my coworker is too personally invested in her job

A reader writes:

I have a question about going over someone’s head to raise concerns to their supervisor. This isn’t a concern with her quality of work, nor anything she’s done wrong — it’s more out of concern for her as a person. She technically outranks me, but only in title, not in the kind of work we do.

For some background, we work in a niche branch of social services. Most of us at the organization also access the same kinds of services we offer, so there’s a strong sense that we are proudly working for our own community — an analogy could be a veteran support agency that also specifically hires veterans

I have a colleague, Hilaria, who feels very strongly that she wants to support her community and offer exemplary, “above and beyond” kind of service. She will regularly go way out of her way to research additional resources for clients, field calls for well over an hour, and offer the kind of support and guidance that you might associate with a counselor. Clients love her and she manages to more or less keep up with the same volume of requests as the rest of us. However, she also has a tendency to be pretty diminishing of her own accomplishments, regularly stating that she wishes she could do more for people, that she’s frustrated she can’t work more hours of the day, etc.

Recently, Hilaria took a week off because she injured her knee to the point where she can’t walk. The rest of us took on her client load for that week — no problem. After a call with one of her clients, I had a few logistical questions to run by her before following up with some resources and supports. I sent an email asking that she call me when she returns to work.

She immediately called me, with a tone of distress in her voice, asking what’s wrong and if she needed to call the client. I was taken aback because we were all made aware that she was off for the week. I talked her down and said that it was nothing that couldn’t wait until she gets back. She mentioned that she had been monitoring her email because she feels guilty being away from work since some of her clients have complex needs, and she felt badly about leaving them without support. I tried to gently remind her that she had an accident, and that people need to leave work unexpectedly sometimes, and it’s not a reflection on her as a person that she’s not available 24/7.

Fast forward to Monday morning of the following week. She promptly asks that I call her as soon as I’m available that day. I gave her a rundown of what I discussed with her client and we made a fairly straightforward plan. Afterwards, I asked how her knee was doing and she said that she’s still in pain to the point where she can’t walk but she forced herself to “crawl” (!!!) into an Uber because she was so worried that she was leaving clients in the lurch. Our organization is very supportive of employee wellness and would happily have accommodated further time off for her, but she said that the stress of being away from the office was too much so she forced herself to come in. She stated emphatically that she feels “guilty” for injuring her knee, and that this shouldn’t prevent her clients from getting support.

It’s clear that this job is very important to Hilaria, and seems to be super fulfilling for her. However, it seems to me that she’s overly personalizing it to the point where she’s potentially injuring herself, and definitely shouldering unnecessary stress. I can understand checking your work email while you’re off so you have a sense of what to expect when you come back, but to be monitoring it like that (and probably replying to clients, if I were to guess) is something else. Especially when she’s supposed to be resting and recovering!

Like I said, she’s loved by clients and colleagues alike and I’ve never heard even a whisper of complaint about the work she does. I guess what I’m wondering, if you were her manager, would you want one of your other employees to approach you about this? I’ve done my best to reassure her 1-on-1 that she does great work, and that she deserves time to rest, that she shouldn’t feel guilty, etc. but it doesn’t seem to be landing. Is there a way that I can approach our supervisor without snitching, or without her being “punished” for wanting to do a really good job? Am I being an overly-interfering busybody? Help!

I think this one is not yours to solve.

Chances are good that your manager already knows Hilaria is like this (unless she’s hands-off to the point of negligence) and has either decided not to intervene or has already tried to. But as a manager, sometimes you do get people who are invested in their job to an unhealthy degree and it can be a delicate balance to push back and set boundaries for the person without blocking the very thing that makes their job so fulfilling to them.

That doesn’t mean managers can’t push back on some of this! They can, particularly around things like coming into the office injured. But just from the facts in your letter, I wouldn’t assume your manager doesn’t already know the basic situation or that she hasn’t been trying to work with Hilaria on it. I’ve worked with Hilarias and sometimes the best you can do is to make sure they’re really, really clear about what is and isn’t expected; be assertive about ensuring they take real time off (and remove any deterrents to them doing that); be decisive about taking things off their plate when it’s too full, even if they insist they can do it all; and talk explicitly with them about burnout. If you try to micromanage someone’s approach to their job to the point of insisting, say, that they can’t monitor their email while they’re out for a week (assuming they’re exempt and in a role with some professional autonomy) … well, some people might end up thanking you for it, but others will feel infantilized and cut off from doing their job in the way they find most satisfying, and will resent you if that means there’s more work for them when they return (or if a project they’d put a ton of energy into getting a certain outcome from gets thwarted while they’re gone, etc.).

None of that is to say that Hilaria’s approach to her job sounds healthy! It doesn’t. But there’s not necessarily an easy fix.

If you have reason to think Hilaria’s manager really doesn’t know about this, you could have a one-time, discreet conversation where you say something like, “I’m worried Hilaria might be pushing herself to come in when she shouldn’t — she told me she forced herself to crawl into an Uber to get here even though she can’t walk because she was worried about leaving clients in the lurch and that the stress of being out of the office was too much. I thought that might concern you if you heard it, so I wanted to pass it along.”

Also, when you were covering Hilaria’s clients while she was out, if she were interfering in that coverage in a way that was causing problems or making things less efficient, that’s something you could raise as well. (Although it doesn’t sound quite like that’s what was happening.)

But beyond that, I think you’ve got to leave this one to Hilaria and her manager to navigate.

{ 153 comments… read them below }

  1. PT*

    Is it possible she is exaggerating when she says things like “crawl into an Uber”? I have met/worked with lots of people who use overly dramatic phrases to illustrate how dedicated they are to their work.

    1. Reality Check*

      I was wondering about that myself. Was she crawling around the office? If so, DEFINITELY management’s problem.

    2. exhausted frontline worker*

      Oof. Having worked in social services for several years, I can verify there are lots of Hilarias out there and poor boundaries like this are endemic to the field. I recently had to convince a peer to go home and cover their shift last minute when they showed up to work with a concussion (that they had sustained on the job the day before!) and could hardly stand up straight, let alone work a shift. And I too have insisted on working through ridiculous circumstances, which I know is not healthy, but no one is able to cover my work when I take time off and it just keeps piling up. No work place should be so dependent on one person that the whole thing falls apart of they leave, but many of us are led to believe that it will. I of course can’t speak for every social service org and every employee, but staff are regularly expected to go above and beyond their roles because no one else will help, so these poor boundaries tend to be rewarded. It leads to burnout and high turnover, which ultimately hurts clients. I hope my field has a reckoning soon about work-life expectations and boundaries, as many of us have been more overworked than ever in the past year. But as for this letter, Alison is right. LW can and should raise their concerns to Hilaria’s supervisor, but beyond doing that it’s ultimately it’s not their problem to solve.

      1. Burned Out Librarian*

        This is part of the vocational awe problem that’s so prevalent in jobs like social services, public service, etc. I’m in public service myself, and my coworker and I have discussed how in the past we’ve done things like come to work with food poisoning, because we feel we have to. I have 13 weeks of sick time accrued, because I felt I had to be at death’s door to take a sick day. And, unsurprisingly, we’re now a nearly decade in to this work and feeling incredibly burned out and resentful to the whole industry. About once a week now, I consider changing careers, and most of that is due to the toxic nature of vocational awe.

        1. AE*

          For sure: my first full-time role out of college was in a very idealistic social services-adjacent environment, and it really skewed (not to my benefit) my expectations of compensation, work-life balance, and what constituted a “good” job.

