my boss’s stress is out of control

A reader writes:

What can employees do when their managers are projecting tons of stress?

I’m my manager’s only direct report, and I’m the first full-time person she’s managed. She’s always been bad at keeping her stress under wraps, but it’s gotten much worse with COVID. For the past month, in every one of our one-on-one meetings she has conveyed a strong sense of being overwhelmed and stressed. For example, when I ask “How are you?” at the start of our weekly check-ins, she’ll respond with a deep sigh, shake her head, and say with a sarcastic tone, “Oh I’m just great.” Lots of temple rubbing in response to basic requests, that sort of thing. It makes me feel like I’m just one more burden that she has to deal with.

I’ve tried signaling that she’s coming across unprofessionally by saying things like, “Wow, it sounds like you have a lot on your plate right now, I’d love to help out if there’s anything I could take on to make your life easier” or “I realize you’re crazy busy right now, so I’m just going to do X unless I hear otherwise from you.” So far she hasn’t offered to unload anything on to me, which I suspect is part of a larger issue with her complete inability to delegate (the subject of a whole other letter).

But she’s brought that same “I am barely holding it together, but don’t worry, I’m fine” energy to a couple of larger meetings recently, to the point that other staff members have commented to me that she looks like she’s really struggling. These employees often comment that our department must be swamped, when in reality I have loads of free time, she just won’t delegate! Obviously these are unusual, hard times and I want to be sympathetic, I don’t think she realizes that she’s coming across as unprofessional and over-stressed.

Is there anything I should say or do about this? She’s a first-time manager, and if I were in her shoes I would want someone to give me the heads up that I needed to be better about projecting stress. Her own manager is super hands-off and is likely unaware that this is going on. Given the organization’s hierarchy, I couldn’t reach out to him without wrecking my relationship with my manager. Should I just bite my tongue?

Well, the good news is that if your primary worry is how she’s coming across to others — as opposed to the impact on you — it’s not your problem to solve, since she’s your boss rather than the other way around. You don’t really have the standing to tell your boss that she’s coming across as unprofessional.

That said, depending on what your relationship with her is like, there might be things you can do, and if they’d be effective, it would probably be a kindness to do them. But that “if they’d be effective” caveat is important — if they wouldn’t be, you risk causing tension in the relationship, plus making her stress level that much worse (because now she has all the original stress plus the stress of hearing that she needs to hide it better).

One thing you can try, though, is just saying point-blank, “You seem really stressed out. I’m here to make your life easier — and it seems like you’re overburdened with work while I have plenty of room in my schedule to help. In fact, my preference would be to fill up my day more. Can we talk about some things we could move from your plate to mine to give you some breathing room and better fill up my time?”

Or, if your relationship allows you to speak more directly and you think it would be likely to help, you could relay the concern you’re hearing from others too. For example: “I know you’ve been pretty stressed lately and your workload is high. I feel awkward mentioning this, but I also feel like I should pass it along. After some meetings recently where you seemed visibly stressed out, other staff members have expressed concern to me — I think their worry is that you might be really swamped and struggling. I figured you’d want to know people are worrying about you … but, also, I’d like to help! I have room in my schedule to take on more and wonder if we could talk about things we could move from your plate to mine to balance out our workloads better.”

To be clear, this isn’t about telling your boss not to be stressed (which could understandably be very frustrating for a stressed-out person to hear). This is about the way she’s performing her stress, so visibly and in a manner that’s worrying others. Sometimes people genuinely don’t realize how they’re coming across in situations like this; they may have developed habits (like the temple-rubbing or the deep sighs) that they don’t realize are conveying something more serious than what they intend. If that’s the case, it can be useful to hear “Whoa, something really seems wrong here.” Alternately, though, if her stress has reached the point where she can’t control these pretty intense outer manifestations in response to even minor requests, it’s time for her to send up a cry for help to her own manager.

But I also want to talk about the lack of delegating. You said that’s a whole other letter, but I think it’s inextricably tied in with this one. Your manager has a solution to some of her stress problems sitting right next to her — you, a team member with time on your hands — and she’s not taking advantage of it.

That’s not uncommon. A lot of managers are really bad at delegating, especially new ones. Delegating is a skill; in most cases, you can’t just quickly pass work off to someone and expect it will be taken care of in the way you want. To delegate effectively, you need to invest real time in getting aligned on expectations, checking in along the way so there are opportunities to course-correct if needed before the work is finished, and giving feedback afterward. And a lot of managers are pretty terrible at thinking through everything they need to communicate about a project when they delegate it — which leads to frustration on both sides when the finished work doesn’t match what they’d envisioned in their heads. Plus, delegating well takes time — and your manager might feel it would be faster for her to just keep doing everything herself. (It really might be faster in the short run, but it’s definitely not faster in the long run.)

