Captain Awkward and I answered some letters

A year ago, right before the lockdown, Jennifer of Captain Awkward and I met up for drinks and ended up collaborating on some letters.

A year later … maybe with the end of the pandemic in sight? … we’re doing it again, minus being in-person and minus the drinks.

Our topics this time: A boss who keeps you on the phone for hours, a micromanager boss who likes to go incommunicado, and how to take sick leave when being sick is “not allowed.”

1. My boss keeps me on the phone for hours

My whole company and I have been working from home since last March. I recently became the lead on a new project and am working with a boss I’ve known for years but this is my first time working directly under her, although it is not my first time leading a project.

She wants me to check in with her over the phone every few days, which I’d have no problem with if we could keep it short to go over what I’m working on and what I plan to do next. But unless I strategically plan calling her before scheduled meetings we have with other people, she’ll keep me on the line for hours. She wants to talk not only about our work, but also wants to narrate what she’s doing while she also tells me about everything in her life and every job she’s ever had. I try to redirect these conversations to “how can I help you with this right now” and “I’ll work on that, thank you for your help,” but she’s undeterred. One time this went on from 3pm until 7:30pm, until she finally told me she didn’t know how to hang up her phone.

I understand that she may sometimes want to work on something together, which would necessitate longer contact, but I can’t handle the hours-long conversations. I’m unproductive trying to keep up with my work, following her work, and listening to her stories. It’s exhausting. It doesn’t help that she often does this later in the afternoon and stretching into the evening, long after I normally log off for the day. How do I tell her that I’d rather keep our conversations shorter and more focused on work?

Jennifer: It sounds like your boss is very lonely and not functioning well in isolation. That’s awful, and very real for many people, but it’s not fair for her to pressure you to fill her social and emotional tank.

I have had several versions of this coworker, and in my experience, the professional, “we’re all adults here” conversation you hope to have, where you explain that you need to keep phone calls shorter and more focused on work from now on, is a necessary first step to remove her plausible deniability that what she is doing is normal and okay with you. But it’s only the first step; there is rarely only One Awkward Conversation To Rule Them All. Even if she agrees to be more conscious of time, next time she’s in the grip of whatever is making her “not know how to hang up her phone,” that professional, reasonable conversation you had is unlikely to translate into stronger impulse control in the moment.

You are going to have to run the meetings, interrupt her, and end the conversations. You have ample evidence that someone who will keep you on the line for four and a half hours (!!!!!!!!) will never do this on her own and will not take any hints.

Your strategy of scheduling calls with her right before other commitments so there is an external out point is a solid one, keep doing it. In addition, try this:

  • Schedule “other commitments” even if that means “you, alone, quietly working on things” so that you mentally have “Oh, sorry, that’s all the time I have, I blocked out the rest of the day to ______” in mind before you even pick up the phone.
  • Or, have you got a solid, trustworthy, team member or direct report who knows what’s up? Schedule or “schedule” update meetings with them right after your Boss calls. You’re not avoiding your boss, just, Englebert promised you a draft this afternoon and you need to check in with him.
  • Try to schedule a set weekly 30-minute status meeting (vs. “every few days”) at a time that is good for you (your workflow, your patience level, your known “out”).
  • Email your boss a very brief agenda before any status update call. “According to my list we should cover x, y, z on the call today. Sound good?” Do this even if she’s technically the one calling the meeting and should make the agenda. After each call, send a brief email with what the agreed next steps are. These are your anchors that show that you’re not being “difficult” if she reacts badly to limitations.
  • At the beginning of a call, set a timer for 25 minutes.
  • During the call, keep politely referring back to the agenda. She goes into tangent-land? “Interesting! Okay, next on my list is ____.”
  • Own “not being much of a phone person” as a personal quirk and let on when you become distracted. “Sorry, what were we talking about again? I lose track during long conversations.” “Well that’s everything from my list, any chance we can wrap this up?” “Can this wait? I confess, I’m fading.” It is okay if she gets the impression that you are annoyed, tuning out, bored, not really here for whatever this is – it’s the truth!
  • Timer goes off? Set the timer for 5 more minutes, and interrupt her, if necessary. “I’m going to have to wrap this up in a minute. According to my list we’re good to go on x, y, and z.” After the ding, use zero question marks if you can possibly help it.
  • When the second timer goes off, if she’s not wrapping up on her own or covering anything useful for work, interrupt her again. Get. Off. The. Phone. Use whatever you need to get it done: Upcoming meeting you need to prepare for. Deadline you need to meet. Bathroom break. Vagueness is a-okay: “So sorry, I have to excuse myself, I’ll email you the details.” GO.

Hopefully she will adjust to having a predictable routine and appreciate being kept gently on task. If not, track how many work hours these phone calls are eating up, and throw your Project Lead weight behind it. How are these chats with her accounted for in the project’s timesheets and scheduled deliverables? “Brenda, we were on the phone for ‘status reports’ for 7 hours last week, and only 2 of those were billable. That is not sustainable given our deadlines. Can we agree to keep phone meetings to 30 minutes once a week unless there is an emergency?” “As project lead, I need to keep a tighter grip on the team’s time, including my own, so I’m not going to schedule calls longer than 30 minutes. Appreciate your help in keeping us all on track!” (Bestowing unearned praise for something you hope someone will do is an Ask A Manager special, I steal it all the time).

Alison: Yes, yes, yes! I second all this advice. Jennifer has covered the logistics of the how so well. What I’ll add is that you should give yourself mental permission for this. So often, I think people get into a mental mode where they feel like they can’t interrupt their boss or assert boundaries with their boss — because it would be rude or insubordinate or something in that neighborhood — and that if their boss wants to have 4.5-hour-long phone conversations (!), that must be the boss’s prerogative. And there are some bosses who would be outraged or deeply affronted if you tried to set this sort of boundary but, truly, those are outliers. Most managers are going to be okay with it. They might be a little surprised the first time, maybe even be a little hurt. But even if so, the vast majority of the time it will be fine. The vast majority of the time, it will not ruin the relationship or get you fired or ostracized. (If you have real cause to think it will, then the problems are much deeper, and likely unsalvageable.)

That assumes, of course, that you’re warm and matter-of-fact about it, and that you ensure you do cover the work-related stuff that needs to be covered. You’ll get the best outcome if you’re cheerfully efficient and then breezily bring the call to an end, using a tone that signals that of course it’s reasonable for you to need to move on to other things and of course your boss will see it that way too. (In fact, I think this technique is the cousin to what Jennifer said about bestowing unearned praise for something you hope someone will do. Often if you act as if of course everyone in the conversation will agree that Reasonable Thing X is reasonable, because it is so clearly obvious to all people of sense, you will find that they don’t object.)

2. I love my job but it makes me incredibly anxious

I’m hoping you can help me, because I’m not quite sure where to go from here. I work at a non-profit doing policy analysis and legislative strategy. I really love what I do and am passionate about the work, tiring as it is. I also say specifically what my industry is to show that mistakes, even small ones, have a large impact on our work.

The problem is, my work environment has made me incredibly anxious. We’re a small organization (less than 15 employees including leadership), and my specific team is me and my boss, a senior staffer. Because we’re so small, my boss manages most of the rest of the employees, and doesn’t have a lot of leftover time between his management duties and the work that he himself has to do, making him really hard to reach on any given day.

A second layer to this, is that my boss is a micromanager. I don’t think he ever intended his management style to be this way (in that, he just really enjoys the work that we do, so he wants to be involved in every decision to maximize our reach), but it has led me to second guess myself constantly, and never want to take initiative because I’m nervous that it’s going to end up being incorrect. I would say that a lot of this is just my inherent need to people please, but when I try to push that aside and take initiative anyway (at things I’ve done before!) I’m reprimanded for it.

But the final layer is that since we’re such a small team, my boss needs to rely on me to get things done and manage small projects. I’m also in my mid-late 20s and would like to begin taking on some additional responsibilities, and learn how to lead/manage, but my anxiety over the potential of being wrong (and then having that confirmed) is overwhelming. For example, I want to throw up as I’m writing this, because I need to send an important email about an event next week ASAP, but a decision has to be made about the time of the event, and I’ve already called my boss once this morning and haven’t heard back, and I’m terrified of making the wrong decision and inconveniencing folks.

I really like my boss as a person, and he’s very good about making sure we’re using our benefits, etc, but I don’t know how to keep this up. I’m in therapy, and overall get good reviews (even as I’m corrected on a day-to-day basis), but I’m wondering if you have any suggestions.

Jennifer: I’m going to build off the previous advice for the Constant Contact boss. If your boss insists on having final say on anything that you do, he needs a structure. It doesn’t sound like he has an assistant managing his comms and calendar, and asking him to create a structure isn’t really going to get you anywhere except more confused about how you are supposed to simultaneously “just take initiative” and “wait for his say-so.” Ergo, you’re going to have to make a structured workflow for yourself and communications flow for both of you.

I’m going to use event planning as an example, even though your upcoming event will be over by the time you read this, and the overall method applies to any project.

Imagine you are 100% in charge of planning the next event your company hosts.

  • First step, grab a calendar and build a spreadsheet that lays out all the details: date, time, venue options, invitation list, graphics, speakers, a/v needs, catering, budget, notes, etc.
  • For each of these tasks, what’s the deadline? When must they be done in order to stay on schedule & budget? If there is no outside deadline, what is your deadline for staying sane and getting it all done?
  • Now take the actual deadlines and add a cushion of at least 1-3 days before it. That new date is your Boss Buffer Day, the deadline you tell your boss that you need a final decision by, the day you start chasing him down for one.
  • This is a confidential tool for you, to put all the details in one place so you don’t lose them but aren’t carrying them anxiously at all times, not a thing to share with your boss or coworkers. Do not reveal the secret of Boss Buffer Day to your actual boss!
  • As you move forward with the plan, for things where there are multiple options, prioritize them and try to narrow it down to the two best ones. Which option do you think is best, and why? If you really don’t know the answer or have an opinion, who else in the office is reliable with this topic?

Once you have your list, schedule, and secret buffer schedule, you can build emails to your boss like so:

“Hello, I’m ready to finalize [task].

Our best options are [A] and [B]. My recommendation is that we do [A] because of [reason].

Please let me know if I can move forward with [A] or if you would like another option by [Boss Buffer Day/Time] so we can stay on schedule, thank you.”

If, on the eve or early morning of Boss Buffer Day, you haven’t heard an answer, you can fashion a reminder like so:

“I need to lock in [Option A, recommended because ________, to stay on schedule and avoid [rush fees][losing the venue][presenter conflicts][some other consequence].

If I don’t hear different from you by [time], I’ll assume it’s a green light and get moving. Copying [Team Member] and [Team Member] on this so they can get going on [next task]. Thank you!”

I’m sure you already know how to send business emails, but here is why this specific way of breaking it down might work:

  • You are taking initiative, no air quotes.You are researching options, narrowing them down, building a timeline, and making informed recommendations. Limitations reduce anxiety.
    You’re keeping your boss in the loop but reducing how much thought he has to devote to whatever this is by presenting concrete choices and timeframes.
  • Making recommendations and sharing your opinions is useful, even if he rejects them. It’s very easy to reply to emails like this with “Sounds good, let’s do it” or “Hold off – B is actually better” or tell you if he wants something entirely different, whereas, “What should we do about X?” takes up way more boss-brain.
  • You’re creating – and documenting – a path that lets you actually get things done.
  • If your boss gets testy that you are moving forward sometimes without his express go-ahead, it gives you a basis to ask, well, if you don’t answer your emails or phone even to say “Yes” and “No” to time-sensitive stuff, how exactly do you envision this working?

Alison: Yes! Making it really easy for him to give quick answers (yes or no, or A or B) will often vastly increase your chances of getting faster replies. Not always, but often. And “if I don’t hear from you by Thursday, I’ll plan to do X” can be highly effective. Just make sure you’re leaving a reasonable amount of time for him to reply. Don’t say at 9 am on Thursday that you’ll move forward if you haven’t heard from him by noon (unless it’s truly urgent and waiting is not an option, and in that case make sure you’re calling him too).

Also, if you don’t currently have a standing weekly meeting with him, try to arrange for one. It won’t help if you have something time-sensitive that needs to be answered before your next scheduled meeting, but you’ll be able to save up a lot of things for those conversations.

If none of that works, I would recommend having a big-picture conversation with him where you lay it out: “You’re really busy, so it’s often hard for me to reach you when I need decisions on time-sensitive things like X and Y. When I’ve tried to move them forward on my own, it’s turned out later that I made decisions you didn’t want me to make. But if I don’t do that and let things go undone until you have time in your schedule to meet, that would mean we’d miss opportunities like ____, end up paying rush fees, and (fill in other consequences here). Is there a different way to handle this stuff?”

But also, I think this is a very tough situation to be in with anxiety. Some people can just roll with this kind of work environment. They don’t let themselves get all that invested and they decide that if their boss doesn’t move things forward, well, that’s their boss’s choice. With that approach, you can sometimes work reasonably happily in a situation like this. But the combination of anxiety and a difficult-to-reach micromanager is a really hard one and can keep you on edge all the time. It’s okay to just decide this set-up is not for you.

One last random thought: if you want to learn to lead or manage, I’d be cautious about doing it in this environment! The lessons this guy will be teaching probably will not be the ones you want to learn.

3. How to be sick in a workplace that doesn’t allow it

The lockdowns have taken away some of the things I like best about my job. I (pronouns: she/her) find myself more anxious, stressed and sometimes depressed than usual. I’ve been using my self-care routines: eating well, exercise, yoga, meditation, online socializing and seeing a therapist. But I keep getting sick. Not really sick. “Just” colds and flu-like things—but ones bad enough that I’m working at about half-capacity most of the time. Doctors have checked me out and there seems to be nothing physically wrong with me—the best guess is that the stress, etc. is bringing my body down.

I’d like to be able to take time off to recover when I get sick. But even though the university I work for (yes, I’m in academia) has a reasonable sick leave policy, there’s no culture for actually taking it. The assumption is that unless you can’t physically do the thing, you should do the thing. Particularly while we’re working entirely online, there are very few occasions where you physically can’t do the thing. I’ve dragged myself through numerous online events from the couch. But I don’t want to be a martyr. I want the chance to recover when I’m unwell.

I’ve raised the issue with my manager (the head of department). His response seems to be that it’s up to each individual to figure out what they can manage and they should do just that—rather than taking official sick leave. He also noted that some of the work I do is “irreplaceable”—such as teaching. What this effectively amounts to is that if I can’t do the work one day, I just have to catch up the next day—which is hard when I’m already struggling with the workload. I think the idea of the unofficial sick leave system is that I would ask, for specific tasks, could someone else do this, citing reason: illness. But we’re a small department. I know that if I don’t do any work that immediately needs doing, I have to lay it on my colleagues, who are also having a tough time. It’s also very hard to find a specific task that I literally cannot do. I can do it. I’ll just stay sick longer or get sick again more quickly.

Am I being unreasonable in wanting to be able to call in sick when I’m sick? Is there a way to have a conversation with my manager that makes it clear that it’s a reasonable request? Or is there some way to mentally reconceptualize the situation so that the workload and sickness policy don’t feel stacked against me? How do freelancers manage these things?

(In case it’s relevant, I’m in a tenure-track position, but the review system isn’t cutthroat. The department and head are both supportive—so I don’t think raising the issue would be a problem per se. So far my teaching and admin performance haven’t suffered. Research has, but we’re anticipating research expectations will be adjusted, given the pandemic.)

(I did very much take a lot from this and this.)

Alison: I’m going to defer to Jennifer to talk about the academia-specific part of this, because academia is very much its own weird thing. But no, you are not being unreasonable in wanting to call in sick when you’re sick, and it’s awful that your workplace culture has made you question that.

I would take your manager at face value when he says that it’s up to each person to figure out what they can manage and they should do just that. Great, that is what you will do! When you need time off to recover from being sick, take that time. I would also take your official benefits package at face value as well; if it says you get X amount of sick time, assume you get X amount of sick time.

And then with your manager, when you call in sick I would proceed as if of course what you’re doing is reasonable. I wouldn’t have a big “look, I will probably need to use some sick days throughout the year” conversation with him … just like you also wouldn’t have a preemptive “I will probably need to use some of my salary throughout the year” conversation either. Going back to that “of course you’re reasonable” tactic we talked about with Constant Contact boss in letter #1, proceed as if of course you will occasionally use a sick day and of course that will be fine and normal. Because truly, both those things should be taken as obvious realities.

I know this can be hard to do when it feels like you’re being pressured not to, and especially when it means there will be a pile of work waiting for you when you get back. But you should not compromise your health for a job.

