updates: the burn-out, the awkward bill, and more

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past. Here are four updates from past letter-writers.

1. How to explain quitting because of stress and burnout (#3 at the link)

Thanks for your advice – it really helped calm things down in terms of fears of professional consequences, and allowed my partner to focus on his health. The follow-up post of post-burnout interview tips, with advice from one of your commenters, is sheer gold, as well. Thank you!

It’s a weird update (you’re getting a lot of those, huh) – so, the morning you answered, I got my partner in to see his doctor, and after he outlined the situation, the doctor basically sprang into action – he was off work with (paid!) stress leave, referrals, etc. And then, as his stress leave was finishing, our youngest (he just turned one) got booked for a fairly urgent open-heart surgery (the second one this year, and 2020 can go away ANYTIME, I mean it – though it went well and he’s doing ok, for the record), and so he’s eligible for 8 weeks of paid caregiver benefits while the baby recovers. And, finally… our daycare closed (when it rains, it pours), and we can’t find daycare spots anywhere for the two youngest, and the oldest is in school but that might close, so…. (Oh, and two of our parents aren’t doing well, physically, and we’re also stepping in for that.). So, between the heart issue, the pandemic, the stress, the childcare issues, and the general caregiving, we’ve made the family decision that a SAH parent is PROBABLY a good idea for the next little bit.

We’re fortunate – I’ve always kept a tight enough grip on recurring expenses that we can make ends meet on one salary, and we have savings and the paid leave is providing a cushion. And so, while things are definitely financially tight, we’ll have breathing space, stress-wise, and I may be able to avoid going into a burnout myself. We’ll try and give ourselves a bit of breathing room, and, once the paid leave ends and it’s safe for the baby to go back to daycare and we find spots and things chill a bit, we’ll reevaluate the work thing.

2020, man. I can’t even. Oof.

2. My company is issuing new work-from-home standards because we should have the hang of it by now

The work from home standards have not been released yet – some of our leadership were caught up in some local drama, and I think it fell off the radar (for now).

As many commenters pointed out, our leadership seems to be very out of touch with the regular worker. I was a new manager right as covid happened, so I don’t have strong relationships with my peers in leadership roles and didn’t feel comfortable talking to them. My peers all seemed supportive of the standards and somewhat annoyed they hadn’t already been implemented. I’ve been struggling with a few things at the company, like being told I rated my staff too highly on their annual evaluations (“while they may be performing highly, we want to motivate them to do better! Please lower their scores so they know they should work harder”), that I don’t work enough hours when I regularly work 60+ per week, and that I’m encouraged NOT to give my staff raises or bonuses unless they’ve been really exceptional performers – making a quick transition from working in office to wfh in the midst of a pandemic while consistently outperforming expectations apparently isn’t enough to justify a 1% raise. I really disagree with this and have pushed back. But it has fallen on deaf ears.

A few commenters pointed out this is why it’s important to ask employers how they handled covid – and I honestly can’t say a lot of great things about mine. It’s disappointing because I really like the work itself, my team, and our organization’s mission. I definitely care more about this job than I have about any other job I’ve ever had – but at the end of the day it’s just a job. My employer expects it to be the #1 priority in my life and it’s just… not. I moved 500 miles to a city where I know no one on my own dime for this job -they would have pulled the offer if I hadn’t- and it feels like I’m constantly being reprimanded for not making appearances of working hard enough (like signing off after working 11 hours because I need to go to the grocery store or taking an hour to take my dog to the vet). I’m not ready to start looking yet, but I foresee doing so in the next year or so. I’ve no desire to burn out.

3. An example of starting with grace when you’re frustrated with someone

I finally have an update, which includes a little bit of drama!

When the post ran, a lot of commenters were very concerned about not holding Cedric accountable for his ongoing poor performance, and while I was glad I chose to be human during the moment his father was dying of COVID, I definitely shared that concern.

Unfortunately, around the same time this happened, there was a change in his direct manager over his regular work, and major understaffing on her team, so I wasn’t able to make a change and had to allow Cedric to stay in the special assignment for another few months. I did, however, alert his new manager that he was a problem and I was looking to make a change, so I’d look for her partnership in assessing and making the call.

Over the past few months, not only did Cedric’s performance not improve, even with direct feedback (which was valuable for documentation purposes), but there was also another offshoot assignment that I did not select him for. Because of his longtime involvement with the project, he felt slighted by not being selected and took it as my personal agenda against him, even though I gave him legitimate business reasons (fresh eyes, particular perspective provided by members of the new team). He went to my boss to complain about me and the slight – I’m relatively senior and she is obviously above me, think AVP and VP, and we’re in a pretty hierarchical organization, so this was a pretty aggressive step on his part. Luckily I was able to prep my boss and she had my back, and even during that conversation Cedric went off on tangents that demonstrated many of his long-standing performance issues and fundamental misalignment with the role. (And OMG, if I had been required to put him on this other assignment I definitely would have killed him and probably gone to jail, so bullet dodged!)