Moreover, by hoarding all the work for herself, your manager is potentially limiting your professional growth, not just her own — and that might be an effective angle to approach her from. Especially if you were originally given the impression that you’d be able to help with more than you are, you could say something like, “It’s important to me to completely fulfill my role here, which I originally understood was meant to include things like X and Y. If there’s something about my performance that’s making you hesitate to delegate those to me, could we talk about what your concerns are so I know what I need to focus on? But otherwise I’d really like to work on X and Y so that I can expand my skills in those areas. Can we talk about how to make that happen?”

If you try all this and nothing much changes … well, then you’ve done all you reasonably can do. At that point, it might be worth thinking about how long-term you really want to stay in your current role, since you’re both underutilized and stuck marinating in someone else’s stress. But some of the above might help.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 65 comments… read them below }

  1. The Happy Graduate*

    To be honest, you aren’t signalling she’s being unprofessional. To me it sounds like you’re just saying courtesy sympathy statements, the kind that anyone would typically hear if they tell their coworkers about their stress. Alison’s advice is spot on: be direct but kind with an offer to take some of the load off her plate but after that it’s up to her to decide if and how she does it.

    Don’t forget, she’s the one in the manager’s seat so she may very well have more behind the scenes info that means she really can’t delegate more to you.

    1. LGC*

      I think, too, it’s hard for junior people to do what Alison suggests (and what you suggest), with a direct statement that might come off as critical. I mean, I’m a bit more like LW’s boss than I’d like to admit. And I think some of my employees are kind of like LW – where they want to help but might be unsure how to approach me about it. And…like, I used to be annoyed because it would make my job easier if someone just provided me solutions instead of asking me to solve problems all the time.

      It doesn’t mean that it’s not a good idea – I definitely think people should be less afraid of their bosses. (Especially if their supervisor happens to be me.) But it’s a really touchy thing with a lot of supervisors and managers, and it takes a lot of practice to strike the correct balance. (I used to be overly assertive myself, until I realized my boss didn’t like that and also the optics of a junior man saying “Let’s do X” to a senior woman were NOT GOOD.)

    2. caradom*

      Yes, as a senior member of my time there are some things only I can do (more importantly management automatically come to me if there is an issue and expect me personally to deal with it). I could train people to do some of the things I do but that takes time and is not an option if they are a junior member of the team. If management contact me the message is clear: fix this. If I passed it on to someone else and something went wrong there would be trouble (for me).

  2. juliebulie*

    When offering to help someone, it’s sometimes especially helpful to offer to take care of a specific thing. If she’s really overwhelmed, it might be hard for her to even imagine which tasks to delegate.

    Another thing, if she hesitates, ask her to think about it, then ask again the next day. Give her a chance to envision her life without that task still on her plate.

    1. C in the Hood*

      Exactly. When the boss is talking about how X,Y or Z are stressing her out, really listen: do you hear opportunities for you to take over a specific task? If so, say, “Let me take care of X & maybe part of Y, so all you’ll have to worry about is the other part of Y and Z.”

    2. tangerineRose*

      Yep, asking to be able to work with specific tasks should make it easier for her.

      Also, never ask her how she’s doing.

      1. Pennyworth*

        ”Never ask how she’s doing” applies to many situations. If you don’t want a blow by blow run down of how someone is doing, do not ask, and as someone who has suffered from depression, being asked how I was doing just reminded me of how bad I felt. Find another greeting,

        1. caradom*

          Exactly, most people have problems. We’re living with COVID on top of that. No need to ask someone how they are doing. Just say Hi and if you want to offer assistance with something specific point it out and leave it at that. In my career everyone is stressed. When I offer to help and they say no just get on with it.

  3. Zephy*

    Wow, LW, I could swear you were describing my old boss. I was the first paid staffer she was given to manage (though she previously managed programs that relied on volunteers, but that’s really a different dynamic). She, too, was constantly pulled in 50 different directions and wasn’t subtle about how much that stressed her out, but getting her to delegate anything was like pulling teeth – I almost had to trick her into giving me ownership of the tasks that comprised, you know, my job. I left that job for financial reasons (once I was allowed to do the work, I loved it), but even interacting with her socially when we were no longer coworkers, she was still Like That. Some people just have two modes: stressed out to here, and asleep. Your boss might be one of them.

    1. Alianora*

      I was in kind of a similar situation in my first job. I was a little blunter than Alison’s script, but I said basically the same thing: “You have so much on your plate and I don’t have anything to do. Let me help you!” My manager had been very straightforward with me in the past, so I felt comfortable doing the same with her.