As for how freelancers handle this … well, it sucks. In practice freelancers don’t have sick pay or (usually) anyone to cover for them if they need time off. Ideally they handle that by creating enough of a monetary buffer for themselves so that it’s not a disaster if/when they need time off to be sick, but that can be easier said than done, especially when someone is just starting out. But I also think it’s interesting that you’re asking about freelancers when you aren’t one — because if you’re feeling like you’re that much on your own despite having a salaried job with a reasonable-on-paper sick leave policy, that is a sign of how sick the system you’re in is.

Jennifer, why is academia so messed up?

Jennifer: Alison, institutions of higher learning have figured out how to charge learners astronomical sums while paying much of their teaching workforce with an idea (“If you just keep working here, eventually you might be good enough to work here!”) instead of money and benefits.“Irreplaceable” teaching activities are carried out by highly-trained but increasingly disposable humans, who are the products of the same educational institutions that exploit them. Basically, take the common toxic non-profit mindset that treats workers who expect livable wages, regular raises, and sustainable working hours as if they’re being disloyal to “the mission,” but make it Snowpiercer.

Letter Writer, you’ve got more job security than some, but tenure track isn’t tenured, and the pressure to never actually be sick in academia is real at every level. My last semester as an adjunct, two years pre-pandemic, I was reprimanded for using my union-mandated sick day, singular, to go to urgent care, unable to breathe or stop coughing, because while I had created an online lesson plan to cover all planned material and notified students, I hadn’t notified the department 24 hours in advance or found a substitute myself. I was told that if I was “truly ill,” I should “of course” take time off to recover, but also, more missed days would not be paid.

So, I did what everybody who can’t afford to both eat and be sick does: I mixed as many cough suppressants, painkillers, and anti-inflammatories as I could legally be prescribed, coughed my way through the rest of the semester in a fog, turned in my final grades, promptly collapsed, and spent most of the summer recovering instead of working on my own projects.

Any workplace that experiences significant setbacks if just one employee is out for a few weeks to recover from an illness is revealing a management problem. What is their plan if someone gets COVID-19 or something else that makes them seriously ill? I mean, I know the real answer is “wing it + everyone else will obviously do even more work,” but that just proves the point: You taking some of your actual sick leave to recover from illness is not causing your workplace to be like this, and it’s grotesque that you are being pushed to second guess whether you’re even “allowed” to care for yourself.

Viruses, or whatever you’ve got going on, don’t care about your work ethic or passion levels, and I agree with Alison.You’ve asked, they’ve given you the “take whatever time you need” (text) “but don’t actually stop working” (subtext) message, so you’ll have to forcibly ignore the subtext, follow the written policies, and decide for yourself when a sick day means logging out of absolutely everything to actually rest.

I think my advice comes down to this: You probably know a lot about excelling at your job, spackling over all the cracks where your institution is stretched too thin is second nature by now. But what would your C+ effort look like, and can you do that for a while? (If your colleagues are as overloaded as you say, your students probably are too, so how long until they even notice that you’re pacing yourself?)

If you really can’t take significant time off to recover, then you’ve got to adjust your expectations. If you knew that you probably have about 20 good work hours in a given week until you’ve really kicked this thing, what’s the best use of those hours? Who do those working hours need to serve? Your students? Your own research, and tenure preparations? Your “service” work within the department, that you’re afraid will just get piled on others? You can’t be true to all three of these endeavors and to your health at the same time, so choose the most important and prioritize those. I vote “health,” followed by “students” (who really won’t get this time back). I think your department head voted for the students, too, when he said that your teaching was “irreplaceable,” so go with it. Make a list of the rock bottom things that need to happen each week to maintain your teaching and do your best with them.The rest of the work will either be so urgent that someone else must step in and do it, or it will still be there in a few months. Objections can be met with “[Chair] told me to really prioritize my students while I’m recovering from illness.”

This also means accepting that some of your work will not get done as it normally would, possibly ever. This is scary because it goes against the culture of constant productivity, but it is also necessary for the project of remaining alive. As long as you keep powering through out of fear that it will all just pile up more later, the department can pretend everything is fine while adding more to the pile. Clearly nobody you work with is ever going to reach in and take things off your plate. Even if any of them had management training of any kind (they don’t), they’re all too busy with their own plates. You must take things off your plate, or you’ll end up plowing through what’s put in front of you until you drop.

If you’re willing, I have a starting baby step for you:

Look at your syllabi. If your students wanted or needed to take their upcoming spring break completely off, could they still keep up with the work in your class? If the answer is no, adjust your assignments until the answer is yes. Then, tell your students that you plan to unplug over spring break and you hope that they will too. Set up an email autoresponder for the entirety of spring break, the most generic, “Hello, I’ll be responding to emails after (date), have a wonderful break.” Don’t tell people where else they can reach you for “urgent” matters, don’t qualify it or give reasons, and definitely don’t tell your colleagues you plan to do this in advance. This is an exercise in taking something that will never be given.

Over break, only you can decide how bad you want to actually rest vs. logging in to read emails that the senders have already been told will have to wait a little while, at least 75% of which can be answered with the words “It’s in the syllabus.”

{ 247 comments… read them below }

  1. WWI Flying Ace*

    LW1, in my work environment, calls will frequently extend beyond their scheduled meeting times if permitted to do so. Often someone will say at the beginning of the call, “I’ve got a hard stop at .” This helps the rest of us to get that person’s input before they leave and makes it easier for the person to gracefully exit at .

    Tossing out the language (and the concept of heads up at the start of the call) in case that helps enforcing some boundaries.

    1. WWI Flying Ace*

      Formatting challenges. Meant to say “I’ve got a hard stop at TIME,” and “gracefully exit at TIME.”

    2. Empress Matilda*

      Yes, the “hard stop” is absolutely your friend here. Plus all the other excuses that Alison and Jennifer mentioned – other meetings, deadlines, the dog just threw up on the carpet, etc. To be honest, it doesn’t actually matter all that much what you say, specifically – the main thing is that you need to get comfortable with politely interrupting the boss and ending the meeting. It’s not an easy skill to learn, but it’s a really valuable one!

    3. WellRed*

      I agree with hard stop, as well as just speaking up with whatever “Crisis’ you need to get off the phone to attend to. I also wonder if scheduling the meetings earlier in the day so they don’t drag on into the long, lonely hours of the evening (for your boss), would help.

      1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        I’d say that meeting time was perfect, and OP should just say, it’s time for me to knock off for the day, when it is. I really don’t understand why people continue working unless they’re going to miss a deadline by stopping.

    4. twocents*

      I’ve had good results with presenting it as a favor. “I’ve got another meeting to jump to and I’m sure to do too. I’ll get meeting notes out later this afternoon. Thanks bye!” And then hang up.

      I live in the Midwest, and I like the friendly culture, but some people will feel *rude* if you don’t basically push them out the door (what if Wakeen wanted to say something else and I just left!!) So you learn to master “here’s your coat, drive safe, bye!” or else spend another hour freezing in the driveway, listening to just one more thought.

      1. MCL*

        As a midwesterner I feel this so hard! My first job out of grad school I had a very chatty boss (not quite THIS chatty though), and I definitely did the “schedule a meeting 30 minutes before I know she needs to go somewhere else” tactic. Now I would very much use twocents’ tactic. Feel empowered, LW!

      2. LW1*

        Is it obvious that I’m also in the midwest! I do feel like I’m constantly standing in the doorway holding my coat and looking at my watch trying to get off the phone lol

        1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

          I used to put my coat on ten minutes before leaving time when I had to pick my kids up from school. That way when the boss pops in with the thing I saw on his desk in the morning but that he’s waited till leaving time to mention, he doesn’t even have to ask me. He screwed my colleague out tons of money not paying him overtime, no way was I letting him do that to me.

      3. TardyTardis*

        Ah, this is what I did with our beloved 80 year old volunteer who would talk about missions (this was a church group) for most of an hour. So I put her on last, for about ten minutes before lunch (and we were all smelling the delicious smells of lunch coming out of the church kitchen). She learned to pare things down to the important stuff (‘The XXX family in New Guinea is doing well but could use some more money”) after a while.

    5. so anony for this*

      The combination of a lonely, needy boss and a people-pleaser direct report is a dangerous one. Ask me how I know this – actually, don’t ask me, it makes for an appalling and terrifying picture.

      I strongly recommend that you use one of the excellent scripts suggested here. If you are working from home, it can also help to tell Chatty Boss something like “oh, gotta run, kid is puking” or “oops, dog needs to go out, talk to you later” or “yikes, something just boiled over on the stove.” Problem is that once you get back to in-person work, CB will happily stand at your desk and yak your ear off for hours, and you don’t have a handy kid or dog or pot-boiling-over excuse to throw, but it might help in the short term.

      Good luck – I feel your pain in so, so, so many ways.

      1. Amaranth*

        Since Boss already admits she doesn’t know how to hang up, maybe it would be helpful to make it a choice, even if there is a hint its an effort (because who wouldn’t want four hours talking about trimming the dogs nails?) ‘okay, I need to tear myself away and finish this work’ brings it back to productivity without making it sound like you just. want. to. escape. I think declarations like ‘well its time for x, I gotta run’ are the other solution, so its creating structure and a precedent LW will speak up when she needs to leave and that there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m worried with such a chatty boss that using ’emergency’ excuses will be required so often that they will wear thin or paint LW as having a terribly chaotic life that interferes with what the boss considers work calls.

        1. LW1*

          I like this a lot, thank you. I’ve tried the emergency thing once–had to call my grandpa after he got his covid shot–and she seemed a bit put out. I think saying that I have to tear myself away to finish work both brings the focus back to worth and shows that I get distracted when one the phone. Thanks!

          1. DyneinWalking*

            If this alone isn’t enough to end a call, you could probably append it by a short overview of your tasks planned for the day:
            “Okay, I really need to tear myself away and get on with work. There’s project x with a deadline in [n] weeks where I need to finish part z to stay on schedule, I have [m] emails I need to answer today and [coworker] asked me for input on project y, so you see I’m lucky to get everything done today if I start now!

            Obviously you’d have to take care that this list doesn’t contain something that’d remind her of anything new to tell you… But if you can fit in a few unquestionable tasks, that might underscore your need to have time for other things as well.

    6. Person from the Resume*

      I would have a hard stop at the end of my work day. Chatting with your boss about any and everything because she can’t hang up the phone is not work that must be done.

      You can end the call because you have personal plans that evening be it sitting in your living room and staring at the wall or having to meet friends somewhere or make dinner for you (and your family).

    7. Snow globe*

      I can’t help but wonder if that comment about not knowing how to hang up the phone is almost literal. As in, the boss really just doesn’t know how to wrap up a conversation and end the call. LW might actually be doing the boss a favor if they can come up with a way to firmly end the call at the appropriate time.

    8. fposte*

      I’ll add that technology can absolutely take the rap for a necessary interruption. “Okay, sounds like we’ve covered it, so I’ll get back to work now. Oh, whoops! Darn my phone! But anyway, bye and talk to you later.”

      1. TardyTardis*

        “My phone battery is dying…” has come into play with a relative from time to time.

    9. Ninjapenguin*

      I’m Southern, so I am a huge fan of “I’m going to let you go now” and its variants. It comes across as very warm and rather regretful, as if you’ve just realised how much you’ve been using their time. But don’t extend the goodbyes! At most a thanks and a reminder of the next meeting.

      1. virago*

        I was all in favor of “I’m going to let you go now” and just thought that everyone was with me on that, until a rather spirited discussion elsewhere online in which I was flabbergasted to find out that other people think this phrase is disingenuous and passive-aggressive.

        Now I’m trying out the suggested phrase “We’ll talk more soon,” which closes the conversation on a friendly note and suggests that I’m already looking forward to our next chat.

        Apparently it was Caesar Augustus ‘ favored way of exiting a discussion. (Whether anyone ever snarked on his pleasantry is unknown; something tells me that if anyone thought his phrasing was clunky, they kept it to themselves Because Emperor.)

        1. linger*

          If an emperor says it, it does have a bit more edge to it, since they have the power to not let you go. Augustus was Terry Pratchett’s source for his Patrician’s ostensibly cheery dismissal “Don’t let me detain you”.

        2. Marillenbaum*

          I don’t feel the need to listen to those people. Because it is both about getting ME out of the conversation and a reminder that THEY have a life that exists beyond this conversation.

        3. TardyTardis*

          Although Emperor Gregor’s “Let’s see what happens” is also a good way to exit as well.

      2. Kes*

        Yeah, I think in a situation like this, where it feels awkward to be the one ending the call with your boss, it may help to think about the fact that it is helpful to them too – boss has admitted they struggle to hang up the phone, and they probably have other things to do and don’t need to be spending hours and hours on the call either. Phrases like this or “I won’t keep you” may be helpful in ending the call once the matters at hand have been resolved, for both of your benefit so you both have more time for other things.

      3. Person from the Resume*

        NO! Be straightforward and not disingenuous. Admittedly my experience with this was personal, but I had a long distance partner who would try this. And I would just tell him blithely that no I didn’t need to go and we’d continue talking and then he tried to extricate himself from the conversation. It was a long time ago but I think that happened a few times before I just said that if needed to go just say so but I didn’t need to go so he needed to pretend he was hanging up for my benefit. It struck me as dishonest. He wasn’t doing it for me; he was doing because he wanted to end the call but he was pretending it was for my benefit.

        Just be honest about your need to end the call because your work day is over or you need to do work or just can’t handle a conversations lasting more than 2 hours.

        1. TechWorker*

          A romantic relationship is VERY different to an employee/boss relationship – there’s no expectation that LW should be interested in the boss’ personal life (which is sort of a day 1 assumption for a relationship), so I don’t think this is the best comparison…

    10. LW1*

      I like this, thank you! I think that would get her to maybe focus on the task at hand and maybe she’d plan it out better.

  2. Forrest*

    Good Lord even in the deadly-dying-long-distance-relationship where any suggestion that you wanted to get off the phone was a mortal wound, we managed to wind up calls under three hours. Four and a half!

    1. many bells down*

      My org has a director who routinely complains that they spend too much time in meetings and that meetings run too long… but if you’re on a call with them, it ALWAYS runs way over time. I was in one call where Director said “I’ve only got 15 minutes for this” and then proceeded to talk for 45.

      1. RabbitRabbit*

        I would be deeply tempted to start “helpfully reminding” them at the 15-16 minute mark about “OH, you have to go, don’t you! No no no, we don’t want you to be late, best to wrap this up…”

        1. JustaTech*

          This sounds like the time Bill Clinton (notorious over-talker) was on the NRP news quiz Show Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me.
          Former President Clinton was on as a guest (~10-15 minute section) and just kept talking no matter how many times the host tried to wrap him up. Then the show producer starts getting phone calls from Clinton’s EA that the President has a flight to catch and they need to let him go. “We can’t make him stop talking, *you* take the phone away!” “I can’t take the phone away, *you* hang up on him!”

          Most of this was cut from the show, but they played it during their 20th anniversary special podcast and you can just hear the desperation in the host’s voice as he tries to figure out how to get the world’s chattiest man to stop talking. (I think it ended when the host said something like “sir, we hear you have a flight to catch and we don’t want you to miss your flight, bye!”)

          1. Grizabella the Glamour Cat*

            That is hilarious! I never heard this story before, but I can imagine it, vividly. Thanks for sharing. 8-D

  3. Anne H*

    That last question fits me to the letter—tenure-track position, deeply exhausted but nothing actually *specifically* wrong beyond the occasional cold, and desperate for time off. Only, we don’t have a spring break this year (replaced with random “reading” days, though only two during the semester, to prevent students from traveling and spreading COVID), and the result is a 16-week long semester that is only halfway over. Every single full-time faculty member in my department is currently teaching an overload, and I think most of us are struggling—there’s just nowhere else for the work to *go.* I’ve definitely scaled back assignments in my classes, but what takes the majority of my time is lesson planning, which, as the OP mentions, isn’t optional—no matter what, the classes have to be taught, which means you have to prep the lessons. There is so much that is fundamentally broken about academia, but the pandemic has made it even worse.

    1. OrigCassandra*

      Sympathy and commiseration. The university I teach for ditched spring break also, and my students and I are really feeling the lack. (Not that I would get spring break off work… but it’d be a breathing space to get caught up on grading and course content creation and service and and and… and that ain’t happening.)

      In ordinary times I’m quite good at keeping my time commitment to work roughly what it should be… but the last couple-three months work has really started encroaching. I know I’m not the only one.