        2. Rhonda*

          I’m impressed you made it in public service for 10 years. I’ve only been in social services for about 6 months and I’m considering quitting and going back to my old lower paying/less respected job because I feel so overwhelmed and stressed all of the time. My pay as a social worker is only marginally better (aka I still have to live with a roommate) than what I used to make and it’s been made very clear to me that I won’t be able to ever move up without a master’s degree which I’m not willing to get. I love the idea of doing this work and I realize it’s important but boy I don’t think it’s for me.

        3. Letter Writer*

          Hi! I hadn’t heard this term vocational awe before. Another commenter below mentioned vicarious trauma which also seems like a fit here. I think these topics would be great for anyone in this kind of field to have frank and open conversations about. I really appreciate you mentioning this!

        4. Stuckinacrazyjob*

          I’m working in social services and I am DYING. Working 12 hours a day, not being able to cook dinner , my house is a wreck … and I’m not accepting new work myself- it’s that my work will plan extensive training near the end of the month, or so and so is sick and can you…. or so and so isn’t trained so can you…

        5. purplehawke*

          Thanks for this phrase, “vocational awe.” I’m in another one of the professions that gets this treatment and I’ve never heard such a succinct way of putting it.

        6. Arts Akimbo*

          A member of my family is in social services and she is upset that they might force her to retire next year.

          She will be EIGHTY.

          She has the vocational awe, for sure, but also she needs to feel needed, to an almost toxic degree.

    3. Weekend Please*

      I came into work before when I couldn’t walk. My manager saw me wheeling around in an office chair (down a hall trying to figure out how to open a door without dropping anything or having anything touch my ankle) and reassigned me to work I could do from home very quickly.

      1. Chas*

        I once tripped over while running for the tram to work and banged my knee, but still carried on going in while it was bleeding because no one else in my group would know how to do the thing I had planned for that morning (and it was time-sensitive so not doing it would have wasted a week’s work). Unfortunately my manager isn’t as reasonable as yours: he called me into his office to discuss a bunch of random things that were on his mind even though I’d told him I’d just come in to do one thing and then really needed to leave and prop my leg up.

    4. fposte*

      I had that thought. Even if it’s true, it seems unnecessary; the goal is generally to keep orthopedically injured people mobile, and crutches would likely have been provided to her at whatever appointment told her it would take a week.

      But I think she could simultaneously be really dedicated and overworking and also overdramatizing/self-sabotaging when it comes to her injury. There are people who go to the extreme in helping professions, who feel it isn’t giving unless you give until it hurts. But I think the takeaway for the OP is the same–Hilaria’s choices are Hilaria’s to make.

      There’s a risk for the OP here of treating Hilaria the way Hilaria treats her work. Instead, use this as an experience to get those difficult helping-profession boundaries laid down in your head; don’t Hilaria Hilaria.

      1. Llama Llama*

        Yeah I feel like crawling, which you do on your knees, would probably hurt more. I think she was exaggerating like when someone says they “crawled out of bed”. I assume she meant it hurt a lot and she had to do it slowly but she got into the car.

        It’s also not that crazy to be checking work email when you’re at home with an injury. I badly hurt my ankle in November and I continued to work normally from home. It would have been insanely boring to be home, alone, laid up on the couch, without something to do. Rest for an orthopedic injury is so different than rest for illness. I would have rather been sick and slept for a week than not be able to really walk for like a month. Work was really useful as something to keep me busy, since most of my hobbies are active.

        1. fposte*

          Yes, Hilaria may talk about overcommitting more than actually overcommitting, and the OP, as a sensitive helper person, may be reacting to the narrative more than the facts. If Hilaria was on mute, would her work be that much overextending? Some people just constantly verbalize distress by creatively interpreting reality; that doesn’t mean their distress is fake, but it means there’s not much point in addressing the facts.

          I mean, it’s still not the OP’s problem either way, but it’s an interesting question.

      2. Not a Morning Person*

        Another thing that could be problematic is whether or not the injury was considered a workplace injury. I injured my ankle when I was out seeing clients and was examined and given work restrictions that included staying home to recuperate for about two weeks. I was not allowed to work or to be contacted by my manager. It was illegal in my state to even participate on a conference call from my couch, which at the time my manager requested me to do, but then had to backtrack because our workers comp person told her that it was illegal. So, there’s that potential issue. If she injured herself on her own time, then it’s completely different. I don’t think that makes a difference to Hilaria, but it might to the organization if they are subject to workers compensation.

    5. Personal Best In Consecutive Days Lived*

      My thought as well. If she couldn’t put any weight on her knee, wouldn’t she have crutches for getting around? (Even if they were intended to help her get around the house.)
      It does sound likeshe’s taking on way too much though.

    6. Sleeping Late Every Day*

      Yeah, I got a bit of a martyr vibe from Hilaria the Hero in Her Own Eyes, like NO ONE can do what she does for her clients when she’s not there.

  2. Cordoba*

    I wouldn’t touch it.

    Sometimes grown-ups who we work with do things that are possibly self-destructive or unsustainable, but unless these actions are resulting in an outcome that is unethical/illegal or a tangible problem for their colleagues it’s nobody’s business but theirs and *maybe* their manager.

    If some rando peer at work tried to tell me I was checking email at the wrong times or that they did not approve of my handling of my own knee injury I would not respond favorably to their insights.

    1. DC*

      That’s a good point. Also, there are likely other things going on in the background in her life that you might not see happening that could be driving forces to this over-dedication. I had an admin on a research project I was working on once who was so committed to our work that she was trying to compel weekend work out of us in the form of social activities. Turns out she was going through a messy divorce and she was coming up with reasons not to be in the house.

      1. SA*

        I mean, it doesn’t even need to be as dramatic as a divorce! Some people don’t have great space for relaxing / the money for hobbies / family or friends nearby to do things with and find doing work stuff more enjoyable than sitting in a very meh living space along twiddling their thumbs. People get to make their own decisions, including decisions about how and when they relax.

        1. Jenny20*

          Some people just simply relax differently! I’m not in social services but I genuinely enjoy my job. I hate hearing pithy comments like “on their deathbed noone ever wished they had worked more” … but I also doubt anyone will regret missing season 27 of Survivor.
          You do you, and trust that your coworker can manage her own health and priorities unless you see any actual evidence.

        2. Cordoba*

          There doesn’t even need to be a specific reason at all.

          Maybe somebody has a great space to relax, and lots of money, and nearby friends and *still* wants to pour themselves into their job. This is actually not an uncommon thing.

          If that’s the case it may be a problem for that person’s family, or their friends, or their therapist, etc. Or maybe that’s the life that works for them and everybody is OK with it? Whatever.

          It is absolutely *not* a problem for a colleague to address.

    2. Sparkles McFadden*

      Yup. It’s not LW’s problem to solve, and if the coworker and boss are fine with how Hilaria is doing her job, it’s not really a problem at all.

    3. MsClaw*

      Yep! I’ve worked with any number of people who I think are over-invested in their work, but it is largely….. none of my business. Unless it’s someone I’m personally close with or someone who’s trying to make *me* also work a lot of unpaid overtime, or expecting me to answer emails at 1am, or trying to talk me out of a planned vacation because ‘things will fall apart without me’ then it isn’t my problem.

      It’s fine to tell Hilaria she should take better care of herself and it’s also okay to let her know you’re offended at the suggestion that her colleagues aren’t competent to work without her. But it is frankly over the line to tell her that she care too much. Complaining to her boss that she goes above and beyond is going to come off as very…. weird and sour grapes-y. If she’s limping around the office or seems like she’s in obvious pain and shouldn’t be there, it’s worth bringing up your concerns for her physical safety. Otherwise, I wouldn’t touch this.

