my employee vents to me about her job and personal life and wants constant reassurance

A reader writes:

I am a small business owner, managing a team of three people in addition to performing my primary job. I spend most of my day driving and working with clients while my team supports me from our office or remotely from home. All roles are client-facing and we help people who are going through emotionally intense life events. It is often stressful but very rewarding work.

I’m struggling with my most recent hire. She is a hard worker and wants to do her job well, but she is a tightly wound ball of anxiety. I am constantly having to coach and reassure her, and I don’t know at what point it’s too much.

A sampling from one particularly challenging day:

– A 20-minute phone call where I had to reassure her she hasn’t been doing her job completely wrong since starting two months ago. She told me she was “freaking out” when she saw another employee state something in an email to a client that was different from her own understanding of the issue. Asking me for clarification was exactly the right response, but I spent two minutes clarifying and the remainder of the call talking her off the ledge.

– Several text messages, one about her personal finances and the shortcomings of her dental insurance, one saying “today is such a bully,” and one saying “this might be my toughest day here yet.” When I asked what was up, she didn’t have a specific problem but just said people were being difficult and there was a high volume of calls, and elaborated that she didn’t “take her day off seriously” and was feeling “burnt out.”

– An email making a scheduling request, and after I agreed to it and solicited coverage, a second email changing and greatly expanding her request. This alone wouldn’t have been a big deal, but it’s part of a larger pattern of immediately agreeing to or asking for one thing and then walking it back or changing it later.

– Multiple texts asking me to walk her through complicated workflows for which I have previously provided documentation. While I was driving.

I want to be supportive and help her succeed, but this seems like … a lot. She has huge confidence issues, needs to be reassured at least 2-3 times per week, and breaks down and cries frequently. She has told me she gets anxiety attacks when I am not present in the office, and when I am there, I’m constantly being interrupted with stories about health and financial problems. It is getting to the point where I dread the days she is working.

My question is, is it okay to ask her to only bring issues and questions to me that I can actually fix (and to do that via email if it’s not time sensitive) instead of just venting about her day and life in general? Can I start simply ignoring the texts that don’t need a response, or is it better to sit down and discuss the big picture? If I can ask her to find someone else to vent to, how do I do that without sounding like a jerk?I hate to make A Policy outlining how and when to communicate with me because my other employees seem to get this intuitively and I don’t mind the occasional text, but the volume and intensity from this one person is overwhelming and disruptive.

I’m also seeing a pattern of oversharing of personal information and could use a script to discourage this. I do try to inquire about families, school, or whatever else my employees have going on in their lives, but I don’t really have time for the blow by blow stories about difficult roommates, root canals, family disputes, and so on. More worrisome is that I’ve had direct reports do this in the past and the resulting perception of “friendship” makes it difficult for me to be an effective and objective manager.

This particular employee may not ultimately be a good fit, but I am not ready to give up yet and still see the potential for her to excel in the role. I think her problem is mainly understanding professional norms and I would love to mentor/coach her on how to better navigate the stresses at work without dumping on me.

This sounds exhausting —and really distracting when you’re trying to work (or drive!). It’s not good for her either, because she’s never going to develop independent judgment if she’s leaning on you like this. But even if that weren’t true and the set-up was great for her, you absolutely get to — and need to — put limits on it for your own sake.

So: Yes, you can indeed tell her to only bring issues and questions to you that you can fix rather than simply venting, and to do that via email instead of text if it’s not time-sensitive. And you can indeed ignore texts that don’t need a response, ideally after resetting expectations with her about how this all should work.

I think, though, that there’s a bigger issue here, which is the amount of reassurance she wants and the way her anxiety is playing out at work in general. Needing to be reassured multiple times per week, crying frequently, having anxiety attacks because you’re not there, leaning on you for constant venting about problems in her personal life — this goes beyond an employee who’s just contacting you too frequently.

If it were just a matter of the barrage of texts, I’d tell you to sit down with her and say this: “Now that you’ve been here a while and are settling in, I want to recalibrate how we’re communicating throughout the day. I’m normally running between clients and have to keep most of my communications very streamlined. From now on, I’d like you to only text me if something is time-sensitive and needs an immediate response. Otherwise, please put it in email and I’ll get to it at a convenient time.”

Ideally, you’d give some examples here to make sure you’re both on the same page about what “time-sensitive” really means. You could say something like, “So, for example, texting me about X last week was exactly right — I needed to weigh in on that in real time. But things like Y and Z are things I’d like you to put in email going forward.”

In that situation, you should also say: “I also want to ask you to be thoughtful about when you contact me in general. We’ve been having a lot of back and forth where you’ll ask me for something but then contact me again soon afterwards to change it. That’s a big increase to the number of texts and calls, so I want you to think things like X or Y through first, before you contact me, so that once you do you’re sure about what we need to agree on.” Of course, there’s a danger that this will lead to a situation where she really does need to walk something back and is afraid to tell you — so you’d need to keep an eye out for that and address it right away if it happens.

But I don’t think that addresses what’s really going on in this situation. You could try it first and see! And if it doesn’t work, it’ll probably bring what’s happening into really stark relief, which could make it easier to address. But it sounds like you’ve got a bigger problem on your hands.

Instead, I think you need a conversation where you step even further back and frame it as, “How are you doing?” and “My sense is that you’re really overwhelmed, and I’ve realized we’re spending a lot of work time talking about that and trying to reassure you about the stressors you’re encountering, both at work and outside of it. I care about how you’re doing, but I need us to have different boundaries in place. I can’t be the person you vent to about your personal life, finances, or even your job. I’m happy to help when you run into work difficulties, but I need you to try to solve work problems on your own first and to be conscious about how much you’re leaning on me for help with how you’re doing emotionally and in your personal life. It’s not that I don’t care — I do! But because of our roles, I can’t be the person who helps you with what’s going on in those areas.”

Do you have an EAP? If so, this is the perfect time to refer her to do it. If you don’t (and with a four-person organization, I’m guessing you don’t), this is trickier. But all you can really do is to lay out very clearly “here’s what I can help you with / here’s what I can’t help with / here’s what I need from you / is there anything you need from me to help move forward within that framework?”

The clearer you can be about each of those elements, the better it will be for both of you. Giving her clear expectations of what you can and can’t accommodate will vastly increase the chances that she’ll meet those expectations (and not doing that will probably guarantee that nothing will change). It will also help you see more clearly whether there’s been enough improvement or whether she’s just not able to function in the way you need.

I think it’s pretty likely that you’re going to find that she can’t — that for whatever reason, she’s not able to work independently enough for the job to be the right one for her. But by having a clear conversation about what needs to change, you’ll be giving her an opportunity to do the job the way you need — and getting yourself much more accurate data about whether this can work out or not.

{ 204 comments… read them below }

  1. Jean*

    It’s vital to set boundaries and make it clear that this is a professional relationship, and her behavior is crossing the line. You can’t be expected to manage her emotions for her, whether it’s related to work or personal matters, and it’s OK to tell her that in a kind but direct way. If she spins out when you push back, oh well. Again, that’s on her to get a grip on and take the feedback. And Alison’s EAP suggestion is spot on. This is a person in need of assistance, but OP isn’t the one who needs to be providing it.