    2. Forrest*

      I’m not an academic but work closely with academics– in one course which I’m supporting this year, the contact time has gone from 1 one-hour lecture and a one-hour workshop in small groups, to 2 hours of recorded online lectures, 2 hours of large-group synchronous online teaching, and one hour of synchronous small-group workshop, to make up for the fact that it’s all online and not face-to-face.

      and just! it’s twice as much teaching! where’s that supposed to come from!

      1. Caramel*

        I’m in England. When COVID started they said to us (academics) we don’t expect you to focus on research. At the start of December 2021 they then started to say ‘focus on research’. It’s just bonkers.

        1. Emma*

          Academia is so weird. It’s presented almost as a vocation, and if you have a vocation there it’s going to be related to the research and writing you want to do. But then actually getting to do that is a bizarre reward that’s only available if you are willing to murder yourself doing other things first.

          I’m glad I decided to nope out after my MSc!

          1. Forrest*

            I did a PhD, applied for a few academic jobs, then noped out. I have worked on and off in universities in non-academic roles and my partner and lots of our friends are still in academia. I just bc any get over how it can be people’s more-than-full-time job to identify and describe ideologies and yet still believe that academia is a wonderful job struggling to overcome a few structural issues rather than just a total scam through and through.

            1. une autre Cassandra*

              I didn’t even get to the dissertation phase before freaking the entire heck out and fleeing graduate school, metaphorically and sometimes literally screaming. I look back and cringe about the suboptimal way I handled dropping out but I’ve never regretted leaving in and of itself—I realized that while I had (have!) a tremendous interest and a degree of passion for the subject, I did not as an individual have A Project burning a hole through my soul that could only find its outlet in academia, and without That Project to sustain me then the realities of working in academia might literally kill me.

              I hope all the academics out there can get the rest and support they need. Their work is important, but so is their health—physical, mental, emotional.

          2. J.E.*

            Same in libraries. There was an article that came out a few years ago about librarians and vocational awe where the profession is seen as a calling and that can invite mission creep and quickly lead to burnout because those in the profession are hesitant to speak up because it’s like going against this almost sacred duty to serve the public.

    3. MMMMMmmmmMMM*

      Is it possible when creating the syllabus for the year, to have one day that is just blank? Like, could be used as a catch up day if lectures get behind, or as a worked in day off so your teaching doesn’t suffer? And it could be moved around as such?

      1. thatonecoolprof*

        This is such a great idea. It really depends on your administration, but if you categorize one day as a student WFH Day “to complete X assignment”, it should be OK. We used to do this to give our students a break/give ourselves time to grade larger assignments without needlessly angering the higher-ups.

      2. Anne H*

        Theoretically, yes—I usually try to do something like that with non-major/non-intensive courses, since the content can largely be fitted to the time available and the curriculum isn’t as strict. With the upper-level majors survey I teach, it’s harder—all the material must get covered, so while you can give students/yourself a day off, you just have to shift the material to a different day. Since (of course) there’s *already* not enough time to cover what you’re supposed to cover, it’s a hard trade-off to make. The larger issue there is really at the administrative level—we try to keep the number of credits required for a degree below a certain number, to prevent the degree from becoming unmanageable, but that in turn means you’re cramming what should really be four semesters’ worth of material into three, or something like that. So I think there’s also often pressure *not* to build in extra time in your syllabus, even though everyone needs a break. The system works much better with spring break in place—faculty get the chance to catch up on grading and have a light/no lesson planning week, and students get some vacation. I usually try to take one of the days of spring break off completely, and it’s always helpful for a reset to get through the rest of the semester.

      3. desdemona*

        Maybe it’s different because I’m at the graduate level, but one of my classes this semester has TWO days off towards the end, both as “work on your final paper” days. It means my final month of school, I only have that class every-other-week – which I cannot wait for, as I know I will need that time for my finals.

      4. Esmeralda*

        I;m calling these “workshop time”. Students join the class zoom (because I’m required to make all session synchronous), I do reminders, frame the topic or project or assgt for the day, then tell them to please stay in the zoom, they can turn off cameras, but now they can work on X or Y or Z. Chat/ask questions so that I can answer them for everyone. Two minutes before end of class, wrap up, remind them they should contact me w any questions and can stay at the end of the zoom to talk, thank them for coming, wish them a good week.

        Several co-workers said: But but but! How do you know that they’re working on our class! My answer: I don’t, and why does it matter? (Although enough of them are asking pertinent questions during “workshop” so that it’s clear most of them arein fact working on my class.)

      5. Rock Prof*

        I do this in a lot of my classes. For lower-level and general education, I often call them “study” or “catch-up days,” and I put them before the tests in the class. I make the day completely non-mandatory for students (not that I ever take attendance anyway). In person, I just tell them to come to class with questions they have. Online, I do the same thing, but it’s actually easier because I can just do other stuff if no one shows up while leaving the chat on, so I’m at least present.
        For upper-level, I do a lot of project based courses, so I’ll often dedicate days, like others have mentioned, to research or writing. I tell students I’ll be available and just bring my laptop down to the classroom. Normally they choose to work on their own instead of in the classroom, so it’s a bit of a break for me.

      6. Prof-elsie*

        This, but also a suggestion for future semesters: over the summer build asynchronous materials to put on the course management system. Trawl YouTube for videos appropriate to your courses or when you’re well, make your own. If you have in-class exercises, figure out how to put them on your CMS as activities. I’m teaching asynchronously this year. While summer and winter breaks were packed creating materials, the prep making the semesters themselves so much more survivable.

        1. another tired academic*

          I know it’s annoying now, but I’m actually really grateful I’ve been forced to make a bank of videos with video quizzes for my course. In the future, I can go to a conference or get pneumonia, and I’ll still have a lecture prepared for that date. (And I have dragged myself into class with an 102 pneumonia fever (drugged down with Tylenol*) , because with an intro STEM course, we can’t miss a day.)

    4. Dust Bunny*

      My brother and SIL are both in academia and working 60-70 hour weeks. While splitting time to watch their kids two days a week (kids are in school or daycare for three). And my brother was supposed to get a new assistant but they decided not to replace the one who left until . . . nobody knows when, so he’s basically doing two and a half jobs right now.

    5. serenity*

      I think that’s the challenging part of the letter for me – not the “oh, academia is so weird” but the “this isn’t a debilitating illness but more a desperate need for time off/time to recover, and there’s no real way to do that”.

      OP, it sounds like you have both a teaching role *and* an administrative one, is that right? If you were simply teaching, it might be easier to adjust your downtime or plan for it, since the nature of teaching is somewhat cyclical. But if you have department administrator parts of your role, your calendar is likely more complex. You indicate that the sick leave policy is there but the culture seems to discourage people using their sick time. I’m curious – is it the same for vacation time? Could you perhaps plan taking some vacation days, so that you can get some downtime when needed?

      1. Ann*

        I doubt if the other part is an administrative one. The other part, besides teaching, is likely service (such as being on committees) and research. Teaching, service, and research are the typical big three for faculty positions.

        1. another tired academic*

          I would say that this person should absolutely drop the ball on service. My observation is that everyone is dropping the ball on service right now, which isn’t that much different than it was before. No one gets tenure because of service. As long as you do the minimum that everyone else is doing, you won’t get dinged for it.

    6. slmrlln*

      Academic here. This year is messed-up in all kinds of special ways, but for the long-term, I’ve found the NCFDD program to be really helpful for figuring out how to say no to things, get some control over my time, and be realistic about what is and isn’t going to get done. I’m at a big state school and they have an institutional membership to NCFDD. If you’re at a small place, you might want to ask them to cover the membership cost, but there’s a script on the Membership page to help you decide how to phrase the request. Long story short, if your department wants you to get tenure, this is something they should support.

      1. another tired academic*

        Loved the NCFDD program! I don’t always follow what they recommend, but when I did it was great.

    7. Student Affairs Sally*

      Based on “reading days”, I strongly suspect that you may work at the institution I left in November! If I’m right, I think the culture of the institution and the focus on “GRIT” (i.e. succeed at all costs) probably makes this even more challenging – I know I saw these same things in the students I worked with there, and I can only imagine it’s worse among untenured faculty. Can you borrow from lesson plans in previous semesters to try and minimize the time-sink there?

    8. Artemesia*

      When I taught at a university there was no sick leave. If one occasionally missed a class it was not a big deal, but rarely. If you were going to be out longer, you had to find a colleague to step in — there are no ‘substitute’ teachers. when I was pregnant with my second child our insurance did not cover maternity (just before the law changed on this) and I was told that if would miss classes with the birth planned for the end of the semester I would have to personally pay for a sub or get colleagues to cover. She arrived a bit early and a colleague did cover my undergrad classes and administer the finals which I graded, but I had her Sunday and taught my final grad seminar on Wednesday. I once taught a weekend course — 12 hours in the classroom Fri night and Sat, with total laryngitis. There was no way to re-schedule as many students flew in for the class as they were working professionals. I had a couple of days to plan and created materials for students to facilitate activities and arranged to pose questions through typing/projection. It actually worked fine but there was no way for anyone else to pick that sort of thing up on the fly.

      It is really difficult to manage short absences but the best bet is to work with colleagues to cover and arrange a longer medical leave if necessary to have someone else hired to cover.

      1. A Genuine Scientician*

        Ding ding ding.

        I’m a non-tenure-track but not adjunct instructor. So full time, with benefits, expectation is that I’ll be here for many years. But I accrue literally 0 sick leave or PTO during the academic term. If I need to not be in class, whether from illness or even things like presenting at a conference my unit is paying for me to go to, I need to arrange for colleagues to cover my class(es) that day. For one of my courses, we have a backup system where we’re each on call for specific days/times in case someone needs coverage. For another, it’s completely ad hoc. And that’s with the fortunate position of a bunch of parallel sections of the same course.

        Our *formal* Covid policy is essentially “The rest of us will just have to step in and cover class, please don’t get sick”. I know this is actually a management problem, but that doesn’t provide that workable of a solution if we actually do get sick. Either we work anyway, or we take time to get better at the expense of things being far worse when we get back, or we make our already overworked colleagues do more to cover for us, or we fail to do important teach duties. Any option other than the first can make it that much less likely we’ll have a job again next year.

        1. Foxgloves*

          That back up system sounds really smart- OP2, is this something you could discuss arranging with colleagues? I’m sure plenty of your colleagues feel the same way about not feeling they can take time off when they aren’t well, so this sounds like it would be beneficial to everyone? Depending on the number of people in your department it would probably end up being something that each person has to do very infrequently, but could be worth a go…

      2. Elsie*

        It’s really unfortunate how the system works. I worked for a year as a NTT full time teaching professor and we also had no system in place for being sick other than to beg other professors to cover for you or cancel the class (and then you still have to make up the material so it creates more work you have to deal with later). During winter break that year, I got the worst cold of my life – I was sick for over a month. I had no option but to come in every day to teach and try to stay on top of the work even though I was barely functioning. I found a new job at the end of the year, there was no way I could have survived another year with the workload. I really resonated with Jennifer’s response. I’m so happy I left academia. Best wishes to all of you doing your best to make it through!

    9. Kathlynn (Canada)*

      Depending on the content/subject you are covering you could have a day every week or 2, or part of the class, dedicated to discussing the reading assignments or other less structured activities.

    10. Manchmal*

      I’m in academia as well, and I shudder to think what would happen if I got COVID or some other illness that required me to be out for more than a day. I think my chair would just have to get a sub. But it sounds like what the OP is describing is something lower level but a more constant feeling like crap. If you’re teaching a course it’s difficult if not impossible to find someone to step in for you. But, you are in control of your own class. Can you take out an assignment? Can you go asynchronous (all the time or once a week). The great thing is that we have very little oversight in terms of individual classes. If your teaching is too much work, can you arrange things to do less teaching as in lecturing? Instead can you do discussions (in breakout rooms if it’s a big class). Can you do threaded discussions online? Can you do a day of peer-review? Or presentations? I know it’s hard to get creative when you aren’t feeling well.

      1. Anne H*

        Yeah, in the last two weeks of the semester three of my four classes are doing student presentations, and I’ve got a day of peer review in the other class already built in. Part of the issue is that because we went online abruptly last semester, all the lesson plans I have from the *same* courses I taught last year need to be reworked, because last year was such a change/thrown together mess; plus, I’m teaching one course that’s entirely new, so every lesson is new (though that class at least is discussion based). Last spring when we went remote asynchronous was fine, but now that we’re back largely in person classes are required to be synchronous—probably doing one day differently would be no big deal, but definitely not something I’d be allowed to do regularly. My two large classes WILL NOT talk, so discussion is really difficult; I do some in-class written responses, but then I have to grade them, and I’m trying to cut down on grading time. Plus, those classes are each hyflex (half the class online, half in person, to accommodate COVID room caps), which is difficult to manage as is. I think I’ve done a lot to try to give myself space, it’s just ultimately not quite enough for COVID-world.

        Now, if my parents could get vaccinated and fly out to spend some time with my toddler so my husband and I could take a single day off, that would improve matters dramatically!

        1. Manchmal*

          all of my grading, aside from exams, is CR/NC. If they did it, they get a point. It makes grading very easy! I hear you on the toddler front. It’s a slog, especially when the bare minimum is overwhelming. Solidarity!

          1. Libervermis*

            Yes, I do a “satisfactory/revise” grading system! Love. Revisions do take up more time, but frankly, you know after quick glance whether something needs to be revised or not, and feedback is faster for me to give when I don’t have to justify a grade.

        2. nom de plume*

          Hey there – just a suggestion for the reluctant speakers-class that doesn’t give you more grading:
          small group discussion + report back, or, in current Zoom terminology, breakout rooms.

          I used to teach very intensive courses, all on the seminar format, and learned to use the time to, basically, make the students do the work, because you can’t teach non-stop for three hours. So, assuming you’re in a HSS discipline (or maybe even some STEM fields where this would work?), have them work together, give them anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes, then have them report back to class.
          That’s your basis for discussion. :)

        3. Libervermis*

          I just want to say how sorry I am that you have to manage hyflex. Sending you fortitude and patience.

          I declared a regular “asynchronous day” for all my classes this semester, which just means “a day to do the assignments/readings you should be doing generally, but we’re not going to meet.” It’s saved my sanity. What’s more, I have it on the same day for all my classes, so Wednesdays are my day to breathe. Highly recommended. But I’m fortunate to be teaching mostly discussion-based classes and to have a culture in which I can just make that decision and no one is going to fuss at me.

    11. A Genuine Scientician*

      Yep, we also don’t have a spring break this year. 2 days of no classes in one week; 2 different days of classes in another week. It’s hell on the schedule for the once a week classes (like, say, labs) that we try to coordinate across many sections.

    12. Anon Former Academic Bipolar*

      Though I’m no longer in academia, I had to quit my “in” to teaching at a university after 2.5 years in as an adjunct. The workload was insane, and I was only getting 40 euros/hour for incredible amounts of grading–there’s no way you can quickly grade 120 English essays, even if they’re each “only” a page long, let alone 10 or 20.

      I’m based outside the US, though, and if I had to miss class (only happened twice, and one was due to a terrorist attack), I had to schedule a makeup session, but since we don’t have winter/summer classes, the semester stretches over til late-Jan specifically for makeup purposes. I think this kind of thinking could take a lot of additional pressure off everyone were it implemented in the US.

      Also, I didn’t realize it until much more recently, but I’m also bipolar, which now gives added context to the “I just didn’t feel like myself” parts of those semesters where I suddenly was hit with major depression after receiving an award or just suddenly “powered down” and couldn’t work (and other things that otherwise don’t really make sense) but then was hit with a truckload of energy on a random Tuesday and powered through the rest of the semester and also submitted three papers for publication in the space of five weeks. So, there’s also that. Academia is a great hideout when you’re mentally ill because a certain amount of the professors are expected, on some level, to be nutty professors, and no one cares if you only get three hours of sleep per night as long as the work gets done.

      In short, OP, don’t burn yourself out because everyone else is doing it, don’t give in to the idea that this is the one job to end all. It’s really nice to work for a real company that has sick days, paid leave where you’re not expected to still work all the time on your own projects… I’m still so messed up from the academia and teaching culture of “the work has to be done because otherwise no one else can do it” that eight years later sometimes I still run myself into the ground. Thankfully, I have a manager who is also former-academia, and he can spot this coming and tell me to use a sick day and vacation days to take care of myself. Honestly, if you take nothing else away from this random commenter on the internet, just take care of yourself so that you don’t truly burn out.