    4. Cj*

      I don’t see what the big deal is about checking her e-mail. She was home recovering from a knee injury, not home sick. There is a big difference between the two. Unless she was on pain killers and they would have affected her work, she probably felt perfectly capable of reading and answering e-mails.

      1. generic_username*

        This. I’m honestly confused why she wasn’t granted the allowance to work from home while she recovered (unless this job requires site visits or something of that nature).

    5. Des*

      This exact thing! (I’m not a workaholic like this person, but even so sometimes I enjoy getting into my work to what might seem like an “unhealthy” degree but I find exciting and interesting. I don’t think it’s my peer’s problem unless I wasn’t pulling my weight, which it doesn’t sound like there’s any problem there with Hilaria.)

      OP, you might consider how personally involved you are with your job that after gently suggesting to your coworker your ideas you can’t take their preferences into consideration and drop it.

  3. MK*

    To be frank, if a coworker referred to their clients being served by me for a few days as “leaving them without support”, I would be pretty offended. I have worked with people like this and they never are as indispensable as they think. Often they do actual harm both to the organization and their clients by their overinvestment in their work.

    1. Bagpuss*

      Yea, that stuck out for me, too – I think that’s the part you can address with Hilaria, In the moment you could have stressed that there’s no issue at all with providing the client with support, you are simply clarifying some logistic issues with her.

      It might be something to raise with her when she is back, to reassure her that no-one was or would be left without support, but perhaps discuss whether there are any changes which you can make as a team to make sure that in the event of one of you being off, all the relevant information is available to ensure that the others can deal with the work

    2. Generic Name*

      I was thinking this too. If she were my colleague and said outright or implied that the rest of the team covering her workload during a medical absence equated to “leaving clients in the lurch”, I’d be pretty insulted. She may be very valuable, but to imply that your coworkers’ efforts are as good as nothing, is pretty offensive. That’s the great thing about working on a team, you can cover for each other and spread work around. If she can’t trust her colleagues to take care of things, that’s a real problem.

      1. Anon for this*

        As someone whose absence for a week actually would make a huge difference in our ability to get stuff done (tiny team, badly in need of more people, have not been approved to hire more people, I’m best at avoiding being dragged into wasting time on unnecessary meetings with people who say the same thing ten different times and ask you questions then ask why you’re answering the question because they forgot they asked it) I still wouldn’t say this. Because it’s rude, and it sounds like you think your coworkers are useless. If you really are in a position where important stuff won’t be done if you’re gone, apologize for dumping too much on your coworkers’ heads. Not say you don’t trust them to help the clients. “Oh, yeah, sorry about Suzy, she always emails me directly even though I tell her to copy you guys and then calls complaining that the thing she emailed me didn’t get done” or something.

    3. Mr. Cajun2core*

      You would be fully right to be offended by that comment. “Without support” is pretty darn strong.

      However, I can speak from personal experience that at a previous job, no one was as good as me with doing tech support* (my co-workers would have agreed). It wasn’t until someone as good as me was hired that I felt comfortable taking any time off.

      *My co-workers were programmers, system managers, or other similar highly technical people. I was the only true tech support at the time in the company.

      1. TechWorker*

        You can be the best in the world at your job and you should still take PTO ;)

        Or better said, in any group there’s always going to be one person who is best. If people get slightly worse support when you’re on PTO then they’ll just appreciate you more.

    4. Yorick*

      That’s what I thought too, and I would have reminded her that we were covering her clients.

    5. Detective Amy Santiago*

      I don’t think it’s meant quite that way, but let’s be real – if a coworker is covering your work, they are (a) not going to know the intricacies of your clients’ needs and (b) are still responsible for their own work. To me, that doesn’t sound like a dig at OP as much as it sounds like guilt that OP has to pick up her “slack” and that by being responsible for additional clients means all the clients are potentially getting less support than they typically would.

      1. Letter Writer*

        I think this is the closest to what Hilaria meant. She spends a lot of time establishing relationship and rapport with clients and often she will have multiple interactions with clients to get backstory, etc, before getting to the point of offering resources. I think she’s aware that many other members of our team don’t take the same approach, so there would be a notable difference for the client – they would have to repeat details they had already exhaustively shared with her, the discussion would likely be much shorter and more efficient with a different member of our team, etc.

        1. AstralDebris*

          I get where she’s coming from there. If the conversation comes up again or if you find yourself helping to cover while she’s out for illness/injury again, I think you’ll get more traction with her by emphasizing that you are there to support her. If it’s not too much trouble, drop her a short email outlining what you’ve done with her clients every day or two, since you know she’s reading her emails anyway.

          Allison is absolutely right that none of this is yours to solve, but if you feel compelled to help then look for ways to signal to her anxiety-brain that it is safe to relax her white-knuckle grip on her job.

    6. SheLooksFamiliar*

      Agreed. I can’t recall a time when my team couldn’t cover for a colleague who had to be out of the office for an extended time. If said colleague fretted about not having support I’d be offended, too.

    7. WellRed*

      Yes, I have a huge problem with not being trusted to do my job as competently because I”m not “you.”

    8. Grace Poole*

      I was at an online conference a little while ago where someone brought up a phrase similar to, “People who get used to putting out fires come to depend on the flames,” which is very apt for these kinds of colleagues.

    9. meyer lemon*

      She might have meant emotional support, since it sounds like she regularly has lengthy conversations with her clients and puts in extra time to look up resources for them that are outside the scope of her job.

      On the other hand, I also get the impression that Hilaria’s behaviour is at least partly attention-seeking. She doesn’t really need to call up coworkers immediately rather than emailing, or describe crawling to her car due to her extreme dedication. I also wonder whether the LW would know about all the extra work Hilaria put in if Hilaria wasn’t broadcasting it around. She sounds like she’s acting the martyr a bit.

    10. Anonya*

      Exactly. I would be fuming mad if someone made that comment while I was trying to cover for them.

  4. Detective Amy Santiago*

    Alison’s advice is spot on. Some people just have an over developed sense of responsibility (thanks mom) and are gonna be like that. As long as she’s not letting some things slide by going ‘above and beyond’ for some of her clients or giving her clients unreasonable expectations, it’s really not your place to interfere in how she chooses to do her job.

    1. Malarkey01*

      Another thing to consider is that for some people their entire life is tied up in their job because they do not have family/friends/outside interests. While this wouldn’t work for me and I don’t necessarily think it’s healthy not to have more balance, it is serving a purpose in their life that may be very important to them. It’s a fine line to walk and not insult the way they have found meaning in life or take away things that truly bring joy. This can be especially true in social services.

    2. TiffIf*

      Though, I would add the caveat–make sure other employees (especially new ones) know that reasonable boundaries are acceptable and they aren’t expected to follow Hilaria’s example. If in the future Hilaria has direct reports, management needs to make sure Hilaria isn’t expecting that of her reports.

  5. AndersonDarling*

    If Hilaria was working outside of the scope of her job, then I would be concerned. Say, if she was driving clients to appointments, giving psychological advice when her counselling should be restricted to referring clients to resources, or giving money directly to clients. I am concerned about a lack of boundary between her personal life and her work life, but it sounds like that is a choice she made.
    As Alison suggested, mention it to the manager, know you did your part, then let it go.

      1. not a social worker, but...*

        oops, hit enter too soon! …..

        I’m also a bit surprised that Alison had nothing to say about the precedent it sets for Hilaria’s clients. It can be detrimental in the long run for clients of support services to expect that level of support if it exceeds what they realistically can give to all clients. I know of one nonprofit I volunteered for that had an unfortunate instance of a student aging out of the system, contacting the volunteers of their own volition, and engaging in really self-harmful behavior after they were told the volunteers literally couldn’t help them in the same way anymore. The client felt abandoned by friends and directly pointed them out as a reason they then engaged in the harmful behavior.

