my employee melts down when work is stressful

A reader writes:

I manage an employee who is smart, attentive, and dedicated to the work she does. Overall, she’s amazing and has a strong work ethic, the kind of driven personality anyone would love to have on their team.

Except for when she is stressed or feels pressure from difficult clients. Then all hell breaks loose. Her communication moves towards emails only and she comes off as being rude or dismissive. Her ability to pay attention to details disappears as well. She starts giving out wrong information to contractors, sending them to the wrong locations at the wrong times or not staffing them properly, leading to more upset clients.

We’ve had her work with different teams and she excels for a while but when she feels the pressure again, just collapses. I’ve tried stepping in to handle the situations with difficult clients and contractors to alleviate that stress on her, but it¹s hard to know when she is feeling stressed out since her communication all but shuts down. She is a strong employee otherwise and I feel like having someone directly supervising her every move may come off as insulting to her, but I don’t see any other way. How can I help her?

I answer this question over at Inc. today. (Unlike most of my content for Inc., this one is a brand new article, not a reprint.) You can read it here.

{ 164 comments… read them below }

  1. Snark*

    I feel like this is the AAM equivalent to the letters other advice columnists get that are all like, “My boyfriend is a great guy and we get along really well. He’s got a great sense of humor and we even complete each others’ sentences! The only small problem is that he dismembers small woodland creatures. My neighbor Mrs. Smith has asked me several times if I’ve seen her cat. What do?”

    1. Ramona Flowers*

      … But I don’t want to ask her if she’s seen the cat, or search her pockets for other people’s gerbils, in case it hurts her feelings.

    2. Amber Rose*

      I think it operates under the same principles. When things are bad, all we can do is remember when they were good and hope those times come back again so we don’t have to go through the frustration of changing anything. Then they do, which is great. But they don’t stay good, and now it’s a neverending cycle of good/suck. Then the suck times get longer and longer…

      Which is why Alison (and advice bloggers generally) is doing us all such a huge favor, by metaphorically slapping some sense into people.

      1. Nea*

        Early in her career, Carolyn Hax had the great line “Introduce one brain cell in your head to another brain cell and hope you start a trend.” Best rhetorical slap upside the head ever.

    3. Minnie*

      Haha! This is priceless, and also a good point. I think it is human nature to see the good in people, which leads to turning a blind eye to very serious issues.

    4. LBK*

      I can’t remember where I got this concept from (probably Captain Awkward) but I think it’s because those good qualities prove that to some extent, the person has the capacity to be a good worker/boyfriend/whatever. So we have a tendency to categorize those traits as being the “real” person, and the bad traits aren’t really who they are, it’s just things that they need to stop doing to get back to their real, true self, who is good. When we have a vested interest in someone (because we employ them or we date them or what have you), it’s easier to convince yourself that if not now, then at some point in the future they will be that best version of themselves that you see when you only look at the good stuff. But people don’t work like that; the “real” person is the one that encompasses all of the things you see, not just the good stuff.

      To quote Wanda from Bojack Horseman, “When you look at someone through rose-colored glasses, all the red flags just look like flags.”

      1. HannahS*

        That…that is SUCH a good way of putting it! Thank you. I will definitely be sharing that the next time my friend calls me and is agonizing over whether or not to break up with her terrible boyfriend…

      2. Tassie Tiger*

        I….this…this helps me in my quest to let go of my last relationship that shredded me. Truly. Thank you.

      3. Wintermute*

        Captain Awkward calls it the Darth Vader Boyfriend: “But there’s good in him, I’ve felt it!”

    5. Falling Diphthong*

      Dan Savage wrote that he used to get questions about how to perform unlikely physical acts. Now people can look that up on the internet, but they can’t look up how their relationship problem is different and unique from the seeming clones of that problem.

    6. Former Employee*

      Not to worry. The cat is his co-conspirator – they are dismembering small, woodland creatures together.

  2. Detective Amy Santiago*

    In addition to Alison’s excellent advice, if you have an EAP, it might be worth reminding her about it. Often times, when people shut down in the face of stress, they are dealing with it on multiple fronts and there could be something going on outside of work that is exacerbating this situation.

    1. Stormy*

      This was my gut response. I was excellent with work or school stress, until my family’s health fell apart. People only have so much mental bandwidth.

    2. Ennigaldi*

      Yes, try to encourage her to see someone and start with the EAP. I have generalized anxiety and went through a really bad period last year as my housing and family situations were stressful and it took a toll on my work. My executive functioning plummeted, couldn’t remember things, couldn’t handle any unexpected requests or tasks, couldn’t concentrate at all, and it led to being labeled the office grump for a while. Not diagnosing her, she might just have a lot of other stress in her life, and there are plenty of ways one can learn to cope and stay on top of one’s work – especially if she’s a strong performer, she is probably embarrassed about admitting she’s slipping.

    3. Rachel01*

      She needs coping strategies and EAP should help with that. Also when she’s feeling stressed she may need to step away from the computer & phone for a few minutes. Sometimes when it gets bad I take a few minutes and walk around my building. I’m gone 5 minutes but I get some fresh air and it clears my head.

    4. Emac*

      This is what I was thinking too. And I wonder if the OP can require her employee to go to EAP to get help managing stress at work, instead of just recommending it? I agree with Allison that it would be good for OP to manage the employee more closely next time she starts to melt down, but maybe she could also work with someone from the EAP to develop ways to help prevent melt downs.

      1. Observer*

        The idea that an employer should ever require an EAP is just a terrifying over-reach. You have no idea what’s casuing this, and you have no idea what the employee is, or is not, doing about it.

        The ONLY thing that an employer has any business to require is a viable action plan and measurable improvement.

        1. Snark*

          Seconded. An EAP is a resource an employee can use, but the only way it’s useful to anybody is if it’s an independent resource presented as a perk. If it becomes an adjunct to management, any trust relationship there is goner.

          1. Emac*

            I can see where you’re both coming from. And maybe EAP is not the right resource for what I was thinking, which was something more like executive coaching (although it doesn’t sound like the employee is an executive). It just seems to me that the employee might do better if she’s given a way to proactively come up with ways to prevent getting to the point of a melt down, since being coached through it by her manager when she’s already overwhelmed might be even more overwhelming.

            1. Snark*

              Unfortunately, I think the role you’re thinking of is the one best and most properly occupied by the manager – this is what a good manager should do with a situation like this. And I think that getting on it during an easy time, when she’s not overwhelmed, is the way around overwhelming her when she’s already shut down. OP can start this conversation with her anytime, not just in the moment.

            2. Jennifer Thneed*

              I think the manager *can* say something about “You must find a way to handle this. Here are some suggestions that might be helpful. You don’t have to use any of these suggestions, but you *do* need to acquire some coping skills one way or the other.” And then set up a schedule of check-in meetings.

              1. Observer*

                Absolutely. I do think that SUGGESTING an EAP (if one exists) and requiring some improvement plan with check ins, is reasonable. Just not requiring an EAP.

              2. nonymous*

                It’s also totally reasonable to grab the stressed employee during a quiet period, describe the unacceptable behavior OP has seen, describe the target behavior they’re looking for, and identify multiple resources for filling that learning curve. EAP can be one, but the company may also have coaching modules available, or the OP may have preferred reading material from their own training. I’m of the opinion that adults are usually pretty good at identifying what learning style works for them, so perhaps just ask the employee to meet in a couple days to let you know what resource they’re pursuing? And OP can move forward from there to establish metrics for what they would consider as evidence of improvement, with additional coaching thrown in. For example “I really like this phrase you used with AngryCustomerA, and I want to see you use this same approach for scenarios B/C/D as well” or “Come up with a couple scripts for dealing with scenarios B/C/D and we’ll work together to refine them tomorrow”.

      2. Parse*

        My employer suggested EAP, but gave me a mandatory day off (as a sick day) to gather and refresh myself. I think there’s power in helping the employee to understand that she’s not going to get in trouble for admitting that she’s stressed out. This might help her to feel more comfortable with communicating instead of shutting down.

