I’m scared to tell my boss how behind on work I am

A reader writes:

I’m awake at 2 a.m. because I’m ashamed to say I’m six months or more behind on my work.

I work in the accounting department of a service organization, keeping the books for multiple clients. Back in June, my department migrated to a new software that none of us had worked with. A consultant helped teach us the system and things went okay the first month.

In July, when we started to reconcile bank statements, my regular work began to fall behind (as did many of my coworkers). Entering data and reconciling June, July, and August was pretty much all I did for three months because the learning curve of the new system and new workflow processes slowed me down. I started to defer any work that didn’t have hard deadlines, and everyone’s job duties expanded as we took on tasks that another team had previously been doing. Our overtime policy went from “no overtime at all” to “all the overtime you can work.” On top of that, we changed to an open office environment, so people were interrupted much more often. There was a ton of change.

Since September, permission for overtime has been revoked. I kept up-to-date with anything that had a hard deadline, and I tried to catch up on everything else when I could. I have done everything I know to do to maximize efficiency. My boss has been giving me additional responsibilities not assigned to most of the department because I’ve demonstrated competence, and I’m conveniently located right next to her.

We’re also growing at a phenomenal speed but haven’t hired additional personnel in months, and most of us report that we cannot take on more clients. Our boss’s reaction to this alternates between (a) being incredulous that we can’t complete all of our work in 40 hours, and (b) recognizing we need help, but blaming her boss for not letting her hire more people.

Meanwhile, my husband has not worked since April due to factors beyond his control. He was diagnosed with cancer in June. This made me a de facto single parent in some ways, and child care limited how much overtime I could work. Stress has made me so forgetful that our bank account has been overdrawn a couple of times because the scheduled bill payments have paid our bills without a thought by me. We’ve had numerous late night trips to the cancer emergency department, four hospitalizations for my husband including major surgery, and my car was totaled in an accident. My employer has been amazingly understanding through all of this, but my work just stacked up more when I was absent.

Yesterday, I found time to pick up the work I had ignored. I realized I had not finished work from August for at least one client. Most of my other clients are backed up to at least the end of December. I am so ashamed. Cash could have been stolen in August and I wouldn’t be catching it until now. Clients are going to wonder why I’m just now correcting errors made in August, and I’ll need their memory to help resolve them.

I haven’t asked for help before now because everyone else has been crazy busy too and I didn’t realize I was this far behind until yesterday. Even my supervisor is too swamped with extra work to have reviewed our work like she used to do. I am in disbelief at long I let this work sit. Time has flown by. I feel I need to speak up and ask for help, but I am so ashamed. I don’t want to face admonishment. What should I do? How can I say it?

Reading your letter, my first question was: Who in your position would not be behind on their work? Even leaving out the many stresses in your personal life, the changes at your company would be enough to make anyone fall behind. You’re being asked to do considerably more work than you used to, but without additional time or staff to get it done. You aren’t superhuman; the numbers here just don’t add up in any realistic way.

And on top of everything else, your husband has been seriously ill? Of course your work suffered. What you’re dealing with is really hard. You are not a bad person for letting this happen. You’ve been trying to juggle an unrealistic amount, in terms of both time and logistics but also in terms of emotional bandwidth. It’s too much! You fell down because you are human.

That said … next time, tell your boss what is and isn’t getting done so she can provide input on things like “let’s prioritize X over Y” and “let’s cut out Z entirely for now” — which will ease your stress and help you know what to focus on first. At the very least, if you’re honest and open with her, she’ll know what’s happening and what to say (and she’ll be able defend you) if clients get upset or if her own boss has questions. Not alerting your boss to what was happening was the real mistake here.

But it sounds like you may not have had the emotional bandwidth to even fully realize the extent of your backlog until you finally had a moment to catch your breath. You were juggling so much that something in the situation had to go, and that turned out to be your broader awareness of how much work was piling up.

Right now, you need to talk to your boss. You said you’re scared of admonishment. But what if you reframed this fear in your head so that admonishment doesn’t mean “you’re a terrible employee” (which it usually does not mean) but rather just what you already know — that yes, you messed up and you’ll have to talk about how to fix it, but then you can move forward?

When you talk to her, don’t pull any punches or make excuses; just lay it out bluntly. In fact, the blunter you are and the more you own what happened here, the better your conversation is likely to go. You could say something like this: “I need to talk to you about being really behind on my work. Some of the unfinished work is from August and December. I knew it was piling up partly because of the new software and our increased workload over the past six months, and partly because of the stress I’ve been under due to John’s illness, but I didn’t realize how far behind some work had gotten until this week, when I finally had time to review everything. I’m mortified, and I know I should have caught this and come to you sooner. I wanted to talk to you about it immediately, and I have a plan for how to get caught up.”

That last sentence is important because ideally you’ll have prepared at least the start of a plan for how to tackle the backlog, so you’re not just dumping a problem in your boss’s lap. Make sure your plan is realistic, though! Don’t propose working around the clock every day for the next month or anything else you can’t really commit to. It’s better to be brutally honest about what you can do and how long it will take than to over-promise. (Also, if you’re too overwhelmed to have a plan, that’s okay too. I’ve had overwhelmed employees come to me and say, “I don’t know where to even start cleaning this up,” and it was fine. We came up with a plan together.)

The thing is, all of us mess up at work sometimes, and your manager’s job is to make sure you understand what happened so that you can both ensure it doesn’t happen again. Bad managers can be punitive about that, but good managers won’t be; they just need to make sure that whatever happened is addressed and guarded against in the future. If your boss tells you it’s a problem that you didn’t catch the backlog earlier and tell her about it — well, that’s true, and you can agree with her, because if you could do it over differently, you would. Sometimes simply agreeing to criticism (“I know this is a huge problem, and I’m mortified”) can really defuse things — because this shows the person who’s criticizing you that you already get it. Your manager isn’t there to berate you, after all, so if you show her that you understand your mistake, you can both move on and fix the situation. (If your manager is the berating type, that’s a different story. But you said she’s been great about accommodating your needs during your husband’s health crisis, so I’m hopeful that she’s reasonable.)

You’re a good employee who got hit with a perfect storm of increased work pressures at the same time as a crisis at home. Explain it, take responsibility for it, work to fix it, and you will likely be okay. The more you can reframe this in your head as “yes, I let things slip during a time of great stress and need to fix it now, but people mess up, and I am human,” the better.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

Read updates to this letter herehere, and here.

