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

I’m kicking off a special mid-year updates season, because we need it. Every day from now until the end of May, I’ll be running updates from people who had their letters answered here in the past (this will be on top of regular posts). 

Remember the letter-writer who was overworked and burned out and their bosses kept piling more work on them? Here’s the update.

I had written to you at a particularly low point. You really hit the nail on the head about me being (overly and detrimentally) conscientious. Conscientiousness is something that I really value, but needed to realize that is a limit to how much I owed my employer. I think a lot of people who work on grant funded projects think that they must sacrifice their entire lives for the sake of their work and little pay- I certainly did- but I also think that approach is incredibly problematic in terms of sustainability and efficiency. I’m realizing that now.

Using your advice, I embraced the “care less” approach and I do think it helped a little. I stopped answering emails after I left the office, and ended up taking about a day off a week to give myself some distance (I had plenty of personal time). I tried to make it abundantly clear what projects I could do and how long they would take, and when priorities shifted would explain the impacts on all projects to everyone or ask my bosses to decide what my priorities were as a team, so that they understood where my time was going. My bosses were all really supportive about me pushing back, and I’m lucky to have worked for them all. It didn’t always work out perfectly, but did allow me a little sanity.

I use the past tense because as I had mentioned originally, I had a promising interview for a different job. That interview must have went well because I got a job offer, successfully negotiated a higher salary (a large part of this is due to your advice!), and accepted a position at another non-profit for over a 35% increase in salary. I started this job about a month ago, right at the start of this pandemic, so I’ve been entirely remote from the start. But I am making sure to set work-life boundaries early on and it seems to be working so far. I’m incredibly happy, have gotten a lot of positive feedback from my new manager, and am excited to support my organization and their needs during COVID-19, all while maintaining my own emotional sanity. I really can’t thank you enough!

{ 50 comments… read them below }

  1. Stormfeather*

    I’m definitely not going to do the usual “most wonderful time of the year” sing-along because it is so definitely not. But thank you so much for doing this, Alison! You’re right that it’s really needed right about now.

    1. chi type*

      “Christmas” came early this year, bust out the hanukkah balls and the cheap-ass rolls!

      1. ACDC*

        I bought some King’s Hawaiian rolls during my last grocery run and silently applauded myself for not buying the cheap-ass rolls lol

        1. CoffeeforLife*

          Super off topic, but I MADE some Hawaiian rolls the other day and wondered what she would have said to that!

    2. WFHwithmyDoggo*

      I literally came here to start it up. Not because people are having the best time right now, because updates are SO what we need! Morale seems to be at an all-time low and updates (and a glass of “work from home wine”) are just the pick me up we all need right now!

  2. Daffy Duck*

    OH, good for you! It is so nice to hear about such a good outcome:) So many of us put more pressure on ourselves than is required, it is good to hear that maintaining sensible boundaries worked out well.

  3. Granger Chase*

    Congratulations, OP! This was one I really wanted an update on and I am glad to hear it turned out so well for you. I hope you are adjusting to your new workplace well, even though it’s all been remotely, and that you’re enjoying your much-deserved salary increase!

  4. NQ*

    Fantastic news! I’m a similar sort of person (extreme grad school background), so I’m especially glad it worked out for you!

    1. Teekanne aus Schokolade*

      Agreed!! I’m super curious as to how that sistion turned out regarding the letter about the employees forced to line up in alternating genders at the bus stop to accommodate another employee’s mental health issues.

  5. AndersonDarling*

    I love this! I can’t think of a better term, so I’m going to say this shows “career maturity.” There’s a maturity step we take when we start managing out own time and projects, but there is another step where we prioritize our work against our own time. There are times where it is important to work late to finish the big project, or stay late to look good for the Big Boss, but each instance needs to be balanced against your own boundaries.

    1. Fikly*

      Boundaries. This is called boundaries, and they are a wonderful thing in all aspects of life.

    2. Massmatt*

      Yeah, that kind of excessive hours is nuts. Even for a start up, 100 hour weeks would really not be sustainable.

      LW speaks highly of her (former) bosses but I suspect the org is dysfunctional. Having someone report to 5 bosses is a recipe for conflicting priorities and excessive work. And the fact that anyone told “no” could just ask one of the bosses who would then add it back to the workload is another bad sign. That no one did the work delegated is the final nail in the coffin for me. If you didn’t have the power to make sure someone completes the work, someone higher than you should have delegated it.

      But I’m glad you found a better job, congratulations!

    3. Mr. Obstinate*

      “Career maturity” is a good term. I was in a situation very similar to that of the LW, but instead of my conscientiousness being driven by belief in a nonprofit mission, it was driven by my belief that once I accepted a full-time salary, it was unethical to hold back any of my time. So I thought that my required hours were simply “as many as required to get the assigned work done” with the only long-term constraint being sleep.

