are new managers supposed to be this stressed out?

A reader writes:

I recently got promoted to a managerial job, and I love what I do. I’m finding, though, that the amount of responsibility that falls on me has been making me unhealthily anxious. I missed a call from work today, for example, outside of work hours, and have been agonizing over what could have gone wrong, who did I let down, what wasn’t prepared when a customer came in, what chastisement will I have to hear tomorrow about managing things better, etc.

To give you background, I know that this isn’t rational because I haven’t yet been “chastised” in this role and, when I do get back to the office the next day, everything is fine. Always.

I’ve been like this for about six months. Since this is my first managerial position, I have to ask: Does every new manager experience this? Do experienced managers constantly feel this pressure too, and should they? What can I do to ease some of this “weight-on-my-shoulders” feeling?

I’m starting to feel like this is just what is entailed by moving up in the workplace, but I’d love to know if my barometer is off here.

I think some degree of this is pretty common in new managers, yes, at least if they’re conscientious.

Managing can be stressful under the best of circumstances, and even more so when you’re new to it and still figuring out how to be a manager.

Think of it like this: When you weren’t a manager and you were just responsible for your own work, you had a lot of control over your performance — things like the quality of work you produced, whether or not you met deadlines, how you responded when a client was upset, and so forth. But now, as a manager, your performance relies on how other people handle those things, and they may or may not make the same decisions that you would. That can be really nerve-racking before you get used to it and learn how to navigate it.

But it’s also the core of what management is. Your job now is quite literally to get work done through other people. That’s a big shift from just doing your own work, and it’s a different skill set. And weirdly, it’s something that people often aren’t trained on. Much of the time, people get promoted to management jobs because they were good at something else, and no one thinks to give them much training or support even though their job has changed enormously. (Like a lot of new managers, most of what I knew about managing in the beginning came from having watched a series of bad bosses, who taught me what not to do. There’s definitely value in that, but it only takes you so far.)

In any case, if you’re still operating more or less like you did before you were a manager, that probably means that you haven’t put in place the systems and structures that you need to manage your team smoothly. And if that’s the case, no wonder you’re feeling anxious; you’re responsible for what other people do but without the structures to give you the peace of mind you need.

The way you handle this is by … well, by managing well. That means things like:

• Setting really clear expectations with your staff, so that they have the same understanding as you do about what performing their jobs well looks like. You want to do that with individual projects, of course, but also at the big-picture level — how you want people to approach their jobs more generally. For example, that might mean things like make sure you respond to client emails within one business day, or this is a high-stress environment, so please assume the best of co-workers and look for ways to make their jobs easier. It should also mean talking through what kinds of situations people should escalate to you versus what they have the authority to handle on their own.

If you invest time in this upfront, you can worry a lot less about what might be happening when you’re not there. It’s also good for your staff, because you’ll be setting them up to perform their jobs well, and they won’t have to check in with you about every little decision.

• Setting up systems that keep you in the loop about how work is progressing. If you don’t do this, you’re likely to feel out of the loop or like you don’t have much sense of how projects are playing out. That often leads managers to micromanage — because they feel anxious and end up checking in way too often and at weird times — or go to the opposite extreme and overlook problems. A system for regular, reliable check-ins will give you a consistent opportunity to provide feedback and course-correct if needed, without you hovering over people or hand-wringing about what might be happening that you don’t know about.

• Not letting problems fester. Managers — especially new managers, but plenty of more experienced ones, too — often take too long to address problems, because no one likes having awkward conversations or telling someone that their work isn’t good enough. But if you delay this kind of conversation, problems tend to fester, and by the time you do deal with it, the problems will often be more entrenched and harder to fix. (Plus, it’ll add to your anxiety if you know there’s an unresolved problem that could cause issues at any time.) If you vow now, at the start of your management career, that you won’t shy away from hard conversations, your work life will be much easier.

There’s more to managing a team than just this, of course, so you might get additional relief by picking up a good book on management or asking your company to pay for some training. But the three things above will put you in a significantly better spot than most new managers are in.