        1. Rachel01*

          I think EAP should be a source used. It could be recommended. But if I had an employee that was having anxiety and stress management problems and wasn’t willing to work on coping skills which EAP could help with I would be disappointed. It would be easier for them to talk to the EAP I would think versus their manager if there is an external / private stressor that they do not want to share with management.

          I have known past management that required an employee to use EAP to address some behavioral issues on the job. It was made mandatory so that would seek assistance, they knew the employee was taking it seriously, it was made part of the PIP. Yes it’s a perk, but sometimes a behavior modification is required and it’s best if handled outside the office than by management.

    5. Triple Anon*

      Agreed. Schedule a one on one and ask her what’s up. Make it clear that she doesn’t need to tell you more than she’s comfortable with but that you’re concerned and you want to help.

      I wouldn’t rush into mentioning EAP, though. It might not be something appropriate for that. Some people just handle stress better than others. She might benefit from coaching on how to balances tasks when things are busy, or from having a different combination of assignments (like instead of getting extra clients when things are busy, helping with data entry or something else that’s low stress).

      But, yeah, my gut feeling was also that she’s overwhelmed in other parts of her life and it’s affecting her work.

      1. Detective Amy Santiago*

        I don’t think it would be inappropriate for OP to use Alison’s script and then add on “by the way, if you are dealing with outside stress or want additional support, don’t forget that we have this other resource available too.”

      2. TootsNYC*

        I might say, “This is a challenge for you, but I want to point out that you don’t have to tackle it alone. And that ‘counseling’ is a tool people can use even when there isn’t some underlying mental health issue. There are techniques that can help you harness your attention and emotions to be more powerful, and it might be useful to have someone with whom you can talk about this in detail, without the baggage that a manager or family member might have. Think of it as ‘coaching.’ I hope you will avail yourself of that.”

      3. SarahTheEntwife*

        Having a lower-than-average tolerance for stress is absolutely something a therapist or counselor can help with! Something doesn’t have to be overwhelmingly severe or a specifically diagnosed mental illness for therapy to be useful.

        1. Atalanta0jess*

          This!!! “Oh hey, I behave badly under stress” is totally , 100% appropriate for EAP intervention or other therapy type intervention. It’s like, textbook appropriate.

          And I think that using a lot of caution about suggesting counseling as one of many possible routes to take here kind of reinforces the stigma around counseling. Things don’t have to reach a certain bar of horribleness or illness or whatever to make therapy useful, and it shouldn’t be a suggestion that is a huge deal. Counseling is just…talking about how to address a problem that involves feelings. This problem involves feelings. Maybe counseling would help.

          1. Wintermute*

            THIS! So much this.

            If I were an athlete and my coach noticed that I was heavily favoring my right leg while running he wouldn’t tiptoe around the issue of maybe, this is just one resource out of many, but it might be an appropriate thing, and they’d never judge me for this, but they do make certain kinds of resources available for me to talk to someone like an orthopedic specialist, or something like that, if I’m comfortable.

    6. Candi*

      There’s a whole debate on mandatory EAPs under the first comment at this link:


      EAPs can be about far more resources than counseling.

      You can’t make someone change, even if you can command them to counseling as a term of their employment, whether it be for mental health, addiction, or other reasons.

      An EAP or EAP-referred therapist will not share with the employer. Professional ethics. (Of course, there’s bad therapists just as there’s bad anything.)

      My opinion: One evaluation counseling session as a mandatory referral could be useful for the therapist and employee to get an overview of problems contributing to the issue. Anything more than that is extremely case by case.

  3. RML*

    This is one of those “oh crap did my boss write this about me?” emails until you get halfway through and realize no, but the fact that you thought so means you’re about to learn something from Alison’s answer and the comment section.

    1. RML*

      Before I start feeling too bad about myself, I realized it wasn’t about myself when I saw the part about giving bad info/causing problems for clients. My issue is that when I’m under a tremendous amount of pressure and my stress level is double the normal level, my communication slows down and I find it harder to handle the more complex, nuanced attention and level of communication with clients that my job typically demands.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          Right on, that stress can grow at an exponential rate. Not saying you are a bad boss, OP, nooooo. You are probably a good boss and you probably work at being an even better boss, we can say that because you wrote in here. Thank you for your compassion toward your employee, not everyone cares like you do

          Alison is spot on as usual. Talk to her, let her see that you are not some fire breathing dragon. This takes time to work out. Having worked with some very stressed out people one of the keys I have found is to make sure I keep my word about things. They did test me on small things to see if I would follow through. Of course I did. The more I followed up on the simple things, the more they started interacting with me and telling me where their real concerns were. When I saw the real concerns, I addressed those also.
          People are great, they really are. If you tell someone that you cannot promise but you will try to do X or Y, most people will be satisfied with that answer. And it’s okay to say maybe or to say NO. Those are also answers.

        2. Hills to Die on*

          Yes, I didn’t mean to imply it’s because you’re a bad boss. I was just talking about my experience.

    2. Boop*

      Same reaction here – except I have anxiety breakdowns and panic attacks. Part of the problem is I start obsessively double-checking everything, except the thing I messed up, of course! My boss is supportive and I am learning recognize the symptoms and manage my workload pretty well.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        Ditto. Then it takes me longer to do something, because I’m convinced I’ve effed it up.

        It sounds like the OP’s employee is like me. My panic attacks start out with*’fight* and then morph to flight mode. So at the beginning, it looks as though I’m pissed off at everyone and everything. If it proceeds unchecked, then the “Omg omg omg omg my throat is closing up I can’t breeeeeeeeathe we’re all gonna die” begins.

        I wish I could have gotten into meditation and mindfulness before I lost my job. It’s really helped, especially since I can’t afford and don’t really want medication.

      2. Nita*

        “except the thing I messed up, of course” Ha! That’s got to be some corollary of Murphy’s Law. Thankfully, usually other people’s review often helps weed out this kind of mistake. If that’s not possible, I find that changing media helps – for example, printing out a hard copy for review. When you’re checking your own work, it’s too easy to see what you expect to see.

      3. TardyTardis*

        Have you tried using a fish oil supplement? I was under stress doing a two person job all by myself, and the bosses were taking their time hiring someone, and using fish oil really calmed me down so I could develop some shortcuts that would help me get going a lot faster (we had a manual expense system for sales people, and it was *ugly*, so I developed templates that would let me enter data already given rather than have to look codes up for everybody). But I might not have thought of that if my hair was on fire.

    3. Triple Anon*

      Hahaha. Me too. I’m learning to manage it better, though. If this was me, the solution would be that I need to take de-stressing breaks when things are busy and have the option of working in a place where I can concentrate better such as home or a coffee shop. Things like that.

    4. Lil Fidget*

      Yeah I did have a moment gut-check. On the other hand, I think EVERYBODY struggles more when stress is high – that’s why they call it “stress” and not “pleasant vacation.”

    5. Parse*

      Ha, I feel this. Let me know if I’m going too off topic, but I noticed that therapy is often a suggestion here. How much are standard therapy rates in your cities? I’m in a big city where one session in the downtown core is around $200!

      1. Detective Amy Santiago*

        If you’re in a big city, check to see if the city/county/state offers any low cost mental health treatments. Also, if there are universities/teaching hospitals, you might be able to get discounted rates by working with students.

      2. SometimesALurker*

        That’s a great point — therapy isn’t financially accessible to everyone! I don’t know the going rate around me, only my copay, but if you have insurance that will cover “outpatient mental health treatment” and a therapist that will work with your insurance, you’re only responsible for the copay, which (with a decent plan) might be $15-$25. This only works if your reason for seeing a therapist is considered a health concern, but many good, reasonable therapists will work with you to figure out the nearest broad diagnosis that will allow you to get your therapy covered. If you’re going regularly and on a very limited income, even those copays may be too much, but many cities do have programs to help with access, as Detective Amy Santiago mentions.

