I’m burned out and overworked and my bosses keep piling more work on me

I had an exchange with someone on last week’s open thread that I want to reprint here (and expand on) since so many people struggle with this.

A commenter wrote:

I am beyond the point of burnout at my current job and don’t know what to do.

I’ve worked 2.5 days since taking 2 weeks off for the holidays and have cried at least 4 times.

I’m pretty isolated at my current job. Essentially I have four bosses (and because I’m grant-funded, I do have to report to all of them, though some don’t even work at my institution), and despite discussing my burnout with them for the past several months, my workload hasn’t lightened — it’s just increased. I’ve had a rough couple of months (involving two major injuries that most people would have taken a week off for and a major death in my family, and I took half a day off, because of deadlines). Despite talking with all bosses at least 3 times using things I’ve read on AAM, I’m still getting about 100 hours of work assigned to me weekly.

I’ve tried delegating, but the people I’ve delegated to have done maybe 2% of what I’ve delegated. They all work externally so I don’t really have any power to make them do what I’m asking. I’ve told people “no” but they go to my grand-bosses who end up vetoing my “no.” So I’m just stuck missing deadlines and drowning.

I’ve been interviewing elsewhere and had a somewhat promising interview this week, but I’m even exhausted from looking for a new job. If this doesn’t pan out I don’t know what I’ll do.

Any suggestions for how to handle this really tough period without sobbing every single day?

I responded:

Have you tried the “I can do X and Y, but not Z, so Z will be on the back burner until my workload is lighter or someone else takes it on” approach described in posts like this one (and stuck to it?):

I did try that, but I may not be pushing hard enough on the stick with it period. I tried it back in September, and then in December on a different project. It’s worked for about a week and then I get an email telling me to stop doing Y immediately and do Z because that’s the new priority. I try to explain that if I switch to Z even though Y is 20% done, that means that Y may have to be re-done later, or that Y may not get done ever, but they switch my priorities to Z. The next week they’re back on Y and I repeat the process.

Maybe I’ll work on language to address the specific pattern of changing the already set priorities constantly, as writing this out seems to have identified that as another problem source.

Me again:

The key is to be really vigilant about “okay, that means I will stop work on Y for the foreseeable future” and generally just be super firm about announcing what you can/cannot do in 40 hours a week (or whatever) and sticking to it.

That’s going to make your work in some ways less satisfying — it will get you some time back and lower your stress, but it sucks a lot of joy out of work to be constantly switching from one thing to another and never finishing things or giving them the attention they deserve. But having the rest of your hours/life back will be much more bearable than what’s happening now!

But you’ve got to really stick to it. Phrases that you need to be using on an ongoing basis are things like:

– “Yep, I can shift that, but it means X won’t get done.”
– “Just to make sure you know, X hasn’t happened in three weeks, and I won’t be able to get it to in the foreseeable future. I wanted to flag that in case you want to bring someone else in to do it.”
– “I want to remind you that we agreed I wouldn’t focus on Y because you needed me to prioritize Z.”
– “So to make sure we’re all on the same page, I will focus on Z for the next week, which means that I won’t be working on Y and Z.”
– “I can do X and Y, or X and Z, but not all three of them. My plan is to do X and as much of Y as I can get through by the 15th. Let me know if you want me to prioritize them differently.”

If you’re not firm about saying those things and sticking to them, then you’re enabling this terrible set-up by giving in and working too many hours/taking on too much stress, which you’re doing because you’re conscientious. If you give in and get everything done (or try to), you’re taking on all the suffering yourself — and your employer doesn’t feel the problem. Only you do. You’re metaphorically shouting, “Look at this! It’s a terrible problem!” — but then you keep accommodating it. Which, again, you’re doing because you’re conscientious (believe me, I know what this is like). So from their (misguided) perspective, it doesn’t feel like a particularly pressing problem because stuff is still getting done. It’s working fine (or fine enough) for them!

So you’ve got to be vigilant about moving that burden off yourself and just working a reasonable number of hours. How you spend those hours is up to them — but you get to have boundaries about how many hours there will be. But to do that requires some emotional disconnection from the work. I suspect right now you’re deeply invested in keeping everything functioning smoothly, and to pull this off you’ve got to feel less invested. It helps to realize that it doesn’t make sense for you to be more invested than they are. You’re just the person they hired to help — not the person they hired to take on 100% emotional responsibility for everything (if you were that person, you’d own the company and be getting paid a lot more).

{ 317 comments… read them below }

  1. Lena Clare*

    I’d love an update to this.
    I’ve tried it with my boss, but honestly…it’s not working in the sense that she doesn’t reduce the workload.

    I definitely agree with Alison that not being emotionally invested helps the most in this situation.
    I work my hours, do what I can, and make sure I log the exchanges with my boss. That’s it.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      That IS it working. Success isn’t necessarily that she sees reason or that everything assigned to you gets done in a timely manner. Success is that you’re not working awful hours and your boss accepts that. It sounds like your hours are better and that’s success here.

      1. Lena Clare*

        Right! I didn’t see it that way actually till you pointed it out…I guess I thought that if my boss didn’t reduce the workload then it wasn’t working! But of course I’m not overly invested and I have my evenings and weekends so, yes, it’s a win.

        1. Working Hypothesis*

          This reminds me so much of the letters Alison has answered from people who say, “I want to quit but my boss won’t accept my resignation (or “my boss insists that I give six months’ notice.”) Her usual response is, “Your boss doesn’t have to agree with your quitting in order for you to be done? You want to be professional and give two weeks’ notice of course, for the sake of your professional ethics and reputation; but you totally get to say, “Two weeks from now will be my last day” and then just not show up after those two weeks are up, no matter what your boss thinks of it!!”

          You’re kind of in the same situation, Lena Clare — you’ve been thinking that the goal is “convince my boss not to assign me so much work,” instead of the goal being, “don’t do more that a reasonable amount of work.” But you don’t actually have to convince your boss to stop assigning you so much work (although I’m sure it would feel better and less stressful if she did, and I’m sorry she’s refusing to be reasonable!) — you just have to 1) not have to do more work than is reasonable and 2) not lose your job. If you’re getting those two things to happen, you’re doing well… your boss doesn’t have to change her mind so long as she’s not making trouble for you for standing your ground and not working unreasonable hours.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I’m grateful when I hear that at least the “only working my hours” works for people, it doesn’t shift the overwhelming load that’s always starring at you but it is a win in my books because you’re not physically killing yourself with the hours or trying to go at breakneck speeds to get things done.

      Whereas myself and others I’m close to have tried that technique and our jobs were threatened or in a couple instances resulted in termination or wage theft.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        You have to know your employer of course, but that’s a sign that it was never salvageable and you were always going to need to leave for your mental and physical health. But the majority of times I’ve seen people try this, and stick to it (which is key), it’s worked.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          Absolutely. It has to do with the structure too, I see it mostly in industries that are already notorious for letting mangers go rogue and rarely offer any actual management training. Classic inmates running the prison scenarios that you don’t realize until you’re emerged.

          1. Ego Chamber*

            Ohmigod you just summarized my call center experience better than anything we ever came up with at the call center. We usually called it “going back to middle school” but “inmates” is a little closer if you’re not down with the Mean Girls gossip train.

            It was always hopeless there since they relied on the constant turnover to provide new people who really, really cared about the work enough to think it was possible to maintain first call resolution and short call times and not waive too many fees, while also not pissing off any of the callers who are fully in charge of your feedback score (which is like 50% of the accountability metrics that determine whether you get a bonus for the quarter (that takes your check up to nearly a living wage) or surprise!vacation until you find a new job).

        2. Door Guy*

          I tried to stick with it at my last job, and was even making some headway, before everything went topsy-turvy. First, my grand-boss who I had a reasonable rapport with and understood there are only so many hours in a day got promoted and was heading a completely different division. I still had to answer to him but was not directly in his chain of command anymore. His replacement came from a location much different from our own or even any others in the company, and he had no real idea on how to deal with us beyond flexing his proverbial muscles and making us jump around in idiotic circles. I know that some of his policies he laid down had everyone cursing his name for a while (like when he required his Permission for any and all reschedules for any reason, and then never answered the phone). Very shortly after that, my direct boss got a sudden promotion and in the void the VP of the company started trying to run it from a computer half a country away while his replacement was hired.

          In the end, they managed to run out 3 of the 4 supervisors in less than 2 months. We got to a point of too many chefs in the kitchen because the list of people who could dictate our work just kept growing, and all of them expected us to put their work at priority. It sounds bad enough in an office setting, but we worked in the field, and covered a 4 state area. Their work was never an email or a report, but physically going to a location and doing the work on-site, while still answering numerous phone calls and responding to all their emails asking for updates. There was more than once that I’d be just getting home, or almost home, and get sent out to a location over an hour away. I was routinely putting in 15 hour days, and not getting anything actually resembling a lunch or dinner break because I was expected to still answer the phone. Now that I’ve been away for almost a year, I can really see how bad it was and how many things I should have been pushing back on a lot harder.

          I bumped into the guy who replaced me a few weeks ago, and while it sounds like things got better, they never returned to anything close to where they were when I started. Most of those improvements came from the new boss who got the job right as I was turning in my notice.

      2. Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves*

        I tried it once and it ended with my boss telling me I needed to come in 2 hours earlier every morning. He also told me I wasn’t devoted enough to our clients and tried to guilt trip me because we’re in a caring profession. These type of bosses don’t get better. I had to quit and it was a mess. Apparently he considers working anything under 50 hours a week “part-time.” Anytime we tried to push back on the insane hours we were threatened with more weekend hours and/or working every weekend.
        That guy was a real treat and the owner of the business so we had no one to go to.

        1. Close Bracket*

          Yes, all these techniques assume reasonable bosses. Unfortunately, some situations will not be salvageable for all people. That’s when you give yourself permission to DTMFA that job.

  2. I'm A Little Teapot*

    This is really an extension of “never care more about someone else’s problem than they do”. The lack of staffing is not your problem. You’ll work x hours a week, and that’s it. If deadlines are missed, oh well. It’s not your problem – you didn’t choose to be short a FTE.

    And take back your weekends. You may work 50 hours a week or whatever, but those hours are all Monday-Friday (or whatever your work week is). You now have plans. Every weekend, from now until infinity. Those plans can be sitting on the couch in a semi-vegetative state, no one else needs to know that. But you have firm, unmovable plans.

    1. PollyQ*

      Also not your problem — the bosses’ inefficiencies caused by switching you on and off projects. If they’re making poor decisions that reduce their, and even your, overall productivity, try very hard not to worry about that.

    2. Drew*

      “never care more about someone else’s problem than they do”

      That, right there, is a brilliant way to phrase this. I’m going to keep that in my back pocket for the times “well meaning” people (my parents, mostly, but also…OK, pretty much my parents) try to convince me I need to be working harder on something that I don’t consider worth my time.

      1. I'm A Little Teapot*

        It very much applies to situations where someone is doing/not doing something and it’s going to lead to problems for them, but they don’t seem to care enough to do anything to change it. Other people will tie themselves into knots trying to get that person to do what’s needed, but really – you need to care only as much as the person impacted does. If they screw up their life, well, it sucks for them but they’re the ones who have done it.

      2. B'elanna Torres*

        That’s a favorite of mine, right along with “A lack of planning on your part doesn’t constitute an emergency on mine.” It usually follows the other one, when their lack of caring (aka planning), causes an emergency.

        May not get away with it in the workplace so much, but does work with family members. :)

        1. I'm A Little Teapot*

          This one is the story of my life right now. A problem which was known in June last year, if not before, was not addressed and now it’s a huge emergency. Well, why’d you ignore it for the past 6+ months?

        2. Shadowbelle*

          I love that quote and I have wanted to post it on my cubicle wall for decades. Unfortunately, I can’t, because lack of planning on someone else’s part frequently does constitute an emergency on mine. A good part of my job is pulling chestnuts out of the fire for people who
          1. don’t know how to roast chestnuts
          2. underestimated the heat of the fire
          3. forgot they had put the chestnuts in the roasting pan
          4. put their trainee in charge of chestnut roasting
          5. had someone dump a huge pile of chestnuts on them unexpectedly and couldn’t get to the chestnuts already roasting
          6. forgot what I told them the last time this happened

          This is life in IT. The “maintenance” part of my job is to keep the system running as efficiently as possible no matter who screwed up or why.

        3. Where’s the Orchestra?*

          I actually got away with straight up telling a fellow employee that once (but I had also laid groundwork with verifiable data backing me up to our mutual boss). He seemed to think he walked on water and I always had to drop everything else for him – NOPE.
          Failure to plan on his part rapidly became no longer an emergency on my part. He was dumbstruck when I told him too – and was spluttering till the boss came up and said better planning on your part is required.

          This will probably never realistically happen again. But at least it happened once.

      3. Well Then*

        Yes, this is pure brilliance. I was that person at my last job, and couldn’t understand why management kept making terrible decisions and then digging in when staff revolted (sooo many people quit) or there were poor results. Eventually I got tired of burning myself out to make my department run, and I became the next person to leave. Walking away, and knowing I didn’t need to care anymore, was a HUGE relief. Conscientiousness is a wonderful quality, but you also need to know when to quit (or at least refuse to run yourself ragged for a job).

        1. Database Developer Dude*

          It’s also for volunteer positions as well. I have one where I need to have a ‘Come to Jesus’ meeting with my fellow co-Webmaster for a state-level organization’s web site, and if things don’t go the way I want, when our state level annual meeting kicks off, she’ll be by herself in the position, without me.

    3. RUKiddingMe*

      Oh let’s not throw around “50 hours a week” as if it should be the norm… LOL. 40 is more than enough.

    4. Retail not Retail*

      I have a coworker who was salaried most of her working life (teacher), did some hourly work, and currently has some side design business based on projects.

      I cannot get her to understand that we may have projects but we are hourly. We have to wrap up, we cannot work until quitting time.

      I love this phrasing! I keep telling her if we don’t finish it is not our problem it is manager/his boss/big boss who should care.

      We can let ourselves get burnt out by the projects or we can say “sure, sure boss. Buy trees in a drought to replace the ones that just died. No, don’t expand irrigation or give us more time, just plant an identical tree in the same spot.”

    5. sofar*

      The “if deadlines are missed” is so important. It takes courage to miss a deadline sometimes, but sometimes it’s the only thing that wakes management up.

      I used to have a job where trying to manage expectations at the outset just didn’t work. I could say, “We cannot feasibly do X, Y and Z. We need to prioritize two of them.” And it fell on deaf ears. Ditto for when I said, half way through the projects, “I don’t have enough time to devote to Z, given X and Y. Can we discuss priorities?”

      So, at the suggestion of my mentor, I started saying, “Sure!” to X, Y and Z. And then I’d pick one of those things to just … miss the deadline on. And then say, “I didn’t have bandwidth to complete Z. I will be putting Z on the backburner. Let’s discuss Z when we have more support.”

      And it worked. This won’t work at all employers. But it totally worked in this case. I didn’t even realize half my coworkers were already doing the same thing. That employer’s attitude was that saying upfront you couldn’t do something was “Admiring the problem,” but straight-up just missing a deadline was “Trying your hardest.” Once I cracked that code, everything changed.

      1. Mimblewimble*

        I tried the “I only have bandwidth for X, so Y and Z won’t get done” but my boss keeps telling me to “find a way” to make it work. Nope, not possible. So I’m now very transparent about what can be done, what isn’t going to get done, and I document it all. Sticking firm is key. Put that responsibility back on your manager; that’s what they’re there for.

        1. Tom (no, not that one)*

          Boss, boss – i found a way – assign Jane or Frederick to me for Z – that`ll make it all work.

          On my own, just no can do.

    6. designbot*

      I think where this becomes difficult for some of us is that we’re not hourly employees, we’re exempt employees. And the job of an exempt employee is to get the job done, not to be there a certain amount of time per week. Normally this means that some weeks are heavier and some weeks are lighter, and it breaks down when every week just gets worse and worse with no end in sight.
      When I’ve tried to go home at a certain time, I find myself *more* stressed because I’m haunted by the work left undone, because I know I haven’t done my job.

      1. misspiggy*

        This is where the much-to-be-missed EU Working Time Directive came in. It says, that’s only true within 48 hours a week, because we refuse to destroy workers’ lives and we need to create a reasonable number of jobs. I remember the reduction in pressure on my work when it took effect. There was and is still pressure, but hugely less.

        1. Mongrel*

          I also remember our managers desperately trying to get us to sign the “I’m happy to exempt myself…” notices

      2. sofar*

        I did this (missed deadlines) as an exempt employee. True, it’s riskier at some employers than others. But, at my former employer, it was the case that missing a deadline was seen as more acceptable than prioritizing at the outset. YMMV.