        It’s a protection to both clients and the service to maintain a certain level of healthy separation from the work.

        1. Bluesboy*

          Not the same thing exactly, but vaguely similar: I worked in a new company that provided customer services. When the first few clients signed up we were set up to provide services for up to 120 clients in terms of staffing, because that was our objective by the end of the year. But when you have staffing for 120, and only 10-20 clients…

          These clients got far more than they paid for and got used to it. So when we had 120 clients and we were providing them with a good, solid service of exactly what they paid for, they became our most difficult, demanding clients. They were a nightmare to deal with, because we had allowed their expectations to exceed what we could, and should provide long term.

          If Hilaria ever leaves her job, I can imagine this ‘above and beyond’ attitude, while admirable in some ways, creating basically the same problem for these clients/Hilaria’s colleagues+replacement.

          1. PT*

            We occasionally got this where I worked, too. We ran a youth lesson program that had an on-season and an off-season. We would often let the off-season classes run below minimums, to keep the schedule warm for the on-season (if the schedule changes too much it confuses people and it works against you in the long run), and it all averaged out.

            But of course, the parent who signed up off-season and got a class with 2 kids in it that was basically a cut-rate semiprivate lesson, was suddenly salty AF when they showed up during peak season and the class was full to the normal capacity and there were 6 kids. “This isn’t what I pay for!” Yes, this is *exactly* what you pay for. We were just being nice and not canceling your kid’s offseason lesson and making you pay double for private/semiprivate lessons.

        2. Chilipepper*

          This happens where I work. One person does everything for our clients and the rest of us teach them how to do it for themselves – which is what we are supposed to do. This does not work well for clients or for staff.

          For that reason, I agree with talking to the manager as Alison suggested, then let it go.

  6. Colette*

    There’s one other piece of this that you might consider raising, which is this: She will regularly go way out of her way to research additional resources for clients, field calls for well over an hour, and offer the kind of support and guidance that you might associate with a counselor.

    I once worked in tech support with someone who was like this. He didn’t want to end a call if there might be a small possibility he could help – but what he was doing was delaying the customer getting to the person who could actually fix the issue. That was a problem – if Hilaria’s extra effort is causing similar issues for the clients or making them rely on her for stuff they should be learning to handle themselves, you can raise that.

    1. Jack Straw*

      Yep. Hilaria is setting her clients up with unreasonable expectations of what the agency can/should/will provide should she ever leave. This may be her way or working the problem, but it may also be intentional.

      1. Client*

        Or the clients feel dependent on the level of support she is providing, know another person would not provide that, and therefore don’t feel able to raise valid concerns for fear of this level of support being withdrawn, either by Hilaria or by being changed to a different social worker.

        Either way isn’t good.

        1. Jenni*

          Yes, she will convince her clients that nobody can do the job the way she does, regardless of whether that’s true or not.

      2. Knope Knope Knope*

        Yep totally. It could also be setting her manager up with unrealistic expectations of what employees can and should do. If she doesn’t grasp the extent of Hilaria’s workaholism her manager may be believing a team of 4 can do what really requires a team of 5. Or that she needs to advocate for a budget for a professional services contract rather than relying on one member of the team to spend hours individually researching services. She’s missing all the data she needs to advocate for her team, and potentially setting up a bad situation if Hilaria (who sounds highly likely to burn out) ever leaves.

  7. Mr. Cajun2core*

    I am a Hilaria. If she is exempt, there isn’t much you can do. Trust me. The best thing you can do is to show her that you are taking as good care (or better) of her clients as she does. At a previous job, it took hiring a new person who I knew really cared for clients and was excellent at tech support before I could take any time off without worrying.

      1. AGD*

        Following up, since I’ve seen the comments below and they’ve given me something to think about. To take a vacation and feel it, I don’t necessarily need to know that others are bending over backwards for my students…just that my students are in reasonably good hands and know where to turn if they run into trouble. Then I can relax. It may be different in social work, I acknowledge.

    1. Tess*

      “…The best thing you can do is to show her that you are taking as good care (or better) of her clients as she does.”

      …which is impossible. OP could hand a client the moon and Hilaria still wouldn’t believe her client was being taken care of as well as she could.

      Also, it’s an unfair standard to uphold. Hilaria’s co-workers are doing their professional best to cover for her, but they don’t have the history with Hilaria’s clients that Hilaria has. Additionally, Hilaria’s going way out of her way for a client, and in a manner that isn’t required or expected by her workplace, sets an unfair bar by which to define taking care of clients, AND could shortchange clients out of getting the help they really need.

      I’m sorry, but the Hilarias of the world often are the tail that wags the dog, and that’s a time and energy suck no one should have to endure – especially clients.

    2. Anononon*

      The problem with that, though, is there shouldn’t be any expectation that OP/her coworkers treat Hilaria’s client better than she does as she’s already going well over and beyond what’s required. If Hilaria’s expectations are so skewed, it’s her responsibility to adjust, not the OP’s.

    3. Letter Writer*

      I appreciate this insight!! I think one of the reasons this stands out to me is I also have “saver” tendencies that I’ve grappled with previously when establishing work/life balance, and I know that in my case it caused me A) to burn out and B) to be kind of resentful and suspicious of my colleagues even though they were the ones following the job description and /I/ was taking on un-asked-for additional responsibilities just because I wanted to. I guess I feel like I can see the writing on the wall, but part of me wonders if I’m Hilaria-ing Hilaria (haha)

    4. Knope Knope Knope*

      Sorry no. Not when the standard is what Hilaria (or you, if you are Hilaria) has set. I am fully invested in my job and career and in a role that specifically makes me an advocate for the people we serve. I always exceed expectations and goals. I also use my sick time/time off and log off at a reasonable hour to be with my family and have a life outside work. If Hilaria really wants her clients to have a high standard of care at all times, she needs to advocate for sustainable and scalable resources, not martyr herself then expect her colleagues to do the same when she inevitably needs time off.

    5. TechWorker*

      I also think people often overestimate how difficult it would be if they weren’t there to do their job. Very *very* few people are truly irreplaceable (and this is a good thing! Feeling irreplaceable goes along with things like ‘not taking PTO’, ‘not quitting jobs you hate’ and ‘failing to have maintain work-life boundaries’). If you were out sick, or hit by a bus, or quit, life would go on. Things would either get done (maybe not as well, but still done!), or wait.

    6. SentientAmoeba*

      It is great you always want to go above and beyond and be 15 steps ahead, but you are creating impossible standards for both yourself and your clients. And when, because there’s no if, you burn out because you can’t maintain it, then everyone suffers.
      Not to mention, if you are coming to work severely injured for fear of letting your clients down, then you are really only delaying your own ability to recover.

    7. Terra*

      Out of interest, do you think your ‘Hilaria’ tendencies are positive or negative overall for your clients? I definitely have the same inclination, but I focus on supressing it, trusting my colleagues, and getting therapy for the anxiety it’s caused by (not to say yours is caused by anxiety too), largely because I don’t think the way I want to act is healthy for me or helpful for my clients in the long-run. But it’s also something I don’t talk about with people much (therapist obviously excluded), so I’d love to see your perspective on it.

  8. ObscureRelic*

    I agree with Alison, but I wonder what the best way to deal with Hilaria’s running commentary. I mean, you *want* to be concerned about a co-worker, but if you’ve determined that you can’t manage her boundary issues or her approach to the job, is there a kind way of saying “please stop with the continual doom-reporting because it’s stressing me out too”? Or do you just develop a non-committal response like “Hmm, that sounds concerning” and avoid engaging further?