It also helps to know what you’ll do if something does go wrong. As a manager, you now have a ton of tools to use if that happens — from directing someone to do things differently in the future, to instituting new procedures team-wide. That’s a tremendous amount of authority to get things on track, and remembering those options might also alleviate some of your stress.

Keep in mind, too, that you can ask for feedback from your own boss about how you’re doing! You might hear things that put your mind at ease. Or, if she points out things she’d like you to work on, well, now you have a road map to what you could be doing better, and that’s much more helpful than dealing with free-floating worry about everything.

Now, will all this keep you from spending the night catastrophizing in your head when you see a missed call from work? Maybe, maybe not. But when you’ve trained people well and have good systems in place, it’s a lot easier to trust that things are probably okay (and that if anything goes really wrong, you’ll hear about it quickly).

Originally published at New York Magazine.

{ 44 comments… read them below }

  1. Uhdrea*

    In addition to everything else, if you find that anxiety is disproportionately impacting your life, it might be worthwhile to check in with your doctor and consider trying medication or therapy. Increased responsibility and success at work is one of my personal triggers for highly anxious periods and I’ve found that having someone to talk to who is 100% removed from work is very helpful in sorting out what’s a legitimate cause for concern and what’s my uncooperative brain.

    1. Liz Lemon*

      Came here to say just this.

      Work is The Thing that I stress about, and this level of worry reminds me a lot of my own anxiety, when it’s at its worst. Talk therapy has been incredibly useful for me, in understanding why my brain gets ramped up over seemingly small things and also how to think about these stressers differently, so I don’t overreact.

      1. Marillenbaum*

        There was a wonderful piece on Captain Awkward recently (Letter #963) that brings up the concept of a Load-Bearing Depression Repository: a huge, complex issue that you can always worry about and can never be fully solved and into which we pour our depression and anxiety and feel like there is a Reason for feeling this way. Reading that felt like a lightbulb moment for me.

    2. TCO*

      I came here to say this, too. Spending hours after work ruminating about things that you know aren’t rational (like worrying about being chastised when you know your boss doesn’t chastise) isn’t a healthy pattern. You said that you know your level of anxiety is unhealthy and irrational–I’d encourage you to take that statement to a good therapist who can help you develop some new patterns and ways of thinking. Even a few sessions (perhaps through your EAP) could give you a new toolkit to better handle these new challenges.

    3. Alton*

      I definitely agree. Feeling stressed after taking on new responsibilities is normal, I think, but that doesn’t mean you need to try to ignore feelings of anxiety that are bothering you, or that you wouldn’t benefit from learning ways to cope with the stress/anxiety.

      When you don’t feel like you’re dealing well, it can be really hard to get an accurate reading of your situation.

      1. Ramona Flowers*

        And even if it’s seemingly everyone else’s normal, it doesn’t mean the way you feel is the same as the way they do.

    4. Sketchee*


      While I didn’t go to therapy specifically for work issues, I found the techniques to be very helpful for work and with coworkers.

  2. MindoverMoneyChick*

    It get’s better. I was a project manager for years which meant a lot of being responsible for other people’s work although not direct reports. When I moved into a director role managing other project managers, I was surprised at how different it was (and how much harder). I was surprised at all of the new process and systems I had to put in place. I was even surprised at the way I needed to redo my email folder structure. I say surprised because it took me a while to even realize I needed to do these things.

    And for the record – you think I would have learned, but I was surprised a second time at how I needed to change all those things once again when I started my own solo business. And there are many days I miss having employee to delegate to.

    But really over time it will get better – especially if you have good staff working for you.

  3. Jaybeetee*

    I co-sign on the setting expectations for staff part. Employees can get trained into some really bad habits, especially if a previous manager was a micro-manager or otherwise jumped in constantly whenever a problem arose. My ex was briefly promoted to GM of three fast-food locations some years back while the owner went on vacation, and he just about went nuts. His phone was ringing constantly with various scheduling issues, plus some issues surrounding a broken fountain drink machine.