      She actually took me up on it and things went really well after that – best working relationship I’ve had to date, I think because we were both comfortable with straight talk, and because she found out she could rely on me to get things done. Just wanted to share an experience that went well.

    2. TardyTardis*

      I had a boss who was like that for a couple of decades (and if you couldn’t read her mind, well, move on). She finally did find someone who could read her mind–and then she retired! Apparently her work was done. But she expected everyone to know how to do things without any actual training, and yes, there is such a thing as GAAP, but she never did realize that someone who came to her from a different manager only wanted to know the way *she* wanted things done and didn’t automatically know it right off.

  4. IStealPens*

    Removed. Please do not post ways to get around paywalls here, since that’s how publications pay writers for their work. – Alison

  5. The Rural Juror*

    I can relate to this letter a little TOO well.

    My boss is that person with a lot of things on their plate they could delegate, but has a lot of trouble doing so. They’ve admitted to me that they have ADHD, which I believe is part of what makes it hard to figure out what they can give to me. It’s like they look at the pile of things they have to do and just can’t figure out where to even begin to delegate. Some things I feel like I can proactively take from them, which is met with appreciation, but that doesn’t work for every task.

    I don’t mean to armchair diagnose the LW’s boss. And I definitely don’t want to suggest someone swoop in and start doing tasks if that wouldn’t go over well. What’s worked well for me is going into my boss’s office (pre-COVID) and saying, “I know we have X coming up. I could be working on Y and Z to prepare for it. Is that something you want me to do? Is there more I could take off your plate related to X?” Being very specific about the task I want to tackle has been helpful. But in my case, they’re tasks related to specific projects, not things that are above my level.

    It may be too broad to just say, “I need more to do, so what do you want me to work on?” But…if the LW doesn’t have the standing or doesn’t feel comfortable enough to ask for anything specific…my suggestion may not be that helpful. I’m sorry about the situation you’re in, LW. All the best of luck (to you and your boss!).

    1. New Mom*

      This is really good advice. I feel like I could be a watered-down version of the LW’s boss and my direct report helps me most when she tells me very specifically what she can do. I find it tremendously helpful when we suddenly get given multiple projects and I get overwhelmed.

      I also plan to adjust how I talk about workload with my employee after reading this letter and the comments.

      1. Uranus Wars*

        Agree with this 100%. Sometimes when you are drowning and someone asks “what can I do?” it’s almost another task. When someone says “I’ll do X, I have access to the information needed for that?” it’s very helpful.

        There are times I WANT to delegate, but its hard to peel out what pieces I might be able to on the spot.

  6. Formerly Ella Vader*

    Also, stop asking her how she is. If it’s a different way of saying hello, say hello. A boss might choose to ask a direct report how they are doing and want a real answer, or a boss might ask as a way of saying hello. Either way, the direct report can choose how to answer, like if it’s awful and you don’t want to talk about it you can say “Fine, here is the teapot report” or if the boss needs to know you can say “Not bad, but I’m concerned about how far behind we are on the teapot inventory”.

    But whether you are asking your boss how she is as a way of saying hello or whether you think it’s the right choice to invite your boss to open up, she is taking it as an invitation to open up. You are doing the emotional labour of inviting and listening, and you should try stopping.

    1. Colleague’s Dog’s Viking Funeral*

      This is true about communicating with boss all together. The small talk “how are you” is not functioning like a social pleasantry. It’s a means for boss to sidetrack your need to talk about work. So stop.
      It’s not rude, you can say good morning, just avoid an open ended question.
      Actually avoid questions as much as you can.
      Replace, “what can I do?” with “I’d like to do this.”
      “Well, it’s too hard to delegate it at this point.”
      Say, I can do X because…
      You’ll wear her down :)

    2. MsClaw*

      I’m not sure I’d describe what she’s doing as ‘opening up’; she’s not detailing what she’s upset about so much as basically underlining ‘everything in the entire world is awful right now in case you hadn’t noticed.’ I also hate when someone asks me how I am when we are having a work meeting. I understand that a lot of people think this is a normal social lubrication, but I’m not running into you at the grocery store. You came into my office to ask me about something, so ask me about that. But since I also understand that the person really doesn’t care how I am or want to know how I am, I just say something like ‘fine, what can I do for you today?’

      Your boss may be an Eeyore and you don’t need to worry about fixing that. You certainly absolutely and totally do not need to be telling her how to present herself to the office. You are saying you don’t have enough to do — *that is the actual problem you have here*. But your current approach to it is to say you’re offering her a solution to a problem *she* has. My suggestion would be to stop focusing on what you think her problems are. Is there something she’s doing that you’d like to take on? Suggest that! Not because she’s so busy or she’s so stressed out. But because ‘hey I need some additional tasking and I’d like to get more involved in the teapot paint color approval process. Could I take that on next week?’