{ 117 comments… read them below }

  1. Dagny*

    The part that concerns me is that they are in the accounting department, and the OP said that money could have been stolen from her clients for months and they would now only be noticing.

    There are ethical and potentially professional licensure ramifications for this. The OP did not indicate that she is a CPA, in which case, she may have issues with her own license, or if the company has legal or ethical obligations to its clients. Regardless, this likely has issues beyond getting caught up from August, and it may be worth asking what company in its right mind screws around with this particular department. It’s not really optional to understaff the people whose literal job it is to prevent fraud.

    1. she was a fast machine*

      My first thought is I wonder how behind the rest of the office is because based on what OP is saying, it sounds like her entire department is struggling to get out from under the bus they were thrown at. Departments consolidated, extra duties passed on to people, new software…all of that alone is enough to make it crazy for people, and the fact that they gave overtime means they should have known it was going to get hairy and not just immediately resolve itself after summer. The business has bigger issues if it can’t staff its departments adequately, especially as you said when it comes to financial stuff.

      1. Talbot*

        Completely agree. Maybe she feels she is further behind because the personal life factors have put her further back than the other overworked employees. But she shoudn’t dwell on the guilt or shame. This sounds like an institutional failure on the part of her company. They have failed to adequately manage their transitions and growth (which is a common problem, but not one which should be on the shoulders of an employee dealing with a terrible family problem), and her direct superiors have failed to keep track of at least one employee’s progress over a long period of time.

        1. Creed Bratton*

          Very well said. And Allison gives a good script for how to sound appropriately humble but OP needs to realize this is a reflection of something much bigger than her work ethic.

        2. selena81*

          When i read the title i thought this was going to be about someone being behind because of some combination of laziness and stupidity. Because of the ‘i am scared to say anything’ part.
          But the story gives no reason for LW to be embarrassed AT ALL: the whole department fell behind because of unreasonable demands from above, and she may or may not have fallen behind a bit more then the rest because of huge stress-factors in her own life.

          Of course there are always some more things she could have done if she was going for the title of ‘perfect employee’ (talk with her manager about which tasks to prioritize, pressure her manager to make more of a fuzz to upper-management, etc), but in the grand scheme of things it sounds like she already went above and beyond for a company that couldn’t be bothered to take proper care of the needs of LW and her colleagues.

      2. Hey Karma, Over here.*

        This is my thought. This is going to have a ripple effect through the department and I think that’s going to be good overall. I’m sure a lot of people are at your point or close to it, but haven’t yet sat down and assessed. Or they’ve given up.
        The whole department needs to stop, review and plan.
        And if OP is the only one behind and it is a combination of software ability and personal life matters, then maybe someone else could step in. But I doubt this is going to be the case!

      3. AnnaBananna*

        Exactly, that’s why I don’t agree with OP falling on the sword for what happened, at least not entirely. I think she should get caught up with the August client, and then perhaps bring it up with boss/team to find out who else is super behind, because I guarantee she’s not the only one who is hiding how behind she is.

        That said, this is a wonderful opportunity for OP to take a step back and figure out how to trim the fat. What is the current process and where in that chain is there excess? Are they double posting for record keeping? Are they listing details elsewhere? Are they communicating more than once with the client each transaction, etc, so that going forward they can eliminate unnecessary steps. This will allow the future catch-up to go that much quicker.

    2. AnotherAlison*

      I dealt with a similar situation from the client side, so while I have enormous sympathy for the OP in her work and personal situation, I am a little ticked off with the company for how they have been managing their clients.

      We had our books done by a bookkeeper in our accountant’s office. As long as Kristi was there, all was good. Kristi quit, and our books never got done in the 9 months after that, which ended up causing us to owe some unexpected taxes, and some other corporation forms didn’t get filed. (Typically, my husband would send form X to Kristi, and it would get done. The accountant would also tell us, “we expect your taxes due will be “Y”” and we could plan. This year, he waited until the last minute, called us April 14, and told us we owed $4,000 instead of his previous estimate of $1000. We had friends who used him who owed $50,000.)

      We fired that accountant, and about 6 months later he “sold” his business to another firm. I suspect there could be some long-term ramifications for this firm once this all shakes out. Not the OP’s fault entirely, but the backlog should have been brought up much sooner. I never faulted anyone but the owner at our accountant’s office. He should not sell services he can’t fulfill.

      1. Sloan Kittering*

        Yes this isn’t OP’s failure, it’s the company’s failure. Especially if they have no checks and balances to notice something like this. OP as an individual can’t be responsible for a systemic workflow issue like this, and I suspect other clients have experienced the same thing from other employees at the firm. The company needs to hire or contract support for OP (and this can help explain why they’re revisiting things from August, too).

      2. AnnaBananna*

        Oh, absolutely. There should be checks and balances throughout this process and it’s clear that there is little oversight outside of the client. I have little faith that her boss is effective in her role – unless she too is excessively behind and hiding it from her own superiors.

        1. OP for Today*

          My boss is also adjusting to her boss, hired about a year ago. Previous boss was very laissez faire, letting my boss run the department. Now her “new” boss is hands on and doesn’t let her run the department as she did before. There’s probably politics more to it, but I’d rather not speculate too much.

    3. VictorianCowgirl*

      Bookkeepers literal job is not to prevent fraud, other than making sure best practices are being followed and that internal controls are in place – which is technically in the purview of an accountant to set up, not a bookkeeper – and if she’s processing bookkeeping, she likely doesn’t have a CPA license. However a bookkeeper can catch fraud.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        If you’re going by the strictest definition of a bookkeeper, you’re correct. However whoever is in charge of books on a daily basis is the first line of defense, if you cannot trust your bookkeeper to catch fraud, you have a bad system in place and you will be taken advantage of.

        I can see why I’ve cleaned up so many messes over the years though because I know that many do hire people for bookkeeping that are not exiting their lane enough and just chug along following procedures.

      2. Dagny*

        It said accounting department, not bookkeeper. Do not introduce new language and then use a very limited definition of your own language to tell me that I’m wrong.