    The big issue was, the owner kept the bare minimum of staff at any given time at each store, meaning if someone was sick or simply couldn’t make a shift, it created a scramble of trying to cover it, because the places could barely function if one person couldn’t make it in. Theoretically, employees were responsible for getting their shifts covered, but in practice they often called the supervisor/manager – aka, my ex during that time – and dumped the problem on him. Leading him to have to make 10 more phone calls trying to find coverage for that shift.

    When the owner got back, my ex had a frank talk with him about what happened, and an email went out, (paraphrased), “We want our supervisors to have a life outside of work too, so try not to call them during off-hours unless it’s really an emergency or a last resort. Covering shifts are your responsibility.” My understanding is the owner started enforcing that policy a lot more stringently than before.

  4. Lillie Lane*

    Anxiety can also be a symptom of a toxic workplace — even if you are doing everything you can and the heat is not on you, sometimes it will bubble up subconsciously.

  5. KR*

    I get the change. I was a supervisor for a while and managed a small team. I was constantly making sure people were where hey we’re supposed to be and answering questions even when I wasn’t at work. I find now that I’m in a role where I’m responsible for my work and then my manager makes everyone do their work and do what they need to do, I have a lot less stress once I leave work. The systems are important though. You need to have things in place about how and when your team can contact you, who to contact in your absence, what you are looking for from them, how to solve common customer issues, ect. That way you don’t have to stress as much. It will get better especially as you get to know your team’s strengths and weaknesses so you can have more faith in them when you’re not there. There were certain employees that when they were working I knew I could breath easy because they had the skills to figure out issues on their own and the good judgement to know when to ask for help. Some you’ll always hold your breath for, but when they make mistakes you can make it into a teaching moment. I’m rambling. Good luck! We’re all with you.

  6. Dinosaur*

    I feel like everyone who experiences an increase in responsibility or role change feels this stress, OP. Alison’s advice is excellent for your specific issue, but I think that part of this anxiety could be due to not knowing what failure and success looks like in the role or what is considered normal. When you first start managing, you don’t know if a call from an employee outside of work hour is a barometer that something is deeply wrong and you have to fix it, or if it just means that something came up and it’s NBD. Once you settle in and figure out what is normal versus what indicates a problem, I bet you will be able to feel less anxious.

    In addition to the books and training suggestion, don’t hesitate to find a mentor! If there is someone from a past or current workplace who has a great management style, it might make sense to try to set up a “coffee and let me pick your brain” type of meeting to get some insight into how that person adjusted to the management role. You’ve got this, OP!

  7. ZenJen*

    I’ve been a manager for 2 years now, and it DOES get less stressful over time! My dept head has had a lot to do with it–instituting workflow and work tracking procedures, for example–and she encourages me to regularly do individual check-in mtgs with my staff. Often, I’m proactively uncovering something that’s helpful to the entire dept, which is great for knowledge sharing.

    One thing I’ve had to work actively on is DELEGATING, and when they come to me with issues, I help them deal with it or point them in the right direction, but I am NOT just taking back their work. THAT was a problem I had with certain tasks, and THAT caused me more stress than was necessary! Now, I keep the responsibility for the problem task on them, and they solve it correctly AND learn something in the process. And, I don’t take on extra stress!

  8. The Optimizer*

    This is really great advice from Alison, as usual! I’m a relatively new manager and do find myself getting stressed out on occasion. Right now is one of those times – we’ve got new staff to train, some processes are moving around so there is other training to be done and then something unexpected happened…all of which generally involve my input, which can definitely lead to stress!

    One thing I’d like to ask Alison and other readers is are there any books you recommend? I’d love to hear suggestions!

      1. The Optimizer*

        :-) I know about that one but what about for those not working in the non-profit world? We don’t want to change the world, we just want to get better at our jobs!

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          99% of it isn’t nonprofit-specific, so I’d recommend it to managers in any sector. (A lot of what’s nonprofit-specific in it are things like the examples used to illustrate a point.)

          1. Naruto*

            Do you think it applies to niche fields that don’t have maybe the same kind of organizational structure and management practices as other businesses — like law firms?

