complained before this. The first time I brought it up she got an attitude and asked “well what do you want ME to do about it?”. I was thinking “Hmmm…be a manager?” I didn’t reply to that though. I then took 5 minutes and wrote out a list later that day to show what I meant and attempted to discuss it with her. She told me in the time I wrote the list, I could have accomplished one of those 50 items. She told me it’s my job and just do it, nobody else is complaining. I guess ignorance is bliss.

    She is on FB almost every time I go in her office and has had me lead my team for quite a while. I have usually been her backup while she goes on vacation. I divide work among my peers, listen to my coworkers frustrations and ask the questions that they are all afraid to ask our manager but need the info to do their job. After several attempts to bring things to light, I did make a small breakthrough which allowed a small amount of overtime to catch up. I have gone over her head to talk to grand boss about it while she was not in and he is more attentive to the situation and has been monitoring it more closely to evaluate if we need additional resources or more overtime. I also bounced some time saving ideas off of him that I felt obligated to come up with since my manager ignored the situation. One wasteful task has since been eliminated. It has been a tough battle for such a small win, and my manager now tries to catch me in a mistake every chance she gets. Ironically 9 out of 10 times, it goes back to a mistake she made or information she missed.

    I will be doing what is in my best interest and leaving as soon as I can. I’m trying not to get so stressed these days and remembering it will not be my problem soon enough. I value my customers over the job and try to give them the best service while I’m still there. I encourage my coworkers to stand up for themselves but I can’t hand them courage on a plate and maybe they just have more to lose. In the end almost all are job searching as well as some other major players in my field, due to my manager or she is at least a large contributor from what they’ve said.

    My point is, sometimes those Belindas really do have too much to do, but stressing and being constantly vocal about how stressed you are to ears that can’t fix it is useless. I now find myself trying to tell others that are feeling overwhelmed, just do what you can do. That’s all you CAN do. Stressing loudly makes stress worse. Hopefully my company will pay more attention to the internal snafu before they essentially lose an entire branch of their company and hopefully my coworkers will get some breathing room that they need.

  72. The OP*

    In case anyone sees this 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!

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