      3. Tassie Tiger*

        I’ve been doing Talkspace for the last 3 months–about $150 per month. I’d be open to sharing about it in open thread.

  4. Jaybeetee*

    That’s rough. I used to have a problem like this, but thankfully only when I got REALLY stressed (i.e. not that often).

    What you might need to assess is whether she’s really fit for the job. You say she’s a good employee, but how often is she hitting this level of stress where she’s being brusque/rude, uncommunicative, and making errors? That is, how often is she unable to do her job well? Even if she’s good at a certain pace or a certain level, if she’s regularly in over her head and screwing up as a result, this may not be the right place for her.

    1. Mike C.*

      I think this might be a little extreme at this point in time. I’ve certainly hit these sorts of issues and they were solved by more experience and improving the processes and systems to prevent issues from happening in the future.

      It could be a possibility, but many times I’ve found that folks put up with inefficiencies and get used to them until someone doesn’t and hits a wall. Maybe it’s something they just need to work through, but sometimes there’s no reason for the wall to be there in the first place.

    2. Snark*

      This is where I was going with my post above. If this is a position where dealing with difficult/demanding clients is a situation that comes up often, and she doesn’t just get stressed out but actively shuts down when that happens….is this really the role for her? Because making significant, costly errors, erratic or nonexistent communication via email only, and borderline rudeness are all pretty major performance issues. If that happens regularly, it’s going to have implications as far as client relationships go.

      1. Lily Rowan*

        Yeah, sometimes handling difficult people is the job. If she can’t figure out how to do that, this might not be the job for her.

        And I’ve learned that even in the same kind of position, not all jobs have as many difficult people to handle!

    3. zora*

      I think some people just aren’t good at functioning under pressure. I have always been good at it, it comes naturally to me, but I have worked for/with people who really just can’t handle it.

      Does anyone have an example of someone being able to work on this and get better at it? I have to say I’m inclined to say this is something you are either good at or you’re not, and if you aren’t, you should focus on jobs/industries without a lot of pressure.

      1. TL -*

        I get super forgetful when I’m stressed – maybe a little short with people sometimes if it’s coming from multiple areas, though I’ve generally learned to control that at work.
        In general, I just up my listmaking, take more notes, and make people email me any requests that I don’t take care of immediately. Being more organized helps with the stress and, since I’ve learned I get forgetful, I get much better about taking and checking notes/lists and generally manage through it without any big kerfluffles.

      2. Not So NewReader*

        So many factors go into causing stress that it’s really tough to gauge sometimes. One person might be able to do job X but if they have an hour commute each way, a toxic work place, etc that person could be crushed from the weight of the stress. Give that same person job X with an easier commute and a cooperative work environment, then that person might stand a good chance. This is just considering these two factors but there are many more factors.

        OTH, I know my husband had a health condition where the doc said “NO stress” (as if the lack of stress exists somewhere). While my husband did go through many stressful situations, it definitely pulled his health down.

        1. zora*

          Well, that’s true, circumstances can definitely change the situation. I didn’t think about that. I definitely have a harder time if other things are going on. I guess it is possible that someone who gets overwhelmed in high pressure situations could develop tools to help them get through when it’s fire drill time.

          But, I feel like I have a natural tendency to troubleshoot when I’m overwhelmed instead of lashing out. And it often leads me to create new organization, or take stock and establish what needs to be moved or changed. In the OP’s situation, even early in my career I would have reached out to my boss pretty early on, if I found myself starting to make mistakes.

  5. stress ball on a deadline*

    This is me. I am the stressed out employee.
    What if your Manager has had these conversations and promised extra support that NEVER materializes?
    I tell them a project is going off the rails and I get ‘no one is available to help’ and I’ll just need to put in more effort?
    12 hour days for weeks on end make anyone cranky and yes, I will forget minor details because there is way too much going on. It’s 12:40 and I haven’t even had breakfast and you want me to be nicer?

    Overall good advice in most situations, but if the employee keeps getting stressed over and over, maybe at some point there needs to be some discussion about what is causing the stress, not just the employees reaction to the stress.

    1. Mike C.*

      Overall good advice in most situations, but if the employee keeps getting stressed over and over, maybe at some point there needs to be some discussion about what is causing the stress, not just the employees reaction to the stress.

      Totally agreed. Many, many times the process is the issue, not the person.

    2. Rachel01*

      So true, the workload needs to be evaluated. Also, sometimes you’ll have one employee in the department that ends up with a heavier load, just because. Make sure she’s not being loaded on more than the others in similar roles.

      1. Snark*

        This doesn’t, from the LW’s description, sound like a process or workload issue – it sounds like a response to interactions with difficult clients and contractors.

        1. Mike C.*

          That’s the symptom, I don’t think anyone knows what is causing the stress in the first place. Any number of related or unrelated things could be causing the stress to show up in these situations. Maybe the employee sucks or needs retraining. Maybe the specific needs of these customers aren’t well suited to the way the company normally operates and an exception or altered process needs to be made to handle their specific needs.

          It’s hard to say until you talk to the employee and look at the work flow.

          1. Wheezy Weasel*

            I second this, it could very well be a symptom of a less efficient process. For example, I get 50 emails a day from customers who need an issue solved: 45 of them can be completed in under 5 minutes and a few need some back-and-forth with other staff to resolve. Easily solved if I’m at my desk 8 hours a day. Add in two 2-hour meetings and I start to need a ticketing system to handle the workload. Add in 2 days of onsite client meetings where no emails are handled and I need a backup person to handle my tickets.

            I was displaying these symptoms in a previous job, and most of it was overwork because of inefficient systems to handle this type of workflow. I have the ability to be productive if I can have efficient ways to manage my work, the client’s expectations, and my bosses expectations, but any disconnect among those three is a big problem.

            1. nonymous*

              One strategy that might help would be to group the difficult clients by problem type and develop a process for the most common. While it may indeed be her job to manage the emotions of the customer, a lot of that is about setting expectations. For example, the service adviser at my dealership will ask me to wait until she checks availability before offering me a complimentary loaner, and then verifies the model of car (I have an SUV, so I need to plan accordingly if they give me a smaller vehicle). I would not be a happy camper if no one objected to my request for a loaner but then I had to wait for them to scramble and ended up with a compact. But I’d be thrilled about the customer service if they told me that getting a loaner was contingent on what got returned before my appointment and they couldn’t guarantee anything ’cause it was already booked out, but I got a compact after only 20min. Although that only works if it’s the truth.

              Stuff like that is totally a learned skill, and it really really helps reduce stress levels to be able to think, “hey! I recognize this and know what to do next”. There’s tons of resources to learn how to diffuse grumpy clients, and on the other side of the conversation, to be able to recognize when clients are simply wrong so staff doesn’t feel personally attacked.

          2. LBK*

            Maybe the specific needs of these customers aren’t well suited to the way the company normally operates and an exception or altered process needs to be made to handle their specific needs.

            Okay, but a competent employee works with their manager to figure out how to handle those situations. They don’t melt down, start being rude and lose their ability to do basic things like give accurate information, dumping the entire problem on their manager to sort out. There is almost no job in the world that won’t occasionally require working through an unusual scenario except maybe, like, an assembly line. You can’t freak out every time something out of the ordinary happens.

            1. Not So NewReader*

              I think it depends on the situation. I have seen some pretty good meltdowns from otherwise good people.
              I tend to think that sometimes these meltdowns happen because the person does not believe that they will be supported in their concerns. Check this out, the person could work for a lovely company that does support each and every employee. But the person herself/himself does not believe s/he will be supported. This disbelief happens for a number of reasons. We act on what we believe, especially those things we believe strongly.

          3. Observer*

            That’s true. But what the OP describes doesn’t sound like what Stress Ball is describing in a few key points. One is that the OP actually IS stepping in to help out. AND while Stress Ball is telling management what’s up, OP’s employee is not. Furthermore, the employee is not making “minor” mistakes – sending people to the wrong address is not a small thing. Especially when it’s not just one city block over.