    1. Generic Name*

      I agree. I think this would be a lot of support for even a personal friend to provide. Boundaries are definitely in order. As a boundary-challenged person, I sympathize how hard it is to set a boundary without feeling like a jerk, but if someone reacts poorly to a reasonable boundary (such as not complaining about how stressful ones’ job is to their own boss!), the problem is with them and not you or the boundary.

      1. AcademiaNut*

        It’s really important to recognize the difference between *professionally* supportive, and *personally* supportive.

        Professionally supportive – good heath care, sick leave, an, EAP, flexible schedules as appropriate to deal with medical stuff, ADA appropriate accommodations, a decent work life balance. Recognizing that people can have illogical responses to stuff because of mental illness or trauma, and that behaviour is not always on purpose or malicious. Recognizing that stuff happens in life, and sometimes spills over into work. Clear expectations over the role, and clear, prompt, politely delivered feedback about performance (good and bad). Adjusting feedback style to the employee, within reason. Making it very clear when behaviour has crossed a line into inappropriate. Being receptive to hearing about problems about the job and work.

        Personally supportive – talking someone down out of anxiety spirals, listening to them vent about work, listening to them vent about personal stuff, providing repeated, redundant reassurances, not giving difficult feedback because they can’t handle it, being okay with flakiness. (And even if you’re doing this for a friend or family member, beyond a point it can actually become harmful to the person you’re reassuring). Driving someone home and sitting with them until their spouse gets home. Monitoring their emotional state to make sure they’re okay. Prompting them to see the doctor, or take their medication.

        Medically supportive (ie, a doctor or other health care professional) – Working through their past trauma to figure out the cause of maladaptive behaviour. Prescribing medication or other treatment. Being a therapist. Diagnosing *anything*.

        Not professional, or supportive – Requiring other employees to manage their coworker’s mental illness. Requiring anyone, coworker or customer/client, to endure bad behaviour (yelling, silent treatment, throwing things, crying jags). Not expecting the person to do their job.

        It’s really easy to feel compassion for an employee or coworker who is obviously suffering, and want to help them feel better, and slide into stuff that’s really not appropriate for a manager or coworker.

        1. Ali*

          This is a wonderful outline. As someone in academia myself, and seeing your username, how would you break down what sorts of support professors should offer students? I try to mostly be professionally supportive, and to start to model professional workplace relationships, even though they are not employees. But there are plenty of times I am personally supportive rather than professionally supportive. Mostly those are confined to just one day when the student needs an ear, but I constantly wonder about how to define the types and frequency of support I should offer students. I know this depends somewhat on the institution size; mine is pretty small, but I see more students than the average professor because of my class sizes.

          1. Kal*

            I’m not AcademiaNut, but as someone who dealt with a lot of stress and complex health problems back when I was a uni student, I think sticking to mostly professionally supportive is best. A bit of personal support in one-off type situations like you’re doing is fine, but student needs to learn how to handle the issues themselves or they will end up faceplanting hard once they hit the workforce, and that helps no one. I’ve often seen good professors as serving a sort of in between point between a student’s main authority figures being their parents when they were a kid to being an adult whose main authority figure is a boss (and treating your boss like your mom is not gonna go well for anyone really – even if your boss is your actual mom).

            If your institution (or the community around it) has any resources like an accessibility office, financial aide office, a medical clinic, limited therapy sessions or anything like that for students, making students aware that those resources exist and are there for them is a good move, since I found that a lot of my peers just didn’t even know of half the things that they could have taken advantage of, even though most of them were spelled out in the orientation, in the resource books given to each student, on the website, advertised around campus and so on. They seemed to have just skipped over that information when it wasn’t relevant to them, so they didn’t remember it when it became relevant.

          2. Chris B*

            Other than presenting the curriculum, I think your chief role is acting as a mentor to your students. I can see where a professor would sometimes be faced with requests more suited for an advisor or a counselor, and I think you should encourage your students to speak to those people if their situation requires, since “pointing out the proper channels” is a big part of mentoring. I found a lovely article that breaks down what a mentor does and does not do.

            “A mentor does:
            – Takes a long-range view of your growth and development.
            -Helps you see the destination but does not give you a detailed map to get there.
            -Offers encouragement and cheerleading, but not “how-to” advice.

            Mentors do not:
            -Serve as a coach (focusing on strengthening and eliminating behaviors)
            -Function as an advocate of yours in the organizational environment such as your boss would; the relationship is more informal.
            -Tell you how to do things.
            -Support you on transactional, short-term problems.
            -Serve as a counselor or therapist.”

            I don’t wish to link the article directly as I don’t wish to endorse a site I don’t frequently read, but since this is a verbatim quote, you can look it up if you wish. Cheers!

    2. Tangerina Warbleworth*

      One thing that I do when I’m providing constructive criticism to an oversensitive students is to say, “I know that this is a lot, but please keep in mind that the reason I’m giving you all of these issues to work on is because I want to keep you on, and I know that you can do this. If I were preparing to fire you, I wouldn’t say any of this to you at all. The fact that I’m giving these things to work on shows that I have faith in you. Keep this in mind as you work.”

      Framing it this way usually defuses the underlying anxiety, and helps them concentrate on the actual criticism you’re giving — as opposed to only hearing you say “YOU SUCK! YOU SUCK! YOU SUCK!” Once you get rid of the noise, then they can actually hear you and listen to you.

  2. Nictotene*

    Definitely don’t ignore her texts and hope she gets the hint – this is exactly the kind of person that’s unlikely to work well for. Be direct that you’re her boss and you need her not to text you things that are more suited to coworkers/friends. With someone like this whose instincts seem to be poor, it’s actually a kindness to draw a bright line around the simplest stuff and be firm on it.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      Second all of this: This is someone who already has no feel for professional norms, has blurry boundaries, and seems anxious. She’s not going to take hints.

    2. Anonym*

      It seems that clarifying beforehand could make ignoring texts possible – first have the conversation and say explicitly that you won’t be able to respond to texts about non-urgent items, perhaps? Then at the next check in you can use it to clarify further about what is/isn’t urgent. I’m sure making things more concrete will be helpful – she may be choosing to reach out based on her feelings of urgency, rather than items that are urgent on their own merit.

    3. OP*

      Yes, I think you are right – this person is young and didn’t understand professional norms very well. Some time has passed and we did have that conversation. I absolutely had to spell it all out but once I did, she got it.

      1. JB*

        This is great to hear. It sounds like you handled it very well.

        I was wondering if she might be young. People who are newer to the workforce sometimes don’t immediately understand the difference between ‘my boss is friendly’ and ‘my boss is my friend’. (And some people never learn the difference…but it sounds like she is teachable!)

    4. Archaeopteryx*

      Also regardless of how clueless someone is or isn’t, ignoring messages isn’t a great way to give hints about anything.

