is my job the problem — or is it me?

A reader writes:

How do you know if the problem is you and that you are just going through a hard time in life, or if you are in a toxic workplace that exacerbated your mental health issues?

On one hand, I have been at my current position for a year and a half. As you can imagine, COVID has put a lot of emotional stress on me (and everyone else). On top of that, about a month after starting this position, one of my immediate family members passed away under traumatic and unexpected circumstances. The death of this family member has completely changed my priorities in life and I am investing a lot of time and energy in my spare time to make a fairly significant career shift. So this is genuinely a hard and stressful period in my life, regardless of my job.

On the other hand, my job is legitimately stressful. The nature of my job is very reactive and urgent, with emergencies popping up and requiring me to dedicate days of my schedule to addressing them, shifting everything else aside. I often feel like I am behind or that I am overwhelmed, and sometimes need to work overtime (I am exempt, so I don’t get paid for this) to make things more manageable. I have days where I don’t have time to eat lunch or even stop to drink enough water. I reach the weekends completely emotionally exhausted and use my free time to recover from the work week. I am stretched thin and overworked. And since COVID I have been working a lot on public health issues that involve working closely with trauma in a way that’s weighing on my heart.

On top of that, my workplace have a culture of niceness and pretending everything is fine, which sometimes feels like borderline gaslighting. When I bring up issues around our work culture or the immense stress of my job, I am treated like I am making things up or like I am bad at time management and need to work on my skills. On weeks where we have many internal meetings, I just feel miserable having to sit through discussions where no one want to address the elephant in the room. At the same time, my job does have really sweet and caring staff and flexibility of schedule outside meetings that are set. It just seems like the problems are systematic and inherent to the nature of my role and to working in a small, understaffed nonprofit.

I have options. I am an amazing employee with glowing assessments and qualifications. I could find another job. But I am not sure if the problem is me or the job, and whether my job is contributing to my mental health issues or vice versa.

You can read my answer to this letter at New York Magazine today. Head over there to read it.

{ 95 comments… read them below }

  1. Littorally*

    In general, OP, if you find yourself asking this question, it’s worth remembering that the job doesn’t even have to be an objectively bad job to be a job that is bad for you.

    Some people thrive on the kind of pressure you’re describing. I don’t know how, but they do, and more power to them. This job sounds like it’s eating you alive.

    1. Not A Girl Boss*

      +1000.

      Jobs can be sorta like relationships. Someone can be a good person, or at least a person with redeeming qualities, and still not be the someone you want to spend the rest of your life with.
      It’s ok to decide to move on because things “aren’t good enough” even if they aren’t “objectively horror story bad.”

      1. myswtghst*

        All of this. It’s absolutely worth looking at things objectively so you don’t just end up miserable for the same reason(s) at the next job, but it’s also totally okay for “I don’t want to work here anymore” to be the reason you look for a new opportunity (just like “I don’t want to date this person anymore” is a good enough reason to break up with someone).

        1. No longer wondering*

          OP here – Thank you for the very thoughtful and on-point comments. I am definitely going to keep these in mind for the future since the advice is solid and applicable to so many situations in life!

      2. Not So NewReader*

        In a similar vein, people can be nice people but awful to do actual work with. I think we all know nice people who just do not push themselves along. They have one pace for everything, from the super urgent stuff to the ordinary stuff.

        I know a person that has been told how to do x numerous times by several people over a ten year period. The person still cannot do x. It only takes a few minutes to teach someone to do this, most people can do this and making it worse, Person never once wrote down the instructions each time they were shown.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          Well that got away from me.

          This Person is very nice and quite likable. I kept thinking that they would get x. My wake up call came at the ten year mark when I was still explaining how to do x.

    2. Mel_05*

      So true. There are pieces of it that sound like it really may be a bad job, but even if it weren’t, it would be ok to walk away from a job that’s a bad fit.

    3. ala*

      I’m someone who does thrive on that kind of pressure . . . . with a time limit. I like to be busy, and I like problem solving, but that doesn’t mean I want to be in that mode forever and never have time for other things.

      1. The Rural Juror*

        Exactly. I feel good when I’m in a tight spot and use my knowledge and skills to get out of it and do good work for my boss and my clients. Do I want to be put in a tight spot once a week? No. Several times a week? Heck no. EVERYDAY?! That’s unmanageable, even for someone with no other stressors.

        1. Cj*

          Yep. As a CPA specializing in Tax Preparation, I know from January 1 – April 15 the hours are going to be crazy. All year? No way I could stand that.

          1. Cj*

            added: I’m expected to work 56 -60 hrs/week january – april. Then 28/wk the rest of the year. I can definately live with that. In fact, I kind of chose it when I went into tax, but like I said, all year, no way.

      2. Koalafied*

        This reminds me of an old Mitch Hedberg joke: “I saw a TV commercial for the U.S. marines that said, ‘We do more stuff before 9 AM than most people do all day!’ …Shit, I don’t want to be that busy! I could see like, 2 PM.”

    4. StrikingFalcon*

      Yeah even if your management was the most understanding and helpful in the world, you’re allowed to decide that you don’t want a job that regularly has emergencies that require you to set aside everything else for days at a time!

    5. anon e mouse*

      Yep. And sometimes it’s both! I had a job years ago where the problems were particularly bad for me given the combination of my exact role and my personality, but also, now, eight years after I left, my former division has almost entirely ceased to exist, so clearly there were structural problems too.