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Ha, law firms are notoriously bad at managing, aren’t they? So I think it might be a tougher sell to implement some of the concepts, but I don’t think the overall structure would be an issue.

    1. Laura*

      I came here to ask the same question! I’ll check out Alison’s book, but I’m in the private sector, so if anyone has any additional recommendations I’m all ears.

    2. NW Mossy*

      I recently read Peter Lencioni’s “The Advantage” as part of a manager book group at my company and found it really helpful. It’s geared at leadership more than management, but there are principles in it that apply more broadly, especially the emphasis on creating and reinforcing clarity.

      I also like the Manager Tools podcast – really rich with concrete advice on how to manage well. They have a book as well (which I have not read), but the dynamic of the dialogue in the podcasts really adds a lot so I’d recommend starting there.

    3. The Optimizer*

      I have found this one helpful for dealing with a particularly problematic staff member

      The 27 Challenges Managers Face: Step-by-Step Solutions to (Nearly) All of Your Management Problems by Bruce Tulgan

  9. Newish Frazzled Manager*

    I have been a manager for almost 2 years now, and I feel this way quite often. I can relate to some of the anxiety that you are feeling, and I assure you that it does get better, although in my experience, it doesn’t go away entirely. Something that has helped me with the anxiety is delegation and categorizing issues/problems. Not everything needs to be addressed (ex: I have a report who sends me detailed emails about how she feels that her coworker’s excessive use of sticky notes is wasteful–I used to make an effort to find solutions for this person’s office supply policing complaints, but I don’t anymore), and its okay to reach out for assistance from another manager if the situation warrants it. You don’t have to do it all and be it all, all the time.

    1. ZenJen*

      Wow, someone complaining about sticky notes? That’s the employee I’d want to delegate a big project to, since they seem to have time to police others’ notes.

    2. nofelix*

      Out of interest do you ignore the sticky note emails entirely or reply with something?

      1. Newish Frazzled Manager*

        I usually respond with something like,”It sounds like you should make sure to put sticky notes on your branch’s next office supply order, then”, and she typically doesn’t say anything more until her next complaint.

        1. Gate Keeper*

          A manager, and, employees…have to have healthy boundaries. In our culture, anyone over 40, is considered old, there’s no such thing as long term work jobs, and, people are anxious about leaving work at work.
          Self-care, a healthy set of boundaries, delegation, do help one work more effectively.
          Says the therapist who really hasn’t been a manager, but understands work flow, protocol, has counseled many, many employees and employers.
          Boundaries and communication are always good.

  10. N*

    Alison’s advice is spot on. I’ve noticed that people who advance and become managers are often conscientious, self-directed employees who don’t necessarily take easily to management. If you’re this focused on having things prepared for your staff and not letting them down, I have a feeling that you’re off to a good start. I felt the same way in my first managerial position–but I also discovered after a year of stress and terror that I actually had an anxiety disorder, so you may want to consider some self care in addition to following the advice that Alison gives.

    Good luck!

  11. NW Mossy*

    Oh, OP, I relate. Being a first-time manager feels like such a huge weight of responsibility at first, and while you do have more responsibility, you aren’t alone!

    I’m about a month into my second manager role, and one of the things that’s really helping me right now is reminding myself that it’s OK that I don’t have all the answers and it’s perfectly appropriate to lean on others to get them. That group of others can be quite expansive, too – it can be your boss, your peer managers, people outside your company, and perhaps most of all, your directs. The overwhelming majority of reasonable, functional people will be happy to help you. If you then follow that up with sincere appreciation, you’ve taken a strong first step in building a good relationship with that person, and relationships are a huge part of how managers get things done.

    I’ll also say that managing operates on a different time scale than individual contributor work, so it can often take a year or more before you really feel like you’ve moved forward on something. That’s fine, and normal. Building relationships, developing your directs, and defining/implementing strategic plans takes a long time by its nature, so you haven’t “failed” simply because those things aren’t happening instantly – it’s just part of the process.