      Unwanted messages from strangers? Ignore away. Anything from a friend or colleague? You don’t have to answer in a timely fashion, but ignoring is pretty harsh and likely to lead to unnecessary confusion.

    5. fhqwhgads*

      I don’t think ignoring the texts would communicate a hint, but on the other hand if the texts are as disruptive as they sound, ignoring them may be a necessary thing in order to get anything else done. And hopefully the overall conversations they’ll have about this in general will make it clear why texts that aren’t actually urgent get ignored, rather than it being a “hint” situation.

      1. Nicotena*

        You still need to have a conversation first, IMO. “I’m not going to be able to respond to non-urgent texts going forward. If you have an issue that’s not time sensitive please sent it by email.” Before you start ignoring them.

    6. Meg Danger*

      Ohhhhhhh… I suspect Nictotene is referring to work-process questions when referencing co-worker communications, but OP, please look into whether she is crossing emotional-labor boundaries with co-workers as well. If so, that should also be part of your message.

  3. KarenDontNeedTheManager*

    OP (and frankly anyone who manages or works with people) would be well served by becoming certified in Mental Health First Aid. This person sounds close to a mental health crisis and OP is definitely not equipped or the appropriate person to help with that – but they are a first line of defense. MHFA is a free, one-day class from the National Council for Mental Wellbeing. They have courses specifically for the workplace and have trainings basically everywhere (and online/virtual). You learn how to identify when people may need more help, how to find it and how to appropriately direct people to it – especially helpful when you don’t have an EAP. I did it and am so glad I did!

      1. Paris Geller*

        Seconding the recommendation — I’ve found Mental Health First Aid very helpful and it sounds really relevant to the kind of work you do already!

  4. The Smiling Pug*

    Alison’s suggestion of an EAP is wonderful and spot on. The OP has already written about how the nature of the work is helping those who have experienced “severe emotional life events,” and something like this might really help.

    1. I'm just here for the cats!*

      I agree that an EAP would be beneficial but I wonder if an EAP Program would take someone who only has 4 employees.

      Perhaps the LW could look out in his community to counselors who would agree to work with his employees? Sort of a mini EAP Program. Or maybe there are other resources that the counselor could recommend that are out in the community.

      1. The Smiling Pug*

        Unfortunately, I think you need more than 4 employees to qualify for an EAP program. And I like your suggestion of a network of counselors, too. Good therapists are needed here all around.

      2. The Smiling Pug*

        Unfortunately, I think you have to have more than 4 employees in order to qualify for an EAP.

        And yes, counseling is definitely in order for the kind of work that’s being done.

      3. irene adler*

        There are companies that offer EAP services to small companies. Even ones with just 4 employees. Often these companies contract with many small companies and make small companies a specialty.

        We’re a company of 11.5 people and we have EAP services via a contract with a company that specializes in small companies. Very good offering of services too.

        1. The Smiling Pug*

          Thank you for letting me know! I’ll remember this as I go forward with my commenting. :)

        2. OP*

          I’ve been looking for years and there is nothing in my area that isn’t prohibitively expensive for a tiny business. One of my broader professional/volunteer/leadership goals is to set up an EAP for businesses like mine through a local professional organization.

          1. The Smiling Pug*

            Oh ok. Sorry to hear that the small business options EAP/support system-wise are so expensive.

            1. irene adler*

              Ours is via an on-line service (not sure if I can name names here).
              So not local- at least for the initial contact. But they do offer local services after they determine what the need is.

              1. OP*

                I’d love a referral if you’re allowed to share. I do pay for the best health insurance I could find for a small business in our state and Anxious Employee does have a therapist so in this case an EAP cannot add much, but I really appreciate the services and referrals they offer.

    2. Anonymous this time*

      EAP is wonderful and spot on

      Agreed, but let’s be realistic about what an EAP can do.

      An EAP will match the employee with a counselor and cover a limited number of sessions (in my case three). If that’s what LW’s needs, that’s great.

      However, in my experience, using an EAP to try to get help for previously untreated, life-long mental health issues was very frustrating. And I was particularly ill-equipped at the time to deal with frustration. In retrospect, I wish I had skipped the EAP and gone straight to my primary care physician.

      1. quill*

        The EAP is going to be primarily useful for diagnosis / referral to someone who can perscribe medication or can have an ongoing theraputic relationship if the problem is, for example, an anxiety disorder.

      2. The Smiling Pug*

        This is also true. I’ll admit, I was thinking more of the company as a whole, but I’m Just Here For the Cats was questioning if an EAP could feasibly take an organization with only 4 employees.

    3. Starbuck*

      I see EAPs mentioned here all the time, but are they really that common in the US? Is it a regional thing? I’ve never worked at a place that has one, or known anyone who’s worked somewhere that had one (or at least, made use of it and talked about it).

      1. Paris Geller*

        I think they’re pretty common for employees over a certain size. Every place I’ve worked except one has had one. The benefits/limitations vary greatly. At my last job, the EAP provided 3 free counseling sessions per year and referrals after that with a discount if you sought additional counseling from the same place that managed the EAP. My current job provides 9 sessions per year, which is a pretty big jump from three.

        1. JustaTech*

          As far as I can tell my company’s EAP only offers pre-recorded online classes. I could be wrong, their “live chat” feature only operates during weekdays, so I haven’t given that try. (And was I ever disappointed!)

      2. The Smiling Pug*

        EAP’s can take many different forms and offer different services, depending on the size of the company you work at and what kind of work you do. Even though I’ve personally never used one, I know the company I currently work at has one, and it’s good to know that it’s there.

      3. ThatGirl*

        They are common at least among large businesses, everywhere I’ve worked has offered one. They are often third-party companies that serve nationally but have access to referrals/information on a local level. So you might talk to someone in South Carolina even if you live in New Mexico but they can tell you what services are available near you.

      4. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

        On paper, I think they’re common. If had to guess, I think they’re offered at least 35% of the time. I’ve never known a single individual who has made use of one, though. There’s a lot of distrust and mistrust about how confidential they truly are.

        1. CatMintCat*

          Mine wasn’t confidential. I was dealing with a bullying boss, and using the EAP counsellor just made things exponentially worse. (Australian, so rules may be different). I have no intention of ever going down that road again (and I have a new, good, boss, and hopefully won’t need to).

          1. PollyQ*

            In the US, EAP counseling is covered under HIPAA, which means that privacy & confidentiality are taken very seriously. Sorry it wasn’t that way for you!

            1. londonedit*

              It’s the same in the UK – this is the first job I’ve had where the company offers an EAP, but if you call the EAP then you don’t even have to say who you are, you just have to say which company you’re calling from. You can do it completely anonymously and no information is ever fed back to your employer apart from general info about how many employees are using the service. You can get advice on all sorts of things, from legal advice to advice on stress and family issues, and you can have six free sessions with a counsellor – it’s really useful.

    1. HS Teacher*

      Same! My goodness, that would probably cause me to blow up at her, which is the last thing she needs. Set clear boundaries, let her know she’s doing fine, and direct her to the EAP or any other resources available to her to help her deal with the anxiety.