      3. Emily K*

        Yeah, it’s trickier as an exempt employee. You have to really have your management’s support in the idea of work-life balance. My employer is constantly putting too much work on me and others on my team (because we’re a nonprofit, so management will do anything to avoid putting another headcount on payroll whose compensation will be classified as “overhead” or “fundraising” because donors prefer the staff who keep the org running to be overworked and underpaid) and the few of us who do firmly push back have found support with our department head, who isn’t the one opposing new hires and genuinely does want us to have work-life balance and avoid burnout. The real tricky part is that a lot of people don’t push back or don’t know how to push back. The nonprofit mission makes people perhaps more inclined than average to see every request as a must-do and feel like they’ll be letting someone down or hurting the mission if they say, “I won’t be able to get this done by that deadline.”

    7. Silly Season is just Beginning*

      I love that and will be committing it to memory ” never care more about someone else’s problem than they do”!! That is a very important boundary marker!

  3. AnonAcademic*

    OP, as someone who was in a similar situation that didn’t end well – if the response to “I need to pause work on X to complete Y” is “No, they BOTH need to be done, I don’t want to hear excuses just make it work” – that is a giant red flag that you are working for people with impossible expectations and you should hunt for another job. Or, if once you are not overproducing, you find that you aren’t treated in as high esteem by your supervisors – then you will know their value of you is contingent on exploiting your conscientiousness.

    1. Miraculous Ladybug*

      Hard agree–this is why I left my last job, in fact! I don’t know if this will happen with everyone, but their consistent pushing and lack of respect for the boundaries I tried to lay down started to make me question my self-worth, whether or not I was even cut out for the job I was hired to do. I started to think because nothing could be good enough (or, honestly, fast enough) for them that I was a bad employee, because this was just how the world worked and I couldn’t keep up.

      That’s not a place you want to get to, so if it’s a pervasive pattern… get out. At my new job there is more respect for timelines and workload than I even remembered or imagined was possible. It can be found!!

      1. boop the first*

        Oh jeez, I felt this way at the beginning of my last job… I was there for six months and felt like I just couldn’t get the hang of it. It was the longest new-employee-anxiety period of my life. I always had “easy” jobs and was used to mastering them within weeks and blowing management out of the water… so this time I started to think I had found my own limit, that I wasn’t actually that good and that I literally couldn’t do the job.

        And then some more time passed and it turned out that it wasn’t my fault at all, I had just found the worst boss I would ever work with. (knock on wood)

    2. Anon for this*

      I have to disagree with this. In OPs case sure. But this is not a universal truth. Many jobs require time management, triage and delegation and that involves figuring out how to get many things done in a short amount of time. Maybe it means you have to work faster on a particular project and proof read it less. Maybe it means you don’t spend as much time on other tasks that are less important. Maybe you spend less time on blogs or FB that day. I’m an attorney and I have deadlines and client emergencies that just have to be dealt with. My assistant in the past used to get it all done in the right order in a normal work week.

      My current assistant is very easily distracted. Tries to do 10 tasks at once and doesn’t finish any of them because she keeps bouncing around. I need her to figure out how to get the work done in the time allowed like every other legal assistant. I’ve tried to give feedback on what that looks like yet weeks go by and she still hasn’t started one of the tasks on the list.

      I find a lot of people procrastinate the things they don’t know how to do well so when there are lots of things to do, the same task always ends up at the bottom. That is not acceptable.

      Sometimes “work faster” really is the answer to why the work isn’t getting done too.

      1. NotAnotherManager!*

        I also work in legal, and this is my world, too. Some people also just have a hard time with “good enough” when we don’t have the time or client budget for 100% perfect.

      2. Observer*

        Except that the OP is pretty explicit that they are being assigned significantly more work than can be done in a normal work week. *AND* that their bosses are creating additional work and inefficiencies by switching priorities on a regular basis.

        “Figure it out” and “work faster and smarter” is not an appropriate response to this kind of situation.

      3. Mill Miker*

        I’ve worked for too many bosses who’s solution to everything was always “manage your time better”, and that always translated to “work faster” as every real avenue of time management was closed off.

        This was for development work though, so there was not option to “proof read” less. Either the code runs or it doesn’t. Either it does what it’s supposed to do, or it doesn’t. You can “go faster” without dropping requirements. You just can’t.

        Maybe legal assistant work is more compressible, but this kind of thinking always sets of a bunch of alarms in my head.

        1. Washi*

          Hesitating to respond because I don’t want to derail, but I think Anon for this is just saying that it’s not absolutely universally true that if anyone says “there’s not enough time for me to do A and B” that no human could possibly get A and B done. Sometimes someone is not managing their time well/not right for the job. “Manage your time better” is not a good answer, but “my previous assistant was able to fit in these tasks with x and y strategies, have you tried that?” can be. I’ve had coworkers who were always playing computer games every time I came up to talk to them, and constantly complained about having too much work. AND I think sometimes pay is the issue – the company is expecting a rockstar employee for open-mic wages.

          Anon for this also acknowledged that that’s clearly not what’s happening here, more just that they wouldn’t instantly jump to job searching the second a boss indicates that the expectation is xyz get done.

        2. NotAnotherManager!*

          I think it is industry-specific, but dropping a final proof *is* dropping a requirement in a legal filing. As pedantic as local rules are, shorting a proof is a risk, just a smaller one than blowing a deadline. When a court/agency tells you to do something by X date/time, you don’t have a lot of choice, you just have to find a way to do it (particularly if it’s a statutory or regulatory deadline and not a court’s), even if it’s entirely unreasonable. They do not care whether or not you have the time or resources to do it, you just have to get it done or you can lose the opportunity to file on your client’s behalf. This time pressure trickles down to the staff, too. When I hired these positions, I was very up front about that particular reality of the job – I find it’s either something people love/thrive on or hate.

          1. T2*

            There is Good, cheap and fast. You get to choose two.

            I am good and fast. But I never ever work long hours and I am most certainly not cheap.

            The thing is, you have x hours to get y filing done. So you need z employees working to get y done by x. But people are not machines. Or algorithms. They have breaking points. You don’t get to put 25 pounds of crap in a 10 bag for long.

        3. Anonariffic*

          I saw a story where a hospital lab tech was getting yelled at by a doctor because the test order said STAT and it had been almost 45 minutes and the lab results still weren’t back and that was totally unacceptable- the test in question was a measurement of how much X substance settled out of Y solution over a 60 minute period. The techs followed the order and put a rush on setting up and starting it, but it was just not humanly possible to return the results for that test in less than an hour.

          1. OhNo*

            That’s the sort of situation I always think of when people talk about “just work faster” or “get better time management skills”.

            There are some tasks that just take however long they take, and there’s no hurrying them. Some tasks can be rushed. Heck, some tasks you can skip altogether and still get a good result.

            Knowing which is which from our perspective as commentators is nearly impossible without more context. It’s worth mentioning that folks might be miscategorizing their tasks, but if they say they’re not we have no choice but to believe them.

      4. theletter*

        I think we can take OP’s word here that she is working as fast as possible. With 4 bosses it’s easy to get over-assigned.

        Your assistant sounds like they need to take a time management course – there are ways to organize the day so that focus is optimized.

          1. somebody blonde*

            I took a management class that talked about time management, and the strategies that helped me the most were the following:

            -block off time in your schedule to be secluded and unavailable for any requests if you have something to focus on
            -put the ‘big rocks’ in first, the sand will fill around them. The big rocks are your actual priorities, the sand is all the random stuff that fills up your day. Key to this is actually scheduling your real priorities and sticking to the schedule. The random stuff will fit around if you get the priorities in.

            1. TardyTardis*

              That works well, unless you’re the person being delegated to and have to answer all email requests in a timely manner. That stuff may flow downhill, but it stops *somewhere*.

      5. Kella*

        I know you’re not talking about OP specifically, but the general type of situation that’s been addressed is one where someone is working at the max capacity *that they have* which is going to be different for everyone, depending on a variety of skills.

        If your employee comes to you and says “I can’t do all my work, what would you like me to do?” no matter what, it’s up to the manager to find a solution. It doesn’t matter if the person is truly at their max or they don’t have the time management skills to be more productive, they still need help and guidance. If they aren’t working efficiently, manager needs to coach them in ways to streamline their work, or address it as a performance issue. “Work faster” as feedback only works if a. they have the skill to work faster or b. you tell them what aspects of the job can be compromised in exchange for speed.

        Unless you’re specifically addressing a performance problem related to giving up before problem-solving, hearing, “I can’t do all my work, what would you like me to do?” and not believing them that they can’t do all their work will land you with problems down the road, regardless of their source.

      6. Sad but true*

        Sometimes, but not always.
        My department has been cut by 75%, but we have 40% of that vacant. No product has been removed, and some has been added. And because of physics, our process must go in sequence, so every reversal of priorities adds 10% to time on task. But we’re frequently told we can’t drop anything. Nor can we use OT. Nor will we get interns, temps, or contractors.
        It is unsustainable, which is why we have 40% vacancy in a place that used to boast 35 year retention.

      7. Kate 2*

        Sometimes you are right, and sometimes management isn’t aware the previous person who was hourly, worked hours of overtime for free to “get it all done in 8 hours”, even when you have timestamps to prove it, and if you don’t work hours of unpaid overtime for free they ignore what your proof and fire you anyway. At least that’s been my experience.

      8. AnonAcademic*

        Doesn’t law also have the highest rates of burnout, drug abuse, etc. though? Not the field I would look to for norms…

        I am in the sciences where there is not always a “faster.” When you are maxing out the university’s largest cluster computing system trying to run a million data points through analysis, and it’s going to take 3 days, and you are told without notice that the results are needed in 2 days and “make it work” – it is gaslighting to say that it’s a time management issue on the part of the individual. It’s actually a project management issue, but most heads of labs get 0 training in that arena, and lack the management chops to accept that large scale projects need more than immediate term planning.

    3. Mrs. C*

      You’re completely right on this!

      When I put in my notice at my last job, one of the senior leaders seemed shocked that I would leave and asked me what I was unhappy about. I cited (in part) all the times we’d had that exact exchange you mentioned – and her response was, “Well, yes, I know that you kept communicating that you couldn’t make both X and Y the top priority simultaneously – but you should have just made it work.” Made me feel that much more justified in leaving.

        1. Willow*

          My boss worked 7 days a week for many years before I arrived. She doesn’t anymore, as I took on a lot of her load. Now I refuse to work long hours or on weekends, and it does lead to some conflict as I know she’s thinking “well, I used to do that and I didn’t complain.”

      1. Antilles*

        Well, yes, I know that you kept communicating that you couldn’t make both X and Y the top priority simultaneously – but you should have just made it work.
        Oh man, that is *such* a perfect setup for an 80’s movie style response: Put on your stylish sunglasses, “I am making it work, right now”, turn towards the door, and stride out the door into the sunset without a second glance.

      2. Artemesia*

        And what a pleasure it is when someone you have quit — whether an ex husband or an ex boss says something that reinforces for you how wise you were to move on. lifts any lingering guilt.

    4. T2*

      I had a job that I liked. I was a “rockstar”. But the price of being the rock star was that I worked 100+ hours a week routinely to get ahead of everything.

      That’s all well and good. But it did not build up any credibility. When something happened because one of my staff didn’t do their job, one time, I was canned without hesitation. After I spent 115 hours over 4 days fixing the issue of course.

      Never ever assume loyalty and dedication is reciprocated at work. It is nice if it is, but if it isn’t, no job is worth your health.

    1. LQ*

      I know what people are trying to do when they say this, but I wonder if people realize that to someone who is in the middle of it, this kind of statement often comes off like, “Not only are you not doing a good job of pushing back on your bosses, and you’re not doing all your work, and you’re not taking care of your health so you’re going to have a major health scare or die. You’re just shitty at everything.”

        1. LQ*

          Right, but a conscientious employee, which is what someone who wants to get all the work done despite impossible goals is (though not the other way round to be very clear) has taken that on themselves. That’s why they are working the absurd hours. Because they feel like they aren’t doing all of the work. It’s baked into the initial problem statement. If they felt like they were fine and worked 40 hours and then let the boss worry about it, they wouldn’t be asking this problem. So denying that the person you’re saying that to doesn’t feel that way is wrong.

          They do. Maybe they shouldn’t, but they do. And this is just another thing for them to feel like they aren’t doing well enough.

          Do you need to throw another stress (that if someone’s at this point they’ve likely already considered) at someone who is asking for help on how to reduce stress? Someone who has experienced a major death in the family, who is under so much pressure they are crying more than once a day. Why would you throw that at someone who is already in that position?

          This is a really common refrain when someone expresses that they are stressed about work or that they have too much on their plate. Serious or in jest, but to someone who is in that place it just feels like you added another task to their already overfull plate. I don’t think it’s kind to say this when talking with someone who is under a lot of pressure.

          Saying, It’s not you, it’s the boss piling on the work that’s shitty. Can be helpful. But just stop it or you’re going to die, is not helpful. I really wish people would stop with this common refrain.

          1. AH*

            Telling my friend she was going to have a major health crisis was not nearly as harmful to her as the major health crisis was, you’ll just have to trust me on this. And she was taking steps to reduce her workload because she realized it was harming her health, it was just too little too late.

          2. Observer*

            Please this is not about blaming the victim. It’s about pointing out that even if (or when) someone tries to make you feel guilty for being “a baby”, “lazy”, “not committed enough”, etc. you should ignore it and try to figure out the best way to change the situation because this is about your health.

            For a lot of people, when they engulfed in this kind of dysfunction, hearing this kind of straight talk can be very, very powerful. It validates that they are not the one at fault for complaining, and it’s often (surprisingly so) the thing that gives them the clarity they need to make changes.

            1. Feline*

              That dysfunction is often papered I’ve by the employer with lofty words. Big layoffs doubled or tripled workloads? Suddenly corporate emails talk a about how we must all have passion for our jobs.

            2. bookends*

              Absolutely. When you’re the frog in the nearly-boiling pot of water, sometimes you need someone to come along and point out that the water is about to boil so you can get out before it’s too late.

          3. Gazebo Slayer*

            Yes – and a lot of the time people don’t really have any option (or at least can’t see any other option) besides the job that is killing them, and telling them to stop is like saying “end your whole career” or “throw your family on the street.” Sure, some people can take a step back easily, but some can’t, especially in lower-paid and lower-prestige jobs.

            It’s primarily a societal problem that needs society-wide solutions.

      1. Pommette!*

        I see your point, and it’s an important one.

        That said, I didn’t think about quitting my own unhealthy job until a distant relative, who had experienced a major health crisis in his forties, sat me down with a bleak “If you continue down this path, you will probably die or develop permanent health problems” message. Having someone who had been there before connect the dots between my job, the flurry of health problems I was suddenly having, and the future problems I might be heading for was pretty salutatory for me. It helped me realize that it didn’t matter if the problem was the job itself or my own failure/inability to do it well. Similarly, it didn’t matter if the problem was my failure to push back on my bosses, or their failure to listen and adapt the workload. In either case, I had to get out if I wanted to stay healthy.

        1. LQ*

          A serious sit down conversation from a loved one is very different from a quick comment from a friend, a blog, someone in passing, or as a joke. (And never, ever, EVER should a boss say this to someone, bosses need to fix the problem, they have the power to.)

          1. Observer*

            (And never, ever, EVER should a boss say this to someone, bosses need to fix the problem, they have the power to.)

            This is 100% true!

          2. CM*

            Ah, I see where you’re coming from when you mention the boss. Agreed, it is never appropriate for your boss to warn you about work-related health problems that they have no intention of addressing. This should never be said in a victim-blaming way by anyone. But I think, even as a quick comment or in passing, the intent is normally to remind people — hey, there are more important things than work. You, as a human being, your quality of life, health, happiness, and personal relationships, are more important than work. It’s easy to get so wrapped up in work stress that you lose sight of the bigger picture.

            If it feels like someone is putting pressure on you by reminding you that your life is so much more important than your job, I think that’s a sign that you are much too invested in your job.

        2. Dagny*

          “Having someone who had been there before connect the dots between my job, the flurry of health problems I was suddenly having, and the future problems I might be heading for was pretty salutatory for me.”

          Yes, this.

          I left a similar job when I could no longer eat or sleep properly. As I said to people at the time, I would have expected at least five times the salary to have that kind of impact on my health – the kind of salary where you can retire before the stress kills you.

        3. Tinker*

          I’ve been thinking along similar lines myself — the original comment here is one that upon seeing I filed in a bucket of “son, this is why you need to take things seriously”. Because I start noticing that the anecdotes about people who have major stress-related health crises are now quite often about people around my own age — and meanwhile, while I am to all appearances in quite good health, I’ve had some experiences lately that have humbled me about the ways stress affects my body.

