update: my boss’s stress is out of control

Remember the letter-writer whose boss’s stress was so out of control that people were asking the letter-writer about it? Here’s the update.

Thank you for your thoughtful answer to my letter! You were right that the lack of delegation from my manager was the heart of the issue. The main reason I didn’t ask about that specifically is because by the time I wrote to you, I had already tried the approaches you ended up suggesting. Turns out after reading AAM for years, my “what would Alison recommend here?” calibration is (thankfully) pretty good!

Unfortunately, after trying to be proactive about offering to take specific, discrete parts of our department’s work off my manager’s plate (and being told, “thanks, but no, I’ve got that” 90% of the time), couching my requests for work as a desire on my part to do the job I was hired for and grow professionally (and being told that I could just read articles if I wanted professional development), and asking whether she had concerns about my work that were preventing her from assigning me more things to do (and being reassured that my work was excellent), and a few other approaches that didn’t work, I finally had to settle on the old AAM mantra: “your manager sucks and isn’t going to change.” I think my manager was a pretty clear example of someone who was a brilliant individual contributor but not a good manager, compounded by the fact that our company offered almost no support or training for new managers.

As for the main question in my letter, I ended up not saying anything to her about how she was coming across as constantly visibly stressed out. I couldn’t think of a way of bringing it up without hurting our relationship, and eventually I just decided it wasn’t my problem to address. Any time a colleague expressed concern to me that our department must be overwhelmed, I could get by with a vague, “well, you know, it’s a rough time!” A weird silver lining of the current times is that it was always true on at least some level.

Unsurprisingly, my issues with my manager were just one symptom of working at a deeply dysfunctional organization. I was hesitant to look for another job, though, because on paper this was a dream job! It was a specialized role in my specific area of expertise, at a “prestigious” company in a “cool” industry that is notoriously hard to crack into. It’s the kind of field where people stay in their jobs for decades, and with COVID hitting the industry hard, job opportunities in my area dropped from extremely rare to non-existent. My options were essentially: 1) stay in the job and accept that the current situation wouldn’t change, 2) be willing to move anywhere on the off chance a job opened up in another city, or 3) change fields. After a lot of reflection, I decided to pursue #3. It was a really hard choice – like a lot of people in “cool” industries, a lot of my identity was tied up in my career and seeing myself as an “X person.” But I had reached a place where I just didn’t see a future for myself staying in the industry, and I was tired of being bored and miserable.

It took some time (I’d been searching for a while when I wrote to you), but eventually I found a job in a different field but doing similar day-to-day work. Alison, it has been absolutely amazing! I love my new job and my new company! It’s an incredibly collaborative and supportive work environment, and I’m getting to work on interesting projects and use skills that I hadn’t had the chance to use in all my years at my previous job. My new manager is a paragon of calm and is extraordinarily proactive about making sure that I’m developing new skills and that I’m doing work I find enjoyable and fulfilling. Working for a highly-functional company has really driven home just how dysfunctional my last company was, and I’m so, so grateful that I took the risk to leave.

{ 39 comments… read them below }

  1. Momma Bear*

    This is a great update. There are simply times when the only way up is out and it looks like that worked out for you.

    1. Joan Rivers*

      Yes. A recent answer from AG said our thinking can be warped from working in a dysfunctional place, and this isn’t true here, because OP’s thinking was very functional.
      BUT the comment still applies here, I think, in the sense that we start to be surprised when we run into a functional environment after we’ve been mired in a dysfunctional one.

  2. Bostonian*

    Wow. It must have been really hard to make the decision to switch industries. Sounds like it worked out really well! Sometimes something *seems* like more of a risk than it really is. (And, of course, as humans, we find change very scary!)

    1. Resting On My Laurels*

      OP is clearly a great employee. If I had a cachet job like that I’d be very tempted to just ride it out, but that’s why I have this username :D

    2. MissGirl*

      As someone who changed from the “dream” industry, it was hard but 100% worth it. I think more people need to think of their skills outside their niche industry and not lock themselves in.