  4. Lil Fidget*

    No response to the letters, I just … really love to imagine my two favorite columnists hanging out and having fun :D

    1. Ms_Meercat*

      Because there is no like button, commenting to third this. I am taking so much from both of these ladies’ work, it’s unreal! THANK YOU Alison and Jennifer!

    2. Mainly Lurking (UK)*


      The past week has been an especially grim time to be a woman in the UK, but the practical advice from Alison and Jennifer helps to make the world a little brighter, and I needed to read this collaboration today!

    3. Nicotene*

      They both have such dedicated fans, I bet people would be really interested in joining a zoom with them together.

      1. Grizabella the Glamour Cat*

        OMG, yes! In fact, be still my heart; I’m practically hyperventilating at the thought.

  5. Suzanne*

    “Accidentally” disconnect the call (ooops I don’t know what happened! I think my cell cut out) and don’t see the return call (if there is one) because your phone is on silent and you were away from it BECAUSE THE WORK DAY WAS DONE.

    Granted this probably won’t help in the future either. LOL

    1. Susan Calvin*

      You laugh, but I have definitely done that in the past year. More than once, but most notably at some point in hour 3 of an entirely pointless call scheduled by two panicked project managers for one hour, already after normal business hours, because everyone was already booked solid from 9 to 5. Don’t miss those guys.

    2. Inca*

      A slightly less confrontational version: drop it, then send a text, “the call dropped, but seeing it’s already x o’clock and we covered our grounds, I’m turning it in for the day, bye!”
      And then put the thing on silent and ignore.

  6. MMMMMmmmmMMM*

    Oh, that academia one hit at the right time. I’ve just started at a new job where I’m scheduled 8 hours a day, five days a week. Overtime? Of course not. Given that I’ve just started, I’m getting my habits known to the department. If I’m not going to get paid overtime, I’m leaving at the end of the day (or adjust my schedule for the week so I’m not in OT). I’m hoping that if I have these habits established early on, I won’t get suckered into free OT for the school.

    Good luck, OP, academia is just a while ‘nother ballgame.

    1. I'm just here for the cats*

      I’m thankful that my position at the university I work I is 8hours a day and there is no ot. I needed help with my time sheet once and my manager misunderstood me and was like you cant work overtime! Which I wasn’t I was just starting later and staying later. I just needed him to showe how to fix it in the system!

      I feel really bad for those who have to teach. I do work closely with professors and it sounds like at my school they are all supposed to have a backup in case someone gets COVID and can’t teach. I don’t know if that means just mild case or if it’s more for they are in the hospital.

      1. ella*

        SAME. I work in a university, but in a staff capacity, not faculty. There’s three layers of bosses above me in our department, and they’re all supportive of staff taking sick time/otherwise taking care of themselves. I’m feeling glad that I lucked into a position that’s run by good people who do not have cuckoobananapants ideas of what humans are generally capable of.

        Of course, the cynic in me also says that they don’t pay us very much per hour, and one of the ways that they deflect criticism of that is to remind us that our benefits package are so super great (which they are), so if they set up a culture/situation where roughly $12k of my yearly “compensation package” was inaccessible, I would be….perturbed.

  7. PT*

    LW1: Could you move your chatty boss to the free version of Zoom? It cuts you off at 45 minutes. Or even if your company has, say, Teams, sometimes being on video makes people more self-conscious about time.

    If you have a pet, I’d recommend scheduling your meeting with her on video during the hour before their dinnertime, and let them in the room. The pet will get increasingly more pesty, and then you can say, “Well I have to go, Fluffy’s upset her dinner is late!” Bonus points if it’s a cat who will jump on the desk and stick their butt in front of the camera.

    1. AE*

      Now I have a mental image of LW specifically training a pet to do this, haha (not that cats need a lot of extra incentive to get between humans and their screens).

    2. LW1*

      Unfortunately we talk over the phone, but I’m sure my cat would love any excuse that gets her food :)

  8. Blackcat*

    On #3, what are your summer responsibilities like, and when does your summer start? Sticking it out for another 6 weeks is different from another 10-12.
    In your shoes, I would contemplate proper medical leave, such as intermittent FMLA. Go through HR/those channels, and get your job officially reduced. Explore the tenure clock options for taking medical leave.

  9. Caramel*

    OP1. What some lecturers do is book their schedule so meetings can’t drag on. In their case it goes like this: ‘student wants to talk about loads of stuff, tough crap, 30 mins later the next student would be at the door’. Meetings drag on? They just say ‘sorry got to get to the next thing’. Implement this technique but start off with ‘We need to get through all these key points in x time because I’m booked up after that’.

    For the evenings, just make up a lie. ‘Sorry, can’t talk on the phone anymore, my mom/dad/relative is extremely ill and I am now their carer after 5.30. Then block your phone so she can’t reach you. What can she say? Leave an ill person dirty and unfed so she can talk for 3 hours?

    The only reason people like these are lonely is because their clinginess drives everyone away. I’ve experienced it a few times. It’s sad, because they would have friends if they weren’t so clingy. But this one is a different level.

    1. Caramel*

      OP1 I just want to say apart from Allison’s suggestion about booking yourself up (matching what I said) I don’t think the other suggestions will be useful. In 1 occasions she took up half a working day so she could talk. Saying ‘I have to do x or y’ won’t work (I’m sure to some extent you’ve already tried). This is why you should make up something serious which I’ve suggested in my above comment.

      1. Tired of Covid-and People*

        I never approve of lying. That just invites follow-ups and requires more lying. Just handle it like an adult.

        1. Nesprin*

          I wholeheartedly approve of limited truth for people who refuse to obey social norms. i.e. boss wants to spend 4 hrs on the phone? boss doesn’t get to know what my next appointment scheduled for 1 hr in is. This is not lying so much as handling like an adult someone who won’t obey the social contract.

        2. Heather*

          On the contrary, part of being an adult is knowing when a white lie is necessary and appropriate.

          1. Frank Doyle*

            I agree, but I don’t think that saying a relative is so sick they need a caregiver is a white lie.

      2. lemon meringue*

        Eh, I think it’s likely more of an issue with assertiveness and feeling like they have “permission” to tell the boss to get off the line. It kind of puts me in mind of the old “reasons are for reasonable people” line. No matter what excuse you give, unless you’re willing to intentionally structure the calls to give yourself an opportunity to get out and/or keep reminding the boss to let you go, this boss is going to keep “forgetting” or “not knowing how to hang up” or whatever.

    2. Bagpuss*

      I have some issues with this because i think lying is a bad policy and it’s exhausting as you have to remember the lie, and then get out of it.

      Also, “The only reason people like these are lonely is because their clinginess drives everyone away.” is probably a lot less true right now, when everyone is much more restricted in when and how they can socialize and everyone is exhausted and stressed.

      But either way, that part of it isn’t the LWs to fix.

      In terms of ending calls, then honesty is less stressful and hard work than lies.

      It can be “Sorry, it’s 5.30 so I have to go. I’ll email you with the report / notes / whatever”
      It could be, if you want to soften it a little (although I don’t think that’s a requirement “I have to go. I’m trying to be strict with myself about not working outside office hours, to avoid burn out. I’ll e-mail you the report / notes / whatever by mid morning tomorrow”
      I think tone of voice is really important – if you manage to kept it friendly and matter of fact (the subtext is that *of course* she understands and won’t try to keep you talking) then most people will go along with it.

      I think at other times, or where you don’t have another meeting, it can be helpful to explicitly reference how on the call has been e.g. “I’m really going to have to wrap this call up – I can see we’ve been on for an hour, and I know we only planned a 15 minutes catch up. I’ll let you get on with things and will e-mail you with the report as soon as I can. Bye”

      1. Caramel*

        ‘I have some issues with this because i think lying is a bad policy and it’s exhausting as you have to remember the lie, and then get out of it.’

        Not really, just don’t engage in the lie. So don’t talk about it, just say ‘I am a carer in the evening’. She could even say who for but then after that all she needs to say is ‘It’s painful for me to talk about, but I noted x about work yesterday, so let’s focus on that’.

        You might think it is exhausting but I think 3.5 hours in 1 call is exhausting . It has never ever happened before to me. Then when the manager tries to call it would be on block. Someone who is this extreme won’t settle with all the other suggestions.

        All the clingy people I met were long before COVID happened. I’m pretty sure you’ve met people like that. If not, lucky you!

        1. Colette*

          But she can get the same result (i.e. get off the phone/out of the meeting) by telling the truth. The only reason to lie is if she thinks she needs to have a “good enough” reason to end it – but she doesn’t. Her time is her own, and she can protect it without lying.

            1. Caramel*

              Only if they are not your manager. I had a massive showdown with 2 bullies but neither were management.

          1. Caramel*

            If she tells the truth there is a very high risk she will be fired. Seriously, how reasonable is a manager going to be after they spend 3 1/2 hours on the phone with you and say ‘I forget to put the phone down’. Normal suggestions are for relatively normal people, not this case.

            She can do whatever she likes, but doesn’t change that there is a high risk of being fired if she upsets her manager.

            1. Jackalope*

              If she lies and the boss learns about it she has an even better chance of getting fired. Saying, “I have a hard stop at TIME,” with no more development is perfectly legit and doesn’t require a lie. And if she says something about being a caregiver (to use your example), how likely is it that the boss will just forget that and not bring it up in the next four hour conversation?

              1. Caramel*

                How could the boss find out? She could say it is a relative (which could be anyone) and then say ‘for the sake of their privacy I can’t say more.’ What will the manager do? Demand 3 hour calls between 9 and midnight?

                Of course the manager will call her but at that point you’ve already said ‘I have my phone on silent because AFTER WORK HOURS I am using my time to provide care and I can’t neglect the person I am caring for when work is over for the day’. If that doesn’t work go to HR. Not only will there be evidence for poor work output due to hours the manger is taking up there is now an additional element of ‘how can I handle non work related calls when other people are dependant on me?’

                1. Colette*

                  Again, this is unnecessary and likely to backfire. I’m not sure why you don’t believe people have the authority to make decisions about how to use their own time.

                2. tangerineRose*

                  Lies are tricky, and it’s not always possible to completely cover them. Plus, if you lie, you look way worse if anyone finds out.

            2. Colette*

              That’s just not true. There are plenty of people who are happy to talk to you as long as you want, but who will happily hang up and not give it another thought if you make it clear you’re done.

              If the manager is the owner of a business with one employee, the risk is slightly higher, but a manager who is accountable to someone else has no reason to fire an employee for something that is both trivial and reasonable.

              1. Caramel*

                American law means they can fire at will unless you are part of a protected class. Are you in America?

                1. Colette*

                  “Can” doesn’t mean “will”. And most managers can’t unilaterally decide to fire someone – they have to get buy in from their manager and HR, for example. So the vast majority of managers aren’t going to do that because you end a phone call after the agreed-upon time.

                  And everyone is part of a protected class – everyone has a gender and race, for example. They can still be fired, as long as they are not fired because they are in the protected class.

                2. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  We’re talking about what’s likely/realistic, not what’s possible. Your manager *could* decide to fire you because you like soccer more than baseball, but most of the time that’s not how things go.

                  There are lots of ways to cut calls short that involve some version of being honest/direct. It’s highly likely to be fine.

          2. Heather*

            Telling your boss “my time is my own and you don’t get to dictate how I spend it” is a great way to get fired.

            1. Caramel*

              A boss who stays on the phone for hours is not going to listen to ‘I don’t want your time on my time’. Normal people don’t stay on the phone for hours. I’m manic and could talk forever and don’t do that!

      2. Jackalope*

        Yeah, it’s important to have compassion on everyone right now because this is a tough and lonely time. It’s possible that the boss is clingy normally, but it’s also possible that her normal social outlets are not available, and a year in with no certain end date in sight she’s she’s just grasping at whatever human contact straws she can. I don’t know of a single person who hasn’t become more isolated this year because of the pandemic, and the things that you can normally tell yourself to go spend time with people (join a club, take up a hobby, go to trivia night at the pub) aren’t available. This is not to say that the boss gets to continue talking to the OP for hours on end, because she still needs to have boundaries, but we can recognize that and still have compassion on her.

        1. Caramel*

          I know plenty of people who are opposite. They simply cannot handle the demand for their time and attention. This is the problem with extremes, it never results in anything good. Having said, that all relationships require time and commitment. If you don’t invest, don’t expect anything in return. You can’t expect people to be there during the bad times when you don’t invest in friendships across the lifespan.

          This case is worse than a stranger, it is her boss! No boss should ever pose demands on their employees that relate to the personal sphere. Make friends instead of forcing someone to listen to you for hours. Or seek counselling. Whatever it is just stop imposing it on the poor person who works for you.

  10. patrick*

    Adjuncting in a nutshell-(YMMV)- Imparting high-level knowledge- check! Healthcare, job security, living wage, time off?- … Tenure-track is not much better!

    1. Clorinda*

      This is why I moved from adjuncting/seeking tenure track to teaching full time in the public schools.
      I have sick days. Good health care. Predictable raises. A stable schedule. And mostly the same students, only two years younger.

          1. Maggie*

            I teach public high school and can relate deeply to the OP, but at least I do have a full week of Spring Break. Our inability to use our sick leave is very similar. Currently, to take a sick day I have to notify supervisor in advance, create a trackable, asynchronous lesson with a data output to see if kids did it or not (like nearpod), and then input attendance in real time based off the data (BEFORE the end of the work day). I don’t know about you, but this sure sounds like MORE work to me than just teaching remotely. When would I rest? In 70 minute intervals between my classes where I have to input attendance? What a joke/ insult. The policy is specifically designed to be so damn difficult that no one ever takes time off, which is good, bc the district doesn’t have subs and can’t use them effectively in a distance learning environment. It’s been brutal. I have not taken a sick day all year. I’m banking them and then planning an extended leave of absence next fall, something I have the luxury to request and OP probably doesn’t without a union. Poor OP. The long term answer is get another job, sadly. The whole higher ed system is broken, exploitive, and toxic.

      1. Cheluzal*

        It’s why I purposefully went ABD and teach dual enrollment at the HS. Kind of the best of both worlds.

  11. Atlantis*

    OP #3, if your school is like mine and doesn’t have a spring break this year, that means taking Alison’s and Captains advice is even more important. If you need to take a sick day, take it. Don’t let yourself burnout more then you currently are.

    Be sure to also set boundaries with your students as needed. I don’t answer emails from students after 9:30pm, and I’ve told students to expect a response within 48 hours. If they’re emailing me late, I might see it but I won’t respond until the morning, or I use schedule send (actual emergences are an exception).

    One thing I’ve learned through this pandemic as an academic is that we absolutely need to take time for self care. When this all kicked off I felt I was so busy I barely had time to do anything. I didn’t go outside or do anything else for the first week or two. Very quickly I realized that wasn’t healthy or sustainable. On the advice of a therapist, I ended up scheduling in an hour of self care time for myself every day. Some days it would be so I could take a walk, or do a workout in my living room, or make myself a fresh lunch or take a long hot shower. Whatever it is, schedule some time just for you.

    Best of luck to you.

  12. Almost Academic*

    OP #3: As someone else in Academia, I’m going to push back on Jennifer’s recommendation a little bit. Look at your tenure criteria, and focus on putting in the limited hours you have working on whatever will get you there. If you are at a place that values research and grant $$ (you mention these expectations, so I’m assuming you’re tenure-track prof at an R1/R2/elite SLAC) your teaching quality for a single semester largely does not matter. Yes, it feels awful to drop your quality of teaching on purpose. Yes, it does a disservice to the students who will never recover this period. That’s also how the institution of academia is largely set up. Align your time to what you are going to be judged on, because if your institution is anything like mine they will “adjust” tenure research expectations but still care about the same metrics as before.

    For getting a “break” without taking sick leave / getting a break, here’s a few options I’ve used: 1. reach out to your network of folks you trust for help and arrange for a guest lecture on topic(s) in your classes. Students like a new face, and you can recycle material instead of having to prep a new lecture if you’re swapping with another prof for their class. 2. push back against as many meetings as possible, or show up but have them in the background/camera off while you lay in bed and skim an article or something. 3. Choose to either prioritize office hours or answering questions via email, and make that explicit to your students. 4. Tell your students the schedule you have. Block off weekends, and say that you’re trying to model good work-life boundaries for them (works well if you’re teaching a grad level class). 5. Turn down all review requests for now. 6. Half-finished drafts of papers that you hate? Focus on getting those past the finish line so that you can have some evidence of productivity rather than starting a new project from scratch.

    Hope that helps. Academia is truly a special place, having a non-academic partner really opened up my eyes to the many ways faculty are exploited.