          Left to my own devices I tend to think of things that are troublesome to me as abstractly unfortunate but where perhaps I should just power through — that doing that doesn’t have any real consequences. But even aside from that my own suffering is a real consequence in itself, there’s also measurable effects that I can notice that are associated with objectively increased risk of adverse outcomes.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      My exes father died in his 40s from his heart attack, essentially worked himself to death.

      Barely able to sleep, sometimes catching some snoozes at work if he was so lucky, since he was perma on call. He was a walking ball of stress at all times.

      1. Arts Akimbo*

        Oh no!! What kind of job did he have, that he was permanently on call? (or I’m guessing it was his employer’s fault he was permanently on call and had no relief)

      2. Working Hypothesis*

        “And Emmett Piece the other day/ Took a heart attack and died at forty-two/ You could see it coming on/ ‘Cause he worked as hard as you…” — Stan Rogers, _The Field Behind The Plow_

    3. StellaBella*

      I am sorry to read that your friend is now permanently disabled. And I can second the fact that the boss piling on work, being unreasonable, and not managing your friend’s workload properly contributed to the health scare and stroke. Sending you and your friend warm thoughts. I am sorry it is so crappy.

    4. Lynca*

      It sounds callous when you say it bluntly like this but health issues from burnout are a very real thing. They also make existing health issues worse. I went through this with my mom and I am very vigilant that I never end up sacrificing my health for work. It’s not worth it.

    5. Not Dr Kildare*

      This sounds like a friend of mine. She ended up having a major stroke at age 41.

      That is very sad. However, I want to point out that we don’t know whether her work conditions and the stroke were cause and effect.

      1. Working Hypothesis*

        We don’t know, but it’s certainly not far-fetched to think they might have been related, since high blood pressure is one of the leading causes of strokes and stress is one of the leading causes of high blood pressure. That’s not a guarantee that the causal chain ran that way in this specific case but it does run that way often.

      2. OhNo*

        We (the commenters) might not, but I suspect that AH and their friend have a better sense of the situation than you or I do. If AH says it was work-related, I see no reason to disbelieve them.

  4. WorkIsADarkComedy*

    Your bosses do not know how to manage, and the organizational setup is one that requires excellent management not to result in awful problems, unless the workload is light.

    I would guess that this bad management manifests itself in many different ways in your organization.

    If by sheer luck projects X, Y, and Z get finished and a you have a period of relative sanity, don’t count on it lasting very long. Dysfunction has deep roots there, and the bramble bushes are sure to return before you know it. Keep up the job search!

  5. Mama Bear*

    Are all the folks aware of all the things? I ask because you said you tell people no, and then the grandbosses veto you. I’d respond to them the full list of what’s on your plate and follow one of the above scripts about priorities and not being able to do it all. If nothing else, the emails you send about all the stuff you have are a paper trail. They get mad? You go back to the email and say, “On this date I told Ms. Smith that I could not do her task in the timeframe required. She went to you, and you said it needed to be done by me. I emailed you on this other date stating the scope of my work and notifying you that A, B, or C would slip to accommodate. If this is not acceptable, I would like to meet with you to discuss delegating some of this work or hiring additional help or changing deadlines.” I would also meet with the manager that signs my timesheet to address the too many cooks in the kitchen problem. It sounds like they are not helping deflect these people, either.

    1. kt*

      Since you mention you’re grant-funded with four bosses, it might be that you have the pressure of each of them saying their work is most important. In that case, it *might* work to send a weekly update email to each of them and log your percent effort on each project (I started to type “log your hours” but if it’s academia they’ll just kinda be mad you’re not working 80 hrs a week and billing all the grants for slightly-illegal overlapping effort, or not working off the books, or whatever). You can lay out to the bosses what you did & why, and then lay out what you can’t get to until next week and what is back-burnered for the foreseeable future “as per [their] request”.

      1. Alli525*

        I’d be SHOCKED if even one of her four managers understood the actualities of her workload. She should send that weekly update to all four of them JOINTLY (redacting for privacy where needed) so they understand that there’s a f*cking balance to be had and they’re doing a terrible job.

        I had similar problems at my last job where I worked for two different research teams, but at least those teams worked for the same company/in the same office and knew each other, so I asked my managers to work it out between themselves when my plate got dangerously overfull.

        1. kt*

          That’s what I was trying to say — a joint email to all four at once. Thanks for clarifying that :)

          1. Carlie*

            And if you are grant funded, they are in charge of setting the amount of support they need when they write the grant application. They need to understand that they are underestimating the amount of work needed, or they will continue to underfund that part of it in future grants.

            1. Elitist Semicolon*

              Which could potentially harm their future grant prospects, because the loss of productivity that comes with constantly being told to drop projects mid-go and work on something else could mean no results to report. No results to report to a funding agency can mean no future money forthcoming.

              1. Working Hypothesis*

                Something which might be a good idea to say outright to the bosses, if they are remotely able to hear things from their employee without retaliating.

        2. SubluxedMatrix*

          I’d recommend a meeting – teleconference it if the bosses are in different sites, but get them all in the same room and have them fight over how much of your time they’re entitled to. And take minutes.

          Emails, even group emails, can be downplayed and disregarded. But if Prof X and Prof Y agreed to each other’s faces that Project A would be the priority and be allocated 30 hours/75% of your time and everything else would have to fit in the last 10 hours, it makes it really difficult for Prof Y to countermand that without losing face and could win the OP a bit more stability.

          1. Persephone Underground*

            This! Get them all together to hash it out so it’s seen as a decision between them, not your responsibility to make the calls. Then send an email summary after to confirm everyone’s on the same page.

      2. Persephone Underground*

        Yes- I also recommend if possible getting a manager to help you defend your time and priorities. It depends on the setup, may or may not apply to the op, but I’ve been in work situations where I had multiple people assigning me work, but I still had a “primary” official manager who could run interference for me and be a final ruling on where she wanted me to spend my time. I was mostly self-directed, but if I suddenly had multiple conflicting demands on my time from different people, she could step in and help explain to the ones that had to wait why that would be. If you don’t have someone in this role, you may be able to get someone to do this if there’s one manager you have a better relationship with than the others.

        We also added a shared calendar that showed all the deadlines for the different short-term projects this group of people assigned me, so they could see if they all had their deadlines on the same date for three different things, and we could coordinate which ones had to really be by that deadline and which were more flexible. Gave them a much better picture of my full capacity and current load overall.

        Both of these techniques helped a lot, and I hope can help others even if they don’t apply directly to the OP.

  6. JPVaina*

    LW, I totally feel you.
    I was in a very similar situation, and when I left my job to go somewhere else, HR even said to me “Well, my understanding was that you didn’t need to take X and Y on.”
    But I was being threatened with losing promotions and raises, so, at the time, it had indeed felt like I did…
    Anyway, nothing to add here but sheer commiseration, and I’m sorry you’re going through it because it truly sucks. I love the advice above about taking back your weekends. It can be such a small step in carving out time for you, that you may feel even more empowered to carve out more time.
    I hope you’re able to get out. It seems like a terrible situation.

  7. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

    OP – if you’re grant funded, then I assume there are quarterly and annual reports that have to be filed with the funders. Including hours spent on various milestones/tasks/etc. If your 4 bosses are not actually tracking your hours, but rather reporting numbers off the cuff, that will get them in trouble eventually. And if they’re reporting hours honestly, but tasks are still falling through, then they won’t be receiving all the allocated funds.

    I would encourage you to do time tracking, if for no other reason than to provide some legal cover for yourself. Take 5 minutes every day to document how many hours you spent on each thing, and then roll those numbers up weekly and send off to the 4 bosses.

    1. Sara without an H*

      OP, there is time-tracking software out there, and you might try talking your bosses into getting some. If they have to report hours as part of their grant funding, you might sell it to them as something that would make their reporting easier. It would also give you some evidence of how much time you’re spending on which project.

    2. Oh No She Di'int*

      I was going to recommend a related technique. Sometimes people have a hard time sticking to “if I do X then Y won’t get done” because no one involved has a clear idea of the metrics. The employee him/herself may not even be totally clear on just how much of Y won’t get done or exactly when he/she can get back to Y.

      It may be worth coming up with prospective numbers–if you don’t do this already–when new requests are piled on. This may help you say, “Y will take 32 hours to complete, leaving me with about 8 hours next week. X will take 28 hours. So you can see that if I do X I will not also be able to complete Y . . .” Or something along those lines.

      1. professor*

        In academia that just means you also have time for Z as well…I hate to say it, but the notion of working only 40 hours a week is…not widely accepted in academia.

        the other big issue here is that if OP is early career stage (like a grad student or postdoc) this mess will hurt their ability to publish (everything half done) and for future job prospects- if that’s the case, just managing their time and boss’s expectations of time will not solve that.

  8. Archaeopteryx*

    You can’t be more invested in getting all your massive workload done properly than your higher-ups. And if they’re not properly delegating/making sure they don’t grind you into dust, they don’t care enough. If they keep working you this hard, all your mental knives turn into spoons anyway, and things will be dropped. So you might as well let them drop because you’re setting boundaries on your own mental health, not because you worked yourself too hard.

  9. Detective Amy Santiago*

    I’ve been there and ended up getting fired because I started letting the balls drop instead of killing myself. I’m a major perfectionist, so it was incredibly difficult for me to accept that it was okay if I wasn’t perfect. It ended up being the best thing for me because it allowed me to collect unemployment, take a month off to recalibrate, and then find a new job. Fun fact: they had to hire two people to replace me.

    It did a serious number on my mental health and made me very conscious of asking how things like increased workloads are handled in other interviews. Where I am now (2 jobs later) is excellent about adding positions and redistributing work so that people have reasonable work loads.

    Good luck on your job search.

    1. AnonEMoose*

      I’ve been in a similar situation…the job in question had directly contradictory expectations. Basically, I was, at the same time, supposed to be always available to clients for as long as they needed me, and I was supposed to meet deadlines. Along with sometimes covering for the receptionist’s lunch break, making sure there was coffee available…you get the idea.

      I ended up getting fired. And walked out thinking half “Just lost my job” and half “You mean I don’t have to go back?!”

      Through a somewhat convoluted path, I ended up at my current company, and I’m much better off and much happier!

      Based on my own experience, what I’d say is this:

      OP, your bosses are, for whatever reason, not hearing what you’re saying, or are choosing not to act on it. I would follow Alison’s advice, but I’d also be thinking about “what’s best for me in this situation?” Because it really sounds to me like what you’re doing is not sustainable.

      And keep job searching, OP. Because, based on my own experience, I’m thinking that getting the heck out might be your best option. That’s up to you, though…and my own experience is definitely coloring my answer, here, so take it for what it’s worth.

      Do what you can to prioritize your own mental and physical health, OP, whatever that means for you. I wish you all the best in finding some kind of resolution to this, OP!

    2. been there*

      I was in a similar situation. OP, if you take this route and hold firm on setting boundaries and sticking to them, document EVERY conversation you have about it. And I mean print out emails, keep a paper log, etc. It won’t necessarily keep you from getting fired, if your bosses are that level of shitty, but it will keep you from gaslighting yourself and wondering if they were right all along and you did something wrong.

      But divorcing yourself emotionally from the job is absolutely the first step. That alone will give you more mental energy to find the next, better job.

    3. Chaordic One*

      When I was in a similar situation I was also fired. I was told that I was “resistant to change,” which was ridiculous, but I was resistant to taking on more work when I was already overloaded. I also probably did not have a great attitude about the place after a couple of years of overwork.

      My consolation came in knowing that they had to hire 3 different people over the period of the next 6 months to fill my job. The first one quit after a week, the second after 2 months and the third after three. The fourth one stayed, but I understand that by that time they realized there were problems with the actual job and the workload and it was substantially restructured.

    4. londonedit*

      Same. Well, I didn’t get fired, but things were so awful after the inevitable ball-dropping happened (and everything was apparently my fault even though they’d been piling on work and I ended up being solely responsible for everything that went wrong) that I ended up leaving the job. It took a long time for me (also a perfectionist) to get over the feeling that I’d screwed it all up and was a massive failure.

    5. Oranges*

      Sometimes being fired is the best thing evers. It got me out of a severely toxic workplace that ground me down so much I couldn’t find the energy for job hunting.

      My current place of employment is amazing and I’m so grateful that I got fired.

  10. Shadowbelle*

    OP, have you tried a weekly update to all four bosses? I mean something like a simple spreadsheet or list, and it has to go to all four bosses (and maybe the grandboss, too). List your projects/tasks in priority order, include the name of the owning boss, the deadline, the hours you spent in the prior week and if possible, the hours needed to complete the task.

    The weekly update email (I’m picturing an email) would have the same text every week. “Here is my status report for June 14 – June 20. Let me know if you need to change any priorities.”

    Priority 1 / Gild cat teapots / Boss Jo / last week 27 hours / hours to complete: 632 / due Dec 14
    Priority 2 / Knit teapot cozies / Boss Tai / last week 14 hours / hours to complete: 117 /due Aug 1

    (These would be columns, but I don’t know how to put a table in these posts. I can’t even get italics to work.)

    Keep it in front of all bosses so they can’t say they didn’t know. Document, document, document! And keep all your weekly reports.

    1. TeapotNinja*

      If you do this, make sure to include information about how long you estimate the tasks to take.

      Bonus points for visualizing it on a GANT chart or otherwise to be crystal clear about what is possible and what isn’t.

    2. Threeve*

      Definitely start tracking hours and sharing them! There are a bunch of apps and websites that make it easy; I’ve heard good things about Clockify.

      I’d also suggest keeping a public Outlook or Google calendar so you can block out time for projects. “If I want to completely gild the cat teapots by Dec 14, I won’t be able to tackle anything else today or tomorrow.”

      And make it clear on your calendar: you work 8-hour days, and so that’s how your time will be allocated.

    3. Sara without an H*

      It’s been my experience that a lot of academic-administrator types really need visual aids. When I explained something to a former dean, he’d nod like he got it, but nothing happened. Once I showed him a chart, the penny dropped, and he followed through with what was needed.

    1. Just J.*

      I agree. I have found that there is no way to persuade someone to do work that they simply intend to not do. You can yell all you want. You can threaten to fire people. But if someone truly does not care, then the work simply does not get done.

      You need to be this person.

      Care less. Stop doing the work. Take your weekends back. What are they going to do? Yell? It sounds like they are already doing that. Does the yelling motivate you anymore? Can they fire you? Sure, but you are already job hunting and as Detective Amy Santiago pointed out, in your case, getting fired may not be a bad thing.

      I agree. Care more for yourself. Care less about work. Best wishes and jedi hugs.

      1. Ashley*

        I have heard this before, but I don’t know how to put it in practice. I definitely have a co-worker who doesn’t care what gets done and they drive me insane. When we miss deadlines, don’t respond, or do what we said, we look like idiots and who wants to work with an idiot. My job in sales because that much more difficult because who wants to hire us. How does one who has the perfectionist tendencies disconnect and care less?

        1. kt*

          For me, it’s not (well, ideally not) about letting balls drop. The “caring less” part is saying, say in an email, “Hi boss: this week I’ve done X, Y, and 3 hours on Z. I back-burnered D as per our discussion last Wednesday, but wanted to bring up that the deadline for D.1 is next week. Similarly, I haven’t worked on E since October due to the end of the alphabet being prioritized. Let me know if you’d like me to switch back to D and E in order to meet our external obligations. I estimate I can get D.1 done if I shift focus to it but will not have time to make progress on Z.” And then let boss deal with the question of whether D.1 gets done or not.

          Put it on the radar: Ball dropping in one week! three days! one day! alert! But don’t stay late to catch it.

        2. LKW*

          I think there are two things that helped me (maybe three)
          1. Stuff happened in my life that helped me readjust what was important to me. That was the biggest thing. Life is short, you will not be on your deathbed thinking of your excel mistakes. At least I hope not.
          2. I started thinking effort/value – am I spending 4o hours on something that will save me 1 hour every week or one hour every year? If I get this 80% right can the company continue? What’s the penalty if the 20% doesn’t get done? Now, circumstances differ from company to company – for example, if you’re testing blood then no, you can’t half ass the results. But you can say “I can only process this many and get them right. Or I can process more but the results will not be complete.” Given the litigious nature of our society, I would err on the side of getting the test right.
          3. I learned how to ask for help and also how to say “no”.

        3. hbc*

          Maybe it’s a matter of caring about the right things. If you care about every single item in your inbox and every unachievable deadline, you’re never going to be happy. If you care about customers in general or not letting the business go under, having a workable, sustainable workload (i.e.: that doesn’t leave you rage-quitting or falling asleep at the wheel) supports what you care about.