      1. Smithy*

        While I wouldn’t say I work in a dream industry – it’s certainly an industry that has organizations with dream/high profile status. And very unfortunately, the people the most caught up in the dream piece are also often the most likely to accept more poorly functioning management aspects.

  3. Jean*

    Yay! We love a happy update. I admire your guts OP, I know venturing into the unknown was not an easy decision and I’m so glad it worked out.

  4. Bookworm*

    YAY! I’m sorry you were in that situation but am also very glad you got out of it. Congrats! And thanks for the update!

  5. TCO*

    Congrats, OP! I also had a job where I felt like my skills were not being used well at all (I had plenty of work to do, but our micromanaging culture meant that I was rarely allowed to do all of the more challenging work I was capable of and interested in). It was such a breath of fresh air to move to a new job where I was trusted and challenged. I’m so glad you’ve found something better.

  6. fish*

    This is so great! Really most of my job advice comes down to “find a cool job in an unsexy industry/field” and it’s great to see that worked for you.

  7. Bo*

    It’s so hard to leave a job in a “cool” industry, even if surrounded by red flags. When I did so, I struggled with it internally for a long time after. I am so happy to hear you were brave enough to take the leap and it’s working so well for you! Wishing you nothing but continued success!

    1. Olive Hornby*

      Yes. I’d actually love a post about this! It is so, so hard to leave a job like this when it’s so tied up in your identity. Yay for the OP (and for you!)

  8. Generic Name*

    I feel like “cool” industries are rife with toxic workplaces precisely for the reasons you mentioned. People’s identities are wrapped up in that work and never consider changing industries because they have a “dream job”. And because people are banging downtown the doors to work at those places, there’s never any incentive for those companies to suck less. Congratulations for seeing through the fog and finding work that you enjoy!

    1. SqueezyCheese*

      Aaaaaaalllll of this.

      The people running those cool industries are aware it’s cool, so they use people’s passions and dreams to wring out every last drop of work they have. The video game development industry has come under fire in the last couple of years for unsustainably toxic workplace practices, but people still line up to do that job.

      I switched from a cool job to a decidedly unsexy job that no one wants to do, and it has been AMAZING. I have a great work-life balance, I’m paid well, my colleagues are all chill, and my management is competent and supportive. The fact that no one wants to do this job means they can only draw people in with all the fringe benefits. I’ve never been happier.

      1. Tidewater 4-1009*

        Yes, and the cool companies also pay low wages because they know they can get away with it.

    2. allathian*

      Hard agree on this one!
      There’s some research that shows that the more a person’s values align with a company’s culture, the more likely the employee is to include working for that company as a part of their identity. This is not to say that you should work for a company with opposite values to your own, but if they’re sufficiently different from yours, it’s easier to keep a work persona and your fundamental self separate, which will mean that any failures at work are less likely to bring you down, because you’re less likely to internalize them as personal failures.

  9. bytheway*

    Congrats, OP! I would be really interested to hear how you went about changing your industry…I know that’s a really tough decision to make and follow through with, and it would be helpful to hear how you took what you did and tweaked it to do what you do now.

  10. Voodoo Priestess*

    What a great update! I loved the “What would Alison recommend” too. Just reading this site is so helpful.

    Best wishes in the new job!

  11. Bex*

    This is great! I could have written this letter about a year and a half ago, and I am still SO much happier at my new company, with a boss who values work-life balance (her own and mine) and delegates but also steps in when I need her to!

  12. Cookies For Breakfast*

    Congratulations, OP! It’s great to hear you took the leap and landed in a much better spot. Wishing you lots of success!

    To OP and anyone else who feels like sharing: while job hunting, did anything in particular make this workplace stand out as the kind of environment you were looking for? Were there any signs you were looking out for? Asking for…well, me, I’m in a very similar situation and can’t wait to get out.