Finally this week I had enough documentation to work with Cedric’s boss to relieve him of the special assignment, and he will no longer serve in this capacity, which is a huge relief. His boss will continue to provide the additional compensation for a few additional months as a gesture of good will and effort to engage him in something he’s better suited for.

I’m not sure if I burned a bridge with Cedric here, but I’m very glad to have finally cut the cord and have the opportunity to bring someone more responsive into the role. I’m still also glad that I didn’t do all this during the moment his dad was dying of COVID, even though it was a few extra months of pain for me.

4. Awkwardness over paying the bill at a dinner with coworkers

Five years after this awkward dinner, here’s how all the players ultimately fared:
• Spendthrift D was terminated for plagiarism within a couple of months.
• Spendthrift C (a manager) was forced out within about a year or so.
• Tightwad A eventually left the company on good terms.
• Tightwad B stayed with the company for a few years, briefly left for another job, then (due to his lifelong frugal ways) retired young at age 40 and hasn’t looked back!
So if it isn’t yet obvious, I was Tightwad B in that scenario. I won’t go so far as to say this proves that “tightwads” prosper, but… maybe just a tiny bit of poetic justice? At least from my (admittedly biased) POV.

{ 54 comments… read them below }

  1. EPLawyer*

    #1 — so glad it is working out as reasonably well as possible right now.
    #2 — you might love your company’s mission, but the work culture SUCKS. If you are reprimanded for having a life and their idea of motivation is to give people lower evaluations than they deserve this is not a good workplace — not matter the “mission.” They gave you a HUGE red flag when they hired you that you had to move on your own dime or they would pull the job offer KNOWING you were not local when they hired you. You saw the dream job instead of the reality. Hindsight and all that. But they are STILL showing you red flags. Start looking NOW. Among other things it will probably take a while to find a job anyway, so you might as well start now. Because the longer you stay in this place, the more you will start thinking there is something wrong with YOUR approach not THEIRS.

    1. Artemesia*

      This. Look for a new job now so you can be leisurely about it; you don’t want to be scrambling when this job is finally on your last nerve. It might easily take a year to find the right move but you won’t find it if you arent looking.

      1. Jean (just Jean)*

        Great summary of “when a job is finally on one’s last nerve” but may I turn this around/transform it into positive motivation for #2?
        “Nothing motivates me more to look for a new job than lack of recognition or acknowledgement from my soon-to-be-former employer.”

      2. Pat on the head*

        So true! If I’ve repeatedly gone above and beyond and the response is ‘Nice job, now do more’ my inclination is to pull back to my exact job requirements– no matter what I do I won’t get the recognition, so why bother? It leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

    2. allathian*

      Yeah, this. The whole culture is toxic. Please leave before you burn out. I’m sorry you relocated for this crap.

    3. TardyTardis*

      Agree, OP #2 start looking now. In a year or so you may be dead or disabled with that workload. Plus, most of your good workers are undoubtedly looking too, because they know a lot more than you give them credit for. The more you do, the more they will want you to do, and then they’ll complain because you can’t work more than 24 hours in a day.

      No, I am not exaggerating, there really are bosses like that, and I fear you know who they are.

  2. glitter writer*

    OP1, I just want to say I hope your kids and parents and partner are all doing okay (and you, too) — that’s *a lot* to be dealing with in any year! I hope it eases up for you soon!

    1. Jean (just Jean)*

      +1. or + 1,001. But also + 10,001 for taking such good care of your spouse and having your finances in such good shape that you didn’t have to add financial disaster on top of everything else this year!

  3. Artemesia*

    LOL. Tightwad B. wE were not able to retire at 40 but when we did retire, we have been able to live well, travel and generally enjoy this time of life because we were always frugal and saved for this time instead of living up to our moderate but not fabulous incomes. Funny update.

    And so sorry Cedric has to be accommodated forever.

    And so hope LW1’s 21 is a lot better than 20 — what a tough year.

    1. Joan Rivers*

      Re: “Cedric” — sometimes just letting someone play out their own drama ends up working in your favor. They can end up showing off their flaws when given the chance. I once worked in a non-profit w/a dept. of people who all felt entitled and superior and they suddenly all quit en masse, to start their own private counseling practice. Within WEEKS it had fallen apart. I pictured the worst one turning on her partners when she no longer had the rest of us.

  4. Batgirl*

    OP2, “It feels like I’m constantly being reprimanded for not making appearances of working hard enough”. It feels that way because you are. No matter how hard your employees work, you’re supposed to run them down (in the name of motivation?!) and that’s exactly the same approach being taken with you. If you were to ask what standards you aren’t meeting, you’d get a very vague, constantly changing answer. Their management skills are nothing more than a game of keep away. Run!