    1. Almost Academic*

      Another thought is that if you have start-up money left, it may be worthwhile to see if you can hire a grad student, or even undergrad if you have good ones you trust, for a few hours a week to take some busywork off of your plate.

    2. Yorick*

      If you’re working on solo research projects and co-authored ones won’t hurt your tenure chances, consider reaching out to people in your network to help you finish those. It can really work out – for example, you could give a grad student at your alma mater an opportunity while reducing some work for yourself.

      1. Quill*

        My brother’s a doctoral student and there are a LOT of people at his school who are picking up stuff that isn’t usually TA work – tech support, setting up data sets, etc.

        And most grad students would chew their own arm off to get named on a paper for the tradeoff of “run the data / format the tables or figures / take a bunch of measurements.”

    3. Captain Awkward*

      Hello, this is all valid, and I appreciate someone with more knowledge of the tenure track weighing in. If student evals and teaching weigh less for tenure than getting sufficient CV publication lines, and if you (realistically) think your institution has a short memory that will be like “Pandemic, what pandemic?” when you’re actually up, take care of yourself.

      The original point of picking “health” followed by “focus your limited budget of time and attention on doing well at one work area vs. trying (and failing) to do everything” stands.

      P.S. I don’t think the Letter Writer is actually going to keep all work to only 20 hours/week even if it were possible. I’m thinking in terms of 20 *good* hours, how to best allocate the blocks of time where they have the most energy, and move away from the prevalent fallacy in academia that if there are 24 hours in a day, 8 should be spent on research, 8 should be spent on teaching, and the other 8 should be spent on service work/lamenting that one is not being sufficiently productive. ;)

      1. Almost Academic*

        Oh yep, in retrospect I think my first sentence was a bit strong. Definitely agreeing with the overall advice you gave in the letter! The mindset you describe of “8 hrs research / 8 hrs teaching / 8 hrs service” combined with the realities of the pandemic is what is finally driving me out of this profession!

    4. rural academic*

      Agreeing with all of this! Also, scale back work in your courses if you can. Likely a number of your students are in a similar boat and will be grateful. Like: if they would normally do 6 of X small assignment in a semester, can you scale that back to to 4? Can you streamline your grading process in anyway? (there are lots of resources out there for grading more efficiently) If it’s class prep that is eating up a ton of time, can you reach out to friends/ colleagues to swap lesson plans, or re-use material you’ve done before, or send students to online resources (videos / demos / etc.)? I feel like one thing I’m hearing from your letter is that if you take a sick day / cancel class, no one can cover your class, and that’s a very real situation for lots of academics. So, what can you take out of that class to give both yourself and your students a little more time?

    5. Nesprin*

      Agreed- your mission in life is to look like folks who get tenure at your institution. If it’s a research institution, your teaching evals could be criminally bad and you’d still be eligible for tenure if you bring in research dollars.

      That being said, you probably have more help than your department chair and other higher ups. To that end, if your course has teaching assistants, let them teach a few lectures so that they get experience, and you get a day off. If you have research assistants, give them more freedom and more responsibility (everyone needs to learn how to write a grant/paper at some point).

      Signed, have submitted grant proposals in weeks where I was hospitalized, and it was a terrible idea.

  13. Suzanne*

    I’m not in academia but when I take a sick day no one does my work. It’s just waiting there when I get back and I keep working on it. Granted I’m not teaching so I understand that is different. But for one day whatever I’m working on is not picked up by someone else. Now if I had to take extended sick leave or go on disability for a longer period of time either they would hire a temp or reassign my work. But for one or two days here and there it’s just waiting for me.

    1. Caramel*

      Yeah, not even one or 2 days. If I was sick for 1 -2 weeks my marking would still be waiting for me.

    2. twocents*

      Same. Even a week or two, the work will be handed to someone just enough to technically keep things moving, but it’s all there when I get back. It’s a good point that this is more or less true everywhere.

      But no one is going to die if the email sits another day. So I never feel bad about using my benefits. My mom is a lot like LW though, where “it’ll just be more work tomorrow!” so she takes so little time off, she literally can’t accumulate more right now. It’s insane to me, because the company certainly won’t extend that kind of loyalty if they think firing you makes more sense than keeping you.

    3. Lacey*

      For me it’s always kinda depended on how urgent the work was. If my deadlines are a week out, no, that stuff’ll be there for me when I come back. But once I woke up hideously sick the day before a deadline and my poor boss had to come back from vacation to do my work.

      I realize that might sound like I was slacking, but in that particular job, the bulk of our work was submitted to us the day before the deadline, so it’s two weeks of really chill, easy work and then two days of utter panic and chaos.

    4. Elsie*

      As someone who used to work in academia but is now in the private sector, the issue with taking off as an academic is that there is always more work that you can finish in a day. When I was teaching, it was literally impossible to ever get ahead on work. You have to be ready to teach before class and most of my service obligations also had deadlines. I literally worked almost every evening and weekend for the entire year I was a teaching professor. The problem with taking a sick day is that you already are working overtime every single day just to hold things together. I’m no longer in academia. In my current job, taking a day off and coming back to catch up on work would be no problem. I only lasted a year as a full time teaching professor. I quickly saw the light that every time I started to get a handle on my workload, I would be expected to do more. It’s a crazy environment for real

  14. Dr T*

    LW3 – I’m also tenure-track. If you can swing it I’d recommend trying to build in a week off teaching. Yes, things need to be taught but also… it’s a terrible year. Eg – cancel class one day, bring in a guest lecturer another day (or make it a project workday), don’t assign HW that week, etc. In most depts you’re allowed to make changes to the schedule. If it’s a critical class that you can’t get away with presenting less material, see if you can get colleagues to cover it. If someone in my dept were struggling I’d be happy to do that for them (but I wouldn’t know if they didn’t ask). All in all though – I get that you may be stuck between a rock and a hard place – best wishes :/

    1. Yorick*

      You can also try making some assignments optional. In my classes, students submit drafts of sections of the final paper throughout the semester, and I provide feedback so they can improve the final version. I made these optional but strongly encouraged them so students who are overwhelmed can miss a couple of them. This also helps me because it means I’m grading a little less each week. Even if your class isn’t set up this way, you could drop one of the homeworks or discussions or whatever makes sense.

      1. just a random teacher*

        Depending on the course, you can also decide to parcel out some topics and have groups of students present the lectures on those topics instead of you. This takes some time for you to structure up-front, but it can give you a couple of weeks of not prepping individual lessons later and also help students get more engaged at the same time.

        I did this with an entire chapter when teaching pre-calculus at the high school level. I let them pick their own groups, told them what day each topic would be covered, and gave them photocopies of the teacher’s materials for their lesson. I then gave them one day of in-class time purely for “prep” and advice from me, and checked in with the group presenting next class near the end of the previous class to make sure they had a plan. It helped that we were using the kind of textbook that you could pretty much lecture from by reading the examples aloud if you got desperate, but they threw themselves into it and did generally do more than that (which is all I would have had the time and energy to do at that particular point in the year). It worked pretty well for that kind of class, and I could see it working well for anything that’s fairly “coverage” based where they’re expected to use similar methods all term but apply them to different things, but really badly for other things where students wouldn’t know enough about the topic by reading ahead in the texts to pull out the important things for lecture so it may not apply to your actual courses.

        1. Yorick*

          This can work well for other topics too. If the professor is very knowledgeable about that week’s topic but doesn’t have time to prepare lessons, she can have students prepare a lesson and then she can chime in when needed.

          1. Yorick*

            What I mean is, I’m in a social science, and when you teach Intro (for example), there are some topics that you know like the back of your hand and some that you have to refresh on. You could have students do lectures for the back-of-your-hands topics so you don’t have to take time updating slides or whatever, but you’ll go to class and provide extra information and insight that the students might not be prepared for.

    2. Kate*

      As a fellow tenure-tracker, this sounds realistic and doable to me. If you don’t feel like you can swing an entire week–take a sick day! What do you think, your students will complain to your chair? They’ll be pathetically grateful.

  15. Anon today*

    #3 is something I have related history with. Some of it may be relevant to your situation, or maybe not and I’m just projecting through my baggage.

    While my tenure clock was ticking, I spent a semester or two in an inefficient fog when a family member was dying and when I was dealing with how that affected me. My department chair assured me that continuing to do my teaching and letting the rest of it drift til later was the right choice. I liked that idea since teaching was the most immediately-rewarding part of my job, and I liked keeping up on my commitment to those students.

    Afterwards, though, when I wasn’t able to be super-productive on the parts of my job that I wasn’t as good at anyway, and when I was dealing with a tenure application and appeal, I (and my union rep) wondered whether I might have been better served by having some formal accommodation on record, whether it was taking sick days or taking a month off after exams or getting course-relief (teaching one fewer sections) the next semester.

    If you can’t see any options and you don’t want to ask your department chair or they can’t come up with anything either, then one suggestion is to start planning unplugged-time, and giving your students and others a heads-up so that they and others don’t feel like you’re abandoning them. Alison mentioned modelling an unplugged spring break, which is a good idea. You could also try out changing your customs of when you’re interruptible, blocking off one afternoon a week (if you’re already unavailable for an hour on Thursday afternoons for therapy, change that to not doing any work for the rest of the afternoon and evening, with away-messages on your email etc). If you’re talking to your colleagues, department head, dean about your change, feel free to use language like “my doctor’s advised me” and “for the balance of this semester”, so they don’t feel like you’re challenging the rules of academic success that have worked for them, more that you’re doing something temporary under a doctor’s supervision.

    Some academic institutions also have the option of going “reduced-duties”, meaning that someone has a time-limited arrangement to work 3/5 or 4/5 time, with pay proportionate and full benefits. The only person I know of who did this was a woman with a small child, but it didn’t hurt her. Her tenure calendar was a little longer, everyone knew that she didn’t have to do an equal share of thesis committees and student advising, and after her kid was in school she was back as a full contributing member of the department.

    1. Blackcat*

      “I (and my union rep) wondered whether I might have been better served by having some formal accommodation on record, whether it was taking sick days or taking a month off after exams or getting course-relief (teaching one fewer sections) the next semester.”

      Yeah, I’d want this somehow officially documented in order to have more job protections. I’ve seen lots of folks in academia be told that there will be “understanding” and it… rarely works out that way. I would not bank on lower research expectations during this time unless it’s already an official policy.

  16. AliceLiddell*

    LW 3, I know you said you’ve sought medical care, but just in case, I went through two years of being tired and getting monthly colds. My doctors diagnosed me with depression, as in they couldn’t find anything wrong so therefore it was mental. Changed jobs and got a new doctor who listened to my symptoms and sent me for allergy testing. Turns out, all that was allergies. Might be something to check, especially if you’ve been working from home instead of a different environment.

    1. Jess*

      Yes, good point. Anecdotally I’m hearing from all my work-from-home friends (and myself) that we have not gotten sick at all this year compared to a normal year where we are exposed to much more viruses and bacteria (from coworkers, public transit, etc.) so if you’re working from home and still getting repeatedly sick, seems worth checking into additional possible causes.

      1. Aggretsuko*

        Yeah, I’d investigate if there’s mold or something in your home causing this level of constant sickness. Too bad “go work in a coffee shop and see if this improves” isn’t an option.

    2. Purrscilla*

      I second this – I’ve been getting a lot of congestion/sore throats since staying at home, and found that running an air purifier in the bedroom at night helped. Then I found some mold on the window frames, cleaned them off, and that seems to have helped as well.

      I believe mold and also dust allergies are pretty common.

    3. Yes Anastasia*

      For me it’s allergies + silent reflux. The respiratory inflammation seems to make me come down with every virus I come into contact with.

    4. Rare Disease Mum*

      Absolutely! My first thought reading the letter is that there is something going undiagnosed. I know you saw your doctor, but I’m here to tell you that there are plenty of conditions that are very often overlooked, and immune deficiencies are definitely among them. Consider looking back at the last year and writing down every time you got sick, what you did about it, and how long it lasted. Then, get yourself to an immunologist. Read up on common types of immunodeficiencies so you know to mention relevant symptoms if you’ve had them. These are often missed. If they’re caught, they’re often caught because someone has had excessive antibiotic prescriptions, but martyrs in academia sometimes don’t go to the doctor for enough of these instances, so no one notices. Doctors who don’t work with immunodeficiencies often don’t even recognize an excessive number of infections. They just handwave it away as stress, or attention seeking, or exposure to germy students or whatever. It’s a royal pain to chase this down, but sounds like it might be worth it for you.

  17. I have no idea what a Dutch oven is*

    I think the answer to #3 is interesting given how much criticism there usually is to US sick leave policies. Where I live – the Netherlands – you are not entitled to sick leave if you are able to work. Things like a cold generally don’t preclude you from working unless you work with immunocompromised patients.

    Depending on your job you could take vacation days, partial vacation days, or move your hours around to go home early today and catch up later. For chronic illnesses that impact your work, or illnesses and symptoms created by job stress, you would also be encouraged to speak to an occupational medicine doctor to figure out how to stop this work from making you sick and/or how to navigate your work and your chronic illness, whether that means accommodations, working fewer hours, changing to a different job, having a mediated meeting with your boss about the workload being unreasonable or your boss’ behaviour being unreasonable or such.

    This isn’t my opinion, this is Dutch labor law’s opinion. So this isn’t intended as advice, just as another perspective.

    1. kt*

      How serious does an illness need to be to take sick leave where you are, then?

      I’m asking because in the US, in academia, I taught through mono, so tired that I couldn’t stand during classes and had to sort of slump over a projector because I couldn’t write on the board. Similar situation to the letter writer. I’m in industry now and there would be no problem with taking time off for mononucleosis. I taught through morning sickness, mastitis, and all sorts of other problems. I did cancel class the day I slipped on ice and slashed open my upper lip, but only because it would have been very messy to talk with the gaping wound near my mouth — went to the ER and got stitches instead, but sent out class notes etc from the emergency room waiting room. Probably would have lectured if the stitches hadn’t been adjacent to my mouth.

      In academia, there are no hours; all hours are academia. There are no occupational medicine docs, there is no way to work fewer hours in any formal way, there is no boss — there is just “the department” and how they do things, and you don’t in general get regular feedback, performance evaluation, or coaching, you just have to manage things all by yourself and get evaluated at the 3 or 4 year mark and the 7 year mark.

      My cautionary tale for the academic LW: I actually *did* use the HR system to take some time off, soon before I moved to another job. The dept chair was so unused to people actually using this hours off function in the computer system that he never approved it — guess it didn’t occur to him. Six months after I’d left, I got a letter informing me that since this time off had never been approved, I’d been paid out time off off inappropriately, and I now needed to pay back the university over $2000 and adjust my taxes etc. All because the department chair paid so little attention to the HR system for taking time off, because *academics never take time off*.

      1. Still don't know what a Dutch oven is*

        I’m not a lawyer nor an occupational medicine doctor.

        I should clarify that you don’t need the occupational health doctor’s permission to call in sick. You call in sick, and only when you’ve been sick for weeks, or are sick often, or can’t do some parts of your job because you’re sick long-term, you’d go to the occupational health doctor.

        So you could call in sick for mono anyway and ‘self-certify’ you can’t work. And I suspect that you’d qualify as not being able to work, especially in the short term. You would go to the occupational health doctor when you request it, or when your employer requests it once it becomes clear you won’t be able to do all your work for six weeks or more – they might ask things like “Can you teach two classes a week if you sit down and get a classroom near a parking space?” or “Can you do grading from home?”.

        Emergency medical care is sick leave: your illness/injury is stopping you from working (by requiring medical care during work hours). You’d be expected to schedule non-emergency medical care (for a medical situation that’s not preventing you from being able to work) outside of work hours, though if that’s not possible – having to go to the hospital every morning for radiation therapy, for example – that’s sick leave. (It’s pretty common to not work or barely work when you have cancer, because cancer is exhausting.)

        According to our national public health institute (RIVM), the average employee takes 7,8 sick days a year over 1,2 instances. Data set will have included people who were sick the entire year, as, with some terms and conditions, you are allowed to be sick for two years before you can be dismissed solely for being sick.

    2. fposte*

      I think the problem the OP describes would exist within that scenario as well, though; the pool of people who can do the work is small and everybody’s overworked, so your getting time off means somebody else gets more time on.

    3. Mae*

      FYI – in US context, “Dutch” as a descriptor usually means “German,” because German immigrants described themselves as “Deutsch.”

      1. Thunderingly*

        Besides the term “Pennsylvania Dutch”, I would always use German to mean related to Germany and Dutch for the Netherlands. Is this different in other areas?