    1. Ashley*

      I think it can be a one time big picture conversation if you think they might listen, but generally the second response is a less confrontational approach if they can be prickly.

    2. BRR*

      When I had a coworker who would behave like this I tried to shut it down as much without having a huge discussion about it. I felt like there was an attitude of bragging about it and it was draining and annoying. So if my coworker said they felt guilty being away from work and were checking their email I’d say something like “we’ve got everything handled. Don’t worry about checking your email, just focus on getting some rest!”

    3. hbc*

      I’ve managed to put a dent in this by not playing into the expected narrative. What Hilaria thinks and wants to hear is something along the lines of “Hilaria, you don’t have to do this, this is so far above and beyond, you are a great person for exceeding expectations this way and giving so much of yourself.” What she needs to hear is:

      -“You crawled in on a bum knee so your clients wouldn’t have to deal with me for another day? That’s pretty insulting.”
      -“If you worked more hours, you’d probably hit the point of diminishing returns and not really accomplish anything. Good workers need rest.”
      -“You can monitor email if you want, but the time I’m spending explaining things to you could be better spent helping the clients.”

  9. Fiona the Baby Hippo*

    I totally relate to feeling overly emotionally invested in someone getting overly emotionally invested in something! When I’ve had friends in bad relationships, bad jobs, whatever, I want to shake them, say the perfect words (or have someone like a manager/therapist say the perfect words) and get them to SNAP OUT OF IT. But I had a friend say once, ‘You can’t want something for someone that they don’t want for themselves.” My guess is that Hilaria needs to feel overly-invested in her job for some reason and blocking her from doing more work (which seems like the best-case scenario) would maybe stop her from DOING it as much but won’t stop how she FELT about it – she would likely find another outlet to worry about work, like posting on social media or talking to friends about it non stop. I agree with other commentators that unless it’s something that’s negatively affecting you/work flow its best to leave well enough alone.

    1. Not a Morning Person*

      Your friend’s comment, “You can’t want something for someone that they don’t want for themselves.” is so true! It reminds of something a colleague once told me and I took to heart. “Never work harder than your client.” Sadly, he often violated his own advice!

  10. NotMyRealName*

    Having worked with people with poor boundaries – this is a problem, though Alison is right that it’s not yours to solve. Alison’s advice is good.

    I have spent a long time in human services jobs … in my experience, when people have poor boundaries, they inevitably burn out and provide terrible services by the end of their tenure. They also do things that could put them in legal trouble if things go wrong. Additionally, they create barriers for the future employees they work with who have better boundaries. (“But Hilaria always called me back within 15 minutes, even if I called her at 8pm!” “But Hilaria crawled into work on an Uber, why didn’t you return my call while you were out with the stomach flu?”)

    I had a co-worker who had very poor boundaries. After a couple years, I think some of us nudging/joking with that person about their poor boundaries finally set in, but we had that kind of relationship where we could do that. If you don’t have that kind of relationship, there is unfortunately not much you can do.

    1. Ama*

      As someone who bordered on being a Hilaria early in my career, one other risk is that when she someday realizes that all the extra work she’s doing isn’t actually getting rewarded in pay, promotions, or even general recognition (because no one in management asked her to take all those extra tasks on and they may not even be aware she’s doing all of it) she may do a pretty quick flip into resentment and anger that “no one cares how much work I have to do” and that can be hard to come back from. (I only survived mine because a boss called me on it quickly enough that I was able to adjust and then also realize it was time for me to leave that job.)

      1. Not a Morning Person*

        This is a perfect description of “burnout” from over-investing in a job.

    2. Tess*

      “Additionally, they create barriers for the future employees they work with who have better boundaries. (“But Hilaria always called me back within 15 minutes, even if I called her at 8pm!” “But Hilaria crawled into work on an Uber, why didn’t you return my call while you were out with the stomach flu?”)”

      ——

      This, this, THIS! Spot on, NotMyRealName.

  11. Daffy Duck*

    The selfless do-gooder who sacrifices everything to the cause can definitely be a competitive sport with some people. I would suggest saying something like the following.
    Hey Hilaria – We are a team even tho we all have our own work. I’m happy to cover for you while you recuperate, just like you would help cover for me if I ended up in the hospital!
    It likely won’t change her current behavior, but if she really needs help it gives her a way to think about it. It is really important you say the “just like you would do for me” part – it means they aren’t accepting charity but it is a transaction.

  12. SillyLittlePittyPat!*

    I wonder what the company’s insurer would say about her coming in to work, without a “cleared for work release” form. Any company that I worked at wanted to guarantee you were well and the company protected from “further injury and exacerbation of injury”

    1. fposte*

      That might be more industry-specific; most employers I know don’t care as long as it’s not worker’s comp.

        1. fposte*

          That’s a much harder claim to make, though, and caring about that gets *really* industry variable.

    2. MsClaw*

      I think this is probably very industry and/or workplace specific. Unless I’m off work long enough to claim short or long-term disability, I don’t have to provide anything to anyone to return to work after an illness/injury/surgery.

    3. a clockwork lemon*

      In order to get a “cleared for work” letter you have to have an actual medical prohibition on working. It’s exceedingly rare that someone with a reasonably standard desk job would have a blanket medical prohibition on doing work–there’s functionally no difference between sitting in a chair at home with an ice pack on your knee and sitting in a chair at work with an ice pack on your knee, so it’s unlikely that an orthopedic procedure would render Hilaria “not cleared” for work to begin with.

      1. Colette*

        Yeah, I was out 2 weeks when I broke my ankle, and all that going back to work required was “I will be back on Monday” and then rolling through the door.

  13. agnes*

    I’m wondering if this letter has a subtext which is that Hilaria is setting a standard that the LW feels like they can’t meet and the LW is worried that this standard will become the new expectation for the other employees, either from management or from clients?

    1. not a social worker, but...*

      I’m also a bit surprised that Alison had nothing to say about the precedent it sets for Hilaria’s clients. It can be detrimental in the long run for clients of support services to expect that level of support if it exceeds what they realistically can give to all clients. I know of one nonprofit I volunteered for that had an unfortunate instance of a student aging out of the system, contacting the volunteers of their own volition, and engaging in really self-harmful behavior after they were told the volunteers literally couldn’t help them in the same way anymore. The client felt abandoned by friends and directly pointed them out as a reason they then engaged in the harmful behavior.

      It’s a protection to both clients and the service to maintain a certain level of healthy separation from the work.

    2. Letter Writer*

      Hi! Reading it back, I can see that subtext too – this is something I’m going to think about! Thanks for sharing that insight

      I think overall, my concern isn’t so much that clients will have inflated expectation of service, as I feel like that could be resolved with a pretty frank (but kind!) conversation. It would be a pretty big setback for our small organization if someone were to burn out and resign (especially if the burn out was caused by expectations that weren’t actually coming from management), though, and I guess I feel like I’m doing a bit of predicting the future here

      1. Knope Knope Knope*

        Yes! I just made a few comments to that effect above. If Hilaria leaves (due to burnout or whatever other reasons people leave jobs), she hasn’t left your boss the data she needs to accurately assess how much work her team can do, or how to advocate for more sustainable practices. Assuming someone in your chain of command manages a budget for your team, presumably, they would fight harder for an extra head/service contract/new tool that would scale services in a way that doesn’t require one person working endless hours and through illness and inury. Not only do you say your company culture is supportive, the buck stops with management if things fall apart so they are incentivized to create a reliable team. I think it’s worth bringing up with your manager just in case she doesn’t have the full picture.