          For me, I had zero problem telling customers, “Look, we are understaffed at the moment, and realistically we’re running about X weeks/months behind the timeline you expect. I know this may not work for you, but I’d rather tell you now than string you along.” My honesty and reputation meant more to me than whatever current sale I might be losing.

        4. Just J.*

          @Ashley – I’m almost 30 years into my career and I STILL STRUGGLE DAILY with being able to disconnect and care less. I mean, my success comes from being caring and not disconnecting, but I can no longer handle the stress of it all. I have to make a conscious effort to find a balance. Therapy helps. Good hobbies help. Meditation helps. Prioritizing self-care really helps.

        5. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          I learned to do this with adjusting my priorities.

          I still care but I have to had learn to wash my hands of things that are literally out of my control, a great example is yours with a colleague who doesn’t care that’s grating your nerves.

          Have you done all you can? Told the person in charge this person isn’t doing their job in a timely fashion and it’s leaving you hanging? It’s on their shoulders, they hold the key to fixing it by firing this idiot that you have on board. Not yours. You cannot fix it, so you cannot kill yourself working yourself up over it.

          In my specific case, I had to learn to live with the fact my former boss was diagnosed with an awful deteriorating disease that was terminal. In that moment, I knew I couldn’t save him but I could do all I could and all within my personal power only. I let the people who could fix things know [his wife took over as the person with the absolute authority, so if I had someone just not showing up or disregarding their share of work, etc she was notified and she’d pull their employment plug if necessary otherwise it all fell on my lap and I had been granted the authority to do whatever I had to.]

          So you have to train yourself to forward on the stress to the right source and then it’s on their shoulders in the end. Or if it’s nobody’s responsibility, you remind yourself of that as well.

          I literally wrecked my car years ago due to being so wound up tight over issues I couldn’t control, so I was distracted and plowed into the back of a person waiting to turn across traffic. That was my first wake-up call.

          You are only in control of yourself and not others. Even though we wish we could be, we have to find out how to live with it. Therapy may be helpful if you find you’re still running into that emotional wall.

        6. J.B.*

          The key for me is to do a good job for myself. I will do what I can do and make sure that what I can do is good quality. All the other stuff is out of my control. If I run myself ragged I won’t have the quality. Does that make sense?

      1. Just J.*

        I know. My career is high stress and deadline driven. And I am a perfectionist and conscientious and compassionate.

        I have lived through what OP is living through. I have lived through what Amelia Earhart has lived through. The horrid hours. The endless stress. And no one to delegate it to. The being yelled at for not checking emails while you are out of the country (and don’t have email service!!!). I’ve cried over jobs many, many, times.

        I have only been able to “fix” the situation in one of two ways: 1) Quit or 2) Stop doing the work so that management finally “sees” that it cannot be done and finally starts helping to you to get it done. Option 2 only works for short time frames though. Bad management and under staffing usually cannot be fixed. Quitting, however, always works. (I know not everyone can quit, but your health and your sanity is not worth staying.)

          1. Elaine Benes*

            I totally read it as the famous pilot! And I was like, Oooh- that’s an interesting way to describe stress load. Was Amelia Earhart famously stressed?! hahaha

      2. Close Bracket*

        Simple =/= easy. It really is that simple, though. Reframing how you look at something makes a huge difference in how it impacts you. A good therapist can help with actually doing this, but there are plenty of self help resources as well.

    2. Stay-at-homesteader*

      It’s probably the single most effective way I’ve increased my mental health – and workplace demeanor – over the course of my career. Now I just have to make sure I don’t end up going too far in the other direction!

    3. MsSolo*

      We had a motto at a previous workplace (relatively toxic) that went “It’s OK 2 CBA” (it’s okay to ‘can’t be arsed’)

      Because, honestly, you only have so much arse and sometimes you just run out. Better to use it up on supporting customers than upwardly managing higher level staff.

  11. Pamplemeow*

    I’m in the exact same place. I have been working on disconnecting emotionally from work, which has helped even though I’m not 100% there. I struggle with it because of my perfectionism and anxiety.

    Another feeling is “if I don’t get all of this done, they’re going to fire me.” I understand not everyone can afford to have this outlook, but IMO it’s their problem if they decide to fire me because they refuse to hire more people, and a sign that I shouldn’t stay at the company anyways.

    1. Quill*

      Currently having high anxiety due to Stuff that did not get done in December / minor errors due to brain fog from december & would like some advice on emotionally disconnecting but also masking that because you really need the contract you’re in to go to actual employment with benefits. :/

    2. Det. Charles Boyle*

      This is when it’s so useful to save, save, save and give yourself permission to be fired, if need be. Because you’ll have a financial cushion and can walk away freely, without feeling like you’re chained to the paycheck.

  12. Aurion*

    I’m not sure there’s a solution to this other than leaving.

    By all means, try the stronger scripts Allison suggested and the tracking/updates other commentors suggested, but in my experience when you say “we agreed last week that we will shift my priorities from Y to Z” the response will be “but due to new information/customer throwing a fuss/regulator missives/acts of god our priorities have changed, I’m sorry if you’re unhappy, but this is a fast paced environment and you need to be Flexible TM”.

    Being flexible and adaptive is well and good to a point, but it sounds like you are so far past that point you are orbiting Saturn. You’ve alerted your bosses repeatedly and still am getting 100 (!!) hours of work a week.

    Mentally detach from your job, tell yourself this is unsustainable and not of your doing, and put all your remaining energies into leaving.

    1. M. Albertine*

      I have to agree with this: if things are being left undone due to shifting priorities and you aren’t getting any successes/accomplishments in this position, it’s only going to hurt your resume in the long run. Push back to get your life back, but focus on leaving.

    2. Antilles*

      Agreed 100%. Especially with the four boss issue and the grandbosses already having vetoed OP’s ‘no’.
      It’s worth trying the strategies suggested, but I just don’t see any way it ends that *isn’t* four individual responses that all suggest cutting back but not on my projects of course, just do less of other people’s stuff.

  13. Amelia Earhart*

    Dear OP,

    Hi, I was you from 2016-2018. It got to a point where I was crying every day while driving home. I was trying a self-enforced work-life balance by leaving at 4 every day, and then one of my managers called me out and basically said I couldn’t possibly be as busy as I said I was if I could leave on time every day. Then she suggested I get therapy and take FMLA. I asked my managers for help and it was declined so I went to therapy. I was put on anti-anxiety and anti-depressants. I changed, the work did not. I booked an international trip just to get away and still got pushed into logging on to respond to emails.

    I came back to over 1,000 emails and got called to task when I wasn’t caught up within 3 days. I worked from home the next day because I couldn’t stop crying – sitting on my bedroom floor, hysterically crying, trying to respond to work IMs while my dog tried to cuddle me. Then I had this moment of clarity that I couldn’t do it anymore. As much as I liked the paycheck and the respect I had and the benefits and the years of experience, it wasn’t worth my mental health. I had made steps to change to be able to cope with it but work had not reciprocated. I did some math just to make sure it would be ok then I went in the next week and I gave my two weeks notice with nothing lined up. And I felt like myself again.

    For a while I thought that maybe I had made this all up and it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was, then I found out they hired 4 people + a team 0f consultants to replace me.

    OP, take care of yourself. Your mental, physical, and emotional well-being is not worth that level of stress.

    1. Myrin*

      I hope this isn’t too derailing – and please delete as you see fit, Alison – but to your second-to-last point where they needed to hire basically an entire team to replace you (others in this thread talk about that as well and it comes up reasonably often on other posts, too): I always wonder what made the powers that be change their tune then. Is it simply that they knew all along that they needed more people to do the work but think “meh, as long as [poor soul finding themselves in this job right now] can do it, even at the expense of their entire being, we won’t change anything” and then they turn over a new leaf once the poor soul has left? But in that case, why not continue hiring only one person and hoping they, too, are a superhuman? Surely they could deceive some desperate jobseeker about the position’s responsibilities and challenges and make them, too, into a poor soul once they’ve got them in their clutches? Basically, I’m just wondering why a person leaving appears to make them see the light when before that, they came off as entirely malicious and uncaring.

      1. The Francher Kid*

        In my case, it was absolutely true that they knew it was too much work for one person, but as long as I was willing to kill myself to keep up, then they’d let me. And they tried hiring only one person for a while, and got tired of people quitting. One person left at lunch and didn’t come back. Two more didn’t make it through probation. I think they started rethinking what the job required when it finally started costing them money to keep trying to hire and train people who then left as soon as they could.

        1. Myrin*

          Aha, that’s basically what I expected but I’ve never seen anyone spell it out like that. So they DO try to go on in their weasely ways! Thanks for sharing!

          1. Krabby*

            The Francher Kid is totally right. It might not be a full, “this is too much for one person,” understanding, but they know it’s a lot and it’s stressful. Then, after the 4th person quits or gets fired in under a year they realize quite how bad it was.

            1. Working Hypothesis*

              Or, at least, quite how bad it is getting for *them*. They may have already known quite how bad it was and not cared, or they might still not know, but they start to figure out that it’s now going to be bad for #1 instead of just for the hired help.

        2. londonedit*

          Yes, exactly. In my burnout situation they’d whittled the department down (first through redundancies and then also through not replacing people when they left) from 7 to 2, with me apparently in charge of everything and the only other member of staff in the department being a junior assistant who had only just been promoted into the role (I say promoted, more like given the role so they wouldn’t have to pay someone with the proper experience). Of course that wasn’t sustainable, and when it all fell apart and I handed in my notice, they realised they couldn’t cope with a department consisting of one junior employee, and ended up hiring someone to be in charge of the whole thing and two other people to fill in the roles in the middle.

      2. PossiblyEnoughDetailToBeIdentified*

        I can’t speak for anyone else of course, but sometimes it’s a case of responsibility creep.
        As in, you were hired to do your job and just your job, and then gradually, over time, you were given more and more to do, because you’re consciencious and good at your job and so it keeps going and going. And only when you leave do they realise that the workload was for 3 people, instead of 1.

        The usual analogy is the straw that broke the donkey/camel/beast of burden of your choice. That’s because each straw doesn’t seem a lot, but the final one will just be one too many.

        1. Myrin*

          Oh, I can totally see how that can happen from the employee‘s side – but I’m more wondering about the employer‘s side. I mean, if you never even try to raise it with them, sure, I can see how a boss who only oversees your work but doesn’t really know it might not have a good sense of what’s reasonable for how many people, but this always seems to happen in situations where the managers have been made aware again and again by the poor soul that there is simply too much work to be done, so it’s not as simply as “oh, I hadn’t realised this”.

          1. lasslisa*

            Usually they know that “oh, that camel is always complaining about the straw” but don’t really understand the problem intuitively until they actually see all the straw sitting there in a pile, uncarried and not stuffed into saddlebags anymore, and try to load it onto a new camel all at once.

            I have one manager who is very good at communicating this. If you go to upper management and say, “I need three more headcount for Project C,” they say “no, what? No way, that project shouldn’t take that many people!”

            So he always puts together – here are the approximate number of pages we need to write, they need to get drafted, edited, and printed, to get this done by the deadline assumes each of our writers is writing five pages a day and our editors can keep up at ten pages per day. management says, great, good plan. Two weeks later he presents the chart again and we are a week behind already. “Oh, wow, that’s bad, if this continues –” “The complexity of the work requires more time to write than we expected, I need two more writers and one editor…” Bam. Three headcount.

            I’m not saying this works with every management group everywhere, and for some tasks it’s going to be easier than others, but this kind of planning and tracking is a really valuable way to communicate. Even with management that’s trying to lead well and get good results it is (psychologically) easier to disregard employee complaints, especially when listening to them would be expensive.

            1. designbot*

              It really, really helps if you’re billable. Then you can say, “we’re charging $XX,000 for this project, that’s equivalent to 3 people for 6 months full time at our 4x multiplier. If you want it in 3 months I’ll need 6 people then.” Even if you aren’t billable, if there is anyone in your office who is, talk to a PM on that side of things and have them help you translate your efforts into dollars, because that’s a language that really helps people quantify time.

      3. Armchair Analyst*

        Yes and… I believe it’s the money. I was willing to do a higher-level job at a mid-level salary. I put up with a lot of bull—- from the managers and the clients.

        When I left, I saw the job posted with my salary for a few weeks.
        Then I saw it posted for a much higher salary.
        Then I stopped paying attention.

      4. Another name*

        I don’t think managers like this replace one person with two or a team because they suddenly see the light about their former staffer being overworked – it’s that the work that needed to get done was getting done before, and now it isn’t.

        The work still has to be done and now that it is their problem to deal with, they sure aren’t doing the work themselves. They’ll hire as many people as it takes to get the work done.

        I’ve been the overworked employee who was replaced by multiple people, and I’ve replaced an overworked employee and saw an extra position created when it became clear I wasn’t up to the task of doing multiple full time jobs – not gonna lie, it was scary when I thought they might get rid of me. Setting limits on how much time you can give early on can be a real life and sanity saver.

      5. Librarian of SHIELD*

        We had a unicorn of a position at an organization I was with a few years back. One of our employees had widely varying interests and skills, and had taken on a wide array of assignments and responsibilities that don’t generally go together in the same job description. When that person resigned, it took a very, very long time to fill the position, because the administration’s thought process was “this job is vacant now, let’s fill it,” when it should have been “what are the primary duties of this position, and does it still make sense for the same person to do all these things?” The person they eventually hired was…not a great fit for the position as it was, because really nobody but the departed employee would have been the right fit. About a year after the new person came on board, it became clear that this was not a one-person job and it was separated out again in a reorganization.

        I think this is a function of humans not being great at change. We feel like things are the way they are for a reason, even if we can’t quite articulate what the reason is. It takes something pretty big to make people realize that there’s not actually a reason for things to be this way, and there are a whole lot of reasons it would be better off some other way instead.

      6. The New Wanderer*

        I’m guessing it’s a combination of everything people have mentioned: you start a job at Salary X doing Tasks A and B. Then Task C, and D, and hey why not E while you’re at it. It’s the frog in the pot scenario, and you are too busy to notice the heat. Pretty soon you’ve got the whole alphabet, still at Salary X because you’re probably not excelling at anything because overworked and no one buys that these tasks alone (yet always in combination) are enough to warrant it. And everything is important so you can’t lose any of them. “Just find a way.”

        Then you break out or break down. So, they go looking for the next person, except no one will do ALL of the tasks at once, and certainly not for Salary X which is laughable at this point for all that responsibility. Either they churn through the poor souls who try or they step it up and pare down the job descriptions and/or offer significantly more money. They don’t see the error of their ways in overloading someone to their breaking point, it’s a calculated business decision that would absolutely play out again if the situation allows. Which it will the second you start losing people from that team that took over for a single person in the first place.
        Corollary: never be the last one left of a team hired to replace a single person, or you’ll relive history.

        Set boundaries as best you can for now, just don’t do any more than 40 hours for any reason at all (not “just this once,” not “but it’s really important,” and definitely not “but we need to meet the deadline” because you already did your part and now they need to step up as part of the ‘we’ in that argument), and get out ASAP.

      7. DyneinWalking*

        I don’t think employers like that see the light just because of one person leaving.

        I think what happens most times is, they hire another person to do the job, but that person is not invested. There’s little personal pride and interest int the tasks, no strong identification with the projects. Also, job search is recent, the resume updated, probably some applications they hadn’t heard back from before they took the offer… New people coming in are more likely to call out the shit they encounter in the new job, and more likely to leave if the demands are unreasonable. So they leave, and keep leaving or at least do a lot less, and the employer is forced to lessen the work load per person.

    2. The Francher Kid*

      This was me for too many years.

      I supported four grant-funded researchers who wanted me there 24/7/365. Although they all took multiple weeks of vacation per year, they never wanted me to be out of the office and I bought into being “essential” for a long, long time. I even got pushed into answering emails on my honeymoon.

      HR supported the researchers and left me caught between trying to decide which was worse–not getting things done, or being written up for unauthorized overtime (because HR would never approve overtime).

      It was months after I left before I finally realized how toxic this place was. They went through three replacements in six months after I left, and have been through at least three more in the past couple of years.

      OP, please, please take care of yourself. No job is worth destroying yourself.

        1. The Francher Kid*

          It didn’t, thankfully. I credit my husband with helping me understand how my frantic attempts to keep the plates spinning were both ruining my health and preventing any real change. Unfortunately, I’d been doing it for years by that time and it took my leaving (and their running through several replacements) for them to make the changes that needed to be made.