      2. Frank Doyle*

        No, it usually doesn’t, except in the actual example of “Pennsylvania Dutch.” Maybe there are some other archaic terms describing food or items or such, but if someone uses “Dutch” as a descriptor in conversation (especially describing a person!) we’re going to think they mean someone from Holland and/or the Netherlands.

      3. 'Tis Me*

        … So what do you use as a descriptor when you actually mean “Dutch”? (Also, given that I have no idea… states they’re from The Netherlands, surely the context would mean few USians would still be thinking they mean German?)

      4. anony*

        Wha….? This is not true in any part of the US I’ve ever lived in. Dutch means Dutch, not German.

      5. Marni*

        I think Mae is referring to the user name. Although I just looked it up and apparently Dutch Ovens (the cooking pots) are named for the Netherlands, not a bastardization of Deutsch.

    4. allathian*

      Yeah. I’m in Finland and rarely take sick leave because I have banked working hours I can use instead, pretty much at my own discretion. I will take sick leave if I’m too sick to go to work or to attend a meeting I’ve accepted the invite to. Although I might work at least part of the day at home, if I have my laptop with me. This in non-pandemic times.

      For the past year, I haven’t taken a single day off work sick, because I haven’t been sick. Thanks to staying at home most of the time due to Covid restrictions, I haven’t even had a seasonal cold.

      One thing to remember is that whatever the sick leave regulations are, most people get much more vacation/personal time off in Europe than they do in the US. I’ve worked for the government in Finland for more than 15 years (for 2 different employers) and I get 38 vacation days per year. A whole week’s vacation takes 5 days of that. My husband who works for the private sector gets 25 vacation days, 4 weeks in the summer and the rest whenever. Most employees in the US get a lot less vacation than we do.

  18. Smithy*

    LW2: While all of the advice is great for managing your current workplace, I’d really challenge you to consider whether it might be time to look for a new job. Especially if you’ve already been there for at least 2 years.

    Smaller nonprofits can cultivate a micromanagement style because it’s possible to have your hands in everything even if it’s not a good idea. The flatter/smaller structures also struggle to make natural paths for growth – where you may find yourself looking at your job and then a leap in seniority that is daunting. Your team has you, and your senior boss. It may simply be that the size and nature of this organization will never naturally allow for the next level of responsibility.

    Going from a small organization to a larger one I found alleviated a lot of stresses and anxieties because there were more formal structures in place for intermediate growth. I was less likely to mess anything up and got the opportunity to increase my responsibility all while having more structure. Big nonprofits can certainly fall into their own messed up traps, but if you’re looking to grow and struggling in a small place – it’s time to look for a new job. And that’s fine!

  19. ThatGirl*

    I wonder in LW1 has been strategically honest with their boss at all – I might try saying “can we schedule weekly short check-ins and keep them to an hour? I really need to spend less time on the phone so I can focus more on (actual work/making dinner/walking the dog/insert other excuse as needed). I really appreciate you understanding!” Now, that may not work – anyone who thinks it’s totally cool to keep their report on the phone until 7:30 p.m. may not have great boundaries. But I think a one-time big-picture conversation might help, if it hasn’t come up yet — then you can deploy the rest of the advice as needed.

    1. Sugaree*

      Speaking from experience, it still may not work. My current boss has scheduled “non-work” meetings—15 min twice a week—that end up being 1-2 hours. It’s frustrating.

      1. ThatGirl*

        No, it may not — and only the LW knows if it might even work at all. But I figured it was worth a suggestion, that at least you can say you tried having that conversation.

        1. Sugaree*

          I completely agree! I def didn’t mean to indicate it was a bad idea. Commenting before coffee apologies. :)

  20. Alexis Rose*

    LW3, the amount that you’re getting sick is…a lot. If you’re somewhere that social-distancing policies are still in effect and you’re getting sick this much, that sounds really concerning. I work with students and I usually get multiple colds each winter because students are germy. But this year I haven’t had a single cold thanks to distancing and masking.

    You say that doctors have found you fine, but I’m wondering if they need to dig a little deeper. Sometimes doctors don’t take seriously the small afflictions that can still seriously impact your qualify of life.

    1. nona*

      I find it totally believable that OP just need a freaking rest and there’s nothing to dig deeper on. If OP hasn’t had a chance for down time (more than a weekend), then it’s not that she keeps getting sick, it’s that she is *still* sick (stressed, whatever), and needs to be able to completely unplugged to recover.

      I say this as some one who just spent a week feeling sick and fatigued because (I think) of a combination of eye strain, post-nasal drip from allergies, a massive muscle knot at the base of my skull (which contributed to a headache and eye strain), and all of that keeping me from getting quality sleep.

  21. Lacey*

    LW: It sounds like your boss knows she stays on the phone too long and probably doesn’t even like staying on the phone that long. She has trouble getting off the phone and you will be helping her by setting firm time limits on phone calls.

    1. Mallory*

      I experience this. I like when my interlocutor takes charge of ending a conversation and I instruct my social circle accordingly. (“I’m bad at wrapping up conversations, so if you need to go, please just say so and get up! You’re not being rude!”)

      I tend to get confused when people use soft language, for example:
      Me: “I fed my ducks today.”
      They: “I have to leave in a minute.”
      (They are sometimes intending to convey: I can’t talk about ducks. I need to go right now.)
      (I hear: They have to leave soon. When they need to leave, they will indicate as such, for example, by standing up.)
      Me: “Okay. Do you ever feed ducks?”
      They: “Yes, I feed ducks every Saturday.”
      (Duck conversation ensues.)

      This doesn’t happen much at work because I err on the side of barely socializing there, but it happens in my social life.

      And I’ve been on the other side of this as well, such as on the phone with elderly relatives. Gentle ways to end a conversation: you need to go to the grocery store, you need to go to the bathroom, you need to cook dinner, your partner is calling that dinner or tea is ready.

      1. I can never decide on a lasting name*

        This may explain my confusion with people who continue conversation frustratingly long – to me, “I need to leave in a minute” is not soft, it is a clear message that I need to go. Mallory, what constitutes ‘hard’ language to you? Very curious!

        1. fposte*

          But then you don’t go in a minute–that’s where you get off track.

          I get it, in that I use “I need to leave in a minute” myself and a lot of people understand it. But it doesn’t mean what it says–it means “We both need to wind down the conversation in acknowledgment of its ending.” You need to find a way to deliver even if the other side doesn’t wind down.

        2. Mallory*

          “I have to leave in a minute,” and then, one or two minutes after that, “I have to leave now.” (And then don’t continue the conversation. Stand up, reach for your coat, etcetera. If you continue talking, I’ll continue being a good host and continue entertaining you.)
          “I have to leave once I finish my coffee” and then when you put your mug down, stand up.

          Or you can go immediately for “I have to leave (now)” and leave. That’s rather abrupt so I would only do that if you truly have to leave right this instant, and say why, e.g. mention your other engagement.

          If you say you are leaving (‘now’ stated or implied), and then you don’t leave within a minute, I’ll be confused as well as experience the special type of disappointment that happens when an introvert is promised they will be able to recharge any moment now, and then don’t. My brain will go, “They said they are leaving, so I don’t have to talk. Rest modus activated. They’re not leaving? Then we shouldn’t be silent. Find subject to talk about. Social modus activated. I’m tired.”

          I would generally not consider “We should get dinner sometime” or “I’ll see you next week at Wakeen’s birthday party” as ‘continuing the conversation’ although it will be if you start bringing up what present you got Wakeen or something else that seems to ask for a meaningful response.

          In the past I noticed that I tend to continue conversations while people are putting on their coat, but the other person would frequently pause putting on their coat while I talked and/or while they responded, so I’ve stopped doing that. But if someone is talking to you while you are in the process of leaving, I recommend you continue leaving.
          (This also applies to other rote activities. I noticed this as a grocery stocker – I would occasionally try to chat with coworkers *while* stocking or rearranging a shelf, and they would pause their movements to listen and/or pause to respond. I stopped doing that as well once I noticed that, as it didn’t feel fair that they weren’t stocking as much as I did!)

          1. Frank Doyle*

            I think that if you are like “I fed my ducks today” and then they say “I have to leave in a minute” that means they would like you to keep your duck story short; they want you to finish your thought, but they still want to leave soon without interrupting you. They want you to give them an opening so that they can put down their tea or pick up their coat or whatever. They don’t want to be rude and interrupt you, so they’re asking you to leave an opening in your conversation, to wrap it up naturally. They are warning you not to start a long story — they’re giving you either the opportunity to say “oh that was it, I just fed them today. It was nice to see you!” or “oh, it’s a long story, I’ll save it for next time. It was nice to see you!”

            1. nonegiven*

              >they say “I have to leave in a minute”

              Then you should say, “Oh, well then let me get your coat. Would you like a piece of this cake wrapped up to take with you? Thank you for coming, it was good to see you. Goodbye.”

          2. Allonge*

            So this is very late but I think the issue is that once somebody says ‘I have to leave in a minute’, they are 1. most likely not meaning 60 seconds exactly and 2. they are actually expecting to start the good-bye script i.e. it was nice talking to you / seeing you etc.

            If the host starts an unrelated new conversation, that would feel like they have not even acknowledged the desire to leave. As it’s rude to interrupt conversations, they stay. (Same as, they stop doing things when you are talking to them because it can feel rude not to direct all attention to the conversation).

            Solution: unless there is an actual thing to discuss still (when you will next meet, who buys the flowers for Moshi’s birthday next week etc), do not bring up a new topic. Say it was nice to see them, maybe refer back to something you conversed about, but no new topic unrelated to the leaving. Asking when you till talk next is ok. Thanking them for any gifts they brought is ok. In some cultures, you are expected to express disappointment that they are leaving so soon (even if it was a two year visit), or offer to pack some of the food. They might offer to help clean up. But all this is the script of leaving.

      2. Cat Tree*

        One benefit of being pregnant is that I can easily end any conversation because I’m being kicked in the bladder from the inside. And it’s not even lying because I pretty much always need to pee, just sometimes it’s less urgent than other times.

        1. CCSF*

          Mine are 25 and 18, I do not miss them being little, but I do miss having “the kid” excuse available to me. lol

          Just yesterday I used my son texting me with urgent, deadline related scholarship questions as a way to get off a call.

  22. Janet Pinkerton*

    I found this bit interesting:

    Any workplace that experiences significant setbacks if just one employee is out for a few weeks to recover from an illness is revealing a management problem. What is their plan if someone gets COVID-19 or something else that makes them seriously ill? I mean, I know the real answer is “wing it + everyone else will obviously do even more work,”

    I mean, I’ve had an employee out unexpectedly for 32 days now. We’ve adapted but we’re definitely winging it. Pushing what we can, spreading out the rest. But I don’t expect that workplaces can realistically have as much slack as this comment presumes.

    I’ve also had a coworker pass away unexpectedly. As we dug out from his work, the management issue of him being insufficiently managed became clear, but even if he’d had perfect management, we still would have been scrambling and doing more work.

    I guess what I’m saying is that I fully agree in theory but I’m not sure how to implement in practice.

    1. RabbitRabbit*

      My guesses: cross-training to ensure coverage can be done easily, ease of access to employees’ workflow, access to appropriate temp employees as needed, sufficient staffing. (Sufficient = if everyone is working at 100+% all the time, you are overworked and that is not sufficient.)

      1. Seven hobbits are highly effective, people*

        Cross-training can only go so far in academia, though. Generally, each department will have one person who specializes in x, and other people in that department will have other specialties. They may not have thought much about x since they sat through x-class in undergrad (or ever, if it’s sufficiently specialized), and may not be able to cover a class on it at the drop of a hat.

        For example, in undergrad I took a communication class that, among other things, taught how to use our on-campus 3 camera TV studio. If the media-specialist communication professor hasn’t been available, I suspect the communication professor who generally taught things like classic rhetoric would have had a great deal of difficulty covering for him. I also remember one of my computer science professors planning to cancel classes for a week when he needed to go to a conference for similar reasons. (I ended up locating a guest speaker from industry for one of the cancelled days just because I knew someone local who would do it, but that was initiative I took as a student rather than some coverage plan the professor came up with.)

    2. introverted af*

      I think the comment just means that management should be planning for this to a degree. Hypothetically any position could have the person filling it need short- or long-term disability leave, and likely use all their sick time on top of that to stretch those. So what would you do if that happened? What’s absolutely critical to keep happening if they’re gone for a week, a month or 6 months? How will that get covered? Maybe if they’re out 6 months you need a temp. Maybe if they’re out a week, it’s unlikely anything is mission critical so their supervisor covers. Just think about what your organization can do if you’re in this situation and have it written down. If you’ve never covered it with your staff before, talk about it as part of a regular meeting – “we’re reviewing procedures in case of unexpected absences, especially longer term. We’re not expecting anything in particular, but wanted to make sure we are prepared in case of the worst – this year has certainly highlighted how quickly things can change. Here’s our general plan for how we’ll cover XYZ tasks that we consider mission critical.”

      Then after this, it should be a part of onboarding new people like – “if you have to be out, your tasks will be covered in XYZ way, so make sure if anything changes that Sasha is kept in the loop. You’re also responsible for covering ABC for Sasha if she’s out for a week to a month. Outside that we’ll look at you and Basira splitting up the work, depending if there is a longer timeframe.”

      That said, I don’t think that it’s unreasonable to know that the person who’s out will have catch up work to do when they return, depending on size of the organization and their level of specialization. At my old job, some of my coworkers could have helped with some of my work because we cross-trained a fair bit because we were so small, but some of my work would have been left until I returned. At my current job, I’m one of 7 in my position, so some things might still be left for my return, but the mission critical stuff would be split up and covered. We’re currently covering for 2 unfilled positions as it is due to retirements and a hiring freeze.

    3. Qwerty*

      I wondered if maybe it was supposed to say a few days rather than a few weeks? I’d be interested in learning about how other places are prepared for unexpected multi-week absences. Even before leaving on a week long vacation my coworkers will usually meet up with someone to do a knowledge transfer in case anything comes up about the project while they are gone (we don’t contact people on vacation/sick time). If someone is out for a few days it’s a lot easier to just wait it out for them to get back.

    4. Knope Knope Knope*

      I think there’s a difference between feeling overwhelmed when an employee essentially leaves versus creating systems that allow people to take their allotted sick days.

    5. kt*

      What I find interesting about the answer is that in my experience academia has no management :) There may be profs pressed into service on a departmental level, and they might even occasionally be good at it, but there is no pro-active management in the people-managing sense: it is not anyone’s job. It is the chair’s job to get classes covered, and if someone gets sick for weeks it’s maybe the chair’s job to get an emergency adjunct hired who may or may not do a good job, and maybe maybe they’ll get someone to step in for an important committee assignment. I have had plenty of friends though who had to arrange their own maternity leave coverage.

      As for research, mentoring students, writing grants, etc? There is no coverage.

      Folks need to understand that academia is a bunch of solo entrepreneurs sharing a building and jointly teaching some classes. It’s a farmer’s market, not a corporation. If the gal selling barbecue sauce at the farmers market get sick, no one else from the farmer’s market has any sense that they need to take responsibility for selling barbecue sauce — it just won’t be a stall at the market for a while. Maybe they’ll send a card, but that’s all unless there’s a close personal relationship to bind them.

    6. Captain Awkward*

      Hello, it was my assertion, so I’ll gladly answer!

      It’s not that there should never be work waiting or piled up after an absence, or that nobody should ever wing anything, but it is a management responsibility to:
      1) Have clear policies for taking leave.
      2) Have consistent guidelines on how to actually use those policies.
      3) Have some kind of Plan B for carrying on with essential work in case someone does need to be out more than a day or so. (For example, ideally Professor X would teach 100% of their own classes, but if they needed to cancel, who approves substitute lectures, how are they paid, what is that process like? If they need to cancel more than once, what happens then? Are there written waivers for “academic service” requirements that could be granted for the remainder of the semester and go in the tenure file? Maybe so, but if so, why is it a secret?)
      4) Maintain appropriate staffing levels so that everyone is not expected to be at 100-110% capacity at all times.
      5) Allocate resources and plan work in a way that recognizes that people are only human. A system that only works as long as nobody is never sick or disabled (or pregnant, or grieving, or distracted by a personal crisis) is a system that is already unbalanced.

      Academic departments are managed by current/former professors, sometimes a revolving series of professors who trade off in the chair’s role, and who may not have ever had any management training. Not all good researchers are good teachers, not all good teachers are good managers, and there is culture of “If I don’t already know about it, it must not be all that important” to contend with, too, as Higher Ed pretends that it would never sully its hands with “business.” Universities generally do have copious guidelines for all of this, but it’s a crapshoot whether anyone in the Letter Writer’s direct chain of command has actually implemented any of it before.