      1. Alex*

        That can be kind of reassuring in itself. I left a job much like that 5 years ago, and they’ve averaged 10 months max for every person who filled the role after me. I thought I was just too sensitive, but sometimes a job is just bad!

    6. Elliott*

      Definitely. Though there are exceptions, I think a lot of times the problem isn’t entirely the “fault” of the job or the employee–sometimes it’s just a perfect storm of being in an environment that isn’t the best fit, maybe at a time when you don’t have the energy to deal with the stress as much.

    7. JSPA*

      This is two (or three) separate questions.

      Question 1: whose “fault” is it? Mine, or theirs?

      Answer to question 1: this is very nearly a koan. The job is becoming unbearable for the person holding it; whether that’s due to the employee no longer being able to handle the level of stress inherent in the job, or the job growing in stress while employees baseline has remained fairly constant, is essentially immaterial. Like ill-fitting shoes that used to fit, whether the root of the issue is that the shoe has changed or your foot has changed, the answer’s generally the same: get different shoes, not different feet.

      Question 2, hidden inside question #1: will it be better elsewhere, or (if I’m the problem) will the problem travel with me?

      Answer to question 2: whether or not you’re some ideal version of you, current you is the only you that you have available to work with. Self assess: is it fair to say that “current you” is (say) at least 85% as focused, resilient, dedicated, thorough (etc) as “ideal you”? If so, then current you is likely to thrive in any setting that’s even slightly less stressful. Or even, a similar job, but one where you’re better supported, or not so aware of the comparison between the “before times” and now.

      Question 3, not voiced, but perhaps also in play: could someone else do this job as well as I’m doing it, and do so more happily?

      Answer to Question 3: perhaps, perhaps not.

      If so, great! You support the mission; it’s great if they can find someone with nerves of steel, never-ending drive, and a deep internal store of self-replenishing joy.) If not, your current employer will get the information they need, namely, that they’re going to lose good people if they can’t find a way to support them better. In any case, someone else who’s not yet burnt out gets to start fresh and “hungry,” and without knowledge of what the job was like in the “before times.” They may also burn out in six months; not your worry.

      Finally, corollary to question 3: if someone could do my current job better and more happily than I can at present, does that mean I should feel like a failure?

      Answer: When you’re thinking about the other people in your life, do you act like you believe that only failures burn out, get traumatized, need a change of scenery, or develop awareness, over time, of what they need, in a workplace, to succeed? If so, then, for your own sake and the sake of those around you, you’re going to need to release the idea that every decent, admirable person who’s qualified, on paper, is–and will remain–a good fit for every non-abusive job. But if not, then simply accord yourself the same grace and understanding that you’re already giving to others. A quite possibly OK job that was a temporarily a good fit has become a problematically bad fit.

    8. Allonge*

      Exatly.

      OP, look – I just had this conversation with a close coworker. Ar my org, we are well paid, great benefits and working conditions, as secure jobs as you get these days and so on. The downside is that we have a group of internal customers who feel that they can treat staff as they wish, without consequences – and they are not wrong. So, about once a year if you deal with these people somebody will be calling you names for not mind-reading them, or not breaking rules etc. You don’t get fired for this, they have no influence on your salary, but of course it’s unpleasant to say the least. No physical violence, by the way, it’s all words.

      For me, this is well balanced out by the general good-great conditions. My colleague is ready to resign, no matter the cost. Neither of us is right or wrong. He gets to decide to go, and I get to decide to stay. I get to think ‘sticks and stones’ and he gets to think his pride will not accept this.

      OP, the job needs to work for you! Of course there is quite some priviledge in deciding that it is just not how you prefer to work, but, well, you are not harming people by leaving if that is an option! And you may well be harming yourself by staying. And you have just the one life, like all of us.

      1. No longer wondering*

        OP here, thanks for the comments. These points are very well taken. It doesn’t matter whose fault it is, what matters is whether or not the situation is sustainable, and whether I am happy. I am a pretty amazing employee, which is why my boss was willing to completely change the priorities and projects associated with my role when it became apparent to her that I am at risk of burning out, as my update below mentions. But I agree that choosing to leave because a situation doesn’t work for you is not a fault in you. It just means you know yourself and have good boundaries.

    9. Alice's Rabbit*

      I have a couple of family members who are like that. In fact, they hate the sort of job OP would probably live and excel in, because they need the constant challenge and nearly impossible deadlines. Saving the day, averting disaster, constant emergencies… those are just interesting challenges to these relatives. If things don’t get shaken up like that often enough, they stagnate and feel bored.
      OP, on the other hand, would excel at a less stressful job. One with reliable tasks and fewer emergencies. And that’s okay! There are lots of different personalities and work types, and that’s a good thing.
      I don’t like that so many people are jumping straight to the assumption that this company is gaslighting OP, or that it’s a toxic workplace, though. Sometimes, this sort of thing is just the nature of the job. And if previous employees were able to handle it just fine, because they were the sort who thrived on that kind of work, then the company has no reason to take OP’s complaints seriously. Because it really could just be a bad fit. OP might technically be able to do this job, and have all the skills and experience required, but it’s just not her cuppa. Her office is not evil for wanting her to do the job they hired her for.
      OP, my advice is to job hunt for something less stressful. A position with more clearly defined timelines and fewer last-minute hail marys. No interviewer can blame you for wanting that. They’ll understand that most folks prefer steady, regular work, as opposed to high stress emergencies.

    10. MCMonkeyBean*

      Yes, yes, yes!