      2. agnes*

        I hope you get this all sorted out LW. And my concern about how this affects expectations is based on some experience I had with another company. One employee was getting so involved in her work and going so far beyond the services that we were providing, that it actually spurred an EEOC complaint because a client being served by another caseworker found out that other clients were getting services that she wasn’t. They were services we were supposed to be providing, but this one caseworker was doing it anyway in an effort to provide “exemplary service.” It caused a lot of problems for our organization.

        1. agnes*

          i meant these were services we were NOT supposed to be providing (stuff like transportation, or meals).

    1. BadWolf*

      I disagree — this behavior can cause fallout for a whole department. Sort of a road to hell paved in good intentions.

      1. BadWolf*

        Not that OP should check Hilaria’s behavior directly in this case, but Alison’s advice to discuss with the manager.

  14. Quickbeam*

    I’ve worked places where being a Hilaria becomes the expected. One person gives up their vacation to do business work…it is then lauded, then subtle expectations become overt on 24/7 dedication. I think it’s a red flag.

  15. animaniactoo*

    I would push back when she says she’s worried that she’s left her clients without support. “You haven’t. That’s what we’re here for! We’re working to provide everything we need – and that includes support for you so that you can take care of yourself and come back healthy and ready to dig in again!”

    1. Letter Writer*

      Thank you! This is more or less the approach I took in my initial exchange with her, which is why I was pretty taken aback when she returned to work and still seemed to be quite escalated. I guess to a certain extent it can/should be chalked up to differences in personality tho

      1. animaniactoo*

        There’s also no reason that you can’t continue to take this tack “Hey! I thought I told you we have this covered! Don’t stress, we know what we’re doing, I promise!” and even into “This feels a lot like you don’t trust us to treat your clients well in your absence. It’s kind of hurtful to be honest” – this has a chance of making an impact because people who are THIS dedicated to helping people are often very attuned to trying to make sure they don’t hurt people. And while this leaves them open for manipulation that nobody should take advantage of, it can be useful for them to see when they are unintentionally hurting people in a very preventable way with their lack of trust in the abilities of others.

  16. A Library Person*

    Vocational awe plays into this so much, and I think it has to do as much with the broader culture as it does with the individual Hilarias of the world. I wonder if some of the tendency to take on so much of an emotional burden has to do with knowing (intimately, in this case, I presume) just how many gaps people seeking/relying on services can fall into.

  17. el knife*

    This person sounds exhausting to work with, but unfortunately not a lot you can do about that. I’d mention it briefly to her manager, and then not follow up at all. Just as it’s important for her to have boundaries, it’s important for you to practice boundaries, and an important boundary is not getting unnecessarily involved in Hilaria’s exhausting emotional life

  18. CommanderBanana*

    People like Hilaria are the worst to have as supervisors, though – they model really unhealthy behavior for their subordinates.

  19. Velawciraptor*

    Hilaria’s behavior SCREAMS vicarious trauma to me. Overidentification with the people you serve, excessive caregiving, obsessing about being unable to do enough…they’re all classic symptoms. Along with compassion fatigue and burnout, vicarious trauma is something people in caring professions like yours can be particularly vulnerable to. One thing you might be able to do without overstepping is push your organization to do some training on the subjects–how to identify symptoms, how to develop resiliency, self-care steps, etc. This is something your organization should probably be doing anyway as it’s a good investment in their workforce.

    1. BadWolf*

      Ooh, I have not heard of “vicarious trauma” but it reminds me very much of an acquaintance that I often find exhausting. Maybe learning about this might help me reduce the BEC status I find myself in around them.

  20. CatCat*

    It’s clear you care about your colleague’s well-being, and it’s so hard to see someone you care about struggling. But it is, ultimately, not your issue to manage. She would probably benefit from counseling. If any of the needs for reassurance become tiring for YOU, you can start deflecting and redirecting her. If she says something about herself letting down clients or the like, “Gosh, I don’t know why you say things like that about yourself. Anyway, about [Work Thing]…”

    If your company has an EAP, that might be a good resource to point out. “I’ve noticed you talk like that about yourself a lot. We do have an EAP that might help you with resources around that.”

    1. Letter Writer*

      thank you!! You picked up on something that felt too awkward/mean to point out, which is that her self-deprecating could also be uncomfortable for colleagues. I really appreciate this framing and your suggestion

  21. Cake or Death?*

    Honestly…Hilaria kind of bugs me.

    “she felt badly about leaving them without support.”

    “because she was so worried that she was leaving clients in the lurch”

    “and that this shouldn’t prevent her clients from getting support.”

    She wasn’t leaving her clients in the lurch or without any support…they were being taken care of by her coworkers. I find it a little insulting to her coworkers to believe that they are unable of doing the job as well as she is.

    Obviously, OP knows the situation much better than I do…but I really get a different vibe from this letter than “selfless kindness and generosity”. I think Hilaria’s motives might be a little more selfish than OP thinks. Even the part about her being self-deprecating…people who go WAY beyond what their coworkers do, and then often “lament” to their coworkers about how “oh, I just feel I don’t do enough and wish I could do more”, are often doing that because it makes them feel “superior” or “better” than their coworkers. These people also often view themselves as the “best” one for the job (or any job) and if they aren’t there to do it then, “OMG everything is just going to fall apart!”, even though they have completely competent coworkers.

    I may be way off base in this scenario, but in my experience, the people that I’ve met that are completely over-the-top to the point of martyrdom about “helping” others, usually are doing it for how it looks to others, not so much out of complete generosity. Like the people who tip their servers large amounts and then post a picture of it on social media. Yeah, it’s great that you did it, but still, doing it for the accolades is not quite the same as doing it to just be kind and generous.

    1. Daffy Duck*

      Competitive caregiving – it’s a thing.
      Similar to competitive children’s birthday parties and who’s child got into an ivy league college.

  22. Tobias Funke*

    Oh man, I feel for you OP. It is hard to be the member of staff who has strong boundaries when everyone around you has internalized the idea that having boundaries means you don’t “really care” (thanks, first social work job!). Not to mention the expectations it sets up for the client. This is definitely not yours to solve, but mad solidarity.

    1. Tess*

      Oooo, same here, exactly.

      I work with someone who just doesn’t know boundaries. Classic people-pleaser and self-sacrificer, and doesn’t know how to react if you don’t let her fix for you, rescue you, do it all FOR YOU!

      Ugh. Guess who I have a meeting with in an hour?

  23. Client*

    Is she being like this with clients, as well?

    Not keeping proper boundaries can be stifling to autonomy/independence and/or foster unhelpful (and vulnerable, unstustainable) dependence. I also hope she isn’t telling clients “I crawled into the office just for you!”

    What boundaries should look like differs from situation to situation, of course, but are the things she is doing being acknowledged and evaluated? The nice thing about social workers who don’t answer their email on weekends is that they allow ample room for their client’s own initiative and insight, resilience to take place.
    People should not carelessly undermine that just because they are too busy feeling good about themselves, and doing so is not selfless (as people doing this kind of thing frequently claim) but rather, extremely selfish.
    Also leaves clients in the uncomfortable position of feeling like they need this level of support/availability and need to do whatever necessary to stay with this specific person, as they know they can’t expect this level of availability from someone else. (Alternatively, some may expect this level of availability from someone else.)

    I’m not disputing whether her clients love her – they probably do – but is she doing what’s best for them? Is this at least a subject of discussion, or is she covertly doing this?