  5. Ingrid*

    LW1, I felt your update. We had to have emergency, urgent open-heart surgery on our newborn, back in May. Going through all that during COVID was no joke. I’m glad your baby is doing okay and your spouse was able to get some help. Here’s to a better 2021,

  6. Miss Muffet*

    LW1 – just want to send virtual hugs. This sounds like one hell of a year for you and I hope 2021 brings relief on some of these fronts!

  7. AnonymousforThis*

    LW2: I know I’m echoing others here, but this work culture stinks.
    “ I’ve been struggling with a few things at the company, like being told I rated my staff too highly on their annual evaluations (“while they may be performing highly, we want to motivate them to do better! Please lower their scores so they know they should work harder”)”
    I worked at a place with that mentality, in fact it probably went further. (Managers would do evaluations and then HR would knock points off so no one’s eval was too good.) One of the reasons I left that job was because off reviews stating I needed to improve basic functions of the job after being in the field 20 years. You will lose good people!

    1. GrumpyGnome*

      Agreed! Our scale goes up to 5, 5 being the best. In our (global, multi-billion dollar company), only 2 or 3 people in a year get 5. Very few even get 4. I’ve had some stellar years, including one where I helped write approximately $21 million in premium (which is massive for my department), assisted on committees, led national training, and launched two new projects with success. I got a score of 3, no raise, and a $600 bonus (pretax). That was the year I realized there was nothing I could do and stopped putting in much extra effort.

      We are going through layoffs now (planned before COVID) so I’m doing a good job while I’m here and waiting on my severance I can use that when I’m in my last few semesters of school that require clinicals and a full time job would be incredibly difficult. OP, please start looking now before you hit burn out. Best of luck to you!

      1. Daffy Duck*

        Exactly this, keeping scores low doesn’t encourage people to work harder, it causes frustration. The folks with enough self-esteem leave for places they will be appreciated and the rest stop trying.
        People have to believe they can get 5 stars, the gold ring, whatever prize by seeing others around them achieve it. (This is why a carny at the county fair walks around with a huge stuffed dog.)

      2. SusanIvanova*

        Our scale goes to 3 – doesn’t meet expectations, meets expectations, is exceptional. I gave myself some 3s my first year, my manager said that we’re all supposed to be exceptional here so 3 is only for superstars.

        So it’s basically meaningless as far as I’m concerned, and from then on in my annual “how well do you understand Dunning Kruger” exercise, I just mark myself straight 2s. Do I feel encouraged to strive for a 3? No. Do I think any of my teammates are superstars? No. Exceptional, sure. A 3 by any reasonable rule, sure.

      3. Former Fed*

        I had a similar break through moment after working at the Smithsonian. I got Above Average (or whatever the highest score was) for my annual evaluation two years in a row and was told I could only get the smallest step increase. It dawned on me: “Aha! This is why (a lot of) government workers don’t try. There is no incentive to do better because you will get the same result whether you are mediocre or excellent at your job. Why should I try my best when being adequate takes less energy?” I wouldn’t say I’m primarily motivated by money — I’ve only worked at nonprofits — but there’s something to be said for recognizing when people go above and beyond in their work.

        1. Elise*

          As a manager in a government organization this hits home. I try to show my appreciation for my staff members’ exceptional work, but my hands are tied for giving raises. I really wish we could move to actual merit based raises because I’ve worked with a lot of people who were happy to coast by and do the minimum. It’s maddening to see them get the same raise as people who really care about what they do. And it really sucks for the newer employees who get paltry raises due to the state of the economy for the last 10 years while they are often the superstars while the staff close to retirement coasting by are making loads of money from the good raises back in the day. (Not saying that this is 100% true for either employee group, but it’s frustrating to watch it happen.)

          1. TardyTardis*

            The only problem with merit raises is that they tend to go to the best connected white guys in a lot of companies. The government has regulations for a reason.

  8. Satisfactory Worker*

    LW2: ” like being told I rated my staff too highly on their annual evaluations (“while they may be performing highly, we want to motivate them to do better! Please lower their scores so they know they should work harder”)”

    Ahh, this old bit. My old grandboss once told us that no one could get above a “satisfactory” (3/5 rating) on performance evaluations because GREAT grandboss had only given grandboss a satisfactory rating, and no one was smart or harder working than grandboss.

    1. TechWorker*

      Loool this is clearly bollocks because your performance rating is meant to be relative to your job description and salary. Otherwise what’s the point?

    2. BelleMorte*

      I always felt that if you have staff that constantly perform well, look for ways to help them grow, rather than “improve”. Often when you have great staff you just let them stagnate.

      1. TardyTardis*

        Not to mention they will hear exactly what’s going on and decide to leave, while the slow pokes will stay on.