  5. Pichi*

    Not sure if the current company dynamics would allow this or not – but my recommendation to OP would be to make sure the employee is not emotionally dumping on her coworker after they set boundaries.

    1. D*

      Yes this was exactly my thought! She probably should also try to get a sense of whether that is happening already given what the employee has said about how she can’t handle the boss not being in the office. It would be really unfortunate to end up alienating or losing good long standing employees if they have to deal with a lot of this emotional burden when she is not around.

    2. OP*

      The original letter was from a couple of months ago and I did have a convo with the employee and yes, I made sure to address that and have been checking in with the other employee in her role to see if it’s a problem. Their hours don’t overlap and it sounds like there was indeed a lot of anxiety-texting being sent in their direction (on their days off!) as well. I provided coaching to both of them about this but in the end, it’s their relationship/boundaries to manage and if I’m being told it’s not a problem I feel like I must butt out.

      Oddly, the fourth person on our team actually is there to provide this kind of support to the others, but apparently Anxious Employee does not click well with them and ironically they are the ONLY team member she doesn’t send this kind of stuff to.

      My personal preference would be for us all to meet up weekly to debrief the difficult interactions and troubleshoot together, but the team has explicitly stated they don’t want that.

      1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        “Anxious Employee does not click well with them”
        Hmm I wonder why. Maybe the support worker won’t take any BS? Does she provide decent support for the other staff?

      2. Malarkey01*

        I’d push back that it’s your other employee’s boundary to manage. That’s how you as a manager/owner end up losing good people. Just as it’s your responsibility to make sure people weren’t working unsustainable hours or taking on too much of a workload, it’s your responsibility to make sure one employee isn’t bothering others on their day off (and depending on their status are they being paid to be bothered because that would definitely be your responsibility). It feels like you’re pushing a problem employee that you hired onto others and sort of walking away from unacceptable or unprofessional behavior, and I mean this gently but that’s one of the hallmarks of a bad manager.

        1. OP*

          Just to clarify, conversation with Anxious Employee went more or less “you can’t anxiety-text coworkers although you can ask us for help with specific problems” and I am very clear about communication/availability expectations outside of work hours. Conversation with Coworker was “how often are you getting these texts” and she insists it is not a problem. I told her to let me know if it becomes disruptive and have checked in a few times since.

      3. JB*

        It’s not odd or ironic that the problem employee doesn’t ‘click’ with the person trained to handle these situations.

        The employee you have who is trained to handle things like this is probably very practiced in how to maintain her own boundaries. I doubt she would allow a constant stream of anxiety texts, she would probably coach problem employee on a more productive way to have that discussion.

        Problem employee is therefor gravitating towards other people, like yourself and the other employee you mentioned, who put up with her behavior for whatever amount of time she can get away with it.

        1. Adultiest Adult*

          This, exactly. It’s amazing how much of boundaries is nonverbal. People tend to recognize them when they are there–and sometimes choose to run in the other direction!

      4. LKW*

        Well it’s good that you made some progress. From your other update it sounds like she was young and didn’t have a sense of professional norms. I think it’s great you had the hard conversations and you’re seeing the results. I didn’t think that would happen and I (happily) stand corrected.

      5. Sea Anemone*

        My personal preference would be for us all to meet up weekly to debrief the difficult interactions and troubleshoot together, but the team has explicitly stated they don’t want that.

        Few people will want to air their difficult interactions in front of people who were not part of them. With such a small team, it might not seem like a big deal that Joaquin is present while Carol and Alice hash out a difficult interaction, but I bet Carol and Alice both think it’s a big deal to have Joaquin spectating. I get that it’s more time consuming to you to have to meet with Carol and Alice and possibly again with Joaquin and Carol to hash out their difficult interaction, but it’s probably better for team dynamics.

        1. pancakes*

          This is a pretty big generalization, and doesn’t ring true for me. When I’ve worked and volunteered in this kind of setting, a group debriefing of the kind the letter writer describes was standard, and generally very helpful. I’m not sure why you’re assuming one or more of the coworkers would be “spectating” rather than participating, or why it would be a big deal for people to talk about their work with their coworkers.

        2. miro*

          I interpreted this to mean debriefing difficult interactions with the people they serve (and which seem to be causing stress, at least for Anxious Employee), not interactions between different staff members.

        3. Feral Fairy*

          I am not sure if the LWs company is social services related, but at all of the social work and case management related internships and jobs I have had, this type of meeting is extremely normal- it’s usually called something like “case conferencing”. It would actually be quite odd if an organization or company involved in this type of work did not have meetings like this. The meetings serve multiple purposes- they get everyone on the same page and they are a good way for people to get feedback on difficult situations where they aren’t sure about what to do. When these meetings are well run, they are extremely valuable. I worked at a dysfunctional organization that only had meetings like this periodically and as a result workers had to organize them informally and I think that having them on a weekly basis would have gone a long way in improving communication and support amongst the employees.

        4. OP*

          Sorry, I didn’t mean interpersonal stuff between team members – what a dystopian workplace that would create! I meant challenging clients.

          1. allathian*

            You are the business owner and their manager, so you have every right to at least do a trial run of meetings to discuss challenging clients, even if your team doesn’t like the idea. After the trial, you can reevaluate things. It may be that your team finds the meetings so useful that they don’t want to stop, or that they don’t see the point, but they’re useful to you as their manager, so you continue. But if neither you, nor they find them useful, you can stop having them.

  6. Sea Anemone*

    is it okay to ask her to only bring issues and questions to me that I can actually fix (and to do that via email if it’s not time sensitive) instead of just venting about her day and life in general?

    Learn to validate without solving. Validation means responding with something like, “Wow, sounds tough,” or “Sounds like today has been tough for you!” You are validating the statement, nothing more. Throw the solution back on her with something like, “What do you think you’ll do?” and when she answers, validate the answer without input. So you would say something like, “Sounds like you have a plan in place.” Again, just validating her statement, not making a comment about it being good, bad, or indifferent. You won’t always want to hear what she plans to do, however, so prepare responses that are more along the lines of, “Yeah, that does sound hard. I have confidence that you will work it out.”

    I advise that you aim to sound sympathetic. Alison’s scripts really shut things down, and I think you run the risk of giving this employee a complex about ever talking to you, even when she needs to. That will impact her performance. See if you can modify those scripts to include some validation of what she says so that you don’t damage your relationship with her and continue to be someone she is comfortable bringing the problems you can fix to.

    1. Colette*

      I think validation will make the problem worse, not better. What the OP needs to be aiming for is making the non-work-related conversations unrewarding for the employee (after being clear about what the employee needs to bring to her and what not to bring to her).

      1. anonymous73*

        And quite honestly based on everything described in this letter, it’s too much for a friend as well. Yes you should be able to vent to friends sometimes, and ask for advice, but the constant need for validation and the “woe is me” attitude is exhausting for the most sympathetic of friends.

        1. Zona the Great*

          Yeah I would have said goodbye to this person if she were a friend pulling this stuff.