    4. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      The thing that jumps to my attention is that there are deadlines to report fraudulent charges by financial institutions. I’m a tiger about constant reconciliations because I know that places do steal your card information and will put through charges that seem standard that only by paying close attention you see they’re bogus. You have 90 days to report them usually to file a chargeback. So if someone stole your card or signed up for one of those auto-renewal programs that charge you every month, you don’t catch them for six months, you can only get back three months of charges if you’re lucky. Ick ick ick the longer they go, the harder it is to prove that you never approved of them either :(

  2. AD*

    Good general advice for owning up to an error, but also in this case:
    -find a carer support group
    -take some sick days for your own mental health
    -look into FMLA

    It is not your sole responsibilty to keep your company going. You need a break.

  3. Czhorat*

    Poor OP.

    In hindsight, you’re right that they needed to raise the flag sooner. In practice, we are where we are. “I fell behind on non-urgent tasks because of the switchover to the new system” is at least an explanation.

    The longer it drags on, the worse it gets. That you didn’t realize you were months behind is not great, but it’s very likely recoverable. It’s harder to recover if someone else discovers it.

    1. Yikes*

      Indeed. And, frankly, the fact that no one else has discovered it points to general dysfunction in the organization and department that is not the OP’s fault. Ideally, in a department handling tasks like this, there should be enough staffing that one person dropping the ball would be noticed. The fact that didn’t happen, to my mind, really shows that OP really is literally doing the best she can under circumstances largely created by her employer, specifically under-staffing and a chaotic software transition, on top of a physical move. I’m not necessarily saying none of this is OP’s fault, but at the same time it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in her shoes doing any better.

      1. Sloan Kittering*

        Even if everything at the office was 100% perfect, as a manager I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that OP was struggling with the workload given her family situation. So those two totally understandable circumstances together equals reasonable expectation of leeway in my opinion.

      2. Clorinda*

        They’re probably ALL behind by about the same amount, or someone would have brought it to someone else’s attention by now. Certainly, the person who’s supposed to be overseeing OP’s work is at least that much behind or they’d have noticed. It’s like she’s working in a vacuum (most likely it feels like working in a deep dark hole).

        1. Someone Else*

          Yeah, it’s definitely a flag about the entire office (or at least this department/workgroup) if she got this behind and no one else noticed or suspected enough to ask her about it. Either they already know and never said anything, or if genuinely no one knows without her saying it…they have internal problems that go well beyond OP.

  4. Bend & Snap*

    I gotta ugh the manager on this one. She should be tuned in to how those changes affect her team and be on deck for problem solving.

    1. Czhorat*


      That you can be several months behind without anyone noticing is really not a good look for the team in general, and says bad things about the manager – especially as there’s been a recent major process change.

    2. AnotherAlison*

      Yes. . .but the manager is likely overwhelmed with work, too. OP sounds like a former top employee. OP is likely one of the things the manager thought she could put on the backburner, as in, “Jane hasn’t said anything, and I know I can count on her for good work. I can focus on managing Steve, Terry, and these clients. . .”

      1. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

        Sure but how is a manager not noticing that things are 6 months behind? I’m sure she’s not oblivious to the fact that these major changes can affect her team, and she should have been checking in with OP. Nobody wants a micro-manager, but an occasional check in during lots of changes and stressful times is management 101.

        1. ThursdaysGeek*

          Because the manager is overwhelmed, just trying to keep the bigger fires under control, and too busy to look around and see the bigger picture too?

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Yes. If the manager had written in with a similar letter to the OP’s, people would be telling her it was the fault of the management above her for giving her and team this workload and no extra help.

            1. Oranges*

              That’s where I end up. I don’t think the OP has much blame personally. I think she should mea culpa since it’ll make the conversation go better but that’s me.

              I also think that the manager needs to have a come to jesus with the higher ups since they’re waffling between “work faster” and “I can’t get more people”. Something’s gotta give and it might be the company.

          2. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

            Yep. Supporting your team is part of a manager’s job. Being busy doesn’t give you a pass to ignore them. While this manager may not have the ability to approve overtime or bring more people onto the team to help, she should at least be aware of what’s going on, and working with her team to figure out a solution.

      2. Beth*

        Yes, but I think that’s Bend & Snap’s point–if things are to the point where a manager has someone on the backburner for so long that they don’t notice their backlog is 6 months old, that reflects on the manager as much as the employee.

        Also, frankly, I have concerns about the common sense of a manager who goes, “Hm, Jane’s husband has cancer, she’s had several emergencies recently that I know of, she’s needed accommodations and understanding this year…but she probably doesn’t need any extra attention, I’m sure things are fine!” Those are circumstances where a manager should be proactively keeping track of what’s on their team member’s plate and whether any of it needs to be handed off.

        1. Beth*

          Which, for the record, isn’t to say that this is all the manager’s fault either; it sounds like the entire team (manager included) is massively overloaded to the extent that it’s expected that some balls get dropped. But OP definitely shouldn’t feel like the situation is all her fault. There are supposed to be safety nets in place to catch these kinds of problems, she’s an obvious case for needing more support than usual, and the fact that she hasn’t gotten those things really shows how much this is a bigger problem in the company.

        2. t.i.a.s.p.*

          Not just “things are fine”, but giving her EXTRA work: “My boss has been giving me additional responsibilities not assigned to most of the department because I’ve demonstrated competence, and I’m conveniently located right next to her.”

  5. Lily Rowan*

    Ooof. What Alison says is totally right. Good luck to you — I hope things get better on the work and home fronts both!

    I will also note that the advice is ALSO 100% right for people who are just a little behind (like me, right now, who should have talked to my boss last week and finally did it yesterday…)

    1. Estraven*

      Yep, this is absolutely right. I emailed my line manager, project manager and co-worker at 3am Sunday night because I was so anxious about having been unable to progress a project. One 1-1 and one project team meeting later, we’ve got a plan for what I can do in the remaining time, where I can still add value in the project, and for getting help with the remaining work. It was a massive weight off.
      Best wishes, OP.

    2. Emily K*

      This letter actually gives me strong vibes reminiscent of the poor fellow who kept paying off his corporate credit card with cash advances via Paypal from the same card and as a result of compounding fees was tens of thousands of dollar in debt, as I recall.

      IIRC, that LW sent in an update. They had bit the bullet, come clean, and it had gone reasonably well for them all things considered. They were disciplined but put on a payment plan and kept their job if memory serves.

      Hoping for a similar outcome for today’s OP. Good luck, and be brave!