      I think especially if you’ve recently had a big shift in life priorities it is 100% okay to say “I think a high-stress job job where I am constantly dealing with emergencies and having to put in a ton over overtime is just not where I want to be right now.”

    1. Anonymous 1*

      I could have written this as well. And it came at a good time to remind me that a good job can just be the wrong job for you.

      1. Angus’s Mom*

        I read this and thought ‘wait is this me?’

        I needed this letter and Alison’s reply today. I really did. This advice is so valuable.

        1. Koalafied*

          Seriously. I have good weeks where I feel like I’m at least keeping up with my excessive work burden instead of feeling like I’m drowning, but the drowning weeks are more common and even in the good weeks I’m so exhausted that I don’t have energy for any hobbies or chores on the weekends. It takes me a full two days of doing absolutely nothing to be remotely close to being ready to go back to work on Monday. I used to have such a clean house, and interests outside of television, before this job…

          1. TardyTardis*

            This should not be your life. You should be able to have a life outside your job. Something is wrong, and it’s probably with the job.

    1. EPLawyer*

      I was going to say this. It’s not a caring, sweet staff if they gaslight you about the elephant in the room regarding workload. Who cares if they have a flexible schedule if never get to flex because you are working so many hours just to stay even.

      Caring staff figure out that the situation is unsustainable and address it. It might be — well there is no money to hire more staff so everyone is overworked. But at least they would be admitting it. Right now they aren’t even doing that. That’s not caring.

      1. Not A Girl Boss*

        This is one of those things that’s so obvious to everyone on the outside but can be hard to spot for yourself.
        Personally, I am so SICK of employers trying to guilt more work out of employees. This seems to be particularly true of women with women managers, maybe that’s my own bias, but 3 different friends plus my mom I’ve had to talk off a ledge about this stuff this year. “But Manager told me she doesn’t know what she’ll do if I leave.” “Manager thanks me profusely every time I work all weekend for her – she was so relieved.” “But Manager NEEDS me” “But if I don’t do it, someone else will have to and they’re not as well equipped to handle it ”

        This isn’t a friendship or a family member you’re helping through a rough patch. It’s a business transaction. Its your company’s job to get the most work out of the least people. An “effective” manager is one who makes that happen by any means necessary. Which means it’s your job and your job alone to draw the boundaries. Usually, when you finally do, they say “oh… Ok.” And cheerily trot off to hire a second person.

        1. Jack Russell Terrier*

          YES – and I suspect it’s all women who are writing in asking whether they should feel guilty about leaving. We had one of those recently.

  2. I'm that guy*

    Hi OP,

    It’s your job not you. Your 4th paragraph shows that. When you start to wonder if it’s the job or you it’s almost always the job.

    I work at a job that can be very stressful. This spring and summer especially so. There were some weeks when we worked 9-10 hours during the week and a 2-3 hours a day on the weekends. But the company recognized that. They let us know that we were going above and beyond and we received bonuses and extra days off once the rush was over.

  3. Princess Flying Hedgehog*

    Your job can have some redeeming qualities and still not be the right job for YOU. Your job doesn’t need to rise to the level of Toxic McEvilson for you to decide to move on. And to be clear, the things you describe would be dealbreakers for many people!
    Please start your job search ASAP for your own health and well being.

    1. AnNina*

      “Your job doesn’t need to rise to the level of Toxic McEvilson for you to decide to move on.”
      This.

  4. Cobol*

    OP, I feel your pain on niceness. If it’s bothering you now and you can leave, do so. The emotional (and physical) toll this job has caused me over the last four years is immense.

    Maybe this is me, but I’ve developed some habits to navigate this environment that I’ll have to unlearn at my next job.

  5. Miranda*

    It could be the job, it could be you, it could be both, it could be niether and it’s just external factors. It kind of doens’t matter, to be honest. You’re clearly not happy there, so go.

    1. Mel_05*

      Well, I think it matters in the sense of, “Will I just take my troubles with me to the next job?”
      Especially since the OP has only been at this job for a year and half.

      1. HMM*

        Agree with Miranda. Even if you don’t know exactly what the problem is, leaving will tell you a lot. If it happens at the next job it’s definitely a “you” problem: either why are you accepting jobs that are not good fits or how are you contributing to the problem/can you do something that makes it easier to cope with the parts of your job you don’t enjoy.

        At the end of the day every problem is a me problem because I’m dealing with it and I don’t have the power to change anyone else. So beyond doing what OP already tried doing (i.e. taking reasonable action to see if the situation can change without drastic measures), the only other option is to address what she brings to the table or leaving.

    2. Smithy*

      Where I think it is helpful to drill down a bit is to tease out what issues are space versus self specific is what to seek out and what to avoid in the next job. While this particular small nonprofit working on certain public health issues has been hard for the OP, that doesn’t necessarily mean the solution is to work for a large fortune 500 company focusing on entertainment or something else radically different.

      In an early job job, I was a research assistant on a pediatric study where one of my job duties was recruiting family participants that included children who were fighting such challenging diseases that a number of them passed away. That part of the job ended up being really difficult for me, but when I really took the time to reflect, it wasn’t so much working on an issue that included trauma and illness – but rather the actual task of recruiting.

      When lots of things feel bad, it can be easy to just seek something different. But taking the time to tease out the differences between the “me issues” and the “they issues” will really help the OP in figuring out their next role.