  7. Ann O'Nemity*

    I’m so much more sympathetic to the boss in the OP’s letter than I would have been pre-COVID. We’re all working through collective trauma right now. Extra kindness and understanding can go a long way. I like Alison’s scripts to offer help.

    1. blue*

      Agree here fully. The world is absolute shiz rn. Most of us aren’t operating at anywhere near optimum levels. I also like Alison’s suggestions.

  8. Anon for this here post*

    My boss gets stressed out and will literally say out loud, “I hate my job.” The ironic thing is that he gets upset if we complain or say anything negative at all. I almost want to record him venting and play it back to him because he may not realize what he says. I don’t understand it…

    1. Colleague’s Dog’s Viking Funeral*

      You can bring it up without that. Really.
      you can can ask him, oh, why do you say that? Is there something I can help with.
      Say it every time and he will realize that his verbal tic is kind of a problem.

      1. Anon for this here post*

        I was joking about the recording part, but I will have to try asking him what’s wrong or if there is anything to do to help. Usually he’s just venting out of frustration.

        1. Anon for this here post*

          LOL- (I literally did.) That’s a good one. Not sure if that’d go over well though. (Very funny though!)

  9. Aquawoman*

    It does seem like the boss is projecting her stress more than she realizes, but I also wonder if this employee might be a little far on the other end of things. I don’t know anyone who’s still trying to fake the chipper “Fine” response anymore, which seems like what’s she’s looking for. It seems like the boss is at 100% personal disclosure and the LW is at 0%. I tend to think that people are allowed to be real and express a modicum of emotion. This seems to be a particularly bad match of temperament. I’d suggest the LW try to realize that none of this is “at” her and drop the “makes me feel…” ideas: this is about the boss, not the LW.

    1. caterpillar blue*

      Right. As a manager I don’t think I’m nearly this performative about stress but I do work with one admin staffer who (based on the emails they send) has genuinely no idea about the amount of work on my plate or the things that I need to prioritize. Think: “this client with a totally non-urgent matter called *twice* today are you going to get back to them or?” when my calendar has me in back to back meetings for two days straight and I’m dealing with several urgent deadlines. I don’t supervise this person directly (but supervise a team that works closely with this person). They have lots of time and want me to delegate tasks but I have about a 60% success rate with them following up and doing well with tasks that I’ve delegated (again, I’m not supervising them so it’s a balance of where best to direct my energy). I haven’t yet had a direct conversation that I think will help them understand without upsetting them but I could see them writing a letter similar to this one.

    2. PT*

      I was also wondering this. I worked somewhere where my boss was always a frazzled mess because she was the filter catching all of the toxic bull crap going on in the building and from her bosses, and she only shared the parts that pertained to the rest of us, with us.

      Once I was there longer and took on more responsibility and became privy to more of it, I was able to understand the dynamic better. Once I got promoted to her level, I couldn’t take it. She lasted 20 years in that role and I left after 18 months. People calling me to scream at me at 5 am and midnight and Christmas…I just can’t. But she could.

  10. blink14*

    My boss is constantly stressed and overworked, because we are far understaffed the amount of work our office takes on. The stress comes from the top and trickles down to us. We’ve worked together in a very small department for several years, we have a good relationship, and she often opens up to me about her stress – both personal and business. In this particular instance, we’ve both supported each other in times where personal stress has become too much and has either required time off to deal with a specific issue or health issues that impact our lives altogether. Our relationship is closer than many, including at my previous jobs, so I don’t recommend this level of personal sharing unless it’s developed naturally.

    The best way I’ve found to help her is to let her vent to me during our one on one meetings, and offer very specific help on certain tasks or projects. Essentially, managing up sometimes. For instance, if she has to write up 30 emails, I will offer to do all the drafts and she just has to send them. Data collection, contacting someone with questions, organizing documents, etc, are all great items to take off of a manager’s plate. You can present them with a more polished or organized set of items for that task to be completed on their end, taking care of the messy bits that can be really overwhelming.

    I also would evaluate your own workload and see if there really is consistent chunks of time during your work week or month by month where you can say to your boss something like “I’ve noticed that you seem to often be stressed by having to complete X. I’ve looked at my workload, and I can take on X , or part of X.” Sometimes managers, especially first time managers, aren’t great with balancing work or delegating. Or perhaps there is a report or repetitive task that is done on a regular basis, and you have a better strategy to manage that task that you can suggest. If there is too much work for you and your manager to handle, suggest that she have a conversation with her manager about where improvements or shifting assignments can happen.