  12. HR Hopeful*

    As an employee (not a manager) , I can definitely vouch for clear expectations. My current job kind of just expects us to know what we should do and the volume of work we should be putting out. There is nothing in writing saying these things and it causes a TON of confusion and morale issues since people get in trouble for things they had no idea they could get in trouble for. If there were clear expectations it would help us all be on the same page and give us metrics to work towards.

    Also, expectations on when you should call or contact someone when it is not their office hours will help ease getting those out of office calls as well. That way you know it could only be a few things and if an employee breaks those guidelines you can always talk to them about it the next work day or when they call you.

  13. Kinder and Gentler Manager*

    I know for me, once I got more comfortable on a personal level with my new peer group and with our executives I chilled out quite a bit. Don’t get me wrong – the work in and of itself can be more challenging and stressful as you move up, but the thought that I had to answer every call, be perfect, get everything done right away…that settled into more reasonable expectations of myself!

  14. FlightOfThe*

    I completely empathize with this feeling. I am in my second managerial role (5 years including both jobs, so relatively new), and I will say that every company has a different style. If that style is centered around lack of process and zero onboarding, you will have challenges and find yourself checking your email 24-7. I will say this – as long as you are doing the best job you can with the resources you have, it’ll all work out.

  15. Lora*

    If I may offer a bit of advice to build on Alison’s: if there is something done purely on institutional knowledge and via People Who Care and long hours, make a business process to handle it whenever possible. For one, you’ll have all the boxes checked, t’s crossed and i’s dotted because now you have a process rather than relying on the expertise of a couple of people and the other thing it will help give you is peace of mind, and best of all it enables you to focus on fixing the process rather than focus on the person – and that defuses a lot of conflicts. You’re not telling a person, “hey you suck,” you’re telling them, “this process needs fixed”. Much MUCH easier conversation.

  16. AthenaC*

    In the absence of an anxiety issue requiring treatment (others have commented better than I on this one), I think what you’re feeling is a sign that you’re going to be a good manager. The key is whether you use your experience over time to learn what the norms and expectations are around your role and what people actually need (and don’t need!) from you – if you find yourself able to relax about certain things in the future, that’s a sign that you’re learning.

    I’ve had managers that couldn’t be bothered to care at all or have any sense of urgency, and I really hated working for them. So to me, if you had to pick an extreme, I think it’s better to start out anxious and then calm it down over time than it is to start out too easy-going, because it’s hard to pick up the pace from there.

  17. Stardust*

    I find it so weird that most promotions involve you switching to a completely different job. You rocked at sales and related to people and had great customer service?? Let’s make you a manager, where you don’t get to do any sales at all! You’re a great teacher loved by all your students?? Let’s make your a principal, where all you’ll do is deal with parents and administrative duties!

  18. Ramona Flowers*

    Few things stress me out quite as much as a missed call with no explanation and I insist that anyone calling me after hours leaves one. Just a thought!

  19. Rookie Manager*

    OP, I hear you! We’re in the middle of a tricky couple of weeks with funding issues, the old manager turning up, visitors from head office etc and then on Monday morning I developed not 1 but 2 different rashes! I’m anxiously trying to work out if they are stress related or if I’ve developed a sudden allergy. My manager keeps telling me how great I am but I worry the effervescent praise is hiding actual, useful feedback.

    I can recommend Alison’s book (as mentioned up thread) and I’m glad you wrote in as I’m pretty sure there will be lots of helpful comments for us both!

  20. Not So NewReader*

    My wise friend used to say that a lack of a plan drives anxiety waay up.
    I say building a plan for every single thing is exhausting.

    When I was first assigned a group of people I decided that I would mostly concentrate on recurring problems. There are some problems that happen once and definitely need to be addressed, but not all single occurrences need immediate and full attention. But this varies so look at each problem carefully and chose wisely.

    Since our jobs were mostly physical, I also chose to make safety my priority. However depending on your arena you could chose to target staying in compliance or any relevant thing that if they fail to follow could cost people their jobs or other injury.