    1. Letter Writer*

      Hi! This reminds me of a previous social work-type position I held where my colleagues and I would regularly refer to our youth clients as “my kids” and would regularly go way way beyond the scope of our job to provide extra supports for them. It was my first position in the field and – man – was it a rude awakening when one of “my kids” aged out and immediately lost a wraparound blanket of support staff doing basically every single thing for him. Sure, we had improved his immediate quality of life, but he hadn’t been given the opportunity to foster independence, build life skills, etc. Not super related to the work I do now but yea, that was some tough learning

  24. Midwestern Weegie*

    I supervise a Hilaria. She’s wonderful with clients and they adore her, but I have to set very strict rules with her about work-life balance. She is exempt, but getting out of bed to answer calls at 2am is not acceptable on a regular basis. While the majority of my other staff members can set their own boundaries, I’ve had to be much firmer with Hilaria about expectations and insisting she takes appropriate time off.

    Frankly, it’s not good for her clients either; the program is designed to build self-sufficiency and independence, which 24/7 support can hinder. We spend a lot of time talking about helping clients triage the level of care they need for themselves, vs relying on Hilaria to triage for them. In my Hilaria’s case, she is the most deeply empathetic person I’ve ever met, and she just wants to help everyone so badly. It comes from a well-meaning place, but is no less challenging to manage.

    It’s a work in progress, and were she even slightly less wonderful with clients, we’d be having very different conversations.

    1. Cj*

      ITA with what you and Client above are saying about self-sufficiency and encouraging it in clients.

    2. BadWolf*

      Thank you for not only being concerned about your Hilaria and the clients, but for the rest of your employees who may see Hilaria’s actions and wonder if they’re supposed to be doing the same and getting dinged without realizing it. Even if you say “Oh you shouldn’t answer the phone at 2AM” but Hilaria is doing it…which is the right answer? Like when companies have “unlimited vacation time” and then everyone’s afraid to take any.

      I have a coworker who’s Overly Invested and Works All the Time. It took me a long time to realize/accept that management is happy to let him work too much but they largely don’t expect the rest of us to do the same.

      1. Midwestern Weegie*

        Most of my staff are able to hold their boundaries quite well- our field comes with the expectation of occasional off-hour emergencies, but they should be rare. I’d say the majority of my other staff have maybe 3-6 late night/early morning emergencies over the course of a year (and we do track this, partly so high-needs clients are distributed equitably). For a while there, Hilaria was having at least one per week, which is not something I want for her, for our other staff, or for the clients. It’s improved with close supervision and coaching, as well as setting firm rules with her about what she can and cannot do off hours.

        My field comes with secondary trauma/vicarious trauma/compassion fatigue as an occupational hazard, and while I can’t shield my staff from it entirely, I can enforce firm boundaries, strongly encourage time off, model truly disconnecting while taking that time off, and support their needs. I’ve got a pretty great team and most of them are fantastic about prioritizing their needs and advocating for themselves, but my Hilaria definitely needs to be… poked, a little. We’ll get there, I think.

  25. Rage*

    I used to work in an office full of mental health therapists, and one of them was so enmeshed with her career that when we passed around birthday cards for staff, instead of just signing it “Cersei” she would sign it “Cersei Lannister, LSCSW”. (For reference, there were 10 of us and we were all on a first-name basis.)

    1. BubbleTea*

      Ha, I believe you that this was due to her over identification with her job, but I have been in a role in the past where I had to sign off on so many documents as BubbleTea, Straw Trainee that it became embedded in my muscle memory and I had to actively prevent myself from signing personal documents that way!

      1. Cj*

        I know. I can totally see myself signing something Veronica Mars, PI and not give it a second thought.

      2. Rage*

        There were other signs of the enmeshment, such as her penchant leaving me voicemails wherein she identified herself by first and last name, and also “from down the hall” added, as if I might have thought we had multiple locations or something. I dunno. She was an odd duck.

        She used to ask me to change the time on the clock above her desk (twice a year!). One time, my knee was hurting so instead of climbing up on the desk, grabbing the clock, and climbing back down, I just climbed up and stood on her desk while I fixed the clock. “Wow!” she said. “You’re really high up there!” I just said “yep!” and went about my day. Forgot all about it.

        At the next time change, she walked into my office and said “Would you like to get high today?”

        O.O Uh….yeah, I’d like a hit off whatever it is you’re smokin’, Cersei.

        She didn’t get it, and said, “I need my clock changed.” Then it all made sense.

        About 10 minutes later, she was like “Oh! You thought I was asking you if you wanted drugs!”

        1. Marillenbaum*

          This reminds me of Captain Holt on Brooklyn 99, who signed all of his text messages “Sincerely, Raymond Holt”, and who once left a voicemail for his husband (!) wherein he said “The tickets are under my name, Holt, H-O-L-T”.

  26. Social Services Hooman*

    Unfortunately it’s not uncommon for folks who work in social services to have poor (or non-existent) boundaries that leads to lots of burnout. Even at the masters level, this is often glanced over in our academic and professional trainings. Either way, it’s not your concern — but it’s good that you are noticing this and are alarmed, you should be! And you should not emulate this aspect of Hilaria’s job performance, at least if you want to avoid physical or emotional ill-health, leaving a career you seem to enjoy due to stress, etc. Hilaria’s mentors, managers, and close peers will have to help her sort this out.

  27. Alexis Rose*

    So another angle to this, and a reason why managers should be paying attention to this, is that in sectors such as not for profits or government work where you are working with a limited budget, Hilaria running around and doing work “for free” after hours or when she is on sick time really skews the reckoning of how much it costs to run programs or services.

    So, forty person hours per week per employee plus overhead is calculated and that’s how much it costs to run your program. EXCEPT half your staff is doing 60 hour weeks and that isn’t accounted in your budgeting. So really, you need 1.25x the staffing you currently have, that’s how much it ACTUALLY costs to run that program.

    Hilaria’s overinvestment may actually be contributing to a problem and positive feedback loop of under-resourcing for the organization and its mandate, and making it easy for higher ups or grant administrators to say “you don’t need more money you’re meeting all your targets” when your staff is way overworked and its not really sustainable.

    1. NonProfit Survivor*

      Yes, this! I came to this realization, too, after years of making under-resourced projects succeed for my non-profit at my own expense. I worked long hours, conscripted friends and family into volunteering, and even spent my own money on supplies. The more you make it work under these conditions, the more people will expect that you can make it work without adequate resources, and they will budget accordingly for future projects.

    2. Seven If You Count Bad John*

      Yep we ran into this even in a for-profit call center. Escalation agents were screaming that we needed more staff, but the call volume that was running through workforce management’s reports didn’t support it. It was entirely because agents were going around handing each other sticky notes and taking care of things offline, so a call was never generated in the queue. So volume looked a lot lower than it actually was. It was like pulling teeth to get people to break that habit no matter how much it was explained to them that they were shooting themselves in the foot. “We have to do it that way because we don’t have enough staff & hold times will be too long” I promise you when hold times go up and their service levels plummet, they’ll find another agent for you.

    3. 3co*

      Yes! This is something that really helped me recalibrate my own behavior when I was working really ridiculous amounts of unpaid overtime (against my boss’s wishes) to make sure everything got finished.

      By covering up the fact that our team was overcommitted, I made it harder for my boss to get approval to increase the size of the team.

      Seeing me run myself ragged was bad for everyone else’s morale, and may have contributed to other people’s decisions to start hunting for jobs at companies with better work-life balance. Even if I didn’t have anything better to do with my time, the fact that other people were concerned and resentful on my behalf was a problem in its own right.

      People are less productive when they’re exhausted. I’m not doing my best work during the last couple of hours of a 12-hour day. Three people working 40 hour weeks will get more done than two people working 60 hours each (and will also have better coverage when someone’s out of the office).