  11. Eether Eyether*

    I had a boss like that (pre-COVID), the “I have to work late” “I don’t know how I will get this done in time,” and on and on. I asked her repeatedly what I could do to help her–and I was very specific about how and with what. She would say, thanks let me see…and never got back to me. Then I followed up, but got the same response. It was extremely frustrating for me. I finally stopped because I realized that was her thing and she didn’t want help. Sometimes there’s just nothing you can do.

    1. blink14*

      Totally agree with this – I also think people often open themselves up to this idea that they have to work late and respond 24/7, when they really don’t. My boss used to work like 10 hour days, then be online all weekend. Personal circumstances changed, and she works less on weekends, but she still puts in 9-10 hour days, because this practice sets up the idea to others that you are reachable 24/7. In most jobs, you can put boundaries in place, and if you stick to those boundaries, fellow coworkers, clients, etc, will “learn” your habits.

      I’ve done this since my first full time job – I set my boundaries, and adhere to those boundaries, except in very rare and specific circumstances where I need to be available online after hours or something like that. It is harder to this as a manager, and that’s where delegation comes in. Free up your time during work hours by passing off tasks to your employees.

    2. Delta Delta*

      I had a boss like that, too. I started to suspect the boss sort of enjoyed his “I’m so busy and nobody’s helping me” schtick.

    3. caradom*

      You don’t know what is going on with their management. If management email me with an issue in the area I am the lead you better believe delegating is not an option unless you want trouble. If they wanted my team to do it they would send it to the joint inbox, not email me directly. My role is clear, if something kicks off I deal with it, not my team.

  12. Kiitemso*

    My boss wasn’t as harried and obviously struggling as this boss but she was definitely headed toward that. She often misread emails, presumably because she didn’t have the time to really take them in besides a quick lookover, which would sometimes lead to long unnecessary email chains full of misunderstanding.

    As an example, I told her I changed our guidance document (which is one of my tasks) because Alex from Nuts told me he was in charge of hazelnuts and Samantha would no longer be in charge of processing hazelnuts and thus not take any client calls on hazelnuts. My boss is like, “Nobody is taking hazelnut calls? Isn’t that a problem? I should talk to somebody from Nuts.” and I reply, “no, Alex from Nuts is taking calls and emails on hazelnuts, it’s fine. Samantha is just focusing on some other nuts,” and my boss would reply within a back, “But the summary says hazelnuts client calls won’t be taken.” and I reply (as fast as I can) “Not by Samantha, just by Alex. It’s fine. I will forward everything hazelnuts to Alex and he will take care of it.” My boss doesn’t reply back but I assume the matter is solved since she doesn’t mention it again or change the document.

    Later she moved departments and I got a new boss, who is much more casual and probably has a lot on her plate as well but not in ways I’ve really been witness to.

    1. Delta Delta*

      This is infuriating. It creates more work by just not slowing down by, like, four seconds, and actually reading something.

    2. CynicallySweet7*

      This sounds a ton like my old boss! I honestly concidered her a truly excellent boss and she taught me a ton but she could be so frustrating to work with sometimes!

  13. princessbuttercup*

    I’m basically the manager in this situation, but putting a lot of effort into hiding it from my direct report. So it’s this, minus the projecting stress, but I am definitely overwhelmed and drowning with my work.

    The issue is I know my employee is at/very close to capacity – it doesn’t feel right to delegate tasks to her which I know will be difficult and overburden her workload. I recognize she might have great ideas/ways of doing them but we’re in an unhealthy organization with increasingly ridiculous and I achievable workloads (I’m applying to new jobs, don’t know about her). Yes, I have gone back to my boss for help in workload quantity and prioritization and it is a non starter (her “support” is limited to “here how to reframe this unachievable workload in your mind as a positive, doesn’t that feel better?!”)

    So now I’ve just kind of accepted that I’d rather manage the workload and stress myself than put someone else in the same situation. I don’t think that’s the right way to handle it but no clue what else to do because it feels so uncomfortable to basically endorse this unachievable workload by passing pieces of it off to someone (who has a full workload of absolute necessities), as if I think these tasks are remotely feasible or strategic. I also know when I leave they’ll do this anyways by passing my whole role onto her which is awful too.

    Not really helpful for this letter writer, just a vent and no clue what to do.

    1. allathian*

      Sounds awful, I hope you find something less stressful soon. That said, there are two crucial differences here, one is that you are taking pains to avoid projecting your stress at your employee, and the other is that you acknowledge your report has a lot of work already. If you had a report who came to you and said that they don’t have enough work to do, I bet you could easily find something you could delegate to them.