        2. Competent Commenter*

          I agree, but to play devil’s advocate, sometimes the obvious escapes us. Maybe the LW is thinking, “Well everyone works 12-hour days and only this one person melts down.” I agree that the LW seems very reasonable so it’s not likely but there’s no harm in her taking a moment of reflection on that. If it’s not too big of a workload it could be something else that’s work specific, like a bad dynamic with some coworkers that’s not the employee’s fault, or an unequal workload, or being the only person who can do a specific task so it’s hard to leave at the end of the day, etc.

          At my job I struggle with some of the behaviors described, although I don’t ever blow up at people. I think if you asked my supervisor, who is well aware that I’ve got a three-person workload and just keep sinking further behind, she’d tell you that things are better since she came on board (sorry, they’re worse, not better, as no changes have been made and more work has piled on). If you asked her bosses, they’d say that because we have plans finally to hire more staff in my area, things are getting better, but I’ve put in probably 50 hours on the presentations and paperwork leading up to us being able to hire, with the interviews etc. still ahead. Knowing there are brighter days ahead keeps me in my job but I won’t feel a change for months.

          I personally think that as described it’s a coping problem on the side of the employee, but as I said, it wouldn’t hurt for the LW to reflect a little on how the work environment might be contributing to it.

    3. Jennifer Thneed*

      What happens if you just don’t accomplish everything? If you limit yourself to 10-hour days no matter what?

      Can you talk to anyone besides your direct manager? Or is their boss the same way?

    4. Anonymity*

      This is not me in the literal sense, because I don’t work with clients, but I see a lot of myself in the description of the employee here. And yeah, it’s because I’ve already tried asking for help and raising concerns, and nothing happened, so now I’m withdrawn and less communicative. When you respond with “I don’t understand why XYZ is so hard” when I have literally *just* spent a full minute briefing you on the complexities of XYZ, I don’t know what else to do besides shrug and try to keep XYZ from failing on my own.

      If you want people to tell you about problems and ask for help, look at how you’re responding when they do that. In my case, my tendency has been to ask for help proactively and predict problems before they happen, and I’m learning that my leadership isn’t good at processing that stuff in advance -they are too busy dealing with the fire du jour. By the time my problem is the fire du jour, I’ve already asked for help proactively and also exhausted myself trying to prevent it solo, and I’m fed up, because they have amnesia that I even brought it up, and a bunch of people who don’t know my work are Monday morning quarterbacking everything I’ve done. It’s incredibly frustrating. (I’m currently trialing just… being less proactive and allowing things to fail while I still have some reserves to be engaged in the fallout. I don’t really know what else to do.)

      1. Elizabeth West*

        This was me at OldExjob. I had to literally stop caring to deal with how many issues we had after we made some personnel changes. After getting in trouble for pushing back, I just did what I could do and ignored the rest.

      2. Oranges*

        I had that problem. I got burned out and then I just… let balls drop. I figured out the worst that they could do and it was…. almost nothing. They couldn’t fire me because specialized knowledge and no backup. They could put me on a PIP but meh. They could cut my pay? I’m already getting 10K under what I’m worth here (other things make it mostly worth it).

        So I let things break because I was unable to care about my work. Sometimes that’s the only way they’ll actually understand that things need to change.

        1. Anonymity*

          I know that feeling. I’m a high performer – my peers aren’t juggling the same things I do. I have the same title and I’m paid the same, but I’m handling more responsibility with less support. I get more praise, but I can’t take praise to the bank and there doesn’t seem to be any opportunity for me to advance. What are they going to do if I drop some balls? Treat me the same as my peers? Okay, sign me up.

      3. Reya*

        My grandboss has a habit of delaying making decisions on projects until the last minute, and then deciding that we’re going to go ahead just as we hit the ‘this is just about achievable, but only if absolutely nothing goes wrong and we hit no unforseen delays’ point. People have tried talking to her about unrealistic deadlines and workloads, but her answer is always ‘I’m sure it will be fine.’

        We’re all aware that this is code for ‘I expect you to MAKE it be fine, and I don’t really care about how you’re forced to achieve that’. It’s very demoralising and, yes, it makes people stressed.

    5. Bea*

      This happened to me recently. I’m used to long hours but they became never ending stretches after awhile. I was expected to figure it out and my team was taken from me to help other departments who’s workload was crushing them.

      The actual answer was more staff, not expecting a human to stretch out into 4 positions each day. So that was a massive ownership issue and I bounced. The problem isn’t always the employee and your case sounds more like mine, unreasonable expectations of a single worker. I’m a workaholic fool and almost thought I was the problem until I realized all I was doing, so yeah, no crap I lost a lot of balls that were in the air. At the end I just let them fall because ef not having enough support.

    6. Jennifer*

      Been there, stress ball. BEEN THERE. No support, being left alone to handle the difficult people (which wasn’t something I got hired to do in the first place), etc.
      I finally got moved out of the direct line of fire at my work before I got fired because otherwise I’m great, but it took 4 years to get them to do that.
      Also, annoyed/angry people will always get offended at your “tone” or manner even more than usual, and when you’re stressed it’s hard to be good at faking Perky and Friendly.

    7. Sydney*

      Thanks for saying this.

      I’ve been in this situation in the past, been working 12 hour days, and been promised support / extra help, only to be told in the end “suck it up”.

      Obviously, my communication reduced to essentials and I eschewed the small talk part of conversations.

      They don’t need micromanagement! They need actual, tangible support and resources.

    8. Lora*

      So…you work at ExExJob too, I see?

      At ExExJob they had a big piece of paper covered in sticky notes: one row per project, and each row had one sticky note per deliverable/phase. If a project was all good, you got a green sticker on the pieces you had delivered so far. If a project had a problem, you got a red sticker on the deliverable. They had a list next to it of problems and possible solutions, if there were any. Every day we had a stand up meeting to update this thing. You could say till you were blue in the face, “Deliverable for Project is late because Department did not do their paperwork. I am not authorized to do it for them. Senior Management in charge of Department, can you help?” Senior Management would diligently promise to help. And you’d repeat that for weeks on end. No help.

      This would go on for like, seven projects per person. There was always SOMETHING, because as a project manager you couldn’t do everyone’s job for them – on occasion, other people had to do some work instead of farting around trying to get people to buy t-shirts for the company soccer team.

      My boss would occasionally (inappropriately) mention to me that a colleague/friend working on a particularly heinous project was struggling with these same issues: being sharpish with the lazy soccer t-shirt people, being short with the QA guy who was straight up incompetent, forgetting some detail that in a righteous world would have been handled by someone else anyways. And Boss didn’t quite grok the evil of certain clients: one that my friend had was actively staffed by demons. Boss didn’t understand why they were so difficult to deal with and had churned through multiple PMs…He could have written this about my friend.

      I only survived as long as I did by deciding “not my monkeys, not my circus.” People who really cared about their job got stressed though. Boss didn’t understand how I was so calm and just churned out work, because if *I* can do it then surely it’s my friend’s personal problem. Uhhhh….

        1. Lora*

          Imagine the eating your own liver, being set on fire parts, but in biotech, from people who claim to be doing good by curing cancer and other deadly diseases.

          Somehow that made it more evil.

    9. zora*

      stress ball: Unfortunately, my answer to you is to start job hunting. I know, it’s the worst, but there are lots of places that do good work that do NOT ignore the problems and throw all the employees under the bus.

      If you stay there (or while you are job hunting), you have to get comfortable with the idea of letting things fall apart, and put taking care of yourself first. I had the worst time with this, because I was always an overachiever, but it does no one any good (least of all you) to work yourself into the ground.
      1- Walking out the door at the end of the day. 8 hours if you can get away with it, but no more than 10 hours.
      2- letting things fail and projects fall apart. They won’t realize anything is wrong until things actually start to go wrong.