          1. allathian*

            Yup, me too. And have done in the past, come to think of it. It’s not appropriate for an employee to look for this sort of support from their manager, and it’s within the manager’s rights to shut it right down. But judging from the OP’s updates in this thread, it sounds like the employee is teachable at least to some degree, so fingers crossed it works out.

    2. LKW*

      She can’t be her employee’s sounding board. Even with the techniques you’ve outlined, she’s still playing a wall to the employee’s handball game. The employee smacks the ball – the wall answers. She smacks the ball again. The wall answers again. In this case, the OP has to stand there as long as the employee has the energy for the game. The OP needs to put up a boundary, not make it easier to sit and vent.

    3. Feral Fairy*

      But the LW isn’t their employee’s therapist or friend, she is her manager. It is doing everyone a disservice including the employee to let this continue without setting a clear boundary. If the LW spells out that she wants the employee to reach out when there are work issues but not about outside of work issues/repeated conversations about anxiety and the employee interprets that as “I can never ask my boss for help with anything including work issues”, that is not on the LW.

      I have struggled with severe anxiety since childhood. While I haven’t had the employee’s specific issue of relying on a manager for emotional reassurance and have worked through this kind of thing in therapy, I would much rather have someone set a clear boundary that I can follow rather than validate behavior that is problematic in a work environment. Honestly these conversations are not actually addressing the employee’s anxiety in the first place and seeking out constant reassurance from others just feeds the anxiety cycle in my experience. I sympathize with this employee too but maybe getting clear feedback from her manager in a compassionate way will be a push for her to work on developing coping skills.

    4. Unpopular opinions*

      I agree with this. Validation actually shuts things down more empathetically. You aren’t actually inviting more conversation, you are just stating exactly what they already said. The OP might have been wanting to fix the problem of the employee, which could have the unintended effect of training them to rely on her to solve the problem.

      1. pancakes*

        It’s not sustainable to validate an employee’s anxieties by repeating them back to her whenever she wants to talk about them. It would be exhausting. I also don’t think it’s particularly empathetic—or accurate!—to suggest that the letter writer must have somehow trained the new hire to behave this way.

  7. Kali*

    OP, I think you also have to be clear (and follow through!) that you will address an actual work problem if she has one. As someone who has major imposter syndrome and a lot of anxiety about my work performance, I struggle with this, but what really, really helps is knowing my boss will absolutely come to me and address it if he has any issues with my work whatsoever. I still worry about it, but 99.9% of the time, I can keep it to myself.

  8. Empress Matilda*

    This is great advice. I would just make one small change to Alison’s script – instead of “I can’t be the person you vent to about your personal life, finances, or even your job” I would say “…and especiallyyour job.” As her boss, you really can’t be the one she vents to about her job.

    Whether she’s venting about the work itself, or her coworkers, or the brand of coffee in the kitchen – she’s going to be talking about decisions you’ve made. If you’re anything like me, it’ll be hard to keep from getting defensive, even about small things. “Look, I LIKE Starbucks, so that’s the coffee I’m providing. If you’re not happy with the free coffee, you don’t have to keep drinking it, OKAY???” Then imagine she’s venting about a colleague who you hired and who you know does excellent work; or venting about the work you have assigned to her.

    Venting has its purpose, and it’s important that she has the ability to vent about work. But you can’t be the person she does that with. You’re not her BFF who is on her side no matter what, and you’re not a therapist who is emotionally uninvolved and therefore neutral. On the contrary – you’re strongly invested in her work, and in her colleagues, and in the business itself. Whether you agree with her complaints or disagree with them, there’s no way you’re going to be able to just nod and smile and agree that she sounds really frustrated. For her sake, and yours, you need to draw a firm boundary on any kind of “venting to the boss” situation. Good luck!

    1. Empress Matilda*

      Forgot to account for the fact that the job itself can be pretty emotionally stressful, in which case it is sometimes appropriate to be able to vent to the boss. But even so, I think that only applies in situations where everybody already has a healthy set of boundaries. If she can’t tell the difference between asking you for support after a really tough client and asking you for support after a fight with her boyfriend, you might still want to take a hard line on what you can help her with – which unfortunately might be a different line than you take with the rest of the team.

    2. Me*

      Oh that’s got to be worded really really carefully. What you definitely don’t want is the employee to take that as I can’t come to boss with work problems. I’m not sure I would risk that phrasing.

      I think Alison is on the right track.

  9. Old Timer*

    This is never going to end well. She’s a bad fit for the role and she needs help beyond OP’s ability to provide. If she’s doing this to her boss (and owner of the company that she works for), imagine the emotional baggage she’s dumping on her co-workers. If she hasn’t vented on a client yet, it’s just a matter of time before she does. Does the OP really want an unstable person being the face of her business?

    I get that we should all be supportive but there’s a point where the pains far outweigh the benefits. I hate to be the one not urging trying to help her but I’m going to be That Person. She needs to be cut loose. It’s not personal, it’s just business.

    1. Not A Manager*

      I agree. I think any attempt to help the employee regulate her behavior is going to trigger some other anxiety and maladaptive response. Ultimately, both the employee and the OP are going suffer longer and unnecessarily. I would gently move her out now.

      1. Eldritch Office Worker*

        I agree this might not be tenable but I am so averse to taking this step without naming the problem and giving the person the opportunity to address it. Maybe not a long opportunity, but just managing her out because of the risk of prodding a maladaptive response seems prescriptive to me. She should at least know what the expectations of her are.

    2. anonymous73*

      This depends on a few things here. How long has employee been there and has OP ever had a conversation with her about expectations? Based on the letter it doesn’t sound like she’s had a big picture conversation with her, and she talks about walking her through a documented process – that’s not how you help someone to improve. If she’s new to the workforce, and new to the job, she may not understand professional norms. Yes she sounds like a lot, and it’s not OP’s job to coddle her – she needs to find her own coping strategies for her anxiety – but an immediate firing isn’t really fair here.

    3. Sara without an H*

      I agree that OP needs to lay out expectations, because it really doesn’t sound as thought they’ve done that. So yes, I’d recommend having Alison’s conversation with the employee and making it clear what the boundaries are. OP also needs to make it clear that they won’t respond to extraneous communication.

      That said, am I optimistic that this will work? Not really. Whether this is the result of a sudden crisis in the employee’s life, or deeply entrenched behavior, I really don’t see it clearing up after OP makes their expectations explicit.

      One other point: were there NO indications during the hiring process that this might be an issue? Did anybody check this person’s references? I know it’s a small business, but it really sounds to me like a rushed hire.

        1. allathian*

          So, what has changed? Some people, especially those in their early careers, would probably be more confident and feel more supported in a larger team. If she’s working at her task alone, while her peer does the same job on another shift, it’s very different from sitting in a team with 10, 20, or even 50 other entry-level employees all doing the same job, with the recent hires being able to ask the more experienced ones for help, and only involving the supervisor/manager when it’s serious, but not necessarily with the slightly challenging/new to the newbie day to day stuff.