  6. Amy*

    I feel so bad for the poor OP. Pal, I’m thinking of you and I hope things get a little easier for you really soon.

    1. irene adler*

      Me too! This makes me want to step up and help OP with the catching-up.

      This is why it’s so important for managers to regularly “take the pulse” of their reports regarding the work load. Not to be punitive, but to help get the work done (re-prioritize, delay some projects, find additional workers, authorize OT, whatever). Don’t just assume all is well. Go find out.

      I think OP should be given the week off to regenerate their energies.

    2. Cassandra*

      Solidarity, OP. I came about an inch away from breaking down in tears in a staff meeting last week. Been a bit stressful in my workplace lately — like you, more work but no more people to do it.

      For what it’s worth, my management has been very helpful and supportive. I hope yours is too.

  7. Jennifer*

    I have been there, OP. If it makes you feel better most people where much nicer than I imagined they would be in my head. Talk to your boss.

  8. Angelinha*

    I’ve also had people come to me in similar situations, where they felt like they had totally screwed up and they had no idea how they were going to solve it…and I got to tell them that, while I appreciated how seriously they were taking things, in reality the situation wasn’t nearly as dire as they thought it was. Your manager may have additional context that shows why this isn’t such a big problem in the grand scheme of things! Or they may not, but to find out, you do need to talk to them. Good luck!

    1. TootsNYC*

      I’ve also been the person who could say, “Yeeps, that is bad, I’m going to give you X, Y, and Z resources to get caught up.”

  9. Snack Management*

    That level of stress has some pretty intense and surprising side effects on your mind and capabilities. A lot of us have been there and empathize. Well wishes as you go through this all.

  10. henrietta*

    It will be so much better if OP is the one to bring the backlog to the attention of The Powers that Be — which also means OP’s management should be right skippy in letting the affected clients know. I speak from experience that if the information comes from the other direction (i.e. from the clients’ side), it will be so much worse. “I didn’t tell you because I knew you’d get mad” is why I fired a vendor. Had they fessed up when they learned of the problem, we would have worked together to fix it/mitigate it and we could have moved forward.

    The sooner OP speaks up, the sooner they can address things!

    1. TootsNYC*

      When I was a kid, I broke a plate that had sentimental meaning for my mom. Totally an accident–I was putting the dishes away, and it was leaning in the back, and it fell over. We’d gotten a HUGE lecture several weeks before about treating it carefully, etc.

      I hid it in the bottom of the trash, because I was afraid of getting in trouble. My mom found it.

      After all the crying and yelling and crying and groveling, my mom told me something that I have followed forever:
      If you tell me about it right away, I promise I will listen. And I won’t get mad if it’s not appropriate to. Accidents happen.
      But if you hide it from me, I will get really mad. Tell me right away.

      It’s almost a compulsion now. To fess up.

  11. Eleanor Rigby*

    Alison, I imagine these letters are sent via the magazine, is there any way you can reach out to ask for an update later on in the year?

  12. MW Accountant*

    OP- I feel for you. A few years ago, we switched to a completely new software system and then 2 months into that transition, we moved offices. It was a hellish year, to say the least. I think everyone in our office was ready to quit at least once a month. Reading your letter, I can’t help but be wonder where the heck your manager (and to an extent, the software company) were in all of this. The software consultants that we worked with guided us in setting up an action plan for the transition, and helped us come up with benchmarks to reach at certain dates etc. Our manager worked as a project lead, checking in with everyone frequently to see where we were in the process, making sure we were staying on track, not burning out too badly etc. I just can’t even imagine…Please don’t feel like all the blame is on you, because it’s not. I hope you can have a mtg with your manager and put together an action plan– I think you’ll feel so much better once it’s in the open and you have a plan of attack. Take care of yourself & best wishes for your family.

    1. Sloan Kittering*

      Plus the family illness is a total kicker, I don’t think anybody is going to be surprised that OP couldn’t keep up with this situation. She may need to look at FMLA options to be honest, and that may help her manager realize the work needs to be redistributed and OP needs more support.

    2. TardyTardis*

      We had a software company that decided to shut down and do an update…at year end. You know, when accountants often need information? There were Phone Calls. Unhappy Phone Calls.

  13. PeteyKat*

    Oh I feel for you, OP! I hope everything works out. You sound like a good employee who got thrown for a loop with all the work changes and then the punch in the face with the husband getting ill. Talk to your boss – I think you will feel better just getting this off your chest and out there. It will no longer be an unspoken burden on your shoulders. You can discuss this with your boss and come up with a plan to finish up this work.

  14. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

    In addition to the advice Alison provided, I’d like to say there is no reason to feel shame. You are human, and have been dealt a crap sandwich. Talk to your manager ASAP and figure out a way to fix the situation. I’m a big believer in taking responsibility for your own actions, but in this case, your manager is partially at fault. She may be stressed too, but as a manager its up to her to support her team. If she hasn’t noticed that work isn’t getting done and checked in occasionally, that’s a problem.

    1. CM*

      Yes, absolutely! The company loaded you up on work while taking away overtime, and threw major office transitions at you to boot. You worked as hard as you were able and ended up in a difficult situation. As soon as you identified what was wrong, you started thinking about how you should communicate about it and help fix the problem. There’s no call for shame here and I hope you will be straightforward when you explain what’s happening rather than shouldering all the blame.

      1. Cedrus Libani*

        Yep. It’s one thing to have occasional crunch times. Intentional under-staffing is different. It’s not an emergency, it’s a strategy. They are hoping that you will keep doing overtime without getting paid for your work. That’s money they are stealing from you and putting in their pocket.

        On the plus side, the last thing anyone wants to do when laughably backlogged is to fire the fully trained, conscientious employee who decides they’re done with unpaid overtime. They’d have to replace you. The replacement would probably be semi-useless for months while they ramp up. The powers that be may not like it, but they’d probably rather have you for 40-50 hours per week than not at all. That is power, and you can use it.

        1. OP for Today*

          I’ve been tempted to work remotely from home without clocking in, just to catch up a little. But I haven’t seriously considered it because it just exacerbates the problem, not showing the hours actually needed to do the work on paper.

          1. CommanderBanana*

            OP, I’m so sorry, and if your manager’s response is that she’s shocked – SHOCKED!! – that you can’t do everything all at once and she also “can’t” hire more people, she sucks, plain and simple.