    3. mizunasloane*

      I’m so proud of you for doing this! Not that you need it, but when I’ve been in this position it’s always been so hard for me to take that leap because I really internalize loyalty to an organization that never reciprocates. I’m a Virgo, so story of my life. lol. I just think when people make such an important, and good, decision for themselves they need to know they’re awesome for doing it. Kuddos to you for taking charge of your life and drawing a line in the sand.

    1. Hello It's Me*

      Especially if they fire you and you go on unemployment….. and they try to make stuff up to fight it!!!!!!

      The things my past employer said to try to make me not get unemployment… crazy…

      1. Fire Away*

        I hope you fought successfully for your unemployment. I sure did. Fired for “not working hard enough”; fortunately I had the information that she had hired 2 people to replace me (not 7, but still…)
        I won.
        Fortunately a sympathetic coworker called me the night I returned from my vacation to alert me the pink slip was in my mail and update me on the new hires.

  14. Double A*

    When I was at that point with a job, I hit a breaking point where I was sobbing uncontrollably and couldn’t picture going in to work again. I called my doctor the next day, and she put me on medical leave. I ended up not returning to the job. I spent a month in bed. I learned a LOT from that experience, and I am now basically incapable of overworking. There’s just a point where my brain is like, “Nope!” and I get back to whatever the next day.

    If you think the situation may be salvageable, then there are a lot of great suggestions here. If you think you need to leave (and I think you should), I suggest drawing HARD boundaries on your time and immediately stop caring about doing everything they want you to do. It’s really, really hard to do this while you’re in the middle of it, though, but you need to have energy for a job hunt.

    However, crying every day, multiple times a day, suggests to me you are probably past a point of no return, though. You are traumatized by this job and it will be very difficult to regain your equilibrium in this setting. Quitting without something lined up may be a possibility. Temp work is a thing. Give yourself permission to put that on the table.

    1. mizunasloane*

      I’ve never thought about calling my doctor when I go through this, that’s a great idea. I guess that’s my way of saying it never seemed like my concerns were legitimate enough to warrant medical leave and time off even though they totally were.

    2. Windchime*

      The same thing happened to me at my previous job. My doctor immediately put me on FMLA leave for 2 months (the max I could take at the time) and, when it was time to go back to work, I sat in the parking lot and sobbed uncontrollably. In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have gone back. I was in the process of interviewing for the job I am in now, but I didn’t know for sure that they would hire me.

      I hope I am never in that position again. I was so destroyed by that job that I was afraid I would never be able to work again. I thought they had broken me. Thankfully, it wasn’t me that was broken–it was the old job.

  15. hbc*

    I feel like these work situations come in two major flavors:

    1) Bosses have unrealistic expectations and will continue to pile on, and blame you for not getting stuff done. Document, do your reasonable best, and get the heck out of there.

    2) The work is never done, due to chaos or job type or something else, but bosses get it. You either need to adjust to the reality that “deadline” is a fungible concept, or leave for someplace more structured. But the higher up you go, the less likely it is that you’re getting all of your responsibilities done, so best to learn to adapt.

  16. Orange You Glad*

    I was doing a job like this where my responsibilities had all expanded and expanded…and expanded…and EXPANDED!

    I was working 7am to midnight Monday-Friday and 10am to 8pm on Saturday’s. Luckily we were closed on Sunday’s but some weeks I would still come in and work off the clock to finish things.

    My boss thought I was magic – he worked 11am to 5pm and we would spend most of that time in meetings where he came up with new ideas that *someone* (aka me) needed to do the work to accomplish. He constantly told me, “I don’t know how you get all this done? You’re amazing!”

    Meanwhile, I was dying. I didn’t know that I needed to set boundaries and hand off my work load; I just kept working more hours to get it all done.

    Finally the owner of the company decided to get granular with the payroll budget and realized that I was getting paid more than he thought fair. (Originally my boss was in charge of payroll so he paid me based on my negotiations with him; I hadn’t even met the owner before).

    The owner said that since I didn’t have a college degree he was going to cut my pay by 25% because he didn’t think I “deserved” that much. So I quit.

    They hired SEVEN PEOPLE to replace me! To replace everything I was doing!

    1. Detective Amy Santiago*

      SEVEN?! Dear lord. I thought it was bad enough that my old toxic workplace had to hire two people to replace me.

      I hope you’re somewhere now where you and your contributions are respected.

      1. Orange You Glad*

        Thank you! What I learned from that experience is “just because I CAN doesn’t mean I SHOULD”.

        (Just because I CAN work 100+ hours per week doesn’t mean I SHOULD work 100+ hours per week…)

        In the decade since quitting that job, I’ve prioritized healthy work/life balance and been much, much happier.

    2. Aquawoman*

      I am having some very satisfying schadenfreude at the idea of this guy trying to CUT your pay and winding up having to pay so much more.

      1. Orange You Glad*

        I was angry for a long time about his offensive decision to cut my pay 25% but after I calculated how much seven people cost him, I admit that made me feel better.

    3. LKW*

      Ooooh – while I hate that you went through that, I have to say I wonder if the owner ever thought “Hmmm, well that was a stupid and costly mistake.”

      1. Antilles*

        Frankly, once he realized he needed to hire an entire group of people to replace OP, I’d be surprised the guy didn’t pick up the phone to try to get Orange back with an enticement of “look, let’s let bygones be bygones and I’ll even toss in a pay increase”.

        1. Orange You Glad*

          Right? He didn’t because his stubborn belief that people without college degrees should be paid less (no matter how much industry experience they have) prevented him from offering me what I was worth.

          And, after being free from 100+ hours per week work for a bit I realized I would never go back no matter how much money he offered.

  17. Librarian of SHIELD*

    OP, when you discuss this with your bosses, are you discussing it with them individually or as a group? If you’ve primarily been talking to them individually, they may not fully understand the weight of your entire workload. Or, they could each be seeing the work from their own area as the top priority and not understanding why you can’t just stop doing the work your other bosses have assigned.

    Is it possible for you to schedule a meeting with everyone together? Do you think that will help?

    I’m so, so sorry it’s come to this, and I hope good things come from that promising interview.

    1. RC Rascal*

      This is a fantastic idea, and was going to be my suggestion as well. Document what all you are doing for all 4 bosses, and then call them together to discuss. Open the meeting by communicating your actual, documented hours and list of projects and time requirements. Explain that you want them to all understand how stretched you are, and that the pace of work is untenable. See how they handle it. If they are reasonable they will begin working on solutions. If they start to blame–then you know what you are dealing with and can look for other work or quit if needed.

    2. LKW*

      This was my suggestion last week, communicate the full workload, outline the due dates requested and what is feasible and then let the four of them work out how they want to reprioritize. If someone’s stuff comes first – the other three have to agree to it. Until then, first come first serve. If requested dates can’t be met, OP supplies one back and everyone has the list of what’s being done, when it will be done and what comes next.

  18. Kella*

    I’m concerned that because OP has 4 bosses, they will each have different instructions on how to prioritize and expect OP to only follow their instructions and enforce consequences if they don’t.

    OP, can all 4 of your bosses enforce consequences on you for “bad” performance? Cause that adds another layer of difficulty to this problem.

    1. Mockingjay*

      Yeah, this is an issue anytime staff is shared. Each boss is giving the OP what seems to be a reasonable amount of work, but multiplied by four – no way she can get all of it done. And since several are not in the same organization, there’s no way all four are collaborating to manage the workload and competing priorities.

      OP, I think you need to have a conversation with your actual manager about sustainable workload. How many people can you realistically support in a normal 40-hour week? Be honest and clear. I think you need at least one more full-time person. If more staff can’t be hired, do what you can during the day, then go home.

  19. blink14*

    Ugh, OP, I’m sorry. This sounds like a worse version of my office – we’re very understaffed and my manager’s email is filled with requests and “priority items” that never end. We were down a person all fall, and it got to a point where I had to tell my manager that I couldn’t take on any more work – I also cannot work overtime due to chronic illnesses. I was doing the work of 2 people in the same amount of hours per week, and it was insane. We also had a delayed development schedule for a yearly program, due to outside circumstances, and I eventually told my manager that I would be prioritizing that project until it was complete, and then my daily maintenance tasks for the office, and then other items. By doing this, I sort of forced her to take on a project that had gone through many versions because instead of carving out time to do it herself, she would explain for 30 minutes what she wanted me to do with it, when she could’ve made the changes in the same amount of time (she’s a great manager, but overworked, and thought that this type of delegating would be better).

    You are also dealing with incredible personal stress, and that combined with your work stress isn’t going to help anyone. I would sit down and come up with a list of all your projects, prioritize them in a realistic fashion (what really has to be finished, what can wait x amount of weeks, etc) and send that to all 4 of your bosses. Tell them in very clear terms that one person cannot do everything that has been assigned, and therefore you’ve prioritized and ask them to move things off your plate. I think if you don’t do this, quickly, clearly, and firmly, you will get stuck the same cycle.

  20. aliascelli*

    Oh man, this is me – I just went on part-time leave and am in intensive therapy to deal with my burnout. And working part-time means more things fall by the wayside, but I just couldn’t anymore, I was having panic attacks at work and crying all the time. I hate that so many other people know what this is like.

  21. Postdoc office director*

    OP, I’ve seen too many postdocs reporting to two Principal investigators (PIs) become stressed and ultimately opt to leave or be let go early. The root cause is always the expectations were not well laid out in advance. My recommendation would be to get all four PIs together ASAP (i.e. in the same room or in one conference call) to develop and sign a compact about how to handle your time and assignments. PIs, and really everyone, tend to underestimate how much time tasks take by at least two fold. So it’s imperative that they understand what you’re working on, when, how long it takes, and what the consequences are if priorities shift. This of course requires you to be willing to have the difficult conversation. If you need a coach, look for an Ombuds at your organization. Ombus are (usually) required to keep things confidential unless you give permission for them to talk with the other parties.

    1. Relentlessly Socratic*

      This. PIs are also frequently HIGHLY dysfunctional themselves in terms of work-life balance. There’s a very good reason I left grant-driven science.

      1. Relentlessly Socratic*

        Of course, now I’m in consulting where I literally cannot tell clients that I’m working on X for one client so their Y work won’t get done, but it’s still a step up from acadame.

  22. Van Wilder*

    What advice do you have for estimating the time that your workload will take?
    (Side note: I have half-implemented GTD but I can’t consistently do my weekly or daily review because I would spend my whole day getting to the bottom of my inbox and time-sensitive work would be done late.)

    I agree to everything that’s put on my plate and don’t realize that I don’t have enough time to complete it until it’s too late.

    1. kt*

      For me, time tracking first was the only way I figured it out. Before time tracking, I had totally delusional estimates. Totally delusional.

      Make a note every half hour for a week. Yes, it’s annoying. Make a note every hour for a month. Super annoying. Invaluable.

      1. Washi*

        And give yourself a tiny bit of wiggle room (like add 10% more or so.) Don’t give the amount of time it would take if you worked at a frantic, breakneck pace without peeing, even if that’s what your days are looking like. It’s not about trying to cheat the system, it’s just building in a bit of reality to your schedule for the other things that pop up or derail you.

        1. Oh No She Di'int*

          I second Washi, and would actually make that number higher. In my position I add a standard 20% to time estimates for everything from going to the bathroom to dealing with server downtime to meetings running long to birthday parties in the break room to “it just took longer than I thought it would”. All of these are a normal part of office life that must be factored in.

          1. Antilles*

            Agreed, 10% isn’t enough. Personally, I usually overestimate the deadline by 25% just to account for the various stuff that comes up, both in terms of small projects that take precedence despite being newer and in terms of life stuff. And that’s only if I already have a good handle on the timeframe; if it’s a unique one-off project or totally new, I’ll go even further than that to account for the learning curve.
            If things go swimmingly, nothing comes up, and you finish early, you’re fine – nobody ever gets mad when you deliver something a little ahead of the deadline. But it’s a lot better to get a reputation for “that Van meets his deadlines, often even early” than to be the guy who’s always late.

            1. Wonderer*

              I knew a guy that scheduled all his work weeks in great detail, but had his calendar set to show Friday as part of the weekend (i.e. not a work day). He said that making sure he had nothing scheduled on Friday was the only way he could make sure everything got done during the week. The best part was, if he showed a project schedule over several months, you couldn’t tell that he’d built in 25% extra time spread through the whole project.

        2. Van Wilder*

          Maybe it’s the nature of my work… I do repetitive tasks but then also so many unexpected things come up. And consulting projects that I’ve never done before. And anticipating the time it takes to project manage is something I struggle with.

          That said, I’m in a big tax firm so nobody here has the option to turn down work. You’re just expected to work till 3am if that’s what it takes. But it would be good if I could plan better so I could spread out the work to the extent that I can control it.

      2. Van Wilder*

        I’ve been tracking my time for a while but I haven’t figured out what to do with the information…

    2. OrigCassandra*

      Agile project management also has a couple-three relevant techniques; maybe read up on “planning poker” and “sprint planning”?

      The difficulty with OP’s situation vis-a-vis agile is that OP is only one person, rather than a work unit (though it’s arguable OP is a work unit all by themself!). A work unit has a boss who can push back on stakeholder requests, which OP obviously has a harder time doing.

      Still, it may help OP to know that part of the point of Agile is forcing stakeholders to slug out time crunches with each other, rather than overloading OP/the work unit. The Agile setup says “OP has 40 hours in a week; stakeholders have 80 hours of work; stakeholders fight amongst themselves to decide which 40 get into the sprint.” It’s a shift of perspective that I have personally seen turn around a deeply dysfunctional situation for an in-house programming unit that had previously been scheduled via squeaky wheel.

      1. When agile goes bad*

        One caveat…when done poorly, sprints can backfire. There MUST be the layer where the next level up agrees to back off on the impossible commitments. The next level up MUST have trust in the individual contributor(s). And there MUST be a little downtime between sprints, if nothing else for a wrapup & postmortem, but also for some individual recharging. Otherwise it’s not a sprint cycle–it’s back to being a series of crises, and people WILL bail out. I’m living through that and must stay anonymous here.

        1. Windchime*

          Yep, my previous job did “Agile” and it was really about cracking the whip and trying to get more and more work out of people. You’d be assigned your sprint tasks, then more would be added, plus the daily work of maintaining things, and then you’d get into trouble for not getting all your sprint tasks done, or doing them in the wrong order……it was hell on earth.

        2. Tris Prior*

          This is exactly what I’m going through right now, with the added bonus of being on multiple scrum teams due to being very short staffed after layoffs.

    3. Ranon*

      Start estimating how long tasks will take you, then track your time to see if you’re right. It doesn’t take too long to get a pretty good gut feel, just practice.

      In the meantime, make a wild guess and then multiply by three. It’ll probably be pretty close.

  23. Argh!*

    I bet a few people who are considered underperformers are bored to tears because all the work gets dumped on the superstars. Instead of dumping on their favorites, they should give the underperformers some stretch assignments, which might be exactly what they need. Under-assigning based on past performance is just as wrong as over-assigning. Sometimes that past performance is due to inadequacy in a different area, or a bad time in their life. Bosses who are prone to the halo syndrome are also prone to the horns syndrome.

    1. Chronic Overthinker*

      Oh man, I totally agree! That again is totally a management issue. If someone doesn’t do well on one thing, doesn’t mean everything should be pulled from them. Low level/priority assignments are great for “underperformers” as you can find out where they shine!

      To give a great example, I’m not great at drafting Teapot sales analytics, but I am super great at creating Teapot User manuals! Give people things to try. If they fail, try something else.

  24. Annie Porter*

    My apologies for joining the echo chamber here, but keep your eyes on the prize of getting out, or at the very least, don’t invest yourself as much in getting (all) your work done.

    What I’ve learned over the years in multiple similar situations is that if you care, or if you find a way to get it done, you’ll just keep getting dumped on. The ONLY way to stop getting dumped on is to stop doing all the work or leave!

    I’ve also had two types of managers that overload: 1. Managers who just don’t care about your mental health or your morale 2. Managers who do care, but are so overloaded themselves that they have no choice but to keep dumping.

    Good luck! Keep up the hunt. Something better will come along.

  25. Bob*

    Basically what everyone has said. Try and lay it out clearly to your bosses what is/isnt feasible. But really, care less. I am also a person who likes to do a “Good job” and take pride in the quality of my work. But I started finding myself getting massively anxious on Sunday nights because of work. And realised that I depend on other people who…do not care as much as I do about doing a “Good job”. And my boss is not in a position to make them care. So nothing I can do will matter.

    So I work (generally) my exact amount of contracted hours. If I have specific customer commitments within my control, I might do a bit extra for them. But the rest of the general day to day? It can wait. My work is not that important in the grand scheme of things. I’m not saving lives. If it doesnt get done, it can wait at least 24 hours if not 24 days…

    The best thing about this is it gives you time to focus on finding new jobs!