      Because I was in a vaguely defined position and was competent at a lot of different tasks, I was assigned several times as much work as anyone else. And because of my ethical belief that salary = the company theoretically buying all of your time, I tried to finish all the work, but of course I only fell farther behind because the workload kept increasing.

      What has changed is that I now think it’s the company’s job to fire me if they think I’m not doing enough work for my salary, instead of my job to make a good-faith effort to complete however much work they assign. I’ve found that the good-faith effort on my part to do all the work is often not met with a good-faith effort by the company to assign a feasible workload. So since they hold the power over the workload and the budget, I’m not going to worry about whether they’re getting their money’s worth; I’ll just take care of the essentials up to maybe 50 hours per week, and let the company decide whether that’s worth their money.

      Ethical burden or guilt aside, I’ve also found that my prioritization benefits the company. Early on, I didn’t have a clear idea of what was truly important, and management would give me a lot of unimportant tasks while refusing to prioritize. Over time I’ve learned that of the tasks come from ill-conceived whims and will disappear after a short delay. If I just keep going on the things I see as important, and ignore or delay what I think is foolish (except for the occasional thing that management specifically says is top priority) the company is far better off than it would be if I tried to tackle everything as given.

      Every year at my annual review I get comments like “we don’t know how you manage to get everything done!” And I always reiterate that I in fact do not get everything done. But what’s happening is I’m taking care of what I judge to be the highest priorities (and then investing some time in future efficiency and organization before moving to lower priorities) and management just forgets about most of what fell by the wayside, because in the end those should not have been tasks at all.

  6. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd (ENTP)*

    Congrats! I hope you were able to “feel out” their approach to remote working in more normal times, though (you said that you were “entirely remote from the start”, does that mean you will be returning to work in their location?)

    1. OP*

      Thank you! I absolutely was. I knew that this job allowed people to work from home several times per week pre-COVID, so they were really primed to move to remote work full time when it was necessary. I will eventually be moving back to working on-site eventually, and am very excited about that possibility.

  7. MissDisplaced*

    Great news! Sorry for anyone who has had to start a new job during a pandemic (!) because I’m sure that is complicated. But it sounds like it’s working out well for you. And I do think it is important to set some limits and boundaries from the get-go.

    One thing I see that happens at both for-profit and non-profit is that when people leave, or there is a reduction in employees, there is an expectation for employees to pick up their work. Which may be fine for a brief period, but not forever! So often those roles are never replaced… and it drives away good workers due to overwork and stress and feeling unappreciated (and underpaid)! When I left my last job, they had to hire two people to replace what I did–and I had been doing that for 2 years.

    1. Fikly*

      That’s typically because management goes, well, if it works with person x covering two jobs for one week, why can’t it work forever? Think of all the money we’re saving!

      1. ToS*

        The myopic nature of this insight needs to be pointed out. Just like if you overuse a piece of equipment For too long, it will break, the same happens with interim situations. You can lose, or worse, break (!) essential employees with this short-sightedness. Help managers see long range to avoid pound-foolishness.

    2. Dust Bunny*

      It’s also a problem when you have too many bosses, especially if some of those bosses don’t see you (often)–they all think that they’re assigning a reasonable amount of work . . . but it’s times four or whatever. We joked about having this problem in college–all of our professors assumed that their class was priority, so we’d get an ungodly amount of homework every evening. The biggest reason we weren’t a party school was that nobody had time!

    3. AnotherAlison*

      I don’t think it’s fair to extrapolate a general rule for vacated positions from personal experience or the OP’s experience, though.

      Our current admin assistant does the work our previous admin did in a whole week in one day, and she asks for more to do. My department has work we needed 5 people to do 2 years ago that now needs 0 people to do now. My director does a job that was combined with another director’s job, and the person who used to do his second job now heads up a new group to do work that needed 0 people 2 years ago and now needs 20. (And the actual work my director oversees now is really nothing we were doing a few years ago.) Independent of the business and markets, sometimes technology and process changes really do help people do their jobs more efficiently. We used to have a lot of specialized software tools that we now use SmartSheet for, and things can get done by people at lower levels or more quickly.

      I’m not trying to discount your experience, just pointing out that sometimes it really does work out that it takes fewer people to get the work of the company done and it is not just the management dumping work on poor suckers who accept doing too much.

      1. CupcakeCounter*

        That can absolutely happen, but if your employee is repeatedly telling you “this is too much” and stuff isn’t getting done in 70+ hour weeks, this isn’t the case. When management willfully ignores feedback of the person/people actually doing the job, it creates big problems.