        2. OP for Today*

          My boss has half-jokingly asked if I’d be her assistant, as in a big title change (and definitely a pay increase cuz DUH), but I left it open ended. I assume I’d drop my regular duties and someone else would take them (and it’d have to be a new hire). But I don’t feel qualified and it could step on toes of my coworker who has been promoted above me already, as I would then be promoted above her. Also, with everything going on in my personal life, I need to simplify things at work, not throw in more learning curves for a new job that would probably end up being doing all the stuff she doesn’t want to do. :\

          1. TardyTardis*

            Sadly, you would likely be expected to do all the assistant duties *and* your current job. I did two jobs at the same time that way and worked myself into atrial fibrillation. Don’t be that person.

    2. American Ninja Worrier*

      Yes! It’s so important to remember that nobody here is a bad person for making a mistake at work, even if it’s a big one! Often we wrap up so much of our identity in our jobs that we interpret dropping the ball as some kind of moral failure or a reflection of our character. Screw-ups are things you do, not things you are.

      OP sounds like a conscientious employee with a good track record in the past, and that’s going to soften the blow as well, if her manager is reasonable.

  15. Sloan Kittering*

    Poor OP, burying this kind of stuff just ends up making it worse in my experience. If you’re already at the 2-AM-stressfest stage, you might as well go and get it over with. You can think how much better you will feel when it’s at least all out in the open versus a secret you’re hiding and worrying about getting found out.

    1. TootsNYC*

      This reminds me of the guy who spent personal money on his corporate card, borrowed from PayPal to pay it off, paid off PayPal with the corporate card, etc., and ended up with a HUGE debt.

      And he was twisted into total knots of despair.

      However, once he told, there was peace. And there was a SOLUTION!
      And some actual support from his manager.

      And this isn’t even our OP’s screw-up. OK, she should have said something far sooner. But she’s been dealing in good faith with a problem she had no hand in creating.

  16. Falling Diphthong*

    If someone can come up with an inexpensive desktop model of the open office that people could take out their frustrations on, akin to those stretchy heads, there is a fortune to be made.

    1. Voodoo open office doll*

      Changed my name for this one. I had an early toxic job (one of many, let’s say) with a severe micromanager, and an open office situation that was untenable.
      We found a soft “doll” that had the same hair color etc as the big boss, and quietly kept in the desk drawer and thought up voodoo things to do to it. (Stapler, hole punch, chair wheels). Didn’t actually do any of those things, but having the “fred” doll in the drawer provided a stress relief in the planning stages.
      MANY stories I can tell about that job.

  17. SusannaJ*

    Oh shoot, this hits home right now. I’d been running about 2 weeks behind in responding to emails, which was… not great, and I missed both an initial request from a coworker and her follow-up. At which point she was (understandably) pissed & this request was now extremely urgent.

    I explained what was going on (I’ve been taking on a lot of my coworker’s tasks, and been adjusting to the extremely increased workload, etc) and her bosses were all understanding, but she has NOT stopped berating me over email. I sent her a confirmation that one of the tasks she requested of me was completed, and her response was “This has NOTHING to do with me, why is this so difficult to understand??” When I forwarded her the email that SHE had sent me requesting this task, her response was “Okay but the other requests are more important.” Eyeroll. Yes, I know they’re important. That’s why I sent you this confirmation. And the other four confirmations. And cc’d you on all the follow-ups. I’m trying.

    I’ve accepted that I can’t make her happy, I can only keep her looped in and ensure that it gets fixed as fast as possible & that it doesn’t happen, again, but I haven’t looped in my boss about this. At the start it was due to fear that I’d be fired & now it’s more… it feels like a big drama to bring to my boss at the end of it all. And with her bosses being supportive of me, it’s less likely that it’d get reported back, but… yikes.

    On the plus side, her bosses were so supportive of me I think largely because of the lessons I’ve learned in professionalism from this blog! 3 years ago I probably would have just hidden from everything and maybe even ghosted the job (!!!) and ruined all my relationships. That definitely wouldn’t happen now.

    1. Betsy Bobbins*

      I’m not excusing your delayed response to her e-mail, but at the same time if it was that urgent she could have…you know, called you. So she owns a piece of this too and is handling it very unprofessionally. You’ve got nothing to hide here, I’d loop my boss it just to make sure I messaged this to her rather than that peach of a coworker.

      1. Aurion*

        Heh, I bet SusannaJ’s coworker knows that, which is why she’s being so combative about it–because she knows she’s culpable too. Defensive projecting, anyone?

        1. SusannaJ*

          I don’t know what it is but based on her response to me and refusal to back down I’m pretty sure there’s something else going on for her that’s both bad or stressful and also totally unrelated to me…I certainly didn’t help the situation, but I’m clearly trying to fix it, and berating me won’t change the past.

      2. Joielle*

        This reminds me of when I got married and changed my name and therefore, email address. IT set it up so that everything sent to my old email address would (theoretically) be forwarded to my new one indefinitely. Irritatingly, emails unexpectedly stopped being forwarded after a few months and I didn’t notice, and someone was emailing requests to my old email address and getting madder and madder that I wasn’t responding. Eventually she called one of my coworkers to complain and we figured out what had happened. Honestly, I didn’t even feel bad, because she could have called me! My phone number is on the website right next to my name. I am easy to Google.

      3. valentine*

        Why not tell her bosses about her attitude or just cc them, ostensibly to keep them apprised of your progress?

        1. SusannaJ*

          @Valentine — Ha, she cc’d her own bosses on most of her nasty emails to me! I replied all in each of my emails to her (and her bosses) so they knew what was going on. They were kind to me! I’ve accepted that I can’t make her happy, and that’s fine; I don’t interact with her often. All I can do is not make this mistake again (and be VERY aware of my communications with her specifically in the future) haha.

      4. SusannaJ*

        Because of the nature of my relationship with her, she didn’t actually have my phone number!

        Now, granted, she had the ability to GET my phone number, but historically people in my role don’t have phone relationships with people in her role. Being behind in email is definitely a big problem in such an email-reliant job… but yeah, she had other options (including looping others in much earlier than she did, when it wouldn’t have been as much of a crisis, or emailing me directly, which she finally did when it WAS a crisis, rather than emailing the shared department address).