  26. S*

    Currently struggling with this… and I have too much work to schedule interviews for new jobs. I got past initial phone interview stage for more than one; they want me to fly out in person, but I can’t take the time off to do that for at least another month. How can I explain taking multiple days off at short notice when everything is on fire?

    Also, in my field, I am expected to prepare a 30-45 minute presentation for in-person interviews. I do not have time to put in that extra work off the clock right now, when I’m already working evenings and weekends on my paid work. (The usual solution is to repurpose a presentation you previously gave at a conference, but I need to substantially update my last conference presentation to reflect current developments.)

    Fundamentally, it is because our company is so decentralized that I am literally the only person keeping track of everything on my plate, which comes from all different directions in the company. I try to communicate “to prioritize X, I will need to push off Y, Z, and Q.” But Y, Z, and Q are projects owned/managed by totally separate people/departments than X, so that means nothing to the X manager. I feel like every time I get a new request, I need to conference in every project manager in the company and have them battle it out for my time. But that’s obviously not feasible to do every day. So I typically wind up putting out the most immediate fires first — but eventually, the stuff I put off starts to smolder. I’m always behind, always disappointing people and missing deadlines, and it’s demoralizing.

    Even when I do conference in multiple project managers, typically I’m told to prioritize the most immediate deadline anyway. But there are always last-minute emergency fires that pop up, so that means nothing ever gets done until it is on fire.

    I tried to sell my bosses on using a resource management system where employees could graph their time commitments by project and by day/week/month, to visually show when and how their time was committed and how that commitment was changing each day with new requests, but they didn’t go for it because it cost money. They wanted to just use the system already built into our invoicing system… which just has my manager type in my percent commitment to each project each month. That would be OK if my priorities and commitments weren’t having to change literally every day.

    Sorry for the feelingsdump. It is just too much. I hope these potential new jobs don’t just drop me for being unable to drop everything to fly out and interview. But I’d understand if they did.

    1. Det. Charles Boyle*

      I’m sorry you’re going through this, but things won’t change unless you change them. Your bosses are vested in things staying the same. You have agency and power here if you want to use it. The work and the company will still be there if you take a couple of days to go to an interview.

      1. S*

        I’m aware that things won’t change unless I change them, thank you. That is why I am looking for a new job. Unfortunately many of the deadlines in the next month aren’t just internal — they are things like conference presentations and regulatory submissions that absolutely must be ready by a certain time. I can’t just hit pause on that work to go out of town.

        Questions will be asked. I can’t think of a cover story that explains why I have to take time at such short notice, in such a busy period, why I can’t just work from home (this is what people at my company do if they are sick or have a family/home/pet emergency), why I can’t call into meetings that day from the road (this is what people do if they are traveling for personal reasons). If you have a good cover story idea, I am open to suggestions.

        I am doing my best to find the tasks that I *can* hit pause on, and I’m actively working to schedule those in-person interviews at a time that is feasible for both me and them, even if that is not next week as they originally requested. I’m not just throwing up my hands here.

        1. Bob*

          Sick days. You are too sick to work from home. Stomach bugs can be good for that.

          But as I’ve posted above, you have to care less. I also work in a regulatory/compliance related role. When those reports are due – sure I work some extra hours. Anything other time of year? Not interested.

          Use your judgement and decide what is actually *critical* to you not getting fired for the next 6 months, make sure those get done, let everything else slide and use the extra time to be able to job hunt in peace.

          Also if you have 1 reporting manager but multiple stakeholders (other projects) – make this your direct managers problem. Everytime you have a conflict, make them prioritise. Then document and share with all relevant parties. And if something catches fire – oops, they also need to deal with it now. Because as long as no one else suffers any consequences, nothing will change. So I say let some projects catch fire.

        2. Bagpuss*

          You can however say to your bosses “the regulatory submission has to be in by [date]. If we are to meet that timescale I will have to focus solely competing those submissions. It will take me a minimum of x days., so I will not be able to do anything else until [date]

          Same for other things.

          You could even say “I cannot both complete the regulatory submissions and the conference presentation. I intend to focus on the regulatory submission which will take up all of my time for the next x days. This means I will not be able to meet the deadline for the conference submission and you will need to arrange for another person to deal with that.
          If they tell you it’s your responsibility to do both then you may need to push back -“No, you are not hearing me. It is not possible for me to do both. Which of the two do you want me to do?”
          Do you work at a university ? Is there any form of HR you can speak to?

        3. Al*

          There is some good advice here, so all I’m going to add is good wishes. It can be such a helpless, trapped feeling to be so exhausted and burnt out, seeing few options that seem feasible. I hope you escape soon!

        4. Jenny Next*

          I wonder what would happen if you told them the truth. “I’m taking two personal days to fly to Boise for an interview”.

    2. RB*

      What if you had a “family emergency” or “medical test” so that you could prepare for and attend that interview?

      What is you started having a “family commitment” or “sick parent” or “sick child” so that you had a reason you had to cut back your evening and weekend hours spent on work? What if stuff just stopped getting done? Or done on time?

    3. Close Bracket*

      but I need to substantially update my last conference presentation to reflect current developments.

      Nah, you just need to make an announcement at the beginning that this was the state of your findings at x time. They just want to know that you have the skills to put together a presentation and give it to an audience. You could make a summary slide with a few bullet points on what’s new, but really, it’s ok to give the non-updated talk.

    4. Competent Commenter*

      You are never going to escape this job if you don’t take the time you need to apply for jobs and prepare for job interviews. I second RB: take a sick day. Say you or your kid is throwing up, nothing to be done about it. Don’t ask, just send that email saying you won’t be in, and don’t answer emails from them until you’re back at work the next day.

      I’ve been in a similar situation and am still in that same job. I hit a breaking point and decided that I’d work my regular hours…and that was it. No more working over the weekends and holidays. No more stressing about it, at least not on personal time. If it was that important to them to get things done, then they’d hire more people or give me fewer assignments. Do not buy into the illusion that this kind of employer weaves. They created this situation, not you. Their inability to get their act together does not mean you are incompetent or that you’re required to fix it. It is not fixable. Therefore, take the time you need for yourself, to rest, to apply for jobs, etc. The job will still not be fixable when you come back! In fact, whether you work insanely hard or slack off, whether you stay or go, whether you kill yourself over this or detach a bit it doesn’t really matter. This job will still not be achievable as currently structured. So, why not choose a path that’s healthier for you?

    5. Seeking Second Childhood*

      I have in the past published my entire task list to the many groups I support. In priority order, all 2-3 dozen little projects, with conflicting priorities documented in high resolution for flagged managers to tell us their consensus.
      And honestly I’ve got to start doing it again.

    6. MsSolo*

      This sounds like a situation where you need to quit and then job hunt. If you’re getting interviews from people who are willing to have you fly out (especially if they’re willing to push dates back for you) then you may just need to take that risk. Check your finances, work out how long you can feasibly go without a regular paycheck, and keep an eye on other work that might tide you over in the meantime that wouldn’t interfere with the job hunt. If you’re working hours like that, I’ll wager you haven’t had time to spend your paycheck on ‘frivolous’ things for some time, so hopefully you can cover yourself for a little while.

      In the meantime, do you use shared calendars? I block out time in my calendar for current work, and if a new request comes in I can point to it and say “I can spare you an hour this week and three next week, but no more than that.” People eventually start getting better about checking the calendar first before assigning work (it also stops people giving you a ‘quick call’ about ‘a little request’ because they can’t find any time in your diary to call you about it in the first place!).

  27. Chronic Overthinker*

    LW I am so sorry that you are stressed out to the point of crying at work. I think it might be time to schedule a phone conference with all your bosses and explain everything. Lay your hands on the table and tell them that when priorities constantly shift, nothing will ever truly get completed. It’s not your fault! Maybe if they see all the work that you are handling, they make be able to make changes to your workload or, at the very least, open their eyes to see how much work is getting done/not done! I wish you luck and hope you get this straightened out!

  28. Chauncey Gardner*

    While I was in public accounting ages ago I reported to multiple partners, who, of course, never talked to each other about staff and manager workload. Their own stuff was the most important, period. So I would just say, when assigned 130 hours of work (for one week) by three different partners “I can do X for you, Y for Joe and Z for Adam, but ABC and D won’t get done. Perhaps you three could coordinate your priorities since I certainly am not senior enough to make those decisions.” Smiling very sweetly and speaking very earnestly.

  29. LQ*

    Other folks have had some good suggestions about your bosses and pushing back. Mine are pretty boring but here’s what’s helped me at hard times, take as they work for you, throw if they don’t:
    * Change out of work clothes and into play clothes when you get home
    * Do everything you can to not let your work invade your home, if you work from home restrict the physical space (I live in a studio, I would literally turn out the lights, leave, lock the door, and then come back in as “Home now!”)
    * Create space to stress about work, but try to limit it with whatever you can (I have a 5 minute period for a stomping moping raging tantrum when I get home, then I change and I’m done (mostly…))
    * Create a schedule of not work something, community group, church, brunch, whatever, something that you will not violate and hold that sacred, even if it’s just an hour a week
    * Use DND on the phone (I’m pretty lucky even when it’s horrible the horrible doesn’t show up at 2 am except in my head), auto DND if at all possible, a shutdown period at night helps

    1. Librarian of SHIELD*

      These are really good suggestions. I want to expand on the “create a schedule” suggestion.

      OP, you don’t have to have a literal event to attend in order to create a schedule. If you want your schedule to be “Thursday from 6:30PM to 8:30PM I put on a face mask and watch a movie,” that’s your schedule. To quote The Grinch: “6:30, dinner with me, I can’t cancel that again.”

    2. Koala dreams*

      I can recommend the flight mode on the phone for really shutting off from unwanted messages/calls. At night you can shut the phone off completely.

    3. Katniss Evergreen*

      For sure – I tell only my closest friends and family that they are on the call list that can break my phone’s DND rules. Everybody else’s ‘after 10:30PM emergency’ isn’t my problem.

  30. JSPA*

    1. If you have 4 bosses, they all need to be cc’d on the statement of what’s going to be prioritized that week.

    2. The fights about priority happen behind the curtain, not with you in the middle.

    3. If you have to work at least X hours on each person’s stuff every week because each 25% of your salary comes out of each grant, that has to be accommodated. If it only has to even out at the end of each financial quarter or academic semester or year, then that’s how to structure it.

    4. If something makes sense to you, propose it; and if you’re incorporating past directives, address that by name, time frame, and source.
    “I can realistically get Y to final draft stage in the next 12 days, if I do nothing but Y. After that, Boss-of-Y would need to sit out entirely for at least 20 days, and I would do a 5 day priority on Z, catching up in time for the reporting deadline. The next 15 days would be an approximately equal mix of W and X, except for 2 hours updating Z, weekly. Is that something all of you can live with? I’m of course open to any other solution that fits within my at-work hours, but based on past experience, I can’t see any other solution coming close, in terms of efficiency. As agreed last week with Boss-of-X, Boss-of-Y and the lead post-doc for Boss-of-Z, this plan does not include Ω. To include Ω, one of the four other projects would have to be entirely sidelined.”

  31. Close Bracket*

    I try to explain that if I switch to Z even though Y is 20% done, that means that Y may have to be re-done later, or that Y may not get done ever

    I really feel like the best way to deal with your situation is to learn to be ok with Y not getting done. That’s a decision that other people had to make, so let them make it. When they switch you back to Y the next week, be ok with picking Y back up and letting Z not get done.

    I do get that it’s frustrating to constantly switch priorities. That’s a separate thing to learn to be ok with. Think of yourself as being a flexible worker who can pivot to work on whatever is most important, as determined by one your four bosses, at the time.

  32. Not the Letter Writer*

    Our department is at this point. I have disconnected emotionally and, while I work a little bit after hours, its the exception instead of the rule. (I get paid hourly and I do get OT for this.) My boss…doesn’t. She is my direct manager and she is working crazy hours (with no extra pay because salary). She cannot disconnect emotionally and let some balls drop. Management tells her that we have enough staff. But something we do is really difficult (tight deadlines, lots of stress, basically herding cats within a difficult deadline) and some of our team is newer and unable to handle the stress of it. So she tells them that the situation is untenable, but doesn’t show them. Although I have run out of Fs to give for the company’s sake, I feel bad for my boss and I keep getting sucked back in to caring too much. I have to learn to let go and let her sink if she wants. Its awful because she’s a nice person but we’re drowning and no one is throwing out life preservers in the company.

    1. WellRed*

      Please stop feeling sorry for your boss. She’s being awful to the other employees if she’s allowing her stress to stress them out.

    2. JSPA*

      If you can manage from below in a way that reduces stress for everyone, including you, then have at it. (That is, if you can think of a strategy for “showing the company that the situation is untenable,” or for streamlining the process so it’s not so much “herding cats.”) Otherwise, if you’re feeling too invested, and need a quick/cheap way to feel like you’re helping, bring a $5 pack of cookies or a $5 herb tea sampler to the office at crunch time, and know that you’ve gone over and above, as a caring coworker. Or get a Bug-Out-Bob for your desk, and let others squeeze him.

    3. Seeking Second Childhood*

      This feels like something I could have writteng earlier in the year before my boss left for another position.

  33. BasicWitch*

    Or you can quit!

    I did this and suddenly my performance reviews were not so good, because I wasn’t “meeting goals”. This was after my boss acknowledged that I did the work of 3 people… and refused to hire more. Some decent bosses respond well to pushback, others don’t. Be prepared to walk if you have to.

  34. Hello It's Me*

    I had a job like this. I kept telling my boss, “Hey if you want me to do x, then y won’t get done.” She kept telling me, that’s fine that’s fine. For months.

    Then I guess her boss started freaking out. She blamed ME for not getting the things done and told me my performance was terrible, despite doing 3x the work of my predecessor. She told m eI had to stay late everyday and I come in on the weekends.

    I was like: YO. YOU told me to put this on the backburner! If you want it done, hire a temp!

    I am grossly under-exaggerating the situation… I honestly don’t think they would’ve given in to my perspective if I I wasn’t about ready to quit.

  35. lnelson in Tysons*

    I too was in a situation where there was just too much (mainly admin related) and there was no carrot at the end. So, entry level position and no place to move up into.
    Was in the position for a few years, knew it, learned lots in the beginning, but due to being swamped all the time I couldn’t take on new tasks and when there was more work all the stuff like data entry would just get dumped on me.
    So, I found another position. The temp that I trained to take over didn’t last a month because there was just too much to do. So they ended up having to hire two people and divide up the position someone for the admin tasks and another for more advanced things. Also both were better paid than I was.
    It was a shame, I really did like my co-workers there.

  36. Ann O'Nemity*

    It may help to have a shared spreadsheet (Office 365, Google Sheets, or similar) for you and your bosses, and you can all subscribe to it. If one boss makes changes in your workload, all of you are alerted via email. Hopefully the transparency between the bosses, and the change history (!) will improve things moving forward.

  37. Cat*

    I’m going to print out this post and a bunch of the responses and stick them on my bulletin board at work where I can see it every day.

  38. LilacLily*

    When I was at my first job, my company went through a bad phase and fired about 20% of all departments. Our workload at the support team stayed the same because we also lost coworkers, so at first it was fine. However, as things started looking up for the company, they began rehiring the positions that were eliminated – except, of course, the positions on the support team.

    I remember going home every day and complaining about my job to my mom, until she told me to stop stressing out about it after hours because they didn’t pay me to do that, and to stop overworking myself to death as well. It was much easier said than done; when you’re a perfectionist whose job is to help people who need help, it’s hard to let yourself drop the ball. I worked as much as two regular employees. Hell, sometimes I’d look at the time and realize the whole day had gone by and I hadn’t left my chair to drink water or go to the bathroom. [TW for almost suicidal thoughts] My bus rode a hill to work every day, and my bus driver was notorious for speeding along the winding road, and sometimes I’d wish the bus would crash so I could maybe spend a few months in the hospital bed instead of having to go to work every day. I felt so bad for even thinking those things, but I was THAT bad. And it’s not worth it.

    OP, don’t let yourself get to that point. Claim your life back. Work to live, don’t live to work.

    I hope you find yourself in a better place soon. <3 sending all my love

  39. HR in the city*

    Perhaps this is happening and it just isn’t clear but I would make sure that you put a lot of things in emails. Having things in writing to refer back to will help. That way when you start pushing back on things no one can claim they didn’t know about whatever. This might seem a little adversarial but in my experience I have found that it can really help if you can refer back to something to say hey I told you X wasn’t getting done three weeks ago. A lot of times people just forget so it’s good to be able to remind them.