  6. Kiki*

    I am currently in a similar situation with my workplace kind of gaslighting me with niceness, so this was great to read. Especially in the midst of a pandemic and all the absolute chaos of 2020, this sort of situation can make you wonder if *you’re* just being unreasonable. But no, good managers don’t just act like everything is fine and shift blame onto employees when they bring up concerns. I think that has been a helpful discernment for me: my manger is nice but they are not actually a good manager.

    1. Mel_05*

      Yes. At some point I realized that just because I like someone as a person doesn’t mean I have to think they do a good job at work. It helped a lot.

  7. ih8myjob*

    I love how Alison’s first response was “it’s not you” as that’s exactly what my first thought was too. It’s not you. You deserve better, and better is out there. To me, “toxic” doesn’t have to mean you’re being bullied or working in a dysfunctional office culture. If you bring ideas, enthusiasm, initiative and dedication to your job but are regularly invalidated, ignored, and deprioritized, then you gotta take your skills somewhere they can be utilized. If you’re doing all the right things but are not getting opportunities to learn, grow, or make an impact, then this company is not the right fight. Companies that truly value their employees are out there. Don’t stay at one that doesn’t for too long.

    1. juliebulie*

      At first, I was thinking “it could be both.” But when I got to the part where they couldn’t have a drink of water, I decided that it’s the job.

      I mean, it could still be both. But mental health does not typically improve under the conditions OP describes.

      1. WellRed*

        OP needs to give herself permission to get the water. They aren’t expressly forbidden. Seriously, this place sounds awful but I do wonder if a teeny bit is on OP (#nonproft!#careaboutthemission!)

        1. HMM*

          100% this. As an employee who wanted to do good work, I often fell into the trap of higher standards than my employer expected of me. Once I learned to let the desire to control my “perfect” image go, I became a much happier employee and all the issues I thought were employer issues became much more tolerable.

          You don’t need permission to do certain basic things. If you do, then THAT’S when it’s your employer’s issue to deal with. Make it their problem and they’ll address it one way or another.

        2. ih8myjob*

          I’ve never worked for a non-profit so I don’t know, but are they relying solely upon the employee’s commitment to the mission to get output? A little validation and understanding how my work results in positive results goes a long way when it come to my motivation and isn’t hard to dish out.

        3. Elfie*

          So true! My bestie is the manager of a care home for adults with learning disabilities (so, a key worker). She loves her clients and would do anything for them. But she hates the way her company treats her (and the rest of the care home staff), is only out for the money (it’s privatised), and the back-biting culture amongst the other managers. Plus, she’s only paid like the average national salary (she’s on like £30k when the UK national average is £25k) and she could go to jail if she makes the wrong decision and a client ends up getting the wrong medication, or god forbid dies or something. She often says it’s not enough money for the responsibility she has. She too, says sometimes she doesn’t have time to eat lunch, or have a toilet break all day. She’s the manager! She could make the time, but she doesn’t! She also won’t get another job, because she’s worked there pretty much her entire career, and thinks that nobody will care about her clients the way she does. That’s what the company is banking on! I totally understand where she’s coming from, and that’s why she’s such a good person and a great friend, but she definitely puts herself and her priorities waaay down the list when she’s at work (and don’t even get me started on the fact that she pretty much hasn’t been able to take a day off for holiday or sick since March, and probably won’t be able to for the foreseeable future because she’s a key worker and the manager…). Maybe her clients deserve her, but her company definitely doesn’t!

  8. AnNina*

    Thank you for asking this and thank you Alison for the answer.

    I have been askin myself the same question. And I also have tried to raise issues with my manager and ask for guidance in how to do my work better. My manager was not able to give guidance she just told me I am doing great!00 But regarding the “bigger picture” issues, she actually asked me to gather some colleagues and write it down in detail and she was “very conserned”. We were really exited and made huge work to detail the issues and looked it from all aspects of our work and came up with drafts of solutions. I never heard back from my manager, and it was 8 months ago….

    Lately, I really HAVE been a problem (maybe not THE problem, but anyhow); I’m anxious, distressed and overdriven. I make silly mistakes and laugh too loudly in the breakroom…

    My coping strategy is to lay low, stay in my office, door shut, try to focus on just one task at a time and look for another position….

  9. Just a Thought*

    While I definitely agree with “its not you”, I think it is important to take stock of choices you are making and whether you have to make those choices. It might be important to see what happens if you do insist on taking a lunch break. Feeling too much pressure to not drink enough water is likely coming from you internally — and is something you can work on. That said, for those of us who are anxiety and performance driven, it can be vital to be in an environment that encourages self-care rather than making you feel that if you were just a bit more efficient, you would be fine. There will ALWAYS be more work to do …. in every single job I have ever had. I have had to work hard to be excellent at my job with appropriate boundaries of what I want/can do given who I am and the amount of anxiety I tend to have. I would start setting better boundaries. Trust that what you need is just what you need — whether anyone else needs it or not (like water and lunch! — no one else needs this!! sarcasm alert).

    1. blink14*

      I second this! From the beginning of my full time work career I have made it clear that I will take my allotted lunch break every day. Sometimes I will move it around for a meeting, or occasionally a workshop or meeting with lunch included falls during that time, and I’ll take 20 minutes or something afterward for a quick break. I’m not at a high enough level within my current organization for the expectation of crazy hours, nor am I really being paid enough for that. I personally can’t take on a job with heavy overtime, due chronic health conditions, I’ll burn out very quickly. This is a choice I make for myself, to maintain a reasonable work/life balance.