      This is a management problem, specifically, because when a crisis hits, the person who is sick and already overwhelmed is the one who has to suss out and navigate both the written rules and the secret, unwritten rules of getting what they need without making the situation even worse. A competent manager could step in here and say, “You’re not the first or only person who has ever needed to arrange this, here are the written policies we have, and here is what we usually do when this happens to make sure that the work gets covered, so that you can both recover your health and stay on track for promotion. Let’s sit down and plan it out together.”

      That’s not the message that Letter Writer#3 is getting. And if “Am I even allowed to take time off?” is a guessing game, that’s a management issue, not an individual failure.

      1. Mae*

        FYI – Harvard requires all professors to have a full typed up version of their lectures on file in their office, where someone has access to them, so that another professor can give their lecture if they are unable to get to class for any reason. Don’t know if this is also true for graduate classes. Some professors actually worked from this version. Some passed them out to students. Don’t know if this is better than the usual way of doing things or not. (Worked as an admin at Harvard some years ago.)

      2. Janet Pinkerton*

        Thanks, Cap! What you said here about “I am the manager and I will help you navigate the logistics of this” really resonated—I think that’s probably the crux of it for me. Appreciate your thoughtful comment!

        1. Captain Awkward*

          You’re welcome! It was a very good question.

          Why I keep emphasizing management responsibilities over individual ones even while “teaching” self-advocacy tools: By making every sick or disabled person have to re-discover or re-invent how to take necessary time off from scratch each time it happens, often within institutions that have existed and been staffed by not-invincible humans for literal centuries, it reinforces a toxic system where any weakness or inability to perform at all times can be written off as an outlier issue that’s at the discretion of how ‘forgiving’ or ‘aware’ individual department managers feel like being. “It’s not that we make it impossible to thrive here, it’s that you’re ‘a bad fit’.”

          If people in power have to be benevolent for you to have rights, and if you have to navigate everything just so in order to access those rights, then they aren’t exactly rights. The job security and freedom of tenure doesn’t trickle down to adjuncts, but our precarity definitely seeps up to everyone else.

  23. Sugaree*

    OP1, we may have the same boss. This AM, me sending a quick “Is there anything that needs to be prepared for the 9:30 meeting?” chat in Teams turned into a 45 minute whole-team call. The call, which was only minimally about work, was longer than the meeting I asked about…

  24. A Nonny Mouse*

    Jennifer’s advice/commentary on academia is so spot-on that I am keeping it as a doc on my desktop, to remind me that it is not me, the field is toxic. Thank you!

  25. Antilles*

    Often if you act as if of course everyone in the conversation will agree that Reasonable Thing X is reasonable, because it is so clearly obvious to all people of sense, you will find that they don’t object.
    I’m just going to second this advice, because it really does work. How you act has a huge impact how people respond to things.
    If you act like something (e.g.., holding a phone call to 30 minutes) is a big deal or an imposition or etc, the other person will often treat it as such. But if you carry it off like it’s a totally normal and reasonable thing and of course we would do this, you’ll be shocked at how often the other person just goes right along without hesitation.

  26. Delurking*

    LW1 – one tip I found really useful was that when you want to end a call (assuming you’re not on video), stand up. It seems to change something in your tone and what you say that triggers wrapping up a conversation. It’s worked for me on quite a few occasions – even if it takes a few minutes, stay standing. Hopefully it might help you too!

  27. Ann*

    LW3: Have the doctors checked your tonsils? I’m not kidding. When I was in grad school, I was getting sick ALL THE TIME. It turned out I needed my tonsils out (which, I can tell you, is no fun at all to have done when one is an adult–but I was much, much healthier afterwards).

    1. Maggie*

      Just swinging by to say it can be both, too! I had my tonsils taken out at the late age of 24, and it helped immensely, but now that I’m 37, I am still generally run down by a year of zoom teaching and no sick days because my neck/lymph system is still my Achilles heel even with my tonsils out.

  28. Sara without an H*

    OP#3, I have nothing to add to the excellent advice already given here. But your letter just confirms my conviction that higher education runs on one of the most corrupt labor systems on the planet.

    Good luck, and take care of yourself.

  29. hbc*

    OP2: My motto lately has been “The shorter the question, the longer the answer.” I’ve got employees in nearly identical situations sometimes, and I can answer one in 15 seconds while the other takes a week, simply due to how much information they present me at the outset.

    And while it may not turn a micromanager into a free-range boss, I’ve found that being specific gives them something tangible (and limited!) to micromanage and feel like they’ve put their stamp on it. It also serves as a nice reference if they’re the lovely breed of person who changes their mind and loses all memory of having had a different opinion.

  30. Higher Ed Tenure Track*

    I so get what you are dealing with. Before there is an avalanche of “just take a sick day” comments, know that I have 20 years of experience in a few higher ed positions.
    As someone who has chronic illness and pain with unanticipated relapse/flares, I plan for illness/bad days in the syllabus, assignments and class time.
    Good days are spent in anticipation of bad days- lecture prep, grading, etc.
    The dreaded group work assignment is a lifesaver.
    Give students the gift of time for small group discussion (yes on zoom)
    All things that can be done with low energy/ability on your part- reporting out findings/observations from assigned reading. Answering prepared questions and then discussion time.
    Invite a colleague/Friend/ peer to take a class session to offer expertise on a specific topic. (I have great colleagues who will be my surprise guest/ sub on short notice)
    Give a research assignment and plan that at least one class will be cancelled due to illness- again- gift of time for the students. On that note- have a list of virtual field trips in your specialty and have the students explore and write a reflection of their observations with factual support. Use class time for reporting out their reflections and intertextual connections.
    Have your students create essay questions for the midterm exam. Take a class period to discuss the questions and answers.

    And yes. All school breaks are spent recovering from the semester.
    In retrospect, the most valuable assets for a teacher is not knowledge or teaching skills, it is good health and stamina.

    1. Esmeralda*

      Yes, the guest speaker is excellent. Students will be happy to hear from someone else! This semester — 14 weeks synchronous (omg, it’s killing me)– I will have had 9 guest speakers, anywhere from 10 to 40 minutes.

      1. Blackcat*

        Yes, and invite grad students/post docs/people outside academia.
        While post-doc-ing, I loved popping into classes to guest lecture! I missed teaching during that time and enjoyed the opportunity to “teach” for a day.
        As a grad student, I regularly covered classes for faculty (not “guest lecture” in an advanced class, which is what I did more of as a post-doc, but “Prof X is at a conference, so I, lowly grad student, am here to teach about electrochemisty!”). It sounds like OP might might be at a grad-school-having institution, but maybe reach out to your PhD institution and see if there are PhD students willing to gather more “teaching experience” if you are in a field where grad students do not teach their own classes.

    2. fposte*

      And the great blessing of the pandemic is you can have guest lecturers from anywhere on the planet.

      1. Higher Ed Tenure Track*

        Yes, I have done two this semester at neighboring institutions, one international, and one in a city thousands of miles from me. All zoom. just paying it forward

  31. Mockingjay*

    OP2: What Alison and Jennifer suggest are EXACTLY what I have done for years. Rough out the steps and timeline into a schedule, get some corroborated info (quotes, expected staffing, whatever), then present the boss with Option 1 and Option 2 before you begin. This is what your boss is looking for.

    I don’t think Boss is a micromanager – being unreachable/busy makes him the opposite. When “he wants to be involved in every decision to maximize our reach,” this doesn’t mean second-guessing you. It means he wants you to do the preliminary work and present it to him so he can decide up front which direction to go. “Option 1 sounds good, go ahead.” Or “Hmmm, Option 2 would work, but can you get a couple more quotes for caterers? We’ve got a tight budget.”

    I heartily concur that you have a sit-down meeting with Boss to go over workflow. Keep in mind that this is about developing an efficient process, not about you personally, which might help your anxiety. Focus on providing consistent realistic timelines (Jennifer is spot-on about having a cushion for delays) and accurate facts, and I think you’ll develop a really strong, beneficial relationship with Boss.

    1. Threeve*

      He’s just a micromanager who micromanages inefficiently.

      Even if he isn’t hovering over OP’s shoulder, the effect is the same–she doesn’t feel like she can make decisions independently because there are frequently consequences to not looping him in on everything.

    2. Smithy*

      I disagree that this isn’t micromanaging – but where I’m more curious is what the OP’s boss has in mind long term for this role and whether there exists any growth.

      It may be that at the end of the day, the OP’s boss sees themselves holding onto all external policy/advocacy outreach work and only wants the OP to bring together materials, strategy, email text, etc. that the boss then decides what’s best to use. For the size and nature of this organization, it may be that the need for the OP’s job will always include that and will never include the OP taking on more external roles beyond more administrative tasks.

      At a smaller nonprofit, it can become difficult to assess if your job may never significantly evolve and growth opportunities are more by chance (i.e. parental leave, FMLA). In these cases you can work really hard to identify growth opportunities – or leave for organizations that have more mid-level roles that allow for more natural growth.

      When I was in a small organization, I reported directly into the CEO on a team of one person. Long-term, my options were to wildly exceed expectations thereby forcing a situation where I could justify hiring a direct report. The other option was to wait until the CEO retired and if I was honest about my experience – there was no way I could ever get the experience to become the CEO of the organization just being in my role.

      I heartily encourage the OP to ask themselves that if their boss left – would they be a reasonable candidate to take on their job. And if the answer is no, is there are real way they could ever get the skills to take on their boss’ role by doing their own job for more years. The nonprofit world can be great, but doesn’t always provide the most honest mentoring when it comes how to grow yourself professionally – and more than not, sticking in a place for 2-5 years and then leaving, really is the right call.

      1. OP2*

        OP2 Here.

        Smithy, this is really helpful framing to think about (and your above comment too!) I’m the first person to hold the position, and you’re right, there isn’t upward mobility unless another position is created (and if there was, I’m not sure what the difference in responsibilities would be), because my boss isn’t going anywhere fast. 

        Boss and I haven’t really had a conversation about long term goals, but it does seem like supporting his work with content, strategy, etc is the priority. I don’t know that I could take over my boss’s role tomorrow with any sort of confidence. That’s making me think that maybe I need to start looking for another role as a step up to start turning up the heat on learning those skills. 

        1. Smithy*

          Happy this helps!

          When I started, I was the only fundraiser in an organization where the Finance Director had been a fundraiser for about 4 decades and he was my mentor while the CEO was my boss. My learning curve was steep and fascinating, but I didn’t really anchor my professional growth until I started working for a larger organization where I had peers who were also on their own development path. And even then, learning when it was best to move on wasn’t always obvious.

          I know that hearing the phrase “the best way to move up, is to gain experience elsewhere” can sometimes feel like you’re not valued. But I’ve come to learn it’s far more worse to repeatedly hear from bosses that you still don’t have enough experience to take on growth opportunities – but where there’s no way to get those growth opportunities internally.

          Either larger organizations or teams structured differently are far more likely to have growth built into the job description. If right now you’re not managing any external work yourself, it’s not uncommon to see opportunities in other places where you support your boss on select large projects, while independently managing smaller ones.

          Alison and Jennifer provide excellent feedback to rethinking your day to day work. And I know I’m partially just reading your letter with the eyes of my old self, but when I was in a role that I’d outgrown it was actually when I found myself the most anxious and flailing. I was trying to manufacture growth and increased responsibility where none existed. And that made me far more anxious and insecure than when I functioning with the job 3 months in.

        2. Captain Awkward*

          Hello! Even if your boss is great, it’s smart to think about what the next logical iteration of your role is and look around for where that next step is most likely to happen to you.

          When I worked in DC consulting and communications firms (5+ years), there was a definite demarcation between “senior subject area experts who also manage teams/projects” (like your boss) and “project staff who support the admin & technical work” (like you) *without* a direct pathway from one to the other. Usually people worked for 2-3 years at the second kind of job, left to get more school or direct experience somewhere else, and then went after the first kind. The exceptions tended to happen when the senior person bonded closely with a junior, the Don Draper finding a Peggy Olson, and *made* a pathway for the junior person to grow – creating new positions, taking that person along with them when they move, etc.

          I forgot to say this in the initial response, but if you can create a regular structure and template that works for you – preparing and presenting limited options for your boss’s input in predictable, consistent ways – one benefit is that it might grow trust between you and your boss over time. A good outcome here is that he starts to trust you have things mostly handled and that you’ll loop him in where needed, and this will free him up to focus on other things. If it doesn’t work out that way, you’ll have a solid practice you can bring to your next opportunity. Good luck.

  32. yarnlife*

    For LW3, gmail and gsuite email addresses offer the option of templated responses and scheduling sends, both of which can be huge time/energy savers.

    Templated responses are under advanced settings. I usually use it for any scripts plus any questions that I have to answer over and over again – instead of putting in the emotional energy to craft a response (and then having an anxiety meltdown over it), I just pick the most relevant script and send it out.

    I use scheduling sends when I want to maintain boundaries (no I will not respond to a non-urgent email over break, no matter how many times you email me) but I also want to clear out my inbox. I answer all the emails and schedule them to go out on the first or second day back at work. No one has to know the email was answered while on break and there’s no dealing with back and forth until I’m back at work.

    1. calonkat*

      I would add that create your auto response with some of the common answers:
      * Link to the syllabus and common info found there (a stressed student might not remember that’s where the test dates are)
      * Link to commonly asked for school sites or people
      * List the “standard answer” to questions
      And state that if the answer to the email can be found in the above, you’ll assume the student found the answer on their own and you won’t be responding.

  33. lemon meringue*

    LW3, I can’t comment on the academia part of this, but for the health piece, I could have written this exact same description. Like you, I have come to the conclusion that these are stress and anxiety symptoms, although it took me over a decade to realize that. In addition for pushing for the time off you deserve, I’d recommend therapy to develop some strategies to avoid getting sucked into the illness/exhaustion spiral, because it’s so hard to drag yourself out of once you’re in it. Sorry, I realize this wasn’t really the question, but I just wish I could go back in time and give myself this advice!

  34. Haven’t picked a user name yet*

    OP #2 – learn to manage up. That is the buzzword for it, but developing those skills will make the rest of your career easier. You will always have a boss and the steps laid out by Jennifer and Allison will be key with every single one of them. How can you give them what they need while allowing you to be successful. I am sure there are many books out there, but I have found that the higher I rise in my organization, the busier my bosses are and the more they appreciate my managing of them. Each boss is different and none are perfect. If anyone has any books to recommend I am sure they are out there! Good luck.

  35. Esmeralda*

    Yeah, academia sucks.

    In additon to Capn A’s excellent suggestions:

    I suggest you make some of your classes “workshops” where you give students time in class to work on whatever thing they should be working on (read and take notes on X, meet with your presentation group in break out room set up for you, work on draft of Y paper, whatever). You hang out to answer any questions.

    As for the other crap: You can join the staff meeting but leave your camera off. In the chat, type in “Ugh, technical problems, camera is on the fritz AGAIN!” Presentations you “must” attend but don’t actually have to participate in: if there’s a camera expectation, politely apologize for camera problems. Then take nap. Set timer for five minutes before ending time so you can leave the meeting.

    Having asynch materials for the students for when you’re sick: that’s taking good care of your students and you need to express that to your chair, pointing out that it’s just one or two classes. and this way no one has to cover your class for you. (And really, asking for someone to cover one or two classes is not a big thing, especially since you’ve clearly got everything planned.)

    Take a weeklong nap, OP. See a doc. Do some pleasant, self-affirming, non-work-related activities.

    1. calonkat*

      I also had my microphone go out on my laptop (for real, it was terribly fuzzy/buzzy and people asked me to type my answers) so if my headset is out of charge, I honestly can’t talk on the call. Of course I make sure it’s well charged if it’s MY call/workshop or one I have input onto, but I don’t worry if I’m just there as part of a team. And sometimes those darn LED lights are out of power and everyone knows my condo is a cave.

  36. Not playing your game anymore*

    LW 2, Some great advice from J & A. I second all of it with one addition. If you are giving boss the option of A or B, make sure that you are good with both options. I had a wonderful boss who actually asked us to operate much like the suggestions, even including the boss day padding. It worked great, but she had a positive genius for picking the hard, more time consuming, ickier option. I don’t think it was deliberate. For instance, if you were planning a 2.5 day offsite meeting and the best option was all day Wen and Thur and Friday Am, 2nd best 1/2 day Wen, full day Thur and Fri, and 3rd best was all day Thur and Fri, 1/2 day Sat. She’d go for the third, never mind that it wasn’t popular and really messed with peoples weekends. She’s the one that decided we needed to open early on Sundays, as some people like to study then!!