      I think in the OP’s case it seems like this is one employee having problems, and all the others are doing fine. But yes, if a manager ever has more than one person have problems like this, they should definitely take a good hard look at the process instead of just blaming it on the employee.

    10. Bostontown*

      Thank you! I too thought this letter is about me until it became more detailed and I realised this isn’t my job. The manager should explore either side. I used to get very stressed because I used to have to tidy up the work of my peers before it could go to the client. I had to do this because I was in HQ and things went out from there. It meant I had to finish my stuff a day or two earlier (and it had to be spotless as I would not have time to make lots of corrections) to sort out their’s. I got frustrated because of the constant pressure, unfairness and the fact that this wasn’t part of my job and any attempts to coach them either failed or resulted in slow progress at best. I spoke up – I had to speak up twice in order for this to be taken off my plate and surprise… I am not longer stressed and do not have meltdowns.

    11. And now, presenting: TL;DR*

      This was me, too, at my last job.

      My boss (the ED) ran hot and cold, and it was difficult to know where on the spectrum she’d be on any given day. I would frequently go to talk to her about my projects—I was project manager for communications, membership, outreach, publication design/editing/writing,etc., and somehow also got bogged down with handling the entire development of a new website, even though I had specified in the beginning I would need extensive help from our contractor. My frequent updates were generally forgotten, and I was consistently told at the last minute that I hadn’t cleared anything I had completed with her. No matter what I did, I could never catch up with the workload. I would work long past my billable hours and not report them, because it wouldn’t do any good. The work needed to be done, and I was only able to do most of it and or knew what needed to be done and all the steps involved. My coworkers would praise me for problem solving when they saw the work I produced, but those same instances were treated as if I had failed by my ED. I *know* my work wasn’t always perfect, esp. near the end, but in many ways I was set up for failure by having a job description that basically encompassed three entirely seperate types of work—each of which could have easily used a full-time, dedicated employee.

      We had a telecommuting option in that office, and and near the end of my time there, I found myself so low and so overwhelmed, there were a couple weeks where I couldn’t get out of bed. I would wake up in the morning, log into my work computer, and work until it was time to go to bed. And then I would sleep with the laptop until the next day. My mother and my sister would come over to help me with laundry, taking care of my pets, and general life adulting. I eventually left that job via disability; it turned out my health problems were much more serious and extensive (think genetic damage). That experience, though, has left me with so much self-doubt and sadness when it comes to trying to figure out work I can do (my disability maybe disappearing soon, even though there’s been no improvement), that I’m terrified of what will happen when I need to start looking/working again.

      Anyway, @stress ball on a deadline, you’re not alone. So, sigh.

  6. Samiratou*

    I have to wonder if her “little more brusque” comment would matter if she weren’t a woman? Maybe her normal communication style is a little overly wordy, as women often are, and when she gets busy or stressed she gets more efficient which then translates to rude because a) it’s shorter than usual and b) female. That doesn’t excuse her shutting down all communication, obviously, but reduced communication when one is busier doing things doesn’t seem unexpected.

    The missing details and sending people to the wrong place is a big deal, and clearly she needs to have better strategies in place for managing her stress, but color me a little skeptical on the “rudeness” front.

    1. Snark*

      All of those issues may be operative AND she may be erring on the side of being so brusque as to be actively rude – it may not be one or the other. If the client has come to expect friendly, loquacious, and responsive communication and starts getting back grumpy monosyllables, is that not still an issue?

    2. Stardust*

      Let’s not make this about gender when it absolutely doesn’t have to be. Given all the other details about her behavior when stressed, it’s not really a stretch to believe that she is indeed being “rude and dismissive”.

      1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

        And it’s not a stretch to say that email tone is perceived differently coming from men and women.

        In this case, I’m not sure it matters — even if her email tone were perfect all the time, there are performance issues that need to be resolved. But it’s important to always (every time, even or especially when your first instinct is that race/gender/bias of any sort is not an element in what’s happening) consider equity and the impact of discrimination.

        1. Stardust*

          Sure, but I’m not seeing how it matters here at all–the OP names four different ways her employee’s stress manifests, and her communication coming across as rude is the least of those. Even if she erred in assessing this one point it wouldn’t make the others disappear or change the advice, so I’m not really seeing the point of bringing it up at all; the most that could happen is OP going back and realizing that she’d indeed been reading a certain tone into the emails that wasn’t actually there. She would then still have to deal with contractors showing up at the wrong work site.

          1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

            It matters every time.

            You’re right that in this case the employee’s email tone isn’t necessary to make a case that the employee is causing problems. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t examine your own (or your colleagues’ or clients’ or etc.) reactions with an equity lens.

            1. tigerlily*

              But we also have to be able to move on after we’ve examined it with that equity lens and come to the conclusion that yes, this would still be rude coming from a male coworker.

              1. teclatrans*

                But the point was to question whether it actually would have been seen as brusque if it had come from a man. Or, really, to caution OP and others to be aware that this landmine exists and so needs to be interrogated a bit before reaching a conclusion.

            2. Observer*

              Not really. It matters every time it affects next steps or evaluations. But the next steps and evaluation at this point need to be the same regardless of whether the tone issue is actually gender based. And given the genuine factual issues, it makes it a LOT less likely that the issue is, in fact, gendered.

        2. Observer*

          I have to disagree that you always have to look at discrimination.

          If the only thing that the OP were talking about were the tone issue, then I would absolutely agree with you. But the most important issue that the OP describes is simply NOT something that is generally gender based, and going there on ONE piece of the problem is a waste of everyone’s time.

          The only think I would say is that perhaps the OP should leave the issue of tone aside for the moment and focus on the substantive performance issues first. But to focus on the POSSIBILITY that her tone is not as bad as the OP thinks instead of the FACT that she is making significant errors is not reasonable or realistic in my opinion.

        3. Penny Lane*

          Well, no, it’s not necessarily important to always, every time, consider equity and the impact of discrimination in solving a work problem. Sometimes, a work problem is just a work problem and a solution is just a solution, and those problems and solutions look much the same whether the person is male/female, straight/gay, white/black/purple/polka-dotted. Not everything needs to be viewed through the lenses that you, personally, would like us to view them through.

          1. Mary*

            It’s more like taking off the lens that says “definitely no equity problems here, move along, nothing to see NO DON’T LOOK OVER THERE” just to check that that is in fact the case.

    3. Phoenix Programmer*

      This has been my experience. When Joe is stressed and sends a few short emails – he’s busy and it’s understandable. When I get overwhelmed and have to send short responses like “yes – check this folder.” “I have not finished yet. ETA is end of day.” It’s because i,’m abrasive.

      1. AnonEMoose*

        Oh, and I have so been here. Fortunately, my current boss is ok with me referring people back to notes or other resources when they ask me things that they can easily look up for themselves. End goal: making “asking AnonEMoose” the less easy option and encouraging people to use said resources. Or at least checking them first.

        I’m fortunate that my boss and I agree that this is a goal, and he is understanding that some people are going to take this redirection as “rude” or “not helpful,” no matter how polite I am about it.

        But I have been in a position where I was expected to balance fundamentally incompatible duties (i.e., “always be available to help people no matter how long it takes” and “get this project done by X day/time”) and it didn’t end well.

        It might benefit the OP to realistically assess her employee’s workload and duties to make sure this isn’t contributing to the situation. Does she have a bunch of deadlines that all hit at once? Is there anything that can be done about this? Does she have to deal with constant interruptions while trying to do work that requires concentration and focus?

        I do not mean to imply that there isn’t a performance issue – there absolutely may be. Some people really do get flustered and don’t handle stress very well. That may be the case here, for sure. All I’m really saying is that the OP should look at the whole situation, as that may be informative.

      2. Detective Amy Santiago*

        My friend sent me a link to a FB meme last night that said “Per my last email is office speak for b!tch can you read” because it made her think of me.