      Some jobs genuinely will run a person into the ground, no matter how they are managed. Some jobs have tasks that are very important, but not so important that not taking care of yourself during the day. I get the feeling your job may be a little more urgent, and in that case, some of being burnt out may come from not managing yourself effectively. Are you a better worker if you take a quick lunch break, set reminders for yourself to use the bathroom or get a drink? For many people, that’s a yes. Some people can work through a long day with no breaks, but that’s out of the norm.

      OP – it sounds like this job is going to be highly stressful and non-stop, no matter what. The stress of your recent loss (which I am so sorry to hear about) is making you more stressed, and taking away the energy you have to deal with the stress of your job. So I think it’s a combination – your personal stress and your job being high stress. Some jobs, no matter how well managed by the employee, are just not sustainable in the way they are set up or without more support.

    2. Batty Twerp*

      This is a beautiful summation. There will always be more work. There will always be boundary pushers if you dont set up and maintain the boundaries for you (which will not be the same as someone else’s).
      Drink your water.

    3. myswtghst*

      Agreed on all counts. As someone who has been guilty of this in the past, I can honestly say my work is better if I force myself to at least stop long enough to grab a quick lunch I can eat at my desk and a fresh Diet Coke. It’s reasonable to feel like you’re being pressured to skip meals or drinking water, but you can make choices to prevent that from happening. Some days that means filling my 40 oz water jug and keeping it at my desk, other days it means blocking my calendar for lunch and breaks (with reminders to snap me out of my hyperfocus fugue state).

  10. Sparkles McFadden*

    “This is just not the right fit for me.” That’s what I said when I left my most recent job. That was actually the first time in my life that I wasn’t leaving for another position. I just didn’t want to be at that particular job in that particular workplace. There were dozens upon dozens of reasons why, but it all boiled down to the fact that I was miserable because I did not want to be in that place with those people doing that job.

    Wanting to leave is not a failure or a value judgment. I hope the LW starts looking for a new position right away.

  11. foolofgrace*

    I agree with the rest of the commentariat. You do need to start moving on. I think a year and a half is enough time given the circumstances. But in the meantime, what would happen if you just laid it on your manager that you have Projects A, B, C and D and only have time for two of them, which ones should you cut out? I understand your manager may just say to you that you don’t have good time management skills, but that doesn’t change that you can’t do all four projects, so again, ask “which two would you like me to leave on the plate?” Given your workload, it’s unlikely that they’re going to fire you; they’d probably have to hire two people to make up for losing you.

  12. MissDisplaced*

    It might be a little of both. Certainly, the pandemic has created a lot of extra stress on a lot of organizations.

    However, a good workplace will acknowledge this, and try to genuinely solve or at least discuss those issues! When you say you feel your concerns are being dismissed “like making things up” it’s a real concern the company has it’s head in the sand.

    It can be hard to decide whether to stay or go. If you could take a week or two off, do you think you’d come back eager or anxious? If the answer is anxious, I suggest beginning to look elsewhere. Sometimes you can like a lot about your job, but there can still be dealbreakers. Or, perhaps it was fine, but something key changed. But if it makes you miserable, it’s time to move on.

  13. I'm A Little Teapot*

    Something else that people may not realize is that having emergencies, frequently – isn’t actually a sign that things are ok. A well run, functioning environment is going to have processes and structure in place so that things DON’T become emergencies. And yes, there’s environments where things pop up unexpectedly, but if so you strive to handle things smoothly.

    1. Triumphant Fox*

      YES. This was my mission in taking over this department at a new company. My last company was always on fire it felt like. In part because it was client work but mostly because it was understaffed and the owners promised unrealistic timelines. When I got here, there was a lot of “Oh, I just remembered we usually make a brochure for this thing. It’s tomorrow…can you do it today?” Now we have all the projects for everything we do during the year planned out. But that took a ton of work and relies on the predictability of a lot of our work, which not everyone has. There is still a ton of shifting things around and a lot of last minute things (PR, corporate communications, social media, etc.) but they are manageable against a backdrop of well-run programs.

    2. blink14*

      This was my old job – every day there was a major catastrophe, and the level of response and panic from my boss was the same as the couple of times there were legitimate, major issues going on, like a bomb threat.

      It was exhausting. The smallest issue was treated with the same emergency response as the biggest, and we were always more in a response mode than a solution mode.

    3. Garnet, Crystal Gem*

      THIS.

      And also, phew! there was so much of this at my last job:

      It was exhausting. The smallest issue was treated with the same emergency response as the biggest, and we were always more in a response mode than a solution mode.

      I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

      1. blink14*

        SO exhausting! That job stressed me out so much from the lack of just rational thought on a daily basis.

    4. Oof*

      This is a great point where the OP can also self-assess, and get an idea of how the situation falls on the scale of is it me/it’s the job. I’ve worked with people who I truly believe could have written a similar letter; but they weren’t all emergencies. (They took a lot of things as emergencies!) A good litmus test for the OP is look at everyone around you and how they are reacting, keeping in mind personalities, etc. I agree with a lot of the commentors – regardless of how much is you or the job, I think it is time to move on. Everything can be “right” and still not work out.

    5. Sara without an H*

      I had wondered about that, myself. Of course, we don’t know the exact nature of the work this particular NPO does, but when everything is a fire, I start to look for arsonists.

    6. Not So NewReader*

      That is the number one thing that jumped at me in the whole post.

      I worked for these crisis mongers.