  18. Akcipitrokulo*

    I am really hoping for a good update to this one! OP has had a really hard time and sounds very contientious – I hope it works out!

  19. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    My heart is in my throat reading this. It’s why I’m so terrified at the idea of outsourcing bookkeeping in this form. I know why it’s done and that most companies who do are in a stage where they do not need a full time in-house person so it’s a reasonable idea to venture into but holy moly…

    This isn’t your fault, OP. You need to be open and honest with your boss so that it’s not eating you alive any longer. You were put in an impossible situation and now you’re drowning in the backlog. They need to find a way to bring someone in even on a temporary basis to do clean-up. When you migrate to a new system it’s absolutely ridiculous not to have some kind of plan for the work that’s being backlogged, this is absolutely a time to bring in a seasonal assistant at very least. They have entire temp agencies devoted to accounting after all. My goodness.

  20. Amber Rose*

    Been there, am doing that. When we moved offices last year, and the government introduced a whole lot of changes to legislation, I became so overwhelmed that everything fell behind much, much farther than it should have. My filing also was behind about six or seven months.

    It hurts to admit when things have spiral led out of control, but honestly, you did the best you could and that’s worth a lot. Also, I know you’re scared of admonishment (I am too!) but you probably won’t get that much, and whatever you do get is gonna be a lot easier to shoulder than the guilt and shame that is keeping you up until 2 am at a time when, presumably, a decent nights sleep is more important than ever.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      My filing also was behind about six or seven months.

      I’ve always told all my colleagues that the first way to notice that I’m getting buried is to look at my filing box. At the end of my toxic monster job, I spent 2 weeks “training” someone and filing the rest of the time. She just looked at the piles and her eyes almost popped out of her head, bless her heart, she didn’t last needless to say. I didn’t get it all done in that 2 week time period, needless to say! Argh…filing.

      1. Amber Rose*

        I’m behind on it again, but just for this year, so only two months.

        The printer is in another room, so printing off all my files and running to get them and filling out the cover sheets and stuff just feels too pointless to bother with until it becomes critical. Which is usually around October.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          My eyes narrowed and I made a noise reading this procedure. I have never needed a cover sheet for filing. That’s even more tedious and I wouldn’t want to do it even if I was caught up!!

          But I’m in the world of digital filing now. I just have to scan and drop them in their folders. I hate scanning.

        1. Teapot Librarian*

          My first “office” job was a summer job after my senior year in high school. They had a filing backlog of I-don’t-know-how-many-months. (Or years.) I had it all caught up in about a week–easy to catch up on filing when it’s all you’re doing!–and amazed the folks I was working for. Then they had to find something else to keep me busy for the rest of the summer!

  21. voluptuousfire*

    Also, one thing to keep in mind, OP–you are very, very, very likely to not be the only one in this pickle in your office. If you’re having trouble, your colleagues also may be as well. Take umbrage in that. Knowing others in your team are also drowning can offer some solace.

    1. Squeeble*

      I was thinking this, too! And if they’re not, maybe they can pick up some of your extra duties while you get back on track.

  22. MommyMD*

    I feel so bad for you. I’m betting you are not the only person behind. Tell them now before they find out on their own. Get in front of it.

  23. Colette*

    One thing I like to remind myself of when I’m in this situation: there’s no way to catch the issue earlier than right now, and no way to fix it in the past. All I can do is deal with it right away now that I know the scope of the issue.

  24. Matilda Jefferies*

    Oh, OP. You have so much going on right now. I have nothing concrete to add to Alison’s advice, but I wish you love and strength. And an extra long vacation on a beach somewhere, with your family and everything you need to relax. Take care of yourself. <3

  25. NoLongerYoungButLotsWiser*

    Hugs. And… do not “blame” this on the husband’s cancer. The office and software transition, the denial of overtime when there was too much work, the lack of check ins… all of those are factors that WOULD have made this a disaster without the added stress.

    But the initiating and contributing factors were the company, the manager, and the mis-management. You may not have noticed as ‘quickly’ because of your personal situation… but the truth is, clearly your coworkers (who do not have your personal hell to deal with) are ALSO probably suffering too.

    I am only saying this because I found that I worked harder when my husband was sick (and he had cancer, either active bouts or remission-but-holding-breath – for 20 years of our marriage), to “prove” I was a good and worthy worker.

    You were already caught in a perfect work storm of issues. The personal did not cause it.

    So take prompt responsibility for NOT recognizing that you got to an unmanageable stage (others had better wording). But don’t throw yourself completely under the bus…. you couldn’t do this even if he was healthy.

    May not help, but in a past job, I had a disaster… and didn’t call it out soon enough. But did the day I got into the office and realized I could not make it work. The lack of communication had to do with my fear of failure, not my husband’s illness. I was afraid and I had toxicjob. The cancer was not why I failed to pull the plug on an untenable, un-doable demand before financial disaster struck. (we lost money as a division, but …. boss did help bring in the resources to make sure it was as manageable as possible… I had shame for a while).

    My husband’s cancer was the reason I took longer to recognize I was in too deep – because I was too tired and worn out to think straight. But it was not the reason the “bad situation” happened in the first place. That was the responsibility of toxic job and my need to try to be perfect.

    Own responsibility for what you should have done- raised the white flag as soon as you knew. You know today (or when you wrote the letter). Raise it.

    No matter what, you will sleep better knowing that you have your integrity and you’ve asked your manager for help. If she/he can’t come up with a plan, or advocate to get the right people to do the workload, you have toxic-job. But you don’t own the responsibility to fix this single-handedly, or to fix it before you raise the flag.

  26. nonymous*

    My read of this is that OP’s company introduced some new software that was supposed to introduce efficiencies and then used the extra time to pile on more duties (department consolidation, new business). They approved unlimited overtime during summer to deal with the software onboarding.

    I suspect that the OT was not enough to address the learning curve and that any efficiencies introduced were not sufficient to accommodate the additional workload. The question I have is whether the company is aware of this or just sticking their head in the sand.