    4. TL -*

      In a workplace email to your colleagues, I think you’ve definitely earned the right to not have to worry about “Sounds good.” being read as brusque and unfriendly because you would normally write “Thanks! That’s great that you were able to do this so quickly and it looks fantastic.”

      But for a client email? I would argue that you do need to maintain a consistent tone, whatever it is, and having noticeable changes in tone is not acceptable, regardless of gender.

      1. Mary*

        But there might be a response that says “be shorter and more efficient all the time, so there’s no noticeable change when you’re stressed” rather than, “when you’re stressed you’re brusque and ride.”

  7. CatCat*

    I love Alison’s proposed script. So clear with the problem and identifying solutions. I wonder if the employee even knows she can get extra support. I’ve turned into a miserable stress ball and then thought that was normal because I didn’t get support when I asked for it… then I just believed this was how things were and I could never get support and that’s just how things are. I am much more proactive about asking for help now, but there was a time where I just believed being all on my own with challenges was normal.

    1. Midwest*

      Your comment hit close to home. This is my default form of operating and it’s taken a lot of time to trust that I can even ask for help. I think it’s a previous bad job coming back to bite me. There, the workload was unsustainable and when I got brave enough to ask for help, I was told that I just needed to try harder.

  8. Enough*

    Since this is happening repeatedly can you look back to when it occurs? What point of the project? What are her responsibilities at that time? Does it occur at the same point and she needs more training in that area? Does each time it’s a little further along the timeline and this is her way of coping with something new?
    Maybe this is not the right fit or she needs more training or reassurance that everyone is learning new things and shutting down is not the way to deal.

    1. teclatrans*

      these are really good questions. I think OP feels they have identified the trigger (“stress”), and a number of commenters are proposing important points of inquiry. This reminds me of some other recent thread where OP was so frustrated with a newer employee who totally screwed up (and didn’t let other people know she was overwhelmed), and a number of commenters urged process review. Sometimes it really is just the individual, but, it’s really worth some further investigation.

  9. The Ginger Ginger*

    How often is this employee feeling this level of stress? If this is frequent, I would challenge your assessment that she’s a good employee. Those kinds of oversights aren’t minor, and if she’s working in a perpetual or semi-perpetual state of frantic scrabbling, then that’s really her status quo, not an occasional issue. Reframing that in your mind may help you determine how seriously you need to treat this right out of the gate.

    But if this only happens once a year, during your busy season – well, it’s still not good to have an employee who chokes when you need them most, but at least you can plan ahead for it and implement AAM’s excellent advice.

    Just make sure you’re being honest with yourself about how frequent this type of behavior is from this employee. If it’s really frequent, it’s more a state of being than not, and it will be harder to train her out of, even following this plan. Ultimately, she may just be a poor fit for the environment/role that she’s in.

    1. The Ginger Ginger*

      Just to add – my response above assumes that her workload is still reasonable (just busier/more stressful than normal), policies and processes are reasonable, and her same-role colleagues experiencing similar increases in workload/stress aren’t having similar issues with overload. i.e. the issue is, in fact, a problem with the employee, and not with the role/job/expectations being placed on her.

      1. designbot*

        That’s what I’m wondering about. I’ve been the employee in question at times, and I’d honestly say that when I’m operating in a state of near-perpetual stress it’s definitely not a choice I’ve made. It’s usually one that my bosses have made (actually usually several my bosses have made)–like agreeing to a ridiculous project schedule, not replacing departed staff, and/or not communicating their needs in a way that allows for balanced project loads. I think it’s really important that LW ask themselves whether they might have any of those things going on to cause this employee to become so overwhelmed.

        1. TL -*

          On the other hand, I also know people who love to stress and who take no measures to control their stress levels or organize themselves so that things become more manageable – they just get stressed and everything becomes SUPER HIGH PRIORITY and there’s no time left to do any kind or organization or prioritization or calming down because don’t you see how busy they are and how much they have to do?! When, in reality, taking the time to structure their work and their schedule would be hugely beneficial.

          I wonder if she’s just come from somewhere like school, where you can feed and feed and feed the stress monster and still get everything done to your standards, and is having trouble adjusting to worklife, where it’s not a sustainable habit to do that.

    2. irritable vowel*

      Rather than challenge the assessment that she’s a good employee, how about challenging the assumption that it is a functional and healthy workplace with reasonable expectations? Other employees’ ability/willingness to function in high-stress situations should not necessarily set the bar for what is reasonable to expect from staff. This employee may be serving as the canary in the coalmine, rather than revealing her inability to perform well.

      1. irritable vowel*

        (I posted the above while you were writing your additional comment! Totally agree with what you’ve said.)

      2. Snark*

        I don’t get the impression this is a process/expectations/workload issue, but a specific response to dealing with difficult clients and contractors, and it’s persisted across assignments to multiple teams.

    3. KEG*

      Agreed. She may be a good employee in a different type of company doing different work. If she’s failing at a regular part of her role she’s not a great employee.

      1. The Ginger Ginger*

        Nope! I have a different handle on Twitch. Had no idea there were more of us gingers gingerly existing out there! I’ll have to look them up.

  10. DCompliance*

    I agree with Alison. You give her feedback, coach her, and then treat the situation like any other performance problem.

  11. Ramona Flowers*

    I feel like we are missing a lot of context. Just how reasonable is her workload and how much support does she get?

    1. Safe Now*

      This was me at my old job. My workload was RIDICULOUS*, but no one would believe me.

      *I feel most comfortable with a very, very high workload. If I’m saying it’s untenable, it’s untenable.

      1. Struck by Lightning*

        OMG yes! My last position wasn’t humanly possible. ..and yes, things slipped and I got cranky. I finally gave up and moved for a different job. They now have 2 people doing my old job plus moved some of the simple pieces to other people, and combined they are getting less done than I was. Old manager still won’t admit that it wasn’t my fault I couldn’t get everything done & was stressed of course.

        1. Detective Amy Santiago*

          Oh, hi, are you me? I got fired because my workload tripled and no one would help me and things slipped. They had to replace me with two people.

  12. Mega Super Anon for this*

    I’ll be dealing with this on the opposite end this week:

    – Really stressful time at work
    – Task slipped
    – Client noticed something incidental to this task going wrong
    – I majorly messed up and said task had been done but stuff had been missed instead of saying ‘I’m sorry the task slipped’

    I ‘fessed up to my manager this week (after spending a weekend of near constant panic attacks) and he told our client lead.

    What has helped me:

    – After giving me time to freak out (e.g. go cry in the loos while he talks to the client lead), my manager expected me to help him fix it. Gave me clear instructions on what he wanted, possibly to a micromanager level, but I needed that.

    – Client protection, it depends on what level your employee is from, but both my manager and client lead took the heat.

    – Complimented my work, which seems ridiculous, I know, but I needed to hear that I do good work, in spite of gloriously big fuck up.

    I still expect this to come back up at one point (and will raise it myself at my evaluation). OP’s letter doesn’t talk about how she reacts in the aftermath of these issues? Have you talked to her at a calmer point in time to discuss how she shuts down?

    At the time I confessed, I didn’t have the ability to be calm and go over what happened. I was shaking, had issues controlling my breathing and was, to my embarrassment, a mess. Consider talking to them once these things have passed to see how they handle it.

    1. Anon-The-Moose*

      ^^^ How she handles it after the fact is important. Is it ever discussed? Is there a debriefing after a project completes where you could discuss 1:1 with her?

  13. Bookworm*

    Agree with other people: there’s a lot missing here. How “difficult” are these clients? Are we simply talking about an increased workload with no support or a client with impossible demands or an employee who cannot prioritize and manage multiple tasks at once? Are these difficult clients the same across the different teams or are they different clients with different demands?