      Everything is a crisis. That keeps the employees hopping so they do more work.
      Even when you win, and beat the crisis, you still feel like you lost.
      If you point out ways to prevent the problem from occurring again, you are obviously an idiot.
      When you get something completed on time, the reaction is “What did you do THAT for?”
      And they are very nice but somehow it feels like Stockholm Syndrome.
      There’s lots of martyrs. Every day someone has a MAJOR problem that is just the WORST thing that has ever happened to any living being. If it’s not a work problem then a home problem will suffice. You know way too much about your cohorts, you know their finances, their sex lives and every single show they watch on tv. You know what they had for dinner, their family planning and what happened to them when they were three years old.

      Meanwhile the real problem is that management does not manage.
      There are no where near enough employees.
      More work is added without regard to how much time the work takes.
      Probably money and finances of the company are in disarray.
      Workplace norms do not happen here.
      Backstabbing and gossiping are the high points of the day, once in a while someone mentions something about some work.
      There’s not enough equipment to do the job.
      Asking for more equipment causes drama.
      Asking for necessary training causes more drama.
      Don’t ask for supplies.
      Don’t ask for days off.
      If you mention wanting time to eat, people start laughing.

      Get out. While you still remember that work places can be different/better. What you see going on now, will never change. I know. I checked back 10 years later and everything was the same.

      I think that moving on will help you to reknit other parts of your life also.

  14. AdAgencyChick*

    If this OP is getting glowing reviews, then maybe a temporary solution — while OP looks for a new job — is to develop a mindset of doing as much as she can within 40 (or 45, but not much more than that) hours in a week, taking food and water breaks as needed, and then being okay with everything that’s not getting done.

    The people who may be sighing and seem upset that OP is not getting it all done (because no one can get it all done) either aren’t complaining about it at review time, or they don’t have the power to affect your review. So OP can relieve herself of responsibility for making those people happy all the time. In the moment, you can sympathize with them without apologizing (“Yeah, it’s too bad XYZ couldn’t happen because ABC was even more important”) — but you can also decide that you’re going to let this job have only a certain amount of impact on your time and your psyche, and be okay with whoever wants to be sad or huffy about that.

    As long as OP and her boss agree on what projects are the highest priority to fill those 40 hours with, OP can offer sympathy but not guilt that a million other things aren’t getting done on top of that. But I’d still be looking for another job where the overall dynamic is more reasonable.

  15. knitter*

    This was me 6 years ago.

    “When I bring up issues around our work culture or the immense stress of my job, I am treated like I am making things up or like I am bad at time management and need to work on my skills.”

    I felt this in my heart. I remember going through my responsibilities with my boss who said “see, it can all fit in a 40 hour week.” I was not working 40 hours a week.

    I was a department of 1. A year after I left, the department grew to 3 people. It’s much larger now.

    Job searching on top of this workplace stress was overwhelming, but I still remember the feeling of floating as I drove home on my last day. All the stress that was weighing me down was gone.

  16. 2legit*

    I could have written this letter, except I work in a a different industry. It was quite obvious to me that it is not the LW in the wrong. The similarities between his/her circumstances and mine are striking. For me, I am taking one day at a time. I didn’t know the job would be like this. No one here will address the huge turnover and increasing workload (I am doing the work of more than 2 people.) People are not hired fast enough to keep up. When I have the energy, I job search for jobs outside this company before starting this shift.

  17. Casey*

    “I am treated like I am making things up or like I am bad at time management and need to work on my skills.”
    Oooooooh, this is hitting home for me. Going to therapy really made me take a step back and realize how my school/employer has affected my self-worth and the way I think about my abilities.

    I wish you nothing but the best OP!

  18. Feeling Blue*

    Ugh, that’s me in this post and I don’t like it. But I’ve been stuck at my current job for six years. I just don’t feel like I’m good at anything anymore. I don’t even know how to job hunt with this mindset.

    1. foolofgrace*

      Feeling Blue: Please don’t let the job make you believe you’re not good at anything anymore. That can’t possibly be true. Don’t pressure yourself, take baby steps. Make a list that you add to throughout your workdays of the stuff you do. Just write the things down, no special order. Then at another time, just begin casually looking at job ads, no pressure. Then maybe you can combine the two — things you do and things that are wanted in a new hire from the job ads — and begin sprucing up your resume. Good luck! You can do this.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      It’s a basic human need to feel successful. It’s on a par with food and water. A person goes too long without feeling like they are making a contribution, they can start to wither on the inside. Eh, check it out even animals need to feel like they are doing something. Ever read a story about a dog that had been ignored for long periods of time? The dog shuts down on the inside, it stops reacting to people even when they try to help the animal.

      If your job does not give you that, then look for things outside work that give you feelings of success. Pick simple things. For me, cleaning a closet could change my view of life for a few days. There’s also volunteering. Or there could be a hobby. Build things into your life where you can have moments of feeling accomplishment, success or making a contribution. Practice putting yourself in places where you win.

      1. Feeling Blue*

        Thank you, will try to focus on things outside of work more. It’s difficult because I do feel exhausted outside of my job. But I definitely have things outside of work that bring me purpose and joy.

    3. Keymaster of Gozer*

      I’m coming from a perspective of the other side of recovery from a massive breakdown because I didn’t treat or even acknowledge the growing depression in me so this is a biased view of what I wish I’d done when I was in that ‘why is this happening to me maybe I deserve it because I’m not good at anything’ mindset:

      Done more to try and get opinions from others. Friends, family, coworkers would have all told me that I had talent, that nobody deserved what was happening to me, that the stresses were not caused by me and that I’d made successful career changes in the past.