          1. Fried Eggs*

            Maybe she was micromanaged in the past? I worked for a micromanager in my first job, which was not such a problem since she sat right next to me and could tell me how she wanted things done in real time. After a few months, I could easily run things while she was out, because I knew exactly how she would respond.

            In my next job, I had a really tough time because my boss was often unavailable for long stretches of time. My anxiety went through the roof, because I didn’t know how he’d want certain time-sensitive situations handled, and he wasn’t there to ask.

            1. pancakes*

              Maybe, but feeling anxious and opting to foist those feelings onto others are two different things.

            2. cncx*

              i was like that and had a coworker like that. that’s why i agree with the top comment- i agree this situation sucks but there needs to be a chance here to try to work things out

  10. Khatul Madame*

    I agree with other posters that it would be hard, if not impossible, to turn the situation around. However, OP can set boundaries, for example tell the employee that she won’t read or responding to texts while driving between clients. Even if the messaging program can read the texts to her, they are still a distraction. The employee can wait till the manager has the free time to resolve the issue, or try to solve it herself, maybe with the help of other co-workers.
    I recommend this gentle approach, because “the talk” may reduce the employee, given their anxiety, to a blubbering mess still on OP’s hands.

    1. Empress Matilda*

      Yes! And to be clear, the OP shouldn’t be reading or responding to texts from anyone while they’re driving. Even handsfree. I don’t know exactly what your work involves, or what kinds of texts you’re getting, but I can’t imagine they’re all so urgent that you need to respond while you’re driving, are they?

      If you can honestly say the texts are usually that urgent, then obviously you’re doing what you need to do. But if most of them aren’t, then you might want to think about reframing those expectations for all your employees, not just this one. It’s great that you want to be 100% available to your employees all the time, but it’s not good for YOU if you can’t get a few minutes to recharge once in a while.

  11. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

    This is someone who needs to address their anxiety. This is not a solve that an employer can provide.

    After the “let’s chat about how it’s going now that you’ve been here for awhile” conversation that Alison recommends, I would recommend a slow and steady march toward extinguishing the spill-over anxiety that’s disrupting the work process and environment. Let NewHire express an issue until you can securely identify whether it’s work related or not, and roughly what if any guidance can be provided. Then gently interrupt, state the issue briefly without the drama, and state the “this was a good/poor use of text/email/phone call” status, and either provide the response or say when the response will come. The personal stuff can be resolved with noncommittal comments of awareness — “Gee, that sounds rough”, or “yup, dental expenses can be high” and then a refocus — “so are you all set with Task X? I’ve got to get back to the grind.”

    You can provide suggestions for how she can find resources for managing anxiety, but you should not take that on. And she needs to find ways to perform the duties of the job appropriately. You can make accommodations, but this is clearly not improving with time.

  12. Keymaster of Gozer (she/her)*

    I’ve got some mileage out of ‘I sympathise but there’s nothing I can do to help this situation’ to people insistent on dumping their entire stress load onto me. I do get that life can get unbearably difficult at times, by goddess do I, but there really are limits to what I can do.

    Then again, I’m a professional problem solver who deliberately chose to work IT. I’ll listen to you rant or cry or stress in a specific situation if it helps you. I’ll be there. But it can’t be a regular occurrence. I can’t listen long to things I can’t solve.

    1. The Rural Juror*

      I once had to tell a coworker to stop bringing his personal stress to work and putting it on my shoulders. I’m the project coordinator for our company and it’s my job to be the problem-solver, but not to be anyone’s therapist! He was a constant complainer and it wore me OUT. He started by complaining about work, then traffic, then his paycheck, then his marriage… I drew the line at anything so personal like that!

      1. Keymaster of Gozer (she/her)*

        Complaining about the weather daily? Heck, I’m British, we do that a lot. Complaining for longer than a few minutes and/or getting emotional about it (be it anger, tears)? No.

        I think that’s where my limits are. Emotional stuff. If it’s a genuinely stressful time (e,g. a family member is seriously ill) I’ll get you a cup of tea and you can talk and I’ll try to see if I can get you some time off.

  13. Gerry Keay*

    Oh jeez, as someone who has definitely had a panic attack or two at work, I feel so bad for this employee. I also feel like this is something she’s maybe going to have to work out (ideally with a therapist and loved ones) over the course of multiple years and multiple jobs — at least that was the case with me. I don’t see a single conversation, or even a series of conversations, fixing this. Unfortunately, this kind of mental health journey isn’t something you can make another go on.

    1. Kella*

      Yeah, I really feel for this employee. I’ve always worked very hard to keep my internal panic from affecting the people around me but internally, I have been this employee many times, and every once in a while it would get too big and sneak out. It’s exhausting and miserable and there’s nothing OP can do to fix it, she can only set boundaries to keep her and her employees safe. I really hope this employee is able to seek help. It takes a lot of work to get out of these kinds of anxiety problems.

      I have no idea what it is for this employee but for me it’s been about identifying what expectations I have of myself (I can never mess up, I have to follow all rules perfectly, I can’t cause people to react certain ways etc) and identifying what I think the consequences are– usually something life-threatening. Reframing my expectations of myself has been the only way I’ve been able to scale back these reactions. No amount of telling myself “Hey, it’s going to be okay, it’s not that big of a deal” will ever override them if deep down I still believe that this mistake will kill me somehow.

      1. The Prettiest Curse*

        And it seems like, in this case, the employee’s anxiety problems are being exacerbated by the nature of her job. I feel terrible for her, but she probably needs to switch jobs for the sake of her mental health.

        1. Kella*

          I’m actually not sure that’s the case. All the examples OP gave were pretty neutral situations that you’d encounter at any job: worrying that she had been doing a task the wrong way, complaining about homelife stuff, going back and forth about requests for time off, and having trouble following existing documentation. Those aren’t particularly emotionally charged things. It’s certainly possible that the baseline level of stress of the job is increasing her general anxiety but if your anxiety is bad enough, you can get like this over just about anything.

  14. Red*

    This worker sounds like she can’t handle the job, regardless of whether or not she has the skills/potential to do so.

    I panic occasionally when I find out I may have done something wrong and I stress over it to the point of difficult breathing, but what I don’t do is have crying fits and lean on my boss to reassure me because I have other support systems in my life and I also understand work is not the place for that.

    This employee sounds like someone who doesn’t have any other framework in their life to lean on (probably because they’re exhausting to be around) and they need to get that addressed before they’ll see any success in their professional life.

    And OP you can guide her to solutions, but you can’t make her solve her own things. She needs to make the choice for herself. At some point you’re going to have to accept that she’s chosen this mental framework and part ways if she isn’t accomplishing the role in the way you need.

    1. LKW*

      I agree. This is someone who is not able to manage her emotions. Granted, starting a new job is stressful, and learning things is stressful, but the reactions seem to be outsized to the severity or impact of a mistake or issue.

      I suspect that this behavior is not going to go away. That any mistake is going to result in a crisis, regardless of how minor. That any change to the process will be met with reluctance, anxiety, etc.

      I’m sorry but crying multiple times a week is not normal. Needing this much handholding is not normal. She may be a hard worker, but how much time is she adding to you and your team, instead of reducing your workloads?