  9. NewYork*

    LW2, If you are really consistently working 60 hours a week, unless you are in a field where this is expected –Big Law or IB, then you need to look for another job. Where you are being interrupted with child issues, FB, etc, only you can answer.

  10. Jules the 3rd*

    1) Oh jeez, much sympathy on how awful your 2020 has been
    2) Mr. Jules was a SAHP for a decade or more. Once our kid was in school, he renovated the basement, turning it into a rentable apartment, then started a part-time job. After four years, he’s making enough to cover the mortgage if something happens to my job. It was a good decision for us, and I hope it is for you all as well.

  11. lilsheba*

    #2, I remember now….yeah I don’t believe in making my home “professional”…it’s my home! I’m glad that seems to have fallen by the wayside, cause it’s ridiculous. Hopefully it stays there.

  12. Chilipepper*

    OP#1 I am in awe of the way you have handled this and if there is any way to support you in addition to cheering you on from afar, please share!!

    OP#4 not sure this is the right place to ask but I’d love to know more about your experience of retiring in your 40s. Congrats!

  13. HD*

    I’m laughing at the story of the tightwads and the spendthrifts. I think it’s interesting that D went over the per diem at the meal and also balked at paying cash for his overage. I’m happy to see how everyone turned out years later.

  14. Lies, damn lies and...*

    OP #2 – my last supervisor was like this with regard to evaluations. Everyone was a 3 on everything compared to… no particular job description. At this point, maybe 4 people enjoy working for him and lots of others are bailing.

  15. Des*

    LW2, watch out for yourself because by the time you realize you’re burning out it’s hard to get back to normal. Your workplace doesn’t sound healthy or sustainable.

  16. DiplomaJill*

    Op1, I put my daughter thru ohs #5 this summer after cancelling the opposite-coast, cutting edge ohs scheduled for April :scream:. There’s nothing as uniquely terrifying.

  17. Per Diem Panic*

    #4 is reminding me of a situation early in my career, when I was a brand new employee on my first business trip and went out for dinner with four senior employees.

    I ordered an entree that fit into the per diem. They ordered entrees–and also five hundred dollars worth of alcohol, while I sat there quietly sipping water. And then, when the server came by and asked how to split the check, one of them announced, “Just split it evenly.”

    I didn’t feel like I had the standing to speak up, but my face must have spoken for me, because (a thousand blessings on him), the server nodded and came back with five checks . . . with the alcohol split between the four of them, and mine with nothing on it but my own food. They were all too tipsy to even notice. I left the biggest tip of my life and still came out ahead.

    1. Emily*

      What a relief! Good on that server for noticing that you had spent much less and weren’t comfortable picking up others’ tabs (and good on you for tipping them really well).

  18. Edwina*

    Update #4 needs to be typewritten letters scrolled against a series of freeze frames just before the final credits haha

  19. Anonymous Hippo*

    I’m always so confused about bill problems. Just ask for separate tickets at the restaurant. Makes it so much easier. Also on work trips, you keep the “extras” on a separate bill. Like my work per diem didn’t cover alcohol, so you’d have a separate bill for that. No restaurant has ever balked at this request. Not to mention if they did, the math required to split it yourself is basically 5th grade.

    I think this would be a better lesson at the business etiquette lunches in college rather than not ordering spaghetti and which water glass is yours (someone will still ask if the table is round, lol).

    1. OyHiOh*

      Thankfully, digital systems are changing the situation rapidly but twenty something years ago when I was a young hospitality worker (restaurant server), splitting checks could be stupidly difficult, depending on which DOS driven system your restaurant used. Additionally, some states had (maybe still do, I haven’t looked in years) odd and/or arcane rules around check splitting. Hopefully someone from NY/NJ will chime in here – I vaguely recall old server discussions about “well just do X and split the check!” and people from certain states (NY sticks in my brain) saying they weren’t allowed to under state rules.

      And then there’s the customer’s perception. When I served (upper midwest state) it was considered a point of rudeness for a server to ask, at the beginning of a meal, if the check was going to be split. When I managed the kitchen of a dinner theater – Rocky Mountain region – a few years ago, I trained my servers to ask how the table would be split (the way our ticketing worked, we often had two couples who didn’t know each other seated at a 4 top together) before they put anything into the system. I’m thankful that times and perceptions have changed and that’s no longer considered rude!

      1. Lurker*

        Yeah, I’m in NYC and restaurants here hate splitting checks. I don’t know if it’s a law that they aren’t allowed to, but it’s very, very unlikely they are going to do it for you. In addition, if it’s a big group (6+) there may be an automatic minimum gratuity* factored in, so splitting the bill into several smaller ones would mean they can’t do that and then there is the risk of the server having worked their a** off dealing with a large group and not getting tipped fairly.

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