      Instead I listened only to the circular numbness in my head, things got worse.

  19. SomebodyElse*

    Oh jeez, you sound like you are having a rough go of it. It sounds like a combination of not being in the best place personally and a busy/stressful job. I’m guessing that you could handle one or the other but not both. There isn’t anything in the world wrong with that, most people can’t.

    I’d say work on both; working through some of the things going on in your life and finding a job that suits better. I would assume that even if you were in a place where you had more energy and ability to focus on the job, it’s probably past that point of return and you’ll probably never be truly happy there.

    That’s ok too. Someone made the analogy to relationships and I think that’s a great way to think about it. Sometimes it’s not the right time even if it’s the right people.

    I’m really sorry that you are going through a rough time and truly hope for the best in your future.

  20. in a fog*

    Offering hugs, OP. This is unsustainable and you need to take care of yourself first. Leave that place and don’t look back!

  21. No longer wondering*

    Hi Alison and AAM community,
    OP here with an update. But first of all, thank you for all the positive reassurance and comments. The reminders that if you have to ask yourself that question (“is it me or is it the workplace?”) means that something in your situation needs to change were really powerful and I am going to keep that sound advice in my heart for future similar situations. It was a good reminder for what I already knew but tend to forget.
    I am still in the same job, but I am happy to say a lot has changed and I feel pretty satisfied with my current work situation. It was actually a little unsettling to see my letter posted and notice how much has changed in the last two months.
    In the time since sending this letter, my coworkers and boss noticed that I was not doing well and expressed their fears that I am burning myself out and might not be able to stay in my position long-term. My boss and I set down and picked 2-3 areas of work that are the highest priority for my organization and for me as a person and decided to drastically minimize my involvement in all other projects. While my workload is still fairly high, a lot of the stress and urgency have dissipated and I feel a lot more relaxed and grounded at work. More than anything, I feel like I received a pretty strong mandate from my boss to say no, to narrow the scope of my position and to prioritize my happiness at this job above trying to get everything done. I have also decided to prioritize the aspects of my work that were causing me anxiety and get them out of the way as soon as they come in for the sake of my mental health. I am still planning a career shift long-term for reasons connected to my priorities and interests shifting, but am happy to stay in my current position until I am ready to make that shift.
    I would say I am also engaging in some emotional work on myself that helped. I am the type of person who has high expectations of herself and often feel like my word is my bond, so it is easy for me to feel behind or disappointed with myself. Unrelated to my work-situation, I realized this is something I need to work on and started reading the book “The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook”. Developing more self-compassion practices for myself have made it a lot easier to feel comfortable with leaving things undone, saying no to things and shifting priorities and/or ditching projects that I do not have the capacity to do.
    Overall, I feel pretty happy with my job and pretty committed to staying until I am ready to shift to another field entirely. To answer my own question, I do think it was my job that was the problem, but we found a way to change the job responsibilities so it would work for me, as opposed to finding a new position entirely.

    1. AdAgencyChick*

      That’s great that your boss got behind you and figured out how to help you trim down your workload to something manageable!

    2. NotAnotherManager!*

      This is such a wonderful update to read! I’m glad you and your boss were able to work together to get you to a better place and allow you to say “no” with their blessing and that you’re not feeling as overwhelmed.

    3. Sara without an H*

      This is great news, and I’m glad you’re in a better place now. It still sounds to me like this job is not really a good fit for you, but I’m glad your manager saw reason and addressed the workload issue constructively.

      Good luck for the future and for your new career.

    4. MissDisplaced*

      I’m glad things turned around. I’d also advise that you make sure you’re taking your PTO, even nowadays so that you’re disconnecting and recharging, and doing things you personally find enjoyment in outside of work.

    5. allathian*

      Your update shows that you’re working for and with basically reasonable people. They encouraged you to express your needs, and listened to you when you did. I hope that you at least have learned to take the time to keep yourself hydrated and eat lunch every day, even if you might have to do it at your desk.

      This is not a toxic workplace, but that doesn’t mean that the job was the right fit. Maybe it was the right fit when you were hired, but not anymore since your priorities and your ability and willingness to deal with the particular kind of stress your job involves have changed.

      You seem very self-aware about your needs, and this can only be a good thing. I hope that you can shift fields soon, at the right moment for you.

    6. Blinded By the Gaslight*

      A word of caution: be very, very careful about revealing your mental health needs with your supervisor or co-workers; if you wouldn’t tell them about your gynecology visit or rectal exam, don’t tell them about your mental health. And keep an eye on the level of support you’re feeling because it may change.

      I could have written you first letter last year. My supervisor was initially supportive and “listened” etc. I went to therapy, got on meds, but nothing actually changed at work. I worked on myself, but my workplace didn’t change the gossip mill, the work demands, the problem culture. Remain vigilant to gaslighting and shifts in support, keep your application materials updated, and don’t be afraid to apply for new jobs to stack the deck in your favor in case things change in a couple of months.

  22. Aggretsuko*

    On a related note, I know my job sucks and all. I really hate doing customer service and helping, fixing, and problem solving. It drains me dry, it makes me tired, and I’m tired of being bitched out for the slightest of things from customers. Like I’m sorry that three decades ago, you didn’t fill out your paperwork, but that isn’t my fault? Except it is because I work here and I had to be the one who had to tell you no because I found that out when you asked.

    But….all jobs require helping, fixing, problem solving, and customer service. You can’t have a job where that isn’t a lot of the job. If you just suck at work, period, what do you do?