  40. Dotty*

    I’ve been there for the last year (more really, but the last year has been especially bad) but what I learned is that by working crazy hours consistently, all Ive been doing is setting up for more of the same.

    To be clear, there have always been “peak” times when my work needs longer hours to meet some key deadlines but we’ve now got to the point that there’s no such thing as “peak” times – it’s always busy.

    Last year I worked 70-80 hrs a week, and was paid for 37.5. Today our grand boss announced with glee that we’d exceeded our target and come under budget on staff costs for 2019 and then set an even higher target for 2020. We’re under budget on staffing because we are short-staffed, have huge staff turnover and because a number of us work far more hours than we’re paid for. The kind of profit margin we have should be seen as a red flag for our industry and instead the company is celebrating… except I realised that in working these hours for so long the management has no real concept of what’s happening. They see great numbers and figure we must be coping. I’ve flagged the issues so many times but then just carried on doing the work.

    1. RVA Cat*

      80 hours a week for 37,500 is $9 an hour, barely above minimum wage. Quit without an ounce of guilt.

      1. Katniss Evergreen*

        They’d actually said they were paid for 37.5 hours, but it’s still probably a super crappy hourly rate depending on what theirs usually is.

    1. WellRed*

      I assumed the OP is exempt. Being exempt doesn’t automatically mean you have to work nonstop. There should be a reasonable expectation of hours with commensurate pay. Your employer can’t just work you to death .

    2. JSPA*

      If you’re exempt, you can’t automatically walk out at 4 p.m. / at 37.5 hours, but you can draw a line, all the same.

    3. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      This most frequently happens to those who are exempt because you’re viewed by [bad] management as a bottomless labor tap. So I assume everyone with this issue is exempt for the most part. Since OT is the devil to most places of business who aren’t building it into their bottom lines.

    4. zora*

      no, doesn’t change. It’s not about working 40 hours or less to avoid overtime. It’s because that is a reasonable amount of hours for one person to work, especially in the middle of a health crisis, which is burnout is. See above, the person who had a massive stroke.

      Maybe it’s 45 hours or 50, if that is doable for you, but you just have to pick a limit that works for you and set it. And if the nonprofit can’t function with you at 45 hours, and can’t afford new staff, that probably means the organization model is not sustainable and the organization needs to fold. I know, that sounds horrible and drastic, but as someone who was in that position, that is just the only reasonable solution sometimes. It’s a better solution than you ending up in the hospital because you literally worked yourself into the ground.

      Honestly, it’s about perspective and if anyone is crying daily because of work, it’s time for a perspective shift.

  41. mizunasloane*

    OMG are you my supervisor? Obviously I don’t require any response to that, but if I were to think about you as my supervisor, I want to let you know that there are probably people who absolutely see the work you’re putting in and unfortunately we’re not the ones who get to make the decisions about workloads. I’m sorry there’s so much on your plate, and Allison is right in the sense that you’re taking on so much because you care and you know it has to get done and if it doesn’t get done by you, then it likely doesn’t get done at all. People try to work in non-profits/grant-funded arenas because they usually care about the wellbeing of others, and it’s a double-edged sword because caring about people and caring about their wellbeing means we take on too much. We internalize it. I’m what I like to call a recovering perfectionist and so it’s really hard for me to not do too much too fast and burn myself out. Creating boundaries is absolutely essential, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy emotionally. I hope in the meantime you’re trying to make space for yourself in some way, like prioritizing seeing a therapist to help lighten your mental and emotional load. I’m sure that’s tough with everything on your plate, but if and when you find another position that allows for more work/life balance, I hope you’ll make it a priority. It’s likely that the feelings were persist even when you find someplace new since the issue is really learning how to be ok with everything not always being ok and being ok with managers not being ok with that. I promise that once you find a new place and a new position that where you are now will miss you being there and the workload you were able to handle for them, but just don’t do too much that it all falls apart when you leave. Ultimately, you’re not only doing yourself a favor by keeping firm on those boundaries, but you’re also helping the organization and the next person after you have reasonable expectations of what this job should be. It’s hard, but you’re going to be ok. One day at a time. Remember, joy is a practice.

  42. Gaia*

    I feel like I wrote this about two years ago. I was the only person with my skillset on a large, expensive, critically important project. My work could literally make or break the project. My workload required 3-4 full time people to do with even a little diligence (ideally one fluent in Japanese!). There was just me and I am not even sure I know a single word of Japanese. I was working 100+ hours every week. I worked every weekend. I worked Christmas Day (unheard of in this industry). Most of my work was invisible. Few people knew how much I was working. I kept saying we needed a team but I kept producing results. I took no PTO (I did…but I worked 16 hour days while “on PTO”).

    I was miserable and then I was laid off. And I got a job where I work 35 hours a week and if it can’t all be done in that time, it’ll be done next week. It is a wild difference. I was doing myself and the company a disservice by working so much. When they eventually replaced my role they tried hiring one person who promptly left due to workload. They now have a team of 5.

    1. JSPA*

      If someone is feeling like the last safety pin, barely holding on, the company needs to size up to bigger pants. And if they can’t come to that conclusion before the situation becomes deeply embarrassing, that’s not the pin’s fault.

      1. JSPA*

        In fact, “Imagine: I am the single safety pin holding the company’s splitting pants together. I’m rated for half the load. Which of us will look worse, if I fail?” might be the summary that gets attention.

  43. anonbanonon*

    OMG are you my supervisor? Obviously I don’t require any response to that, but if I were to think about you as my supervisor, I want to let you know that there are probably people who absolutely see the work you’re putting in and unfortunately we’re not the ones who get to make the decisions about workloads. I’m sorry there’s so much on your plate, and Allison is right in the sense that you’re taking on so much because you care and you know it has to get done and if it doesn’t get done by you, then it likely doesn’t get done at all. People try to work in non-profits/grant-funded arenas because they usually care about the wellbeing of others, and it’s a double-edged sword because caring about people and caring about their wellbeing means we take on too much. We internalize it. I’m what I like to call a recovering perfectionist and so it’s really hard for me to not do too much too fast and burn myself out. Creating boundaries is absolutely essential, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy emotionally. I hope in the meantime you’re trying to make space for yourself in some way, like prioritizing seeing a therapist to help lighten your mental and emotional load. I’m sure that’s tough with everything on your plate, but if and when you find another position that allows for more work/life balance, I hope you’ll make it a priority. It’s likely that the feelings will persist even when you find someplace new since the issue is really learning how to be ok with everything not always being ok and being ok with managers not being ok with that. I promise that once you find a new place and a new position that where you are now will miss you being there and the workload you were able to handle for them, but just don’t do too much that it all falls apart when you leave. Ultimately, you’re not only doing yourself a favor by keeping firm on those boundaries, but you’re also helping the organization and the next person after you have reasonable expectations of what this job should be. It’s hard, but you’re going to be ok. Just take it one day at a time.

  44. Lizzo*

    OP: Speaking 1) as a conscientious recovering perfectionist who 2) has had terrible bosses and 3) has worked for more than one manager before and 4) has worked in academia, here is my two cents…

    First, some reminders for you:
    ==This situation sucks, and it is *not* normal to be treated this way. You do not deserve this treatment. The way these managers are behaving has everything to do with them, and nothing to do with you.
    ==You are *not* the problem. The institutional culture is the problem, and the people who are supposedly responsible for managing your time are also a problem. These are things that are out of your control. !!!!BUT!!!! You do have control over many things in this situation (see below).
    ==You are smart, capable, talented and a good human being who is worthy of respect. None of that is affected in the slightest by this job.

    Second, my recommendations, based on personal experience:
    ==Find a therapist. Make a weekly appointment that starts just after working hours. Turn your computer and phone off, leave the office, and go to that appointment. Do not turn on your computer or phone when you get home from that appointment; spend the evening doing something else. (If you do not have insurance, don’t let that deter you–there may be therapists near you who offer sliding scale rates.)
    ==Sign up for a class doing something you love for one day/night a week. Turn off your computer/phone/etc and go to the class. Stay offline once class is over. Use the remainder of the day to do something else.
    ^^Both of these things will help you reclaim your time and start to “fill your cup” again. If you need to ask for help in order to make this happen (e.g. need a friend to watch your kid or walk your dog), DO IT. There is no shame in asking for help^^
    ==Once you’ve practiced turning things off outside of work hours a couple days a week, start doing it every day at 5pm. Heck, start doing it every day at noon for 20 minutes while you go take a walk.
    ==Document the crap out of EVERYTHING.
    ==Apply what Alison and others suggested in terms of communication methods and also making priorities clear to all managers simultaneously, however I’d recommend doing everything over email and not calling all the managers together for an in-person meeting, which could be a complete train wreck and end up being even more demoralizing for you. You have more control doing this in writing.
    ==Do you have any relationship with HR at your institution? Is there someone there you can trust to not interfere and make things worse? If you can speak to them confidentially with the goal of raising awareness of the issues at hand here–but *also have the expectation that things are *not* going to improve*, and that you’re merely making sure your reputation is protected and that someone in the role in the future doesn’t risk being treated the same way–then it’s worth pursuing. NOTE: I’m not sure that you can negotiate for severance if you leave voluntarily and you’re grant funded, but it’s worth asking about.
    ==Leverage your network to get the heck out of there as soon as possible. Update your LinkedIn profile, then put together a list of your skills and your desired salary. Send an email to people you know and trust and tell them what you’re looking for–both short-term opportunities and long-term/permanent opportunities. Don’t worry too much about what that thing is. If it’s something that you are capable of doing and the pay is enough to sustain you, then go for it. Career paths are rarely linear, and there’s nothing wrong with working retail, waiting tables, temping, etc. to give yourself some breathing room and some time to rebuild your confidence.

    REMEMBER: You are smart, capable, talented and a good human being who is worthy of respect!
    Please take care of you. xo

  45. Blue Horizon*

    Alison has outlined this very well. First of all, you need to accept that you are going to end up doing a half-assed job, missing deadlines etc. on some of these things if you want to protect your time and boundaries, and that’s not inconsistent with doing the best job you possibly can in the time available. That can be a really hard thing to accept if you’re used to taking ownership and maintaining a high level of quality, but when your employers are taking advantage of that tendency to enable abusive practices like assigning 100 hours of work per week with no assistance, then you absolutely need to do it if you want to break the cycle. Imagine you have three empty cups in front of you, and one cup worth of water to fill them. You can fill all of them a little bit, one all the way and leave the others empty, or various other combinations, and you can even let your management pick which one, but you CANNOT fill all of them all the way. That’s not poor performance, even if it feels like it – it’s doing the best job you can with the resources you have available.

    The second part is to manage expectations, which you must do consistently and constantly. All of Alison’s scripts fall under this heading. Also, KEEP RECORDS. Have a file just for email and communications under this heading. If you do it verbally or in a meeting, send a follow-up e-mail for confirmation immediately afterward noting what you said. This is to prepare you for the inevitable moment when one of them wants to know why X is not done/behind schedule etc (“It’s because you asked me to do Y instead – if you recall, I told you on [date] that it would mean X wasn’t done, and all the options for completing it that I offered required additional resources or reassignments that were never approved. I also followed up with you on [date] and [date] and you confirmed that I should continue prioritizing Y.”)

    It can also help with performance reviews, should you run into problems there. You can’t necessarily stop them from trying to hold you accountable for completing X, Y and Z, but you can use your paper trail to defend your decision and consultation process along the way and make it crystal clear that their real problem with you is that you aren’t willing to work an extra 1+ unpaid fulltime jobs to complement your actual job.

    The complication here is that the “drop what you’re doing and focus on Z, it’s the new priority” message is actually not the problem. They are the managers, and that’s a thing they are allowed to do if they want. Your job is to spell out very clearly what the consequences will be for X, Y and anything else, and make sure they understand and accept them. If you reach that point, understand the impact, and want you to go ahead with Z anyway? Then that’s what you need to do. But if you think the unspoken message is “focus on Z, but still make X and Y happen somehow” then you are allowed to stomp very firmly on that idea, and in fact obliged to do so if you want to set boundaries.

    1. Working Hypothesis*

      The problem I see is “make sure they… accept them.” You can force people to understand, but forcing them to accept is a lot harder. Some bosses just won’t.

      1. Blue Horizon*

        True – once you’ve made them understand, you might still come to the point where the answer boils down to ‘I still expect you to personally work 80+ hours per week to accomplish this, like you have been doing.’

        Acceptance goes two ways though. You can, if you wish, make a firm decision on boundaries of your own (not to work more than X hours per week, for example) and stick to it. There could be consequences to that, possibly up to and including being fired, but if you’re unable to continue the job under existing conditions anyway due to burnout, that’s not much of a downside – and at least you’ve done everything you could to find solutions. And when you tell the story later on (if an interviewer asks you about it, for example) it will sound a lot better if you were professional about it and explored all reasonable options for success.

        It’s also not a given you will be fired. It’s one thing to threaten that (explicitly or implicitly) and another to actually do it, and if you’ve managed to reach understanding then they will know that they need to find someone else that will be willing/able to work under the conditions that burned you out. Sometimes it can be a catalyst for them to start confronting reality, however reluctantly.

        1. Working Hypothesis*

          All of that’s true, and as Alison said in a comment above, if the job is as the level of badness where the only options are “work yourself to death or be fired” then it’s not really salvageable anyway. But “get them to accept that this is a not-ok workload” isn’t necessarily a useful goal because it’s not in your control. “Get it to stop” is a note effective goal, because you can do that unilaterally if you have to, simply by refusing to do the extra work beyond a reasonable amount, whether they fire you for it or not.

          There’s certainly nothing wrong with *trying* to persuade them to accept your position! Just don’t get too invested in whether they do or not, or let yourself believe that you have to succeed at convincing them in order not to have to do all that work.

  46. Not for academics*

    This is academic right OP?
    You report to four PIs?
    They have differing priorities?

    None of them care about the others’ priorities. They are their own masters.

    (Even if not academic,) If you’re grant funded someone is reporting on your time and/or effort. You need to have a conversation with that person – could be the PIs themselves – that you’re expending more than 100% effort across all X projects. If you have an administrator who does this kind of thing, that’s your guy.

  47. Cheesecake2.0*

    Hugs to you OP, if you want them. I used to work a similar job. I once had a progress report due to NIH on Dec 26th, and none of the PIs were willing to work on it prior to the holiday break, so that meant I spent Christmas day working on compiling the info they finally emailed to me. Honestly, based on my experience, the only way for it to get better is to quit. I had to run a booth at a conference the same day a grant was due and the PI waited until THE DAY OF to send me the documents to submit. I complained to her about it and she said she had too many parties to go to (she was stepping down as head of a professional organization). I quit less than a month later and was VERY VERY vocal about why, and also did my exit interview with someone very high up so they would be aware of the issues. I was told by the guy I did my exit interview with that he wasn’t surprised as “research uses up people”. Research is sooo touchy and so many things depend on that grant funding that it can be really hard to push back and risk missing deadlines, I totally get it if you’re struggling. Funding agencies have no mercy and there’s nothing to reign in the PIs who go crazy and work everyone to death.

  48. Mimblewimble*

    I’ve been going through the exact same thing. It took me way too long to finally put my foot down and tell my bosses: “These are my projects. They will take 100+ hours a week to get done. Since that is not possible, here is what I will work on. The other projects will not get done.” So far my boss and grand boss are pushing back but I’m standing firm. It’s so empowering and I feel like a tremendous weight has lifted from my shoulders.

    It’s not possible to get that much work done so don’t even try. Be very clear with your boss about what you can accomplish, stick to it, and let the rest go. Ultimately it’s your boss’s problem to fix what to do with the stuff not getting done. As long as you let them know what’s not getting done, let them deal with it and just focus on you.

    Good luck and hugs!

    1. Koala dreams*

      I think this is the key to success. Unreasonable bosses are not going to agee with a reasonable work-load, but you can decide for yourself that your health and your time is worth something to you.

  49. Dr. Anonymous*

    My significant other has a similar problem, but complicated by the fact that they work in teapot design and if all the teapot design work is not done very carefully, the teapot pouring will not go well. The tea could miss the teacup or the teapot could break irreparably, which is really more the tea pouring team’s problem but my SO is also heavily involved in the tea pouring process, so that, too, will be his problem and at that point saying, “I told you so,” and going out for a beer would not really fly.

    Every time they turn over a rock they find a design flaw and they know all the rocks aren’t getting looked under, or they’re getting turned over by people who don’t actually have the skills to know what to look for. So now they’re just reporting the main concerns up all four of their dotted line reporting channels (the direct manager has been the opposite of helpful, giving contradictory directions and having taken no time to determine the remaining design tasks, how long they might take, or who might do them).