  14. Lacey*

    Allison’s response made me realize that my problem boss from a previous job just had no idea how to effectively delegate things. She had some other things hindering her from being effective, her own boss likes to play head games, but a lot of it could have been mitigated if she’d been better at delegating. And it was also her first time as a manager, so she just hadn’t learned it yet.

  15. cosmicgorilla*

    Sometimes when you’re that overwhelmed and stressed, it feels easier to just do it yourself than it does to do a brain dump of all the details to someone else. You train them to do it, or to do part of it, and then you have to take the time to field questions that you can’t answer off the top of your head, but you’d know the answer if you were actively working the task.

    I worked a job like this many years ago, where I was the temp who did nothing but answer maybe 3 phone calls all day, and I was supporting someone who was basically doing the work of 3 people (one person retired, one person’s position was eliminated, and a budget freeze meant no hires). I could have done so much to help, but she told me she just couldn’t figure out how to take the time to train me.

    It was several years before I was in a job myself where I completely understood that inability to transfer knowledge, how it felt easier to just do it all than try to teach someone, even if teaching someone would ultimately help you.

    1. Kiki*

      Yeah, especially in light of COVID and everything going on in the world right now, my first reaction was that it honestly sounds like this manager needs some time off above all else. When you’re already overwhelmed and anxious, average problems can seem insurmountable, solutions can seem unnecessarily convoluted, and it feels like you have to do everything alone. Unfortunately, LW isn’t in a position to require their manager to take 2 weeks of PTO, but I do think it would be helpful for the manager to leave and see that the office didn’t collapse without them and that their employee stepped up to the plate.

    2. Roci*

      That is exactly what I thought as well. I was brought in to help some swamped project managers, but I was new and had a specific skill set. They asked me to help answer emails, but I couldn’t find any of the answers and they didn’t have time to teach me. All the knowledge was in someone’s head and it was just faster for them to do it than to get me up to speed. It was awfully frustrating for me, must have been awful for them too.

      When you’re in that space where you can’t even take the time to improve your time management (like creating a task list, delegating, recording information where others can find it, looking up from the pile of work to see how swamped you are) then you’re in real trouble.

  16. Aepyornis*

    Wow. This is one of my favourite answer to a question ever on this blog (of which I’m an avid reader). It is so thoughtful and carefully articulated around the many implications of the situation on different levels. Just wanted to say so :)

  17. Sara without an H*

    Hi, OP — I recommend you not try to get into the issue of how your boss is presenting herself to others. As Alison says, it’s not really your problem to fix and any attempt will just inject awkwardness into your relationship with her.

    The issue of getting her to send you more work is, I think, actually the more important piece of your letter. Try to be as specific as possible: “I’m caught up with X, Y, and Z. One of my goals is to improve my skills in Llama Reporting. Do you have some I can work on? I’ll review them with you before I send them to Llama Accounting, of course.”

    The reason I emphasize asking for something specific is that I’ve worked with a bunch of over-committed people. If you ask them “Can I do something for you?” they just go blank, and honestly cannot think of anything at all that someone else could do. If you say, “I’m working on X, do you have any X you’d like me to take care of?”, they’re more likely to remember their overflowing stack of X.

  18. Me*

    I work for a bad delegator. Great person. Great boss in many other aspects. I’ve come to terms with the fact that this is something they fail at and I cannot fix. They will always be overwhelmed, stressed and ultimately a cause of stress when I can’t get their time and attention on something I need from them because…they’re stressed and overwhelmed. It’s been over a decade. They aren’t going to change.

    So can you work for this person knowing that is a flaw of theirs and may never change? Because in my experience this is a pretty permanent flaw. Either you can work here happily for that person or you should consider you may be happier working for a different kind of boss.

  19. Delta Delta*

    I’m sort of joining the chorus here, and if you can easily identify a thing (or a few) that you can do to ease her workload, very specifically offer to do that/those thing(s). You could point out how the additional thing(s) could fit into your schedule easily and would help her.

    I worked for someone who insisted on pulling all-nighters and would talk about how he was sooooo stressed. I offered many times to do X or Y to help out and it was always met with, “but it’s myyyyyy job.” I stopped offering. that person sadly couldn’t be helped.

  20. GreenDoor*

    I had a bad delgator for a boss. Offering to do specifics – and being specific about HOW may help. For example:
    – I used to do the TPS reports a while back. I’d be happy to resume doing them if it would help?
    – Why don’t I create a first draft for the Smith presentation as a starting off point and we can get back together on it on Wednesday for initial edits? I can also take a stab at making a powerpoint to go along with it.
    – I love digital organizing and I have some downtime! Would you like me to convert that pile of completed reports into electronic files for you to free up some office space?