    1. Reb*

      Not all jobs require being bitched out by customers for things that aren’t your fault, though. You sound like this job is grinding you into the ground, which sounds miserable – and like it’s making you think the problem’s you and everywhere else would be as bad. I don’t think that’s true. There’ll be other jobs that are much better.

      Does your company have an EAP? Or do you have a therapist? If so, you might find it helpful to talk to them about what kind of job you want and how to get your sense of hope back.

  23. MyTwoCents*

    I just left what had been a terrific job– interesting work, great colleagues, terrific networking– because management was unsupportive and preferred to stick their heads in the sand rather than deal with the incompotence, lack of guidance and micromanagement that ended up wasting lots of time and energy. And they didn’t even bother trying to be nice and gaslight– bullying also became an issue. Despite all of that, I still enjoyed the work and wanted to stick it out. I stayed a lot longer than I should have. Sure, it paid off. My resume is stronger for it, but it was exhausting. And Covid isolation made it worse. My colleagues were terrific and very supportive. But I was the one who had to wake up to an uncomfortable situation every, single, day. I was d*mn good at my job. It didn’t mean much to management, though. So, I had to get out.

    What did I learn? I think it’s important to look at your own priorities and talents and make sure they align with management and the overall culture. Without that, it just turns into a bad relationship you need to get away from.

  24. Bob*

    Its the job.
    Get out of there yesterday.

    When your in a crazy situation it can be hard to be objective but once your gone and have time to recuperate and reflect, you will wonder how you didn’t see the terribleness while you were there.

    Get out of there ASAP, tomorrow if possible.

  25. Analyst Editor*

    Being stressed and tired will make a lot of things that you shake off when you’re at your happiest and relaxed seem a lot wise and be more overwhelming.
    Being overworked and emotionally stressed is absolutely making your perceptions of a lot of things even worse than they already are, probably across many life domains, including whether i your coworkers are gaslighting you with a fake nice culture, versus just generally bring more into polite small talk or minding it less.
    But ultimately whether it’s the job or you, something has to change. Good luck!

  26. Brusque*

    I wonder what would happen if OP stopped shouldering everything? Maybe, just maybe they put too much pressure on themselves and really nothing bad would happen when they would answer in the moment they get something on the table that is too much with: I’m sorry. I’m swamped.
    Have they tried that? I agree, at first glance the feedback OP gets sounds hands off, but I’ve been in a similar situation too and got the same answers while feeling I drowned. Then, when I’d already decided to move on and started job searching, I decided it was enough. And then I started to delegate stuff that was too much for me or flat out said no when my boss gave me another task I felt was too much.
    It turned out I’d read the company culture wrong, because nothing bad happened. I focused on my main work and directed emergencies at my supervisor to be distributed evenly. If the emergencies impacted my own work and I realized I had to push back other stuff I shot them a mail too, either I got a new timeline or sometimes the task was retributed.
    So it could be that if OP is so stressed, they don’t push back in the moment and thus for their peers and supervisors perceive their pushing back in meetings as imposter syndrome and try to let them know their work is fine as an assurance.
    It would be worth a try l, when OP meets the next thing that stresses them out too much to write their supervisor: hey Jane, look, X just popped up but I’m swamped with A,B and C, I tried to fit X in by reshuffling in way Y but it doesn’t work, can you please help me out? If then no help comes, the company sucks. But if OP didn’t try that but always somehow juggled everything on their own and only said it when all the tasks are done I can see her Supervisor thinking: hey what does she mean? X was done, A,B and C are in the works, everything is fine.
    So I’d say, if OP decides to leave there is no harm to try and deflect tasks or say no.
    I didn’t leave my company btw. I’m still there and quite happy now.

  27. Ailsa McNonagon*

    This sounds uncannily like my workplace… like, spookily close.

    OP, you know the answer. This won’t change, and it won’t get better. As Covid continues to bite the public health aspect will only become more pressing, and even without that it’s a busy, changeable, contentious and draining job. Your managers are nice people, but gaslight you about the amount of stress you’re under- in my experience managers who do that can’t risk admitting to themselves that the situation is as difficult as it really is so create a version of reality where the work is fine, outside agencies are entirely staffed by lovely people who never shout at Manager’s team, the rest of the team is Doing Fine- so the problem must be you. I once had a manager in a busy clinical team (crisis response stuff) tell me that I was the only person coming to her with problems so maybe the problem was my inability to cope; on my way to her office I had walked past a colleague crying at their desk, two colleagues shouting at each other, and the Service Manager showing admin staff his juggling skills with a stapler and hole punch. Rather than carry on being part of the problem I noped out of there as soon as I could find another job.

    OP, you know the answer. It’s not you. If you’ve got other options you should start examining them immediately. Good luck!

  28. Blinded By the Gaslight*

    I could have written this letter last year about a job I suffered in for three years until they fired me after I filed a discrimination complaint. They chewed me up and spit me out like old gum, and I am STILL recovering from the psychological abuse, even though I’m in a great job with truly wonderful people now.

    When your workplace starts making you question your reality, or who you are as a person, it’s time to GTFO. What you’re describing is not sustainable, and you deserve better. All the luck and strength to you!

  29. Dramamethis*

    It sounds like we work at the same place. I feel your pain and I’m sorry that you’re going through it.

    Ultimately, you need to decide what’s best for your mental health, your family and your career.

    You say you have options, start looking at them. You might end up staying where you are after all but it doesn’t hurt to explore what might be there waiting for you.

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