    LW 3 be kind to yourself. If a library day makes sense, lots of us have zoom library tours ready to go. If there’s a video, to show or an easier way to grade papers and tests go with it.

  37. EmSpinach*

    For LW3: there is great advice in the comments and I second all the advice to give yourself permission to drop service/research for the remainder of the semester. But I wanted to add from the perspective of a department head: as a FT employee in the US you are almost certainly eligible for FMLA, assuming you have been employed for more than a year (if you haven’t been, my sincere condolences on what is likely to be the worst year of your professional life, knock wood, happening in your first year of employment).

    If you need time to deal with a chronic illness (which a mental health situation is!), keep your department head in the loop, but also talk to HR to make sure you understand what your legal rights are. Here’s the thing: if you need that leave and are entitled to it, it is up to your workplace to figure out how to make that happen. As an example, this past semester I had to hire an adjunct mid-semester to cover the classes of a colleague who became gravely ill with COVID. Was it ideal? No, not for anyone. Did we make it work? Yep. Your department chair will need to push upwards on the hierarchy to make sure that your dean and provost understand that it is a necessity that these classes be covered, but there is always a way for that to happen–the proverbial “what if you got hit by a bus??” question is relevant here.

    Of course, there are some fields where this will be far more challenging than others (for example, if you have upper-level students engaged in a research project in your lab that no adjuncts are qualified to oversee). In that case, it might be a case of having colleagues step in on a rotating schedule, or of distributing your students across other existing sections of your courses. But assuming you are legally entitled to FMLA, it is not up to you to figure out how to cover the time you need off beyond making sure you have a clear syllabus, lesson plans, etc, that can be handed off to someone else.

    I know this would be a far easier thing to put your foot down on if you were already tenured as opposed to just on the tenure track. But if you push yourself to (or past) the point of burnout now, that’s going to have ripple effects for years (ask me how I know :/). Taking time if you need it is a short-term solution that will hopefully alleviate much longer-term projects.

  38. Rage*

    #1 – my friends and I have a thing called “peanut butter”. Basically, it means if one of us works that phrase into a conversation, we are asking for a rescue. An example: I called a friend and she said, “Oh, I’m glad you called – when can I pick up those peanut butter cookies?” I replied, “Later this afternoon.” She said “OK” and then we hung up. I waited a couple of minutes and then called her back with a breathless “OMG my dog just got hit by a car and we’re going to the vet can you meet me there?” (Or “I’ve got a flat tire on the highway, can you come get me?” Or “I think I have a kidney stone; can you drive me to the ER?”) Gives her a perfect reason to get out of the situation she’s in, whatever it is.

    If we’re stuck on the phone with somebody, we just text “peanut butter” and wait for somebody to call, which gets us off the phone.

    It might be a little weird to set it up with a coworker, since obviously they’ll realize you’re trying to get off the phone with your boss, but setting up a code word with a friend would be easy. Then just text them so you have the excuse to get off the phone.

    1. Batgirl*

      Oh that’s genius: the call waiting signal interrupts the boss. You can’t keep going through that thing. I might even get a burner for my mum to do this with. I have an aunt who ties her to the phone for hours.

  39. Batgirl*

    OP1, if your boss is a real oxygen thief, the kind it’s difficult to interrupt becauseshegoesonandonandtheresnogaptointerrupt you’re going to need a few golden rules:
    1) Tell her when your hard stop is at the beginning.
    2) Don’t wait for her agreement to sign off. Don’t wait for her to reciprocate a farewell. She can’t do it! Instead of the goodbye pingpong, you need the goodbye countdown. Start the countdown half way through, and say “We’ve got x mins left, so back to the agenda”. As soon as you’ve discussed everything on the agenda, and you know she’s just waffling now, tell her you’re x mins from that hard stop, giving her just one more chance to let you know if there’s anything still relevant to say. If you have a situation where it’s simply more waffle plus you’ve reached your hard stop say: OK, well since there’s nothing else, I have to ring off, so bye!” Then just hang up! Ping your own doorbell at first if that helps.
    2) Acknowledge that the thing holding you back is fear of her getting offended; so just role play out that fear in your mind. If she felt a half hour conversation in which you checked if there was anything else before signing off at the agreed time was too brusque, how would she even phrase that? If she managed to and then you asked her “OK so, if the call is longer than we set aside time for, how would you like me to wrap up calls? Do you need to me to let you know that I need to visit the bathroom or go make dinner?” Think: how would she respond?” Even if she has appalling expectations, at least you’d be having a two way conversation in the “offended” scenario.

    1. LW1*

      I like the thought of not waiting for her agreement to sign off. I often feel like I say “ok thank you, I’ll do that right now and then x y and z” and she launches into something else. I may see that as a signal that I’m done, but she either doesn’t or doesn’t care. Thanks for your insight! You’re correct that I’m afraid of offending her, but she is pretty straightforward and also nice so I think if I did then she’d want to talk it out but wouldn’t be angry.

      1. Batgirl*

        That’s definitely not a sign off signal to a chatty person. You need stuff more directly to the point of “I’m going” like “So is there anything else before I go?”
        “So, I’ll let you go now”
        “Well, have a great evening now”
        “I’m have to go but we’ll talk tomorrow. Take care!”
        “So anyway, we seem to be done here and I’ll talk to you tomorrow”
        If signals don’t take, repeat once “Yes, but like I said I’ll let you go now!” Or “Ok and again, be sure to enjoy your evening”. If repeating doesn’t work, move to bailing with the “Well, bye now!” plus hangup straightaway.

  40. HigherEdStaff*

    LW3- Ah academia. If it helps, staff also are underpaid and overworked with a culture of glorified busy-ness For the Sake of The Students (sometimes with an underlying guilt trip if we have to say no due to bandwidth). I am lucky to have a very supportive team, boss, and division but my colleagues are very burnt out- especially during this pandemic and scrambling to retain students. I cannot speak advice for faculty, just know we hear you!!

  41. Batgirl*

    Oh that’s genius: the call waiting signal interrupts the boss. You can’t keep going through that thing. I might even get a burner for my mum to do this with. I have an aunt who ties her to the phone for hours.

  42. Sami*

    1- I read this recently in the comments of another advice column (Philip Galanes I think) “Let me let you go.” It makes it as if you’re doing the long-winded talker a favor. You can, of course, pair it with any kind of excuse (real or not) but you don’t need to. Be cheerful and then go.

    1. Filosofickle*

      Argh, I HATE THAT. Just say you have to go! Excuse or not, I am fine with someone wanting to get off a call. But it really bothers me when people disingenuously imply they’re doing me a favor when they are the one who wants to go.

  43. Rock Prof*

    I’m tenured academic at a regional institution where my tenure was also really well supported and not incredibly difficult to do (at least compared to the R1s where I did all my training). Academia is so messed up with sick leave. My first year I tried to take a sick day, and my department chair straight-up told me that we don’t typically take sick leave during the semester since we’re typically expected to still get work, namely research, done during the summer without pay.
    This semester, I am overloaded by 2 courses (we teach a 3/4 or so load, so I’m teaching 6 classes now) that I opted to do because I get great compensation for them. I’m also a director of a program and becoming the chair of my department, plus other service. Luckily I had a sabbatical in the fall where I was able to get some actual research done, though none of the travel and field work I’d planned. But this semester is so much!!
    In order to maintain myself personally, in addition to seconding all the advice, here are some of the things that I put in place:
    -I plan every semester with the idea that I’ll probably have at least one sick day where I don’t show up to class (I did this even before covid and before I got tenure). Depending on the course, I might turn it into a project work day, or I might find a relevant documentary (I teach a lot of environmental science courses, so it’s very easy for that but might not be in other disciplines). I also am okay with just straight-up cancelling class for a day, and I have never had push back about it from students or the administration, which I know might be different depending upon your school or position.
    -If I need an extended absence, I treat it like I would if I had to travel for a multi-day conference during the semester. I ask my colleagues to cover, giving them my materials, with the basic assumption that I’ll probably cover them at some point. This would also be when I’d try to rely on guest lectures or other materials (documentaries again). Since I taught online pre-covid, I have some recorded guest lectures I can schedule in.

  44. Metadata minion*

    I totally don’t want to blow off your concerns, because I think you make a very good point, but stress can also do an absolute number on your system. And at that point it might also be worth looking into therapy to get some more robust coping skills, but it sounds like the LW already knows the primary thing she needs, which is *a goshdarn break*.

  45. Black Horse Dancing*

    I think Jennifer is also missing a point–many universities and colleges charge huge sums because the state that should fund them cuts funding yearly. My spouse worked as staff at a small, public state university in Michigan. Every year, without fail, the funding was cut. Every year, without fail, costs went up and the difference had to be made up somehow. The university also had to constantly build/renovate because they had to get students. Was there waste? I’m sure but much of the constant increases came about because the state constantly cut funding. That was the case for that small university and I am sure others besides ours.

    1. Captain Awkward*

      Alison, please hold my earrings for a moment. Thank you.

      State funding cuts to higher education do affect tuition costs and university budgets. But the over-reliance on under-paying contingent faculty happens at rich, private institutions with large endowments, too.

      You say “Every year, without fail, costs went up and the difference had to be made up somehow.”

      “Somehow” is doing an awful lot of work in that sentence, and while I am concerned with tuition costs, what I’m really concerned with is rest of what’s in the “somehow.”

      -More than 50% of university faculty are on semester-long contracts, even when they teach for years, sometimes decades.
      -They are often as credentialed and published as tenure-track and tenured faculty.
      -Contingent faculty don’t generally have access to health insurance, pensions, paid sick leave, or other benefits.
      -Contingent faculty work for non-profit institutions that otherwise meet the criteria, but can’t access Public Service Loan Forgiveness for their student debt because they are classified as “part-time” workers even though they work the same number of hours as full-time faculty and staff.
      -Adjunct faculty can have fully-prepped and planned courses (i.e. involving many hours of free work over the summer) cancelled the day before the semester starts, with a nominal fee, and yet they cannot legally collect unemployment.

      Universities charge the exact same tuition dollars for courses taught by tenured stars and contingent faculty, they make the case to the students that these are identical learning experiences. But behind the scenes, they tell us that we are not the same at all, but if we’re very good, someday we can be real professors instead of just velveteen ones.

      Higher ed at this time is a toxic and unfair system, where young people’s talents and knowledge are exploited and harvested, knowingly. “But if were *really* that bad, why does anyone stay?” people always ask, and that was my point, exactly: They have figured out how to get people to stay, harnessing the love of learning, the mission of teaching, the dream of doing what you’re most suited for, what you most love. The myth of meritocracy, the scarcity of “good” jobs, the decade-long sunk costs of earning the qualifications, keeps everyone in line, in hopes they’ll get one of the golden tickets.

      By all means, bring back robust funding of universities! Higher education should be free, full stop, all student debt should be cancelled immediately. We’d all be better for it.

      But my point was that universities “make up for” things like shrinking budgets on the backs of their labor force, and the way that they treat their most disposable, vulnerable workers is an indication of how they would treat the tenured ones if they could. Since it’s a point that I only recently dug out of my own tender parts after I impaled myself on it for about a decade too long, I’m rather attached to it, I’m afraid.

      Said point absolutely relates to the Letter Writer’s fear of taking “too much” sick leave, of worrying that being sick is “not allowed” somehow. She’s got one of the golden tickets, for now, but she probably reads the stories of adjuncts living out of their cars same as the rest of us, and knows how bad it can get.

  46. Girasol*

    I was thinking about the situation in the last question (sick leave that can’t be used when one is sick) when I read the post last week about the person who quit abruptly because they were promised an office and a few days into the job it was taken away. Alison and most commenters said that the company had broken their promise to the employee so quitting summarily wasn’t unreasonable. Why don’t people immediately quit when sick leave is offered but it’s not actually available, or for that matter, when vacation is offered as workload permits, but the workload never permits? Why do so many places (not just academia) promise leaves that employees can’t have, and why do employees put up with that and even brag about how they came in sick or how many vacation days they’ve left on the table? Seems like it ought to be a bigger deal-breaker than getting or losing an office.

    1. Colette*

      I think sometimes there is an unspoken requirement to work late/skip vacation/come in when you’re sick, and if you just … ignore it, there actually aren’t any consequences to doing so.

      I certainly think having sick time or vacation you can never take should be a dealbreaker, and in those places I’d take it anyway and figure out if it was a real issue or not.

    2. Mae*

      Academia is weird because each faculty member is hired individually, for their very specific knowledge. In theory, they can’t replace each other, except for the most basic courses. College classes are more like live performances than business workdays. The system is not set up for them to be able reschedule a class if the professor can’t make it. I worked for a university where there were 16 class slots in the schedule, with the requirement that there be 15 class sessions held.

      Part of the problem with no sick time/vacation is that you generally don’t find out until you’ve been there a while. Academia, the you can’t miss class is just baked in. The expectations of always being available to students is newer and probably needs better expectations built in.

      1. Rock Prof*

        Exactly. My department is 3 people (my university is tiny), and we all have very specific and different training. While we could easily sub in for the lower-level courses, our upper-division courses are so specific to our backgrounds that it’s really hard to sub in. When I went on maternity leave, I had to get an adjunct who was completing their PhD at another university in a similar field to cover the second half of the course, and even then what he could focus on was so different than what I had been focusing on that it was very whiplash-inducing for the students.

    3. Quill*

      Usually by the time sick leave or vacation is part of it we don’t have an active job offer and it’s harder and harder to quit, feed yourself, and treat your illnesses the worse your health gets.

      … Plus, if you quit, in many states you don’t get unemployment.

    4. Jan*

      I mean, if I quit immediately then I wouldn’t have a job, and it’s pretty uncommon to be able to jump right into a new academic job…more likely to apply to 30 over the course of years and get 1…

    5. nonegiven*

      Because most people can’t immediately call a previous employer and have another job, with a raise, at the end of the call.

  47. LW1*

    Thank you both–I was so excited to see that I’d be getting advice from my two favorite columnists! Jennifer, I appreciate you saying that it’s not fair for my boss to pressure me into filling her social and emotional tank. I really like your timer idea and I’m going to implement it. I very much am not a phone person so this will be an easy personal quirk to own! Alison, I do feel like it would be insubordinate to interrupt her, but this is unfounded. I agree that if I’m kind about it (and I do know she loves unearned praise) she’s very likely to go along with it. Thank you both for the techniques and the call to assertiveness, I’m excited to try this out and save myself a lot of trouble in the long run!

    1. Captain Awkward*

      Hello! I know the “I don’t know how to get off the phone” is a real record scratch moment, but if your boss is generally as nice as you say she is, we could take it as an admission of vulnerability and a sign that your gracious, face-saving effort in keeping things on track would in fact be welcome. Good luck!

  48. Maddie T*

    Lw 2, endorsing C.Awks advice about specific options that your boss can come back to you about. My phd research is in design communication and relies on a great idea from an architect called Christopher Alexander who says its easier to articulate what you don’t like about something then what you do. So even if you get a “no i don’t like it because xyz” that gives you helpful data points that you wouldn’t had otherwise. Remember it’s not about the offer that you make it’s abou the information you’re gaining. For your anxiety it might be helpful to realise the “no” is part of the process. Your responsibility is the come back with a different more resolved offer from the Xyz information he gives you. If he’s not giving you the Xyz information you need to pursue that cause otherwise the next offer will be unlikely to be right either.
    Being about to thing of it as a process rather than a fault could help a lot

  49. RebelwithMouseyHair*

    OP1, my boss when I was at the agency worked at head office and would just descend on us on random days, we never had any warning. He was incapable of working on his own, if he wasn’t in a meeting or on a call he was talking non-stop. I would have to send a message to whoever was waiting for me to send in my work “sorry, P is monopolising me, I’ll finish it once he’s gone”.
    It was a ridiculous situation. At first he would talk with others more than me, but he was gradually getting rid of people in our office and replacing them at head office so he could close our office down. Once we were down to three people he would monopolise me for hours. By that time, I was no longer motivated and hoping to be made redundant, so I didn’t care about consequences. I would just remind myself of the classic French saying that

    you mustn’t be more royalist than the king.

    Sorry that’s not much good for you, unless nothing that CA and AAM have said works.

  50. Applesauced*

    I clicked back to the previous AAM/Captain Awkward and the suggestion to use “I’m trying to be more social in 2020” DID NOT AGE WELL

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