    For OP’s sanity, I suggest that as she complies the backlog list, she also compiles a list of accomplishments. Not just at the level of “reconciled bank statements” but include the number of records, so “reconciled X statements for Y customers, New task Z”. Maybe even log what she is doing over the course of a single day to get a gauge of what volume is reasonable during an 8hr period. Where I get worried on OP’s behalf is that the manager seems to think that it’s possible to cram 50 or 60hrs of work into 40. If OP is taking leave, is she expected to get that 50hrs of work done in 30? What does it mean for her employer to be “understanding” – is it time off or just flex hours and if the latter does OP have the capacity for flex? Are her coworkers “donating” 10 -20 hrs of extra work weekly to the org? Having some hard numbers will allow OP to demonstrate that even with all the craziness, her work output has increased tremendously, and that she has been managing her time effectively. It will also let her push back gently against any suggestions that are simply not possible. “Just work harder/faster” is not a solution. OP mentioned doing all she could to maximize efficiency and that should be noted as the solution that OP has already attempted to implement.

    The other bit of advice I have is to not take the managers emoting personally. She’s likely under a fair bit of stress too, possibly not managing well, and there may be quite a bit of dysfunction/political upheaval going on. The manager’s immediate emotional response to the surprise of having to put out yet another fire (which I’ll gently point out is part of her job, not OPs) is not a commentary on OP as a person.

    1. Koala dreams*

      Yes, you have a very good point about the time, I think. If the OP needs to take time off for the sake of her own health, or for her husband, then there needs to be a discussion about who can take over the work (or which work can be postponed, if possible). When your boss has a very optimistic idea about what can be done in the given time, you need to be clear about what you can and can’t do, and what happens next is your boss’s problem, not yours.

      1. A tester, not a developer*

        It sounds like her boss has been OK with her taking time off, but the work just piles up in her absence. I agree with you that there definitely needs to be a better approach than ‘let it sit until OP gets to it’.

  27. Koala dreams*

    I’m sorry to hear about your problems. I got a bad feeling as soon as I read about the not allowing over-time and also not hiring more people. There is just so much you can do in a regular work week. It sounds very unrealistic to expect you to do more work in less time.

    Don’t be too hard on yourself. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies. If it’s any comfort, I find that most people are helpful when I call and ask about transactions months ago. Surprised, yes, and wondering why I need that information now, but generally people are helpful and want to get things solved.

    1. Iris Eyes*

      To the client point (which I would dread personally at least as much) having messaging that quickly explains what’s up and why this won’t be an issue going forward (not empty promises) should be part of the conversation.

  28. Argh!*

    If everybody is overwhelmed ,what would happen if LW was the one with cancer and had to be gone for 3 months? If they could hire a temp for that, could they also hire a temp to help LW catch up? If not, I’d be sending out resumes. That place has bad priorities.

  29. Anon4Life*

    I’m starting to feel this now. My company has about 550 employees, around 150 get 1-3 contracts a year. The company is transitioning ALL contracts to me, including market reviews, drafting, uploading for signature, tracking completion, etc. I am also in charge of our performance management program, compensation and classification (including revising and pay banding our job descriptions as needed), and developing training. It’s getting to become too much already and we are only starting the transition. It wouldn’t be except that there are only 2 people in the HR department so every administrative or drop-in request needs to go to one of the two of us, so we have constant interruptions, “questions” that take over an hour of our time, and system password changes, etc. I’m falling behind on salary surveys and training development because I have to prioritize people getting paid. And, as we are transitioning, I am finding out that other people who were doing the contracts weren’t doing them correctly (which is why they are being transitioned) but now I’m the bad guy for pointing out that they’ve been overpaying people.

    I need to toughen up and talk to my boss about it before it gets out of hand. I have told her that I am starting to feel overwhelmed, but we are hoping that when we fully transition, it will get less time-consuming. Somehow I doubt that. It’s scary to admit that what they’re telling you is part of your job is not something you can handle and manage any type of quality control.

    1. Competent Commenter*

      I encourage you to give clear reports about overflow work early and often. Avoid language like “getting overwhelmed” (not saying you’re using it, but I’ve used it and it’s not the way to go). Practice conversations like, “We currently have a two-day backlog on X, and that backlog will probably grow to 3-4 days if Y happens,” or “I can handle 10 more of these forms but we’ll have to take this other item off my plate indefinitely/miss that opportunity/etc.”

      I say this because I was covering a multi-person job alone and it was so overwhelming so quickly that I couldn’t make these kinds of clear statements. I couldn’t say that if we took on one thing we’d have to let go of another because honestly even if you let go of one other thing I couldn’t guarantee when ANY of it was going to get done unless it was a crisis. Rightly or wrongly it meant that I didn’t know how to set limits beyond saying “I can’t do all this,” which wasn’t making anyone above me deal. Several times I cried when asked about a deadline, which was so embarrassing. It was one of the worst job situations I’d ever found myself in.

      OP, I know it’s really hard not to blame yourself in these situations, because you’re the one who made the choices you did, right? Like you could have done this pile of work, but you did the other, and maybe that was the wrong choice. That’s how I felt anyway. Well, they’re all the “wrong” choice when you have a triple workload. There’s no magic way of approaching this situation that you somehow missed and which would have fixed it all. There’s no fix other than bringing in more staff or cutting back on expectations.

      I hope you can move on to another job, OP. This sounds like a nightmare for you, between the professional work avalanche and your husband’s health issues. I’m so sorry.

  30. Anon attorney*

    I don’t have anything to add as regards advice, but my heart goes out to you. Please don’t spend another second feeling ashamed. Your situation is not your fault and the company needs to take responsibility for underresourcing your team like this. Doing all this work and caring for a spouse with cancer is unachievable for anyone. It’s not a sign that you’re a bad or incompetent person! I hope that once you’ve followed the great advice here and sorted work out, that you’ll cut yourself some slack.

  31. Elizabeth*

    Please take a deep breath, then take another ten deep breaths, and hand your boss the letter you wrote to Alison. You don’t need or deserve admonishment – you need help with prioritization. Not everything is of equal importance.
    And it really sounds like your boss doesn’t want to lose you (there is too much to do!!!) and steps need to be taken to get your work back on track.
    And if your employer has any sense, it will be quickly realized that for you to be a successful employee, you may need some time to get your home life organized during this terrible period.
    Take some air and start with small steps. The work mess didn’t happen overnight and it will not be resolved overnight but you need to not hide it any longer.
    And I send my best and most positive thoughts to your husband. It sucks that you have so much to deal with all at once.