    1. Whelmed*

      As a chronically overwhelmed person that doesn’t see where to take the time and energy to delegate more, you sound like you’d be the perfect employee for me. Your approach gives me hope.

  21. IEanon*

    Oh, OP, do you have my old supervisor? She was exactly like this, up to and including projecting an image of our department as overwhelmed and understaffed! In reality, I also had a lot of free time, and so did she.

    I honestly enjoyed my boss’ sarcasm and pessimistic outlook, as there were a lot of things at my organization that were terrible and hard to overcome, so it felt more like a comrades-in-arms vibe than one in which I was expected to absorb and deal with her stress and anxiety. That being said, I found that reassuring my boss that I was on target with my projects, as well as proactively taking things on (“I can put together the onboarding session for next Thursday” and “Why don’t I reach out to that department and see what they’re ready to send us”) gave me more work to do and eased her stress levels.

    I will say that my old boss left and was replaced by someone who’s way more knowledgeable in the field, as well as more on top of things, and I would still do ANYTHING to have old boss back. New boss is a micromanager who won’t let me take on additional projects, so I have even less impactful work to do now than I did before, and WAY more busywork…

  22. Acronyms Are Life (AAL)*

    Oh wow, um, I feel a little seen LOL. I’m stressed out and have a lot of delegating issues since most of my major projects are like half done. So it takes about the same effort for me to just get to them as it would for me to catch a person up to the point that they can close it out (well at least in my mind). I do try to give my employees all of the new tasks that come in so I just have the old ones, which technically just keep changing all of the time. But (I hope) good thing that separates me from LW’s boss is that we all are super swamped on my team, so its not that I’m hoarding all of the work.

    Perhaps the issue is that they are unsure how to offload projects that have already been started? Maybe start by trying to take the new items that come in on?

  23. Kat*

    Oh dear, that boss could have been me a few years back! Hopefully they’ll realize that they are not cut out for management and leave before it breaks them completely. It is unfortunately not OPs place to say that to the boss, but I hope they have someone in their life who can tell them that they need to find a less demanding role!

  24. aubrey*

    I have a tendency to be like your boss and it’s a big part of why I avoid management roles whenever possible. Delegating is just SO difficult for me even when things are going well, that it seems impossible when I’m overworked. I become incapable of clearly explaining and prioritising, and then I just get frustrated when people don’t do things like I would do them (even when I couldn’t have explained how I wanted it done, ugh) and then I feel guilty for being a crappy manager. Managing is such a skill! Echoing everyone else that if you can offer to take something specific then that is better than a general offer to help. Particularly if there’s anything you can own from the start, so your manager isn’t having to hand over a half finished thing and explain how to finish it.

  25. Pikachu*

    I have had a couple managers in the past that put me in the position of having to manage upward because they just weren’t capable of balancing their own workload. It puts you in the position of making a contributor’s salary while performing a management role. It’s not a sustainable arrangement.

  26. MCMonkeybean*

    I don’t think there is anyone who would hear “it sounds like you’re busy, how can I help” and have their takeaway be “oh wow, I must be coming across really unprofessional.” So honestly I think there may need to be some calibration on your end as far as how clearly and directly you are communicating with her.

    And yes, if she isn’t taking you up on offers to take things off of her plate I would say try framing it less as you trying to help her and more as you wanting to learn and take on more responsibility.

  27. grogu*

    i agree w/ alison w/ advice about the uneven work distribution. however, it sounds like she’s having a rough time right now, so maybe just leaving her alone instead of making her stress about you would be the most helpful.

  28. Jennifer Thneed*

    > I’ve tried signaling that she’s coming across unprofessionally by saying things
    > like, “Wow, it sounds like you have a lot on your plate right now, I’d love to help
    > out if there’s anything I could take on to make your life easier” or “I realize you’re
    > crazy busy right now, so I’m just going to do X unless I hear otherwise from you.”

    OP, someone else was right when they said that these statements just sound like what you say to a busy colleague. They don’t say ANYTHING about how they’re appearing to others. That would look more like “After the meeting, 3 different people told me they were worried about your stress levels”.

    The thing is, you’ve been hinting. Hinting works okay in social settings with folks you know, where everyone understands dropping and catching hints. But with strangers, you can’t rely on that. And in business settings, you really can’t rely on it. I know it can feel “wrong” to say things directly and plainly, but in a business setting it’s really “right”, because what you’re doing is sharing information. “You look and act stressed-out to other people” is useful information in a business setting. (That might not be the best phrasing, but you really do have to state things plainly if you want people to take in the information you’re trying to give them.)