    Based on the available information it’s hard to know if this is someone who is really not right for the job (or at least at this level) or whether it’s time to reassess how projects/clients are managed or whether more support needs to brought in or maybe some combo plus other options. If there are other people who have managed to this job fine with the same clients or similar workload then maybe it’s the employee. But “shutting down communication” could simply be one way for the employee to focus instead of spending time writing up messages. Especially if the employee thinks no support is available and/or feels that these are the projects/tasks and it’s up to her to get it done.

    1. Lil Fidget*

      Also, have past employees in this role been able to achieve it successfully? If so, and the role hasn’t changed much, that might help point to being more of a “her” issue, as you framed it here.

  14. AK*

    OP, I’d also think about working with your employee to develop systems that keep everything working when she is stressed/her work load is high. My workload varies greatly and a few things I do consistently keep the wheels on the track at really busy times (email templates for frequently asked questions, adding due dates to my calendar, a guidance document with info on how to proceed/who to contact if certain things occur, making a to do list every morning with everything I’d like to/need to get done and prioritizing it before I start working).

    1. Lil Fidget*

      This is really good advice and might be exactly the kind of coaching this employee needs. When things are going off the rails, the basic processes that you can train yourself to follow no matter what are what’s most likely to save you.

  15. designbot*

    This sounds like a classic perfectionist issue, like the attention and dedication she gives to her work are both the thing that usually makes it so great, but also causes her to freeze up when things get to a point where perfect isn’t an option. What’s helped for me is reminding myself of error rates in other situations. Like that in school a 90% was still an A, so 10% of mistakes is still in the category of the best one can do. Or that diagnostic errors in medicine happen somewhere around 15% of the time, and nobody’s life is depending on me. Make sure that it’s okay to make mistakes, that mistakes mean evaluation of processes and thoughtfulness going forward and growth, not somebody questioning whether she deserves to be there. This gives a perfectionist the grounding and freedom to move forward when the knowledge of impending failure might otherwise overwhelm.

  16. Phoenix Programmer*

    Oh this sounds like young me. I still struggle with this 7 years into my career – mainly with the whole curt emails thing but 30 yo me personally feels it’s sexism and 23 yo me internalized every comment about being “abrasive” as a shortcoming on my end.

    For me at least the process went like this > arrive on new team > deliver better than everyone else w/in 2-3 months > 6 months in be given the most difficult clients/projects > progress these beyond where they traditionally failed > rewarded with more and more “problem assignments” > become extremely burnt out and despite communicating with my supervisors the issues keep getting told I am the only one for the job and keep up the great work.

    Yeah switching teams would help for a little while but ultimately I always ended up in the same place. The best are rewarded with more work and stress and maybe a slightly better 1-2% raise then others but the stress is disproportionate.

  17. TootsNYC*

    OP, you’re the boss, so it’s on you to look at all available resources and determine which ones might be available.
    You should then discuss them with Stressed-Out Susan, to get her input on which will be most effective. And she might have ideas you should listen to–but you are the one to be proactive here.

    I also want to point out: There are logistical things that can be done to mitigate stress, or workload, or details.
    Has your employee automated as much as she can?
    Can she create a set of habits that pushes out details to clients well before the stressful period hits, so she doesn’t have to worry about getting things wrong in the middle of the scrum?
    Can she write templates for emails that she can tap into to avoid the perception of rudeness?

    (like, make sure contractors have all addresses for clients handy; or putting those things on Google Docs, so she doesn’t have to push out addresses; she just pushes out the name of the client?)

    (Or, have her set up different customized staffing charts for each client, or each workload, or each upcoming project, that she can grab and then just fill in?)

    I like Mega Super Anon for this‘s point above about “aftermath.”
    Sit down w/ Susan and do a postmortem on the project, the stress, and the errors. Use them not as a chance to scold, but as an arrow pointing to the solution. Are those problems likely to occur again? Is there a way to prevent them, or to keep them from having such a big impact?
    Get her to start thinking about systems, trends, patterns, etc., so the solutions are springing from Susan and not being imposed by you.

  18. Em*

    I used to be like this and my co-workers would make similar comments – you’re a really hard worker, a star teammate and you’re really good at your job but when it gets stressful, you tend to get frantic and not up to the quality we usually expect from you.
    I had to do a lot of self-reflection because I KNEW how I would get, I was not surprised to hear this and was disappointed because I didn’t know how to change it. I tried everything but it wasn’t until I hit rock bottom that I came to realization that it wasn’t just stress, it was that I was dealing with anxiety.

    It’ll be a year this month since I started therapy and I’m MUCH better for it, in fact, I received two promotions within the year. Not sure how you can approach someone with that or if you even should but I really saw myself and my situation in this letter and maybe someone who is experiencing these issues might benefit from my little story.

  19. SallytooShort*

    Most of this is a huge problem and I’m not dismissing that part. But just switching to a very narrow part is the switching to email really such a big deal? If you’re stressed and know you are spacing on some thing it’s really better to have everything in writing. I do that too.

    1. TootsNYC*

      also, email lets you control your time, and the communication.

      If you have a difficult client, and they’re stressing you out, is it really productive to be on the phone with them?

    2. Snark*

      That’s a good point. I generally prefer to do everything by email even when it’s smooth sailing, just so I can refer back when I go “now wait, when the hell was I going to meet with Wakeen?”

    3. Nita*

      True. I feel like emails actually help when you’re slammed. They’re easier to prioritize then phone calls, and I don’t have to drop what I’m doing to respond. Yes, of course, a personal conversation or a call are sometimes 1000 times better, but preferring email is not a problem by itself.

      Unless, of course, the employee is ignoring calls AND taking a really long time to respond to urgent emails.

      1. Pollygrammer*

        It sounds like the job is normally expected to involve phone/in-person communication though.

    4. Matt*

      That’s what I immediately thought as soon as I read this. I guess it depends on the job. I’m a developer, and when I’m dealing with multiple incidents and trying to solve them, it isn’t exactly helpful if the user, the help desk guy, the key account manager, project manager, whoever call me at 5 minute intervals asking for the current status and reminding me of how urgent this is. I too switch to “email only” in this type of situation.

  20. nnn*

    In addition to what others have said, it might be helpful to the employee to make it clear to her which aspects of the situation are not her problem to worry about.

    – “Your job is to handle the requests in the queue in the order they come in. If the queue has a backlog of more than 20 requests, your job is to inform me of the backlog, and keep working on the requests in the order they come in unless I instruct you to do otherwise. Once you have informed me, the backlog is my problem, not yours. All you have to do is keep processing the requests as usual.”

    It might also be helpful to explicitly tell her what her priorities are and what she can put on hold in overloaded situations.

    – “Unless management tells you otherwise, your top priority is to make sure contractors get dispatched properly. If a difficult client is demanding your attention, you still have to prioritize getting the other contractors dispatched properly so we don’t have additional complaints. This means you can put off responding to the difficult client until the contractors are all dispatched.”

  21. Hello...ello...ello..ello..llo..llo..lo*

    I could have written this letter about an employee, so I’ll give my experience. Maybe the LW can get some advice from it and to illustrate that stressed employee does not automatically equal intolerable workplace:

    My employee Hilda is a self described worker bee. Happy as a clam with a steady workload and within her comfort zone. Once anything happens that moves her out of her comfort zone she would act just as the LW described. Snappy/grumpy comments and voice while speaking, tears, anger, and shutting down to just about everything. Now when not in that mode, she’s a great employee.

    What kinds of things pushes her outside the comfort zone; an uptick in work (not sustained or unreasonable expectations by me to finish), having to cover for another employee’s time off (not extended at most a week, with reasonable adjustments or considerations to workload), ad hoc work assignments -basically anything that isn’t part of her core responsibilities.

    We worked for a good 2 or so years on this together. Here’s some of what we did. (I say we, because it was a joint effort!)

    1. We had specific discussions (outside the heat of the moment) to discuss what was happening and how it was affecting her work. She knew it was happening and didn’t have tools to manage it on her own. Her eyes lit up when I said observing her while overwhelmed was like watching her get surrounded by a tornado that started feeding off it’s own energy. She agreed with that analogy. We both came up with ideas for her to manage; talk to me when she was getting overwhelmed, take some outside seminar type classes on stress management, take a break from the immediate situation that was sparking the overwhelmed state, etc.