  28. I'm just here for the cats*

    If I was this person’s manager I might like a heads up that Hilaria is still in pain and crawled to work (or even hobbled). I think that the lW should go to her or Hilaria’s manager. I would say something like: “I’m worried about Hilaria, she told me that she is still in a lot of pain and feels guilty for taking time for her knee. I don’t know how serious she was but she told me she had to call an uber and crawled into the car to come to work. I thought I should bring it up to you because I would hate to see Hilaria burn out or her injury get worse because she feels like she cant come to work.”

  29. StoneColdJaneAusten*

    Did the LP name her after Hilaria Baldwin? Any idea what the LW did that or what the LW is implying?

    1. Letter Writer*

      I did lol not for any particular reason, just a name that was top-of-mind for me when I wrote the letter

  30. Ben Marcus Consulting*

    I agree with other commenters that some of this may be hyperbole on her part and that could just be a quirk of her personality.

    It’s also possible that some of her above & beyond is in an effort to reduce her overall workload or to better leverage another metric that she’s concerned about. It could be that offering additional touchpoints to her clients means that they’re off her book of business sooner and less likely to reappear. If that’s the case, she’s reducing a lot of her followup work, which means she’s better positioned to help more ‘new’ clients.

    With many of my partner practices, I coach patients on 3rd party services that may offset a portion of their cost-share for medical services. While this absolutely helps them, the altruism isn’t there as I’m doing this to reduce my payroll commitment to patient billing followup. Every dollar I may bill to alternative coverage is a dollar that is paid timely and generally with minimal followup, whereas collections from the patient could take several statements and phonecalls and take up to several months to collect in full.

  31. Union Maid*

    I would not want to be a client at an agency where a worker was making judgements on my needs when they were unwell.
    I wonder what the situation for Hilaria and the agency would be if someone complained and it turned out the thing they complained about was done when Hilaria was on sick leave?

  32. Nat*

    I agree…there are many people out there in social-service related fields with martyr complexes or poor boundaries…and I think it really is a personal journey to reach the other side of that. I don’t think someone else can take on this journey for Hilaria — it’s up to her to decide if/when she wants to become a little less enmeshed.

  33. Sharrbe*

    There is very little you can do. I’ve worked with someone like this. She would be waiting right at the door every morning for the building to unlock, a full 45 minutes before she was supposed to be in. In the ten years I worked with her, she took one week-long vacation and that was only because she was literally forced to. And she still snuck in a couple of times that week just to “check something” before she forgot. One time I bumped into her in a store where she happened to be picking up an item for work, and without saying hello or exchanging pleasantries, she started telling me how this item needed to be handled in the office. She eventually retired, and it took a month for her to stop coming in just to “remind” us of things that were supposedly important. I still laugh over the fact that her very last words to me were about checking the paper in the printer first thing each morning because “you’ll find that it works best.”

    It turned out that roughly 60% of the work that she did was, in reality, completely unnecessary. She made the job into something bigger than it was, not because she was trying to fool everyone by looking busy, but because she honestly spent that time worried and obsessed over things that most people would not worry and obsess over. She printed out records that didn’t need to be printed. She kept files of things that didn’t need to kept. Our jobs were important and provided a service that needed to be done in a timely manner, but by no means critical. No one was going to be hurt or homeless or hungry over what we did or did not do. I’m sure her retirement felt like a death to her. Work was her addiction

  34. I’m hiding from coworkers*

    I had a coworker like this, she was fired after she went to a clients home to do a welfare check because they didn’t respond to her email fast enough. The person hired to replace her almost quit because of the expectations the clients had.

  35. commonsensesometimesmakessense*

    I admit that aside from personal concern, I would be worried if she was communicating directly with clients when you guys are, especially if you do not realize it, cause that can lead to a lot of confusion for the clients and for you. But, as Allison said, that doesn’t sound like the issue here. Still, that would worry me.

    Maybe just try to reassure Hilaria that you guys have her back and will do what you can to not let her clients down. Tell her she cannot take care of others if she does not take care of herself and heal, and let her know she can trust you to take care of her clients for that time when she needs it. But beyond that, there is not much you can do (and I doubt she will trust you to take care of her clients, but that’s not personal to you. She is clearly the type who thinks only she can do what needs to be done, and that is more about her than about you.).

  36. Gnizmo*

    I remember the last time I allowed myself to be sucked into the my work this deeply. I was working in social services, and really wanted to help people. My work was literally life and death at times. I devoted myself entirely to it. I let it consume my life in a way is beyond unhealthy. I was averaging 120 hours a week without paid over time. It caused me a tremendous amount of pain, but I had some valuable lessons burned into my brain that serve me well.

    Letter writer I think it might be worth reaching out to her once. The words that helped me were very simple. One day you will move on from this job and someone else will take over like has happened countless times in countless similar agencies. The voice that tells you that you have to be the one to do the work is your ego, not your conscience. If these were problems that could be solved by one person then there wouldn’t be career fields in it (which would be a mixed blessing for those of us in the field).

    You can take care of no one if you can’t take care of yourself. So take care of you first to take care of everyone else even better. Resting your brain makes it work better. All skills improve from deliberate cycles of effort and rest. Rest your brain so it can grow in new ways. Get past the reacting stage and into the planning stage.

    These are all the words I offer to my colleagues closing in on burnout. I will say it is worth considering how you feel about this too, Letter Writer. You are clearly very invested in this person succeeding, but if they don’t then someone else will come along and do the work. Hilaria will step back, heal, and find a new path forward. Reach out once and then let her pick her path forward. She will either hear your words or she won’t.

    I know this probably seems odd as to other professions, but it is pretty normal in the social service field in my experience. We are much more open to coworkers reaching out to us, and typically reach out more. I guess when your work is all trying to help people you just keep on doing that with everyone around you. It seems odd to me that it would be any other way, but I have only ever really worked in this field.

  37. Willik*

    I’ve seen this a lot with people in the helping profession. Helpers get so invested in helping their clients that they ignore their own needs. Unfortunately, most managers I’ve worked with expect this type of sacrificial dedication, which means it often goes unchecked. What is worse, is these managers often preach “self-care” while at the same time encouraging this behavior. I’ve worked with people who were throwing up, in labor, or who had broken their foot who did not leave work because they were expected to “put the client needs first”.

  38. Raida*

    Definitely talk to her manager.
    You are genuinely concerned about the physical and mental health of a co-worker, their manager is the one responsible.
    So tell them, in a nice tidy listed way, all the red flags. She worked during time off, her reaction was upset and alarm instead of professional, she’s not physically well enough to come back to work, she puts herself down while performing above expectations. This is an issue that, for example, veterans working to help other veterans run into a lot – I can help so I will help and I can do more so I am beholden to because I can and they can’t so I must… Hopefully there’s some employee access to counselling that can address this

    If you want to put pressure behind it you can add something around the Company being liable for her injury not healing or ignoring unhealthy work practices.

  39. 3co*

    Yes, especially since it sounds like she’s going above and beyond in ways that are very visible to her clients (lengthy phone calls, counselor-like advice, etc). If she was staying late to create a resource list that can be shared with all of the organization’s clients or to work on a grant proposal or something, it might be different. Not great for Hilaria’s work-life balance, perhaps, but it wouldn’t encourage clients to develop unreasonable expectations about the support they’ll receive.

    Side note: It seems like Hilaria might be getting very emotionally invested in her clients and doesn’t have the professional background to understand how that might actually be unethical/not in the clients’ best interest. If she is providing “support and guidance that you might associate with a counselor” when it sounds like that isn’t part of her official role (meaning that she may not be trained/licensed to do so), could it create some liability issues for the organization?

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