    Finally this week they’re going to discuss with a teapot design troubleshooting muckymuck, which is sort of like calling in a cleaner in the Point of No Return movie. I’m pretty sure he wont shoot the manager, though.

    Pity.

  50. Jay*

    God, this thread is giving me flashbacks.
    One of my first jobs after college, I worked for a university running a remote field lab. My current contract position was unexpectedly ending, I lived right near it and, it was pitched as a terrific resume builder.
    The fact that three other, much more experienced contractors from my team wouldn’t even take an application for an interview should have been a hint.
    I was paid and treated like a low level hired hand (no time off of any kind other than comp time, no benefits of any kind). When you took into account the obscene amount of unpaid overtime I worked I made a fraction of minimum wage (even the comically low minimum wage paid in the state I lived in at that time).
    I quickly ended up in trying to do the entire project, alone.
    It did not end well.
    I was designing and constructing our equipment, pretty much all of it. I was sleeping in the (totally unventilated, mold infested, dirt floored, nearly unlit) “lab”. I drank 3 POTS of coffee a DAY (and often all night).
    I once got a call at 9am from my boss demanding to know why I wasn’t in work yet. I reminded him that I had needed to work until 6am and had just managed to fall asleep. He grudgingly agreed to let me sleep a couple more hours.
    After a YEAR of this everything came crashing down.
    And guess who’s fault THAT was?
    It took me years of minimum wage (and sometimes below) short term jobs to rebuild my reputation, confidence, and sense of self worth.
    I so wish that this website was here to give me a reality check to show me this was not normal.

  51. Granny K*

    Sometimes, truly you need to let some of the balls hit the floor. It’s upsetting to perfectionists (like me) but necessary for management to see that they sometimes need to hire more help. Truly your health is more important that a job. Please take care of yourself.

    1. lasslisa*

      Sometimes it helps to remember that the job of management and business in general isn’t to produce a perfect thing, but to produce a thing that will make the most money for the least investment.

  52. Karen Weiland*

    I just experienced something very similar in my last job, when I ended up retiring. I was a legal assistant working for three attorneys on my own. Normal staffing is one paralegal and one assistant per two attorneys, so it was an absolute mess. It situation was supposed to be temporary, but three months later I was still carrying the whole load. I was making mistakes from stress and the impossibility of getting assignments done on deadline and ended up getting fired.

    My very hard earned advice advice is to get the hell out as fast as you can. Start looking for a new job and try to maintain congenial relations with your bosses as much as possible so you can get decent recommendations.

    The situation is not going to improve because it seems that your bosses (like attorneys) work independently of each other and they just want THEIR work done. Asking to put X project aside so Y can be done will never be effective unless your bosses share a boss and he/she can be prevailed upon to reduce your workload or extend the deadlines.

    It is also possible that someone above you has taken a dislike to you and wants you to just be gone, although I did not get that impression from your letter (just something you can consider)and you are being overloaded with work in the hopes you will quit or you make a major error forcing your firing, otherwise known as a “churn and burn”. I worked for litigators for close to twenty years and strangely none of them were capable of firing staff. Thus the churn and burn came to be. I have no idea if this exists outside of law offices. Like I said it is something to consider.

    1. Sloan Kittering*

      This was my concern too. If you truly have multiple bosses, they will each agree that it’s fine to let the other bosses’ stuff slip as long as they stuff they want you to get done, gets done.

  53. WorkingMyHours*

    It’s interesting that you talk about the OP being “deeply invested”.
    My manager talks about how she thinks we’re invested and how wonderful that is and how she hopes we continue to remain invested.
    I always thought it was a bit of a guilt trip to get us to work more, and seeing this letter and the comments makes me think that that is likely what is going on.
    I’ve always worked my hours regardless because we don’t get overtime and my pay is based on X hours a week (and so if you take time off they calculate your hourly payrate for deduction).

    1. WorkingMyHours*

      Also important for OP to remember that the work will always be there. Whether you put in 100 hours a week or 40, there will always be more work to do. In fact if you keep working 100 hours and getting all the work done they’ll probably simply pile more work on you thinking that you can handle it.

  54. Exhausted Educator Was Exhausted*

    This whole thread brings back horrible memories. All I can say, OP, is that I believe your account of this situation and sometimes the only thing to do is get out.

  55. MonteCristo85*

    Aside from some identifying details (which could or could not be made up) this could be written by my employee. I totally understand all the people saying this a management problem (it so is) but sometimes, the direct manager literally has no power to actually change anything. Our situation is very much similar to the OP. As the direct manager, I feel ABSOLUTELY DREADFUL about this but I have no idea what to do about it. I’ve talked to my direct boss until I’m blue in the face about it, and yet nothing changes. It feel like there are just a handful of us who are working ourselves into a fright trying our best to hold things together, and yes, the vast majority of this is conscientious employees holding themselves accountable, but no one else is held accountable by the company. Deadlines will be missed by other departments by days, and yet if we haven’t finished our part (dependent on the other department completing their part) on time, regardless of how many days we lost in the schedule due to nobody else being held accountable, we get look at askance by the higher ups in our department. Yet they, despite actually having the standing to go to the other department heads and make a stink about this and get it under control, just brush it aside like it isn’t a big deal, despite the fact my employee and I have been near hysterical for 4 months not.

    I have all these plans about writing this all up, and running it up the chain all the way to the CEO if necessary, but I don’t have time nor the emotional energy to work on it. I’m on AAM right now because I just finished work for the day at 10PM and I need to relax a bit before I can get to sleep before I have to be up at 5am to go back in. Plus, there is the added stress (I suffer with depression and anxiety) with having to alienate my entire management chain, who I like and get on with in general, and ruining a job that I really like. We’ve hired one new person which will help once I get them trained (another thing on my plate), but in the long run it is more of a problem with inter-departmental politics (ie we have to work 10x as hard just becauase no one else is actually required to follow proper procedures) and there isn’t actually anything I can do, and it makes me feel like a total failure as a manager.

    How can I support my employee as we go through this? We are pretty open and above board with each other (we were close coworkers for a while before my promotion, so talk alot and we both get what’s going on on the bigger picture and that I’m not just dumping down on them and not realizing the load, but it is getting to the breaking point. I’ve been trying to get a raise put through for nearly 6 months now but it’s stalled with no explanation. I try to stretch the schedule as much as I can on our end, and always allow myself to be used as the bad guy if we need to tell people something isn’t possible. But these things literally HAVE to be done how do just be like nope, you’ll get it when you get it.

    1. MonteCristo85*

      I also tend to think this whole situation is a root my fault because I work extremely fast, and I don’t have a life, so I’ve set an unrealistic expectation on what a person can accomplish, and my department has just accepted that. But it’s one think to work like a maniac for 3 days to complete something that popped up last minute and be the hero, and it is a complete other one to expect this day in and day out for months on end, and then act like it is no big deal when people come to you with it. It is actually possible to be entirely too relaxed about work.

    2. Observer*

      Start doing what Alison recommends – Document everything up the wazoo and keep on pushing back. If “X then Y won’t get done.’ “If a doesn’t get to use by c/c/cc then we can’t make the deadline” etc. And make sure that you look everyone up the chain in on this.

  56. Lonely Monster*

    This sounds like a job I had straight out of highschool. The benefits and pay was good, but my supervisor expected me to work 80 hr weeks and alternating weekends. Oh, and no vacation time, because I was single and didn’t have kids. I was also expected to cover my coworkers who had kids, if they called in.

    I had a mental break down from burnout, lost 15 pounds, and my hair started to fall out. (The kicker, I worked at a hospital).

    My supervisors favorite excuses, ” you’re young you can handle it.” “It’s not like you have anything else to do” ” you should be grateful you have a job”

    1. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

      Wow, that’s disgusting. I’m sorry that happened and hope you’ve been able to recover and go on to enjoy your life.

      This is actually another reason some patients stop trusting the healthcare system. The few people who do care and are trying to do a good job are mistreated and overworked.

      I wish many awful things upon those supervisors and all the good things for you!

  57. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

    To OP and anyone else in a similar situation: Run. These jobs are not worth your health. If you are worried about money, I can promise you’ll worry about it even more when you’re so sick that you can’t leave your bed.

    Call upon your entire network of friends and family and ask them for support. Beg if you need to. But please don’t kill yourself for employers who literally do not care if you live or die. Because they don’t care. You’ve told them there’s a problem, they’ve refused to listen. You’ve got your answer. Now you can leave with a clear conscience.

    Good luck to everyone dealing with this now, I hope your situations improve quickly.

    1. should have left sooner*

      Hard seconded. Especially the money/health thing. If you let your employer push you into a mental breakdown, you may very likely reach a point where you literally cannot get out of bed – medically. I did and several of my coworkers did too.

      1. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

        I’m so sorry that happened, it must have been terrifying on many levels. It’s scary how common this is. A friend of mine has a similar story to yours. Awful employer, too much work, but she stayed because she needed the money. She got burned out and the family struggled for a while on just one income. Everything did work out in the end and she learned a valuable lesson, but she definitely wishes having quit sooner. It wasn’t worth it.

        My health issues were unrelated to burnout, but there was a time when I could barely get out of bed, let alone leave the house. I was never worried about money more in my life.

  58. SubluxedMatrix*

    OP, to what extent do your bosses contradict one another? I ask as I was working in a similar situation (three and a half bosses, comedic underestimation of how long things take to do, and scope drift like there were medals involved) and I’d frequently have one say that X is the #1 priority, only for that to be contradicted by another boss who would insist on Y at 100% capacity.

    I handled this by copying them all in when I was asked to change priorities, and to hold regular project resourcing meetings with all three, where we would review the different projects and decide as a group what percentage of my time would be dedicated to what work packages. Getting them all in a room ( videoconferencing counts) together was key – meeting with them separately meant they’d never negotiate with each other as to how much of my time they were eligible to, and meant I’d have something to refer to when priorities were shifted. Would that be feasible here?

  59. Burnoutblame*

    Oh boy, this discussion hits close to home. I recently gave notice at a job that has been burning me out through an unfortunate combination of a lot of work (managing 5-6 projects where the team is pretty much me and tiny amounts of other people’s time, plus fielding an unending stream of other requests that are sometimes important, and sometimes just more interesting/rewarding than the stuff at the top of the to-do list), a work environment, boss, and personality that is highly susceptible to over-investing in work (yay small, financially-precarious non-profits!), and my own lack of ability to adjust to the pace/demands of the role, which I then spend time wallowing in anxiety about/beating myself up over. On top of being burnt out, I feel like I’ve failed the organization by not being able to be more efficient/prioritize/avoid distractions, and also that I’m failing the organization by leaving. I know I am probably being overly hard on myself— current employer is sad to see me go, I am leaving for a job offer with a higher salary and better benefits that I was recruited to take, etc, but this experience is going to sting for a while.

  60. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

    In addition to Alison’s advice about setting limits firmly and only working a set number of hours, is it possible to get all of the bosses you report to at once and have this conversation? I wonder if part of the problem is that one boss is overruling the others and that’s an even bigger problem. I would also document everything you’re doing and have it with you to show them. Sometimes seeing your job duties in writing makes your boss(es) realize just how much work you’re (trying) to get done.

  61. Laney Boggs*

    I came across this article about a Starbucks employees pushing back on understaffing:
    https://libcom.org/blog/work-rule-11052014
    “It was as if everyone took a deep breath and began working at a safe and thorough pace. The effects were instant. The speed of service dropped immediately. We ran out of brewed coffee because we were only brewing when the beeper signaled it was time. Everyone stayed in the positions they were assigned and acted only at the directions of the Store Manager. 

    …because we had cut business in the store by over $10,000 that week by slowing down. Dan’s bosses were furious at the loss of business. They watched as every 5th customer left the store because the line was too long and slow moving. When baristas were asked why this was happening we all replied, “we are understaffed. We need between 7 to 9 people to do our jobs well and keep customers happy”. The next weeks schedule had already been printed but suddenly Dan [Store Manager] was asking everyone if they want more hours.”

    Good luck OP!

    1. Camellia*

      Wow. It’s too bad that the help line and other actions did nothing, and the investigation only started over the loss of income.

  62. june june hannah*

    It’s been a while since I worked at a nonprofit, but if the OP’s position is one of the ones funded by grants couldn’t the organization get in trouble/lose their grants for this? i.e. if Grant A funds 40% of her salary with the expectation that she do a specific set of work, and Grant B funds another 40%, and Grant C funds another 40%, (which of course adds up to more than 100%, with the NPO pocketing the difference), but none of the grantmaking organizations know that the nonprofit is double-dipping and pinning everything on a single FTE so there’s no way the work can get done?

    1. Mike S*

      I was curious about this as well. If each PI is paying 25% of 1 FTE (full time employee), then they’re paying for roughly 10 hours a week of work. Work with them based on that, and if one demands more time, email all 4 asking if the other 3 are willing to give it to them. That should get plenty of push back from people who matter.

  63. the_scientist*

    Based on the fact that the letter writer mentions “grant funding” and “four different bosses” I’m going to guess that the letter writer works in research/academia and her four bosses are either principle investigators or research managers. There are often multiple PIs on a single grant, or research assistants work on multiple grants with different PIs.

    Since this was my former life, my message to the letter writer is that this is kind of the way this work is, and it’s likely not going to get better. Keep being very clear about your workload and how you are prioritizing but this is possibly the nature of the beast. Every PI thinks their research is the most urgent, and most important.

    I had this at my old job and left to work for the public sector. I’m still dealing with ever-increasing work in the face of staff shortages, hiring freezes, and mass layoffs, but at least I’m not on grant funding?

  64. somebody blonde*

    With 4 bosses, she might also get a lot out of arranging a meeting with all of them at once to discuss the workload problems. I’m sure that at least half the problem is that they’re not synced up on what the highest priorities are. I think she could have that meeting and then ask them to start checking in with each other about her workload before changing her priorities. Ie if Bob has her doing highest priority x and Jane wants her to do y instead, Bob has to confirm before x gets replaced with y. This system advantages the status quo, so it should at least reduce the amount of task-switching if the problem is conflicting priorities among the bosses. If Jane’s y really is more urgent than Bob’s x, she should be able to make that case to Bob.

    1. Lizzo*

      If the OP is in academia and is serving multiple departments, Jane and Bob aren’t going to give a hoot about each others’ priorities. **Their** work is the! Most! Important! Period. And no amount of email communication or meetings of any type is going to change the size of their egos. The only thing OP can do at this point is save their sanity/health and their reputation.

  65. Tan*

    I have a good story for this one. My sister was once in a multiple bosses situations where she was regularly getting circa 100 hours of work dumped on her. Things were so bad that our mother took her to the doctors who singed her off work for 2 weeks with stress. My mum then insisted she email a copy of the doctors note to HR cc her “bosses” and 1 or 2 others (CEO I think was in there). This caused something of a stir as HR then reviewed her emails etc and it turned her real boss “hadn’t realise” (or had been ignoring) just how much work the other 2 (his friends) were piling on her. Turns out of the one people was pilling on 15-20 hours because they didn’t hire an intern /wanted to make themselves look good saving money (I think he was reprimanded but kept on). Person number 3 took the blame because he was writing a novel. Literally. He was asking my sister to do 90% of his job and spending his work day writing- he was let go.

  66. NinaBee*

    Is it worth getting some kind of project management system (if you don’t already have it) or creating a calendar with the day/week workload planned into it? That way they can see exactly what is being worked on and the tasks that are done for each project as they’re completed? Would be worth even putting in time estimates for each task / project so that it’s visually apparent what is being done?

  67. should have left sooner*

    I’m sure no one is reading this far down the comments, but if you are: if you find yourself in a situation like this, just leave…. ASAP. If you stay, your idea of what is a ‘normal’ workload or ‘normal’ speed to do work will be forever (or long-term) changed. It fucks with not just your self-image, but also your internal quality standards and your conception of the passage of time. I worked at a place like this – where the workload was that of three people and the management response was “well, work faster”. It turns out that it actually IS possible to do 10 times your normal working capacity… as long as you do it 20 times worse. (Our CEO actually told us “time is a social construct.”) I did escape and am 7 months in my new, normal job and I still struggle every day to benchmark how much time I should allot to work. I instinctively default to doing my work super-fast and super-low-quality. I have to consciously force myself to work 10 times slower (and the work I produce when I do that is 20 times better).

    1. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

      “Time is a social construct.”

      Wow. My friends and I have said this as a joke. I shouldn’t be surprised some douchey CEO said it unironically. How much do you want to bet he’s never the one to stay late or come in early?

      I replied to your comment above before seeing this one, and want to thoroughly second it. This kind of situation is soul-destroying and it takes a long time to come back.

      But I’m so glad you’re out of that awful place and making progress! I’m very happy for you and wish for lots of goods things to come your way.

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