      1. American Job Venter*

        … people *can* change if they work at it. Which I bring up both because the “just get rid of anyone not perfectly stable” solution seems rather callous to me and because in this particular case the OP’s update indicates that the employee is indeed working on changing, having been given the appropriate direction.

        1. LKW*

          If the person demonstrates they are taking action – great! As a manager I have to think of the team, the client, the work. If I have to spend 2 hours a day helping an adult manage their emotions, even after coaching them, it’s 1 hour and 55 minutes more than I should per day. If my team is overwhelmed because one person isn’t pulling their weight or the work isn’t getting done and the client(s) are suffering – I have to weigh all of that against one person who just came on board and is exhibiting concerning behaviors.

          If I know this person and know they can do the work and they are dealing with a crisis – I can be patient. If that crisis goes on for months, I may not be as patient.

        2. Red*

          I hadn’t seen their update, but what I was suggesting was less of a “get rid of anyone not perfectly stable” and more of a recognize when someone is /too/ unstable. The OP seemed committed to giving this employee more then extra chances to change their behaviour (a desire which probably stems from the very work they do) and while I can understand the desire to do that, the OP if not careful might’ve ended up in a situation where one person was heavily tilting the table with their behaviour and then feeling emotionally blackmailed into perpetuating an unbalanced situation.

          No one is perfectly stable and people should be given coaching/direction and chances to improve their behaviour, but some people are too much for a given situation. In this particular instance (2 months in and having the boundary/work issues OP gave) the employee seemed to be spilling out more then the organization can handle.

    2. American Job Venter*

      This reminds me of a discussion I had recently about mental health and the workplace. I and the other person were discussing how while one can postpone getting into a relationship or (at least sometimes) having children while working on one’s mental health, most people can’t afford to postpone employment until after they have worked on their mental health, and penury does not tend to help mental health or help one access resources to improve it. This isn’t the responsibility of any given employer to solve but I wonder what if anything can be done on a broader level.

      1. Red*

        Probably having societal safety nets that allow people access to mental health resources without too much financial burden on the patient as well as a way to have more financial freedom to not be so concerned with having to work. (A favourite quote of mine is ‘only the rich can afford to be crazy’.) Whether that came in the form of a universal income or more logically in my opinion is a flatter structure to business profit division (i.e. You make $X/hour and your boss make only one or two times more then that and company profits are used to prop up all who contribute to the business/work there, rather then hundreds of employees working for minimum wage and the boss making millions.)

  15. kevcat*

    The OP’s description of their work sounds very similar to mine, in which I bear the brunt of clients’ anger, frustration, and grief on any given day. I strongly disagree with the comments here that take Alison to task for suggesting that the OP has a significant responsibility to teach her employee the appropriate coping skills; either this employee is psychologically suited to the job, or she isn’t; in this case, it seems that her emotional fragility makes her a bad fit. In my situation, supervisors are always available to offer commiseration and understanding, or to allow some time to recover from a particularly bruising encounter, but there are limits. This employee has issues that transcend a manager’s ability and/or responsibility to fix; if she can’t handle the heat, she’s got to move farther back from the fire.

    1. anonymous73*

      Thank you for saying this. It really bothers me when people make comments that if an employee is dealing with a mental health issue, that the staff needs to bend over backwards to accommodate that employee. I’m not saying people shouldn’t try and support the person, but it’s ultimately up to the employee to find ways to manage their own mental health, because different people will need different coping strategies.

      1. Feral Fairy*

        Exactly. I have struggled with pretty severe mental health problems and in a hypothetical situation I would not want colleagues to over accomodate me to the extent that my mental health is negatively impacting them and I don’t even realize it. I would be pretty mortified if I found out that coworkers or management felt like I was relying on them too much for emotional support and didn’t say anything to address it. That doesn’t do me any favors. there are tangible ways that workplaces can accommodate mental illness and neurodivergent employees that are not at the expense of their other employees’ boundaries. And to reiterate, letting an employee seek constant reassurance from others or go into too much detail about personal stuff doesn’t benefit them either.

    2. Kk*

      Yeah, honestly you could try the other stuff but put a time limit on the changes needed. If they don’t come, think about the ‘I’m not sure this is the right fit for you’ convo and maybe do a working notice.

  16. anonymous73*

    You need to have a big picture conversation with her to set boundaries and provide expectations. You can and should support her, but she needs to find a way to manage her anxiety without bringing every single thing to you (or other staff). If you have support services, give her that information. If a process is documented, you shouldn’t be walking her through it step by step. That isn’t helpful. You need to push her to follow the documentation. As long as you continue to hand hold with her, things won’t change. And if you’ve had this conversation with her, been clear about your expectations, and she continues to function this way, you may need to accept the fact that she isn’t the right fit for the role.

  17. Amber Rose*

    I feel like this needs to be part of your interviewing process before you even hire someone. “This is an emotionally intense job, do you have the necessary supports in your life to prevent burn out?”

    Because you can’t be the boss and the therapist. You can provide access to therapy maybe, hand out lists of free resources or offer really good time off packages or whatever. But you can’t be the pillar of support to your customers and your employees. That’s how YOU burn out.

    1. Gerry Keay*

      I totally agree with your sentiment but I think I’d *really* balk at an employer asking about my personal support network, or that “preventing burnout” is entirely the responsibility of the employee. I think an explanatory approach would work instead — “This is an emotionally intense job, and we’ve found that people are more likely to thrive when they have a robust support. Knowing that, is this a job you want to take on?” That way you’re giving people a full picture without asking them to share that level of personal info.

    2. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

      Yeah, that question grosses me out a lot. Who or what is in my personal life is absolutely none of a potential (or current) employer’s business and I’d walk TF out of an interview if I got that question. All that matters is that I don’t make my coping mechanisms their problem.

  18. K.K.*

    I may be biased by my own experiences, but I wonder if part of what’s going on here may be loneliness? A conscientious worker may not feel right reaching out to friends or family or other support networks when something anxiety-provoking happens (like learning about a substantial medical bill) during the workday. May just do poorly feeling alone without guidance when dealing with new workflows. I wonder if maybe you could get a lot of progress from a half-hour weekly check in plus explicitly allowing moderate contact with her external support networks during the workday when it doesn’t interfere with her work, or music/audiobooks/podcasts to let her mind have an escape from fixating on the things that might be going wrong.

    1. anonymous73*

      Regardless of the why, it’s not up to the OP to figure that out. It sounds like the employee has crippling anxiety and hasn’t found a coping strategy that works for her. Yes OP can be supportive, but it’s not her job to be a therapist. Before anything else happens, OP needs to have a big picture conversation with employee to provide her with expectations and setup boundaries. THEN they could consider regular check ins and other things to help employee cope with the day to day of the job, that doesn’t involve OP walking her through everything and listening to her complain constantly.

  19. Will Rogers*

    I don’t understand how her texting you while YOU are driving is a problem. Turn your phone off, or put it on silent, when driving. Phone calls and texts can be returned. Why is anyone looking at their phone while driving? Isn’t that the glory of texting? You don’t have to immediately respond.