    1. OP*

      Thanks so much! There were a few things that made the workplace I ended up in stand out:

      1) Everyone I spoke to in the hiring process was warm, thoughtful, engaged, and seemed to genuinely love their job and the company . They seemed very much aware of the idea that hiring is a two-way street, whereas I was used to a “you’d be lucky to work for us” attitude from companies in my previous field.
      2) The interviews didn’t just focus on skills and experience, but values. I remember being asked a question that was approximately, “How have you gone above and beyond to support your colleagues?” I was impressed that was important to them and I thought it spoke highly of what my colleagues might be like.
      3) They focused a lot on opportunities to grow and develop within the company, even before I asked about it. I could tell from the work histories of their employees on LinkedIn that they really acted on that talk, as many employees had been promoted over the course of a few years.
      4) The company was very diverse, and a substantial subset of the work focused on equity and inclusion.

      I hope that helps! I’m sorry you’re in a similar situation but hope you’re able to find somewhere awesome to land!

      1. Cookies for Breakfast*

        Thank you! That’s really very helpful, and I appreciate you taking the time to write back.

        I’ve been mostly focusing on finding questions that I could ask to understand what the work environment is like (and stressing myself out that I was coming up with too many questions for the short interview time slots I’ve been given so far, or possibly not the most insightful ones). I’ve been losing sight of what things I could observe on my own about the people I meet and the questions they ask me, and you reminded me that this is an option, too.

  13. Napster*

    Another escapee from two different “cool” industries. Got fired from the second one and it was a blessing in disguise. Glamorous jobs usually aren’t so glamorous behind the scenes.

    1. Tidewater 4-1009*

      Some possibilities-
      Music, theater, movies, art, architecture, writing for artsy publications…
      Social media, start ups that are doing cool things…
      Big name internet companies like Google…

      1. Self Employed*

        I have fallen out of touch with a friend who did fundraising for posh arts organizations and museums–and her workplaces were SO toxic most of the time. One of the museums in my area did really cool interactive exhibits and I met a lot of folks working on those at the makerspace–and found out the organization was just awful to work for.

  14. Choggy*

    I too worked for a very stressed out boss, who would literally yell at us like I’ve heard her yell at her children! I kept a very low profile and thankfully she moved to a different team (with one report), and we got a new boss, and it’s like night and day. He trusts us to do our jobs, backs up decisions we make, and doesn’t yell when stressed out. I still have some left-over trauma (for lack of a better word) from my old boss but thankfully now that I don’t have to see her and rarely interact with her at all, it will go away completely at some point. Not sure how I survived her!

    1. Anonforthis*

      I just got a job working for a different boss because my current boss handles what little real stress he has by yelling, name calling, this thing he does where he jabs his pen on and off on the table very rapidly in meetings. He also throws us under the bus regularly, and chews us out almost daily.

      I’m wondering how long it’s going to take for me to get over the trauma as well.

      The sad thing is I’m the fourth person to leave the department in less than a year (and there’s about to be 2 or 3 more), in a department of 12 (when he started) salaried people, HR is aware of the issue, and he was previously demoted for similar behavior.

      But you guessed it…another “cool” industry company with absolutely terrible culture.

  15. Dramamethis*

    Congratulations ! This sounds SO much like my former manager & highly dysfunctional workplace, down to the part where you said they were a great individual contributor but not a good manager.

    I’ve been in a much better place a little while now and the difference is amazing!

    Hope you continue to love your new place!

    1. AcademiaNut*

      What springs to mind for me is anything affiliated with movies/TV/theatre/music/video games/comic books/publishing/high profile sports/prominent tech companies/famous people. In some circles, museum work, libraries, research jobs, NASA, startups, top universities, politics.

      1. NOK*

        As a lifelong space nerd I refuse to believe that NASA is a toxic workplace. I refuse!! Don’t burst my bubble!!!

  16. MCMonkeybean*

    “being told that I could just read articles if I wanted professional development”

    Wow! That’s the part that really takes the cake for me.

  17. Emily*

    Congratulations! This is a satisfying update to read.

    OP – and others reading this – I’m curious if you were asked in the interview why you want to leave such a ‘great, cool’ industry? What type of answer did you give? I know Alison has a few posts in the archives about this but reading people’s specific scripts of the wording that worked for them is always appreciated.

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