    1. allathian*

      Yeah, but you have to know your manager. Some would take it well and others wouldn’t. Especially in this case, when the LW doesn’t have enough work to do, a concrete suggestion of what the LW could do to ease the manager’s workload would probably go down better with the manager. If you’re stressed out, it doesn’t help to be told that you have to hide it better.

      I know that I’d resent a request from my manager to project my feelings in a different way. Obviously if it’s completely unprofessional or out of line then it’s the manager’s responsibility to intervene, but if it’s performative, as in pretending everything is fine and dandy and never showing that you’re about to collapse under the workload, that’s bad management.

  29. a clockwork lemon*

    I was in OP’s shoes earlier last year with a very clearly frazzled boss and senior who were both pretty clear with me that there was nothing I could take off their plates at the moment. Turns out they were keeping my bandwidth clear because like two months after that, a series of retirements and promotions were announced and I’ve been working at full capacity pretty much nonstop since last October, and the work that was delegated to me was almost entirely work two levels above where I’d been previously.

    It might be that OP’s boss is just bad at delegating, it might be that there’s work-related stuff OP’s boss is dealing with that OP can’t help with because it’s above her paygrade or otherwise out of the scope of her responsibilities, or it might be that OP’s boss is stressed about personal stuff and there’s nothing OP can do.

    Framing it as a question of “professionalism” almost certainly won’t resolve OP’s issues either way, though.

  30. Alison*

    Honestly, it really depends on what your relationship is whether or not you say something about her stress.

    But it doesn’t matter what your relationship is to say to your manager “I need more work” or “I want to develop more professionally and take on new tasks.” Frankly, I don’t always appreciate when the person I manage offers to help me. But I do always respond to them needing me to be a manager and help them to learn and grow and especially fill their time.

    Also keep in mind that the reason that your manager might be stressed right now might have NOTHING to do with work really and instead it’s external forces modifying their behavior and effecting their work. It could be anything from teaching their children at home to armed insurrection at our capital. These are insane times to work through. Maybe the only way she has of expressing that frustration is through heavy sighs and temple rubbing. I think we can all extend each other a little bit of grace about how we act at work these days.

  31. notepad nerd*

    I know a lot of people have already put in their 2 cents about recognising this situation, but I thought I’d add mine too. I’m still a relatively new staff member, and my workload is slowly picking up but not fast because every time I ask for more training to pick up what will become my responsibilities, my boss is too busy, and yet I can hear her from the cubicle next to mine complaining about how many things she’s got going on.
    What I’ve taken to doing is just doing small bits of busywork to tackle problems she’s mentioned – things like ‘that cupboard is such a mess, I can never find anything’ so I went through it and sorted it. Hopefully soon I’ll actually get to my training… we talked about it yesterday, and got one step done, but I still need more information.

  32. Good Vibes Steve*

    “A lot of managers are pretty terrible at thinking through everything they need to communicate about a project when they delegate it — which leads to frustration on both sides when the finished work doesn’t match what they’d envisioned in their heads. ”
    This resonates a lot with me. I’ve dealt with managers like this, and it’s hard to remember that my failure to read their minds when they gave a 2 sentence brief is on them, not on me.

  33. LB*

    I was in a very similar situation. My boss was a first-time manager and I was one of two direct reports. She was always stressed (and grumpy and mean) and it seemed like she just could not spare the time to train me or delegate tasks to me. My work was not great because I had never really been trained and she made me feel like an idiot anytime I asked for help. We had a serious conversation about our expectations for each other. I made some specific requests about how I thought she could support me so I could be more helpful to her and she directly told me, “I can’t trust you to take on any additional work because you haven’t mastered this one very specific thing.” This was the part of my job I liked the least and had no real experience with, as well. I don’t think it was really about that specific thing, either. She just didn’t trust me in general. I found a new job as soon as I could after that conversation.

  34. Oui Oui*

    A suggestion to say to your boss to get her to delegate more: “I know right now it’s faster for you to do X yourself than to teach me to do it. If you train me on X there will be a short period where it will create more work for you to review my work and correct it. BUT, that is short-term pain for long-term gain. Once I have done X for a while, it will take a huge load off of you. More work will get done, and you will have less stress. I think you’ll be really glad we decided to have me learn this task!

  35. Geneva*

    I hesitate to call how she expresses herself “unprofessional,” because I hate the idea that we all need to be upbeat robots at work no matter what. However. I can definitely see how this is annoying. I wonder if it’s just the job stressing her, or if there’s also something going on in her personal life that’s draining her???

    In any event, don’t ask what you can take off of her plate – just take it. Say, “I’ll handle X and Y so you can focus on Z.”

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