  32. DMouse*

    I don’t think OP will see this but for anyone else dealing with similar situation – just want to let you know I have been there and going directly to your boss is very important. I dealt with a million disasters in my personal life while my husband was sick and after he passed away three years ago, and couldn’t have dealt with work at all without my boss and coworkers support. And then when my dad got sick last year (passed away in October), I found I literally could not mentally keep up with all my work deadlines and projects, and was barely making some deadlines. Fortunately I didn’t have the same level of work problems as the OP, but I did have a new manager that I was not that close with so I would feel anxious about having these conversations. I still forced myself to go to her several times when I had screwed something up or was late on a deadline, and found that she was not angry or even that concerned, since I came to her with a proposed solution. You are amazing to be dealing with everything right now and you can do it!

  33. Jess*

    I’ve been in similar situations – where small tasks that fall into the “Important but not Urgent” quadrant of my to-do list kept getting pushed back and pushed back in favour of urgent things and before you know it more time has passed than you realise and it’s gone from “not urgent” to “OH NO.”

    (It’s very easy – I would start each week with good intentions, block out half a day to tackle something and then something else pops up…and it keeps happening, and then it’s the holiday season and we close down for two weeks then I’m on leave and need to catch up on other stuff and and and….)

    Anyway, every time I’ve been in this situation I have always felt SO MUCH BETTER once I’ve gone to my manager and said “I’m sorry, I just realised that I messed up. I know this is important and I’m mortified. Do you think it would work if I did XYZ to catch up…” Like – don’t delay. The longer you wait to talk to your manager the worse you feel.

  34. logicbutton*

    I’ve had to have this conversation a few times with my supervisor and it’s always the hardest and most stressful thing, and it always turns out okay. If your supervisor is a reasonable person, this will go so much better than you’re afraid it will.

  35. Rebecca1*

    OP, you and your co-workers DID flag this for your boss earlier: “most of us report that we cannot take on more clients.” It was an understatement and not very specific, but it is clear enough that she should not be surprised if at least some people are behind. You maybe didn’t give enough detail before, but you won’t be telling her of the situation for the first time either.

  36. Kitty*

    Oh LW I’m so sorry you’re going through this. I was thinking it was completely understandable to fall behind on work when there’s a huge learning curve, more tasks keep piling on and they won’t make more hires. Then came the part about about husband’s diagnosis and your car! Being under this much stress, of course it’s hard to keep up! I hope when you talk to your boss they can find a way to take some things off your plate and give you some breathing room. ♥️

  37. Shoes On My Car*

    OP, I really really hope that, one, your hubby gets better & two, that your boss handles this like my bosses did. We are in a pet care business and I was left in charge of the animals while my bosses were offsite running a clinic. It was a crazy busy day, the animals not being treated also needed regular care, I didn’t stop to eat OR DRINK WATER and there was a ton going on in my mind. Anyway, one animal usually had the same regular care and training as her older sister and they were kind of a tandem set. Sister was one of a large group getting a relatively minor -but expensive-maintenance procedure so I mind blanked and pulled the younger in too for same procedure. Vet did the work and then asked if we were done, I checked the list and almost threw up. She wasn’t on the list. I stepped away to sit down and not throw up and called my bosses. I told them what happened and completely owned it and offered to at least pay for the procedure (they refused because human BUT PISSED). By the next day, when I saw them and we sat down about it, I had a plan with two fail safes built in. They reiterated don’t ever do that again, praised my plan, wouldn’t let me pay and I got props for taking full responsibility. (Turns out that since the vet overheard my call and how I did NOT throw her under the bus as she had a list too, she had called them privately to try to take some responsibility herself ’cause she’s cool like that). On the plus side, the pet actually did need the procedure BUT STILL!!! HUUUUGE F-UP on my part. The next time the procedures were scheduled, they took a few things off my plate so less busy and trusted me to use my failsafes, which are now standard for all employees. And the best part? I have a rep for owning my screwups and making better future decisions. (This was not my first or second screw up, just the worst, all handled same way-like Alison said) We recently got a new client and her third or fourth experience with us went south and she lied and told my bosses I was doing things I shouldn’t (& couldn’t & absolutely WOULDN’T for safety reasons. The problem happened because of a perfect storm of unpredictable elements coming together and within that, I went well above & beyond to mitigate the fall out-which my bosses have also seen me do). My bosses looked at my rep for being straight with them no matter how big the issue was and fired the client!!! That’s a reputation hard earned but is incredibly valuable. I hope that’s how it ends up for your situation too. Good luck!!!!

  38. Nita*

    OP, this is not your fault. Definitely not your fault. You do need to let your boss know, but this problem was created by upper management. You can’t take the blame for how your department is performing when you’re not the one deciding how it will be run. Did you choose to get new software, then take on piles of new work while still in the learning curve? Did you decide it’s a good idea to take on more clients than the department can handle? Are you the one getting the profits from all these new clients? Frankly, I suspect that at this point the only solution to the problem is out of your hands – more staff. Even without your personal problems, when you’re stretched to the max you can’t magically make more hours in a day.

    Also, I really hope you have some support at home. Any family members who can help when you’re overwhelmed? You’re getting pummeled from all sides, and that’s terrible. Wishing your husband health! Hang in there.

  39. Ada*

    So sorry you’re going through this, OP. Wanted to let you know you’re not alone. I’m going through something similar right now (though admittedly not as bad), dealing with increased workload/decreased support at work that has me working basically around the clock for six-week stretches four times a year. At the same time, my husband is dealing with a chronic (thankfully not life threatening) illness that’s not only kept him out of the workforce for the most part, but also has him struggling to keep up with the house, so I’ve had to take on the brunt of that as well. My car was even totaled a couple months ago, too. I hope things turn around for you soon. Hang in there, and best of luck to you and your husband!

  40. OP for Today*

    I tried to be available to interact with comments yesterday, but of course, I was too busy with year-end close (which my boss specifically said to complete before working on anything else). Lest she see me reading something on the internet, I only peeked when I could.

    Today may be the day that everything comes to a head, as coworkers are grumbling too. We have reports due to government agencies tomorrow, but the data on which the reports are based was supposed to have finished by 12/31 by my boss, and it isn’t complete, so we’re looking at filing late and paying penalties. She obviously needs help too.

  41. JoJo*

    My suggested is to cut your losses and find another job, preferably before the back log is discovered by management. They’ll make you the scapegoat when the customers start complaining so get out now.

Comments are closed.