    2. I would call out the behavior when it was happening (yes this made the stress worse in the moment) then I would have her take ‘some time’ -leave early if it was late afternoon, have lunch if it was near lunch etc. I would specifically tell her I was backing off, but we would talk later.

    3. Followed up with a coaching session to find out what was going on, brainstorm ideas on how to avoid the problem the next time, reinforced that I had observed her trying to do better etc.

    4. She didn’t get a pass for her performance or behavior during these overwhelmed times. But I was consistent in how I treated her. So she knew what to expect. In other words if she missed a deadline during a normal time the consequences would be the same as if she missed them during an overwhelmed period.

    Lots of time and effort later; is she perfect? No, but she’s much better than we started. We’re both better at seeing the warning signs. And at the end of the day as an employee her good days outnumber the bad and she’s normally a solid employee. So it’s something we keep an eye on and address if needed. If she didn’t make progress or her work was subpar either in the overwhelmed period or out of it, I’m not sure I would have put as much effort into coaching, if I’m honest.

    1. Mediamaven*

      I had an employee just like you describe and I think I did nothing that you did, and did most everything wrong. I constantly tried to smooth everything over, find out how we can help, tell her how wonderful and valuable she was, added emojis and exclamation points to all correspondence because that made her feel good, and gave into everyone of her emotionally charged demands. And this was one of my top managers who did good work but was the most inefficient employees that I had. She ended up quitting anyway and left truly feeling like she had no responsibility for the failing. I won’t let that happen again. Sounds like you really have it together!

  22. Nita*

    If sending contractors somewhere is involved, I’ll take a wild guess this employee’s work is time-sensitive, possibly with an unpredictable volume day to day, and possibly involving some clients who ask for the impossible (i.e., calls at 4:45 PM Friday demanding that two crews that are normally scheduled a week in advance should be at the site at 7 AM Monday).

    So in the interest of figuring out how to keep things running smoothly…
    – is the employee aware in the moment that she’s in over her head, and must be more careful?
    – is her workload realistic? Does some of her work need to be delegated?
    – Is the employee spending a lot of time in meetings or field visits? That can seriously cut into response time and ability to coordinate projects with many moving parts.
    – is there adequate staffing on the contractor side?
    – does the employee need coaching to better track multiple projects?
    – does the employee need coaching in how to say no to clients who want the impossible, or at least how to decide what’s a legit emergency vs. the client’s poor planning?
    – are others doing better in the same role? What are they doing differently?

  23. Artemesia*

    I am back to the first comment in the thread. This does not sound like a good employee. Either she isn’t or the job itself is not manageable. So of course the OP needs to get a better handle on the job; does it require frequent long long days for days at a time? Is there more work than can be reasonably done? How does her performance compare with other similar employees? Are there support resources. But if this is not the issue then it sounds like this person is not a good fit for the job; if they can’t turn it around with minimal feedback then it is time to move them into a different role or fire them. Being short with people when stressed — well not really a big deal (and maybe issues of sexism here as others have noted) but sending contractors to the wrong site or not having resources in place for a project? That sort of thing gets to happen once, before you seriously question the fitness of the person for the job. Anyone can screw up but if this is happening with some regularity then you need someone else in this role.

  24. MissingArizona*

    Goodness this sounds like me. My first “real” job involved a manager that would go completely insane at the slightest mistake, we’re talk yelling and throwing things insane. It took me years before I left that job, but the feeling still lingers. I can’t shake the fear that the slightest mistake means I’m going to suffer abuse, so I start to break down, and before I know it, everything falls apart. It affects me at current jobs, even though I know rationally that a sane manager isn’t going to do that. And I’m a stress cryer, so that doesn’t help either.

  25. Mimmy*

    Oh lordy if I didn’t know better, I’d think I’m the stressed out employee! I was reprimanded this past Friday, which led to a discussion about the anxiety I sometimes exhibit. My supervisor is lovely and was not harsh with me; but I think she dismisses the anxiety I feel.

  26. Pollygrammer*

    Is she apologetic? If she comes to realize that she was rude or otherwise performed poorly, or if it’s pointed out to her, does she apologize? Because she needs to. Even if it means as her manager straight-up telling her “you did/said X, I need you to apologize.”

  27. Not So NewReader*

    At some point, OP, you do have to tell her that these problems are not acceptable and they need to be fixed.
    However, I LOVE a piece of advice I had heard. “If you wait until you are upset then you have waited too long to say there is a problem.” When she first notices the pressure building she needs to be able to signal for help OR know what your priorities are OR some other mechanism so that she can start to bail herself out.

    Priorities: My current boss leaves my priorities sitting on my chair or keyboard. This is great, I know exactly what is absolutely necessary today. I can knock that right out, get it done and move on.
    Another boss on a different job told me, “I will tell you each morning where your focus is today.” Perfect. I have five projects going on, it does not matter to me which ones I do. I am just here to make sure the boss gets what she needs today.

    Signalling for help: Some jobs had standard operating procedures for how to drag in help on the spur of the moment. Can calls be directed to someone else if this employee is already working with someone on a call? Some places have buzzers or use hand gestures ,etc to prompt a cohort to pick up a call or take a customer who has just walked in.

    If a ton of work comes in that must be dealt with does this employee have a backup person who helps, even if it is just for a short time? One place I worked got deliveries twice a week. Everyone stopped and pitched in to unpack the tractor trailer load of stuff and put it away. It was not a one person job.

    Every job has it’s difficult scenarios that come up repeatedly. When a customer comes in angry that their lawn mower will not snow blow the driveway is your employee equipped to handle that recurring complaint? Many places hear the same complaint over and over so they build a standardized response to that complain. Employees who know what to tell the outsider are less apt to lose their cool.
    Are your employees encouraged to back each other up? Some angry customers can be better dealt with in conversation with TWO employees rather than just one.

    I equate loss of temper with lack of ability (real or imagined) to handle a situation. Encourage your employee to figure out what she needs to handle that situation so she will be prepared the next time. This is a slow process because it means analyzing what went wrong each time. She should be able to do some of this on her own and save the tougher questions for you.

  28. Aisling*

    Interesting. I also feel like this email could be about me- though I’m fairly certain it isn’t. So I’ll echo that the issue may not be the reaction to stress, but what is causing the stress. In my case my department downsized recently and I am now doing the work of 2 full time people, and this is the new normal. My supervisor’s boss does not understand that we now have fewer people and the work load has increased from what it was with a fully staffed department. I work in a team but as the fastest worker, it’s easier for the team to let me take care of something than jump in and help. If I don’t take care of something, it will slip through the cracks- I’ve tried it. My supervisor will help if I ask, but she seems to think it’s just a bit of help for a particular task, and not every day. I also find that reactions to my communications mean that I dared tell someone “No” when they wanted “Yes”. I like my job and my team, but I’m already working a double work load, and when projects are due NOW the other work doesn’t stop, yeah, I get stressed trying to juggle it all. My answer is to look for other jobs, because I’ve tried talking to my supervisor and while she’s sympathetic, it’s not going to change.

  29. constablestark*

    I feel like this is about me, except I’ve already seen the consequences to my actions or lack thereof. I’ve started seeing a therapist towards the end of the year (who was so helpful during my first session that I knew we would continue), got myself an effective app blocker on my phone, and started meditating. I still have off days when I’m not as productive as I could be, but I’m trying to forgive myself and regroup quicker.

    Regaining trust is a process and I do feel the sort of social backlash, but I have to remind myself that actions have consequences and that this would pass. Also, that I don’t ever want to feel like an underperformer ever again.

    If you AAM folks would have advice on how I can weather this while trying to regain my superiors’ and colleagues’ trust, I’d really appreciate it.

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