    4. CupcakeCounter*

      Are you me??? That was exactly the scenario when I left a prior job – they “delayed” the hiring for my backfill when I wasted and slightly less that 2 years later I bounced. The running joke was that it took 2 men to replace every woman that left – old boys club mentality so women were leaving in droves (12 mid-senior level associates in 9 months on a team of about 35) and most of the replacements were men and then within a few weeks a new position was created adjacent or under that new hire. I think the headcount was over 50 people within 6 months of me leaving.

    5. not that kind of Doctor*

      ugh yeah this happened with my previous boss, who was awesome. She worked 2.5 jobs, at less pay than the person she replaced (she was promoted but not back filled.) It lasted 2.5 years!!! before she burned out and quit. Now they’ll have to hire 2 people to replace her AND shift the .5 job offsite. Which if they’d done it in the first place they could have kept an amazing manager!

      ppl sometimes….

  8. Competent Commenter*

    This is SUCH a great update. Congratulations OP!

    I wish there could be an addition to these updates, where we got to see via hidden camera how things go for the former supervisors/employers: how they regret dumping so much work on their former employee, how they’ll now have to hire multiple people to manage the workload, and (as long as I’m fantasizing) lots of discussion about how great the employee was and how they should have appreciated her while she was there.

    I know it doesn’t go this way—plenty of AAM posts have proven it—but a reader can dream. :)

    1. CupcakeCounter*

      My old coworker liked to drop little truth bombs on management after me and a couple other key people left within a couple weeks of each other.
      They were in a meeting one day and sort of maligning us for “leaving them high and dry at a critical time” and a few other snide remarks that were quite sexist such as how the new hires (men) were so much more reliable. Coworker, who was the only female in the meeting and also a very crucial person to the largest initiative the group had ever undertaken, decided that would be a great time to let bosses know that the awesome new hire they were crowing about had forgotten to file some time sensitive reports and we were now being fined and had to push back the implementation date for X initiative. When asked why she (coworker) hadn’t said something sooner, she happily told them that she only found out that morning of the fine and delay and when she emailed awesome new hire in the previous months reminding him of report and deadline, he had emailed back that he had already taken care of it. And he had…he filed it in the filing cabinet which was not part of the process.
      A few weeks after that, she walked by the most sexist VP’s office and heard him say something about a report that he hadn’t been getting and he would personally tell “Sally” that slacking off wasn’t acceptable around here. She poked her head in and reminded him that “Sally” he was talking about had left almost 5 months ago and that it was now the responsibility of Mr XY. Mr XY was currently the guy siting in the VP’s office.
      My favorite was her departure story. She stayed for about 2 years after I left because of that big project but ended up leaving before it was complete because of really poor treatment. She was repeatedly denied a promotion and title change that reflected her role because “it was only temporary and related to his project” which had been going on for over 2 years at this point and had another 1-2 left due to delays. Meanwhile those guys in the previous stories had all received at least one promotion and raise since they started and now had equivalent titles to her. Sexist VP decided he wanted these guys more involved with her project and started parsing out tasks. All of those guys immediately were at coworkers desk asking for help. And by help they meant do this for us while we sit at your desk and play on our phones. She refused and provided them with training materials and sent them on their way. VP comes over huffing and puffing a few days later saying that she is not a team player and this attitude is why she never got those promotions and she needs to help these guys in the way they prefer. She says fine and sets up time for all of them to train. That same day, she puts in her 2 weeks notice to her immediate supervisor as she had 4 job offers on the table – all significant pay increases and title bumps. This also corresponds with a big overseas trip for the VP. By the time he returns she is gone and he had no clue since he never reads HR related emails. Those training times I mentioned? They were scheduled for 3 weeks out. Its been over 5 years and that project still isn’t complete.

  9. LifeBeforeCorona*

    I would really love to hear how it is going now at her old workplace since she left. Pretty sure that it is not sunshine and roses.

  10. DapperDev*

    Congrats! Sounds like it was time for a fresh start, where managers wouldn’t be offended by your desire for work/life balance.

    Good for you!

  11. HB*

    I love this so much…when I originally read this, it was one of those letters I thought I had written myself (right down to the four different bosses!). I eventually got a handle on my workload (sort of) after some more experience in the position, but it was still a terrible fit and the expectation was to be doing work, always. I had more vacation and sick time banked up then ever in my career and I was burnt out after only 9 months in the position.

    I’m so glad I just decided I had enough and job searched – I found an AMAZING position that feels like it was made for me, my schedule is more open, and I absolutely love my boss and coworkers and what I am doing. I also snuck in just before a company hiring freeze for which I am so grateful. If I hadn’t decided to just get out, I would probably be stuck in my old position at least another 6-12 months. It’s so worth it to leave!

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