    Management IS problem solving more often than not. But you will get better at as you accrue familiarity with how to solve problems, streamline things and use check points.
    Decide that you can’t do this alone. Pull in resources when you need to. A resource can be anything/anyone, a trusted colleague, your boss, google, advice from a particularly wise friend, AAM, and so on.
    Here’s how strongly I feel about resources: I keep a list of who to call for what. I have a special folder that I keep a hard copy in and I have a spreadsheet on my computer so I can update it periodically.

    My very favorite thing to do is to make a list before I go home of what I will work on tomorrow. This has been a huge game changer for me. I am calmer and I feel more positive about what I have gotten done today.

    We have no way of knowing if your anxiety is worse or way out beyond what other people go through. I will say, when I started leading groups of people, my need for self-care went way UP. It’s a job where you are constantly giving, it’s easy to feel very drained by the end of the day. So while you invest in training and organizing for your professional self, at home invest in rest, good foods, hydration and moderate exercise to keep yourself on an even keel. Make it part of “your job” to put something into you on an almost daily basis.

    You have made it through six months. Something is going right. Give it a year. At the one year mark see if you still feel as awful as you do now. Remember we didn’t learn how to walk, swim or ride a bike in one day. This is more that but on the adult level.

  21. Julie Noted*

    Personally, the increased responsibility that comes with being a manager made me feel better, not worse. (Noting that I am fortunate to, so far, not be particularly susceptible to anxiety.) Before I was a manager, the success of the projects I worked on was dependent on a whole lot of things and people that I had no authority, and little indirect capacity, to influence. I didn’t have much truly independent work and I have a hard time not getting invested in the big picture, so I was endlessly frustrated about things beyond my scope of control (i.e. almost everything). When I became a manager the narrative inside my head was “OK, if I can learn how to be a good manager then I can help ensure our work is high quality and our organisation successful.” Internal locus of control ftw ;)

    Alison gave some great advice in answer to your question about how to ease the feeling of so much weight on your shoulders. I want to emphasise one part that was a game changer for me – regular check-ins. I started out doing them ad hoc because “we all hate meetings and meaningless admin”. I learned that my fortnightly one-on-ones with my direct reports, with a standing agenda, where my directs send me a written update against the agenda in advance and I take notes during the discussion, is the single most effective thing I can do to keep us all on track without micromanaging, give and receive feedback, build relationships with my staff, and avoid the anxiety that comes from things slipping through the cracks. I resisted the idea in my first few years as a manager, now I and my staff are evangelists for the formal check-in.

    You’ve got an exciting opportunity in front of you. Good luck!

  22. SarahKay*

    In terms of feeling the weight on your shoulders, and being entirely responsible for everything, I felt exactly the same, and I found that thinking about how I’d react if roles were reversed helped me. For instance, if ‘Jane’ came to me and admitted she’d missed a call, how would you react? Would you say, “oh, not to worry, we can easily sort that out tomorrow”? If so, then clearly – not to worry, you can easily sort it out tomorrow. And a lot of what I was worrying about was exactly that sort of thing.

    Thinking things through like that helped me be clearer in my own mind about if something was a big deal, and did reduce some of the anxiety.

    Good luck!

  23. AlwhoisthatAl*

    Just remember that by being a normal person you are already better than some managers. Find the middle ground between too much anxiety about things and not enough. Use your staff and managers for feedback and soon you will be managing well.
    At the end of the day it’s a job, that’s all.

  24. Jerry*

    I need advice. I have been dealing with stress and anxiety for some time now because going to work and not knowing what I was walking into was stressful. Some days the boss would be happy, sad or just plain angry. He was finally terminated and we were left with figuring out how to do that job. I myself did it, since I assumed that the position was mine. the 18 yr vet didn’t want it and the other 1 was there less than 5 years. I myself was there for 15 yrs. I was asked if interested and I said yes but was never given a number and told we’d discuss it tomorrow. It was then given to the lowest ma. In seniority. I am the only 1 who knows this job. He also assumed I would train this person and offered me 0.50 cents for a raise because I wasn’t happy with the decision. He said he was sorry and he moved to fast. Do I have any options here?

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