    1. Gerry Keay*

      Some people use their phones as a hands-free navigation device; do not disturb mode is the way to go if that’s the case.

    2. fhqwhgads*

      I took the issue to be something more like she leaves the office to drive to another site, and the employee knows this, but still texts when it would be impossible to be anywhere but the car. The issue is not that it’s impossible to ignore a text while driving, but that it seems the employee cannot go very long after OP leaves before texting about something. Sort of a “can’t even leave her alone for 15 minutes” kind of thing.

  20. Cathie from Canada*

    I’m not sure if this is applicable, but I recall getting into a pattern once with a nanny who would greet me every single day after work with a litany of complaints about how my kids had behaved. After days/weeks of trying to placate her and suggest solutions, etc, and things just escalating day by day, I finally realized it was a pattern and that nothing I suggested would help her. So the next night when she started in again, I just said “well, if you can’t handle them and you have to leave us, then that would likely be for the best. Let me know when you want to set a last day and we will manage from there.”
    It seemed to startle her, to realize that she was actually on the brink of losing her job and I wasn’t going to try to fix it anymore. Almost immediately, she calmed down and stopped the pattern of complaining.

  21. Trek*

    If you are not having this issue with other employees I think this may be a case that she is not the right fit for this type of position. She is almost at her 90 days and I would make a decision ASAP about keeping her. I don’t think you will see enough of a change in her within 30 days. I have managed employees just like this and they become more of a liability with their endless needs over shadowing the needs of others.

  22. Archaeopteryx*

    This definitely sounds exhausting; the one thing I would say in employee’s defense is that you can’t expect others to know when you’re driving and refrain from texting. Just don’t look at your phone until you’re parked. Texts are asynchronous by design; don’t train yourself to need to leap at them.

  23. foolofgrace*

    Be prepared for tears. Don’t let it sway you. “Do you need some time to calm down? Then we can pick this back up.” You’re being kind but letting her know that the discussion Is Not Over.

    1. Gerry Keay*

      “Tears don’t stop the train” is a great phrase I’ve heard used (specifically in reference to white women crying during anti-racism training, but I think it can apply more broadly!!)

  24. Detective Amy Santiago*

    Given that the OP says this

    All roles are client-facing and we help people who are going through emotionally intense life events. It is often stressful but very rewarding work.

    There needs to be *something* in place for the employees to decompress/get support. You can’t expect someone to do that kind of work without mechanisms in place to prevent burnout. Hearing about other people’s ’emotionally intense life events’ is very likely to trigger someone’s anxiety or other potential issues.

    1. Nictotene*

      I thought it was interesting that OP describes their work this way but is struggling to draw clearer boundaries and be direct with this employee; it seems like there should be transferable skills (but I totally understand how it’s different when it’s your own life).

      1. Detective Amy Santiago*

        I think that the “only bring me problems I can fix” is also the wrong way to look at this. It’s OP’s responsibility to provide support to their employees if their work can cause emotional issues.

        OP needs to frame it more as “I cannot help you with personal issues outside of work”. But in my opinion, if OP is going to manage people who are providing intense emotional support to clients, they need to provide support in some fashion to those employees. They can’t just say “oh well, too bad” if a client interaction is difficult for the employee.

        1. anonymath*

          While I agree with part of your sentiment, one still must be able to draw a boundary somewhere. How?

          Seems like “help dealing with client interaction aftereffects” is good.

          But “my roommate is eating my soup” and “my root canal was terrible” and “my sister just told me she had a crush on my high school boyfriend and it’s bothering me” should have some way of being off the table.

          So where do you draw the line? At some point you just have to draw it!

          1. Amy Farrah Fowler*

            Yeah, I feel like there’s also pretty grey area in there. For example, I think it would be okay at work to say “oh, I’m in a bit of pain today – root canal” without hashing out exactly what the pain feels like and going into excruciating detail. It can be helpful if my coworkers know “hey, Amy Farrah Fowler isn’t at 100%, so if we can help out today, we know she’ll be better tomorrow or later this week”.

            However, personal finances, and my roommate ate my food seem well outside the bounds of appropriate things for you to mediate.

        2. Grits McGee*

          Yes, I think “only bring me problems that are within my purview” is probably a better way to think about it. “I am stressed out because of difficult client interactions” is theoretically something OP could do something about (even if it’s considering contracting with an EAP provider), while “I’m stressed out because I didn’t take my day off seriously” is not. (And it would be a wild overreach for OP to weigh in on what an employee does to relax.)

        3. AskJeeves*

          Referral to the EAP, paid time to see a counselor, other mental health/self-care supports built into the workplace. OP absolutely cannot and should not be the emotional processing center for her employees. Plenty of people have jobs where they deal with high levels of stress and even trauma, and they’re not going to their bosses for emotional support.

        4. Worldwalker*

          Providing support, however, and being an employee’s personal therapist, are two different things.

          Perhaps the OP should look into making outside counseling/therapy services available to all employees? The one mentioned probably isn’t the *only* person having stress issues — just the one who vents to the OP about it. Others may have different outlets … and not necessarily good ones, either. (stressed-out family members, for instance) It sounds very much like the employee really needs someone to talk to. If the expectation is that the OP will be in loco parentis for this, they should *provide* support, not *be* support. (I’ll admit I’m not sure if it actually *is* the employer’s responsibility to provide support in the first place) Having this one person make it difficult for the OP to do their own job (and while driving?) isn’t a good solution.

        5. Allonge*

          I agree with some support, but there are limits in the work sphere too – simply, if boss spends more time with employee’s problems daily than boss spends with, say, average client in a week, then there is an issue. This job may just not be for this particular person.

        6. Julia*

          I think this is a bit derailing, honestly. This employee isn’t asking for help dealing with difficult client situations. This employee is utterly off the rails, confiding in her manager about stuff most of us wouldn’t dream of, and creating an environment in which a coworker *dreads days when she’s working there*.

          The answer here is to create and maintain firm boundaries, not confuse the issue with discussion of employees’ need for emotional support when dealing with clients’ difficult issues. That’s just a different issue entirely and is likely to send LW on the wrong path toward being insufficiently clear.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            I agree. It’s not that this isn’t an important discussion, but it’s not the one that focuses on the OP’s problem. I’m moving this further down the page and am closing this subthread.

    2. Keymaster of Gozer (she/her)*

      Yes, people taking stressful jobs need a way to wind down/dump the emotional load off somehow else you end up with people breaking down. Especially if you’re dealing with other people’s emotions! Positive or negative.

      It’s a pure guess but I don’t think she *has* this kind of system or knowledge or resources to do this and has latched onto her boss as the load-bearing emotional pillar if you will. Which isn’t the right way to go about it at all. Maybe all the rest of you doing this job could give her advice on how they decompress after a day?

      However, it may be that someone who cannot do their job without contacting their boss in tears multiple times a day is just not suited to this kind of role. That’s ok too. Not everyone can do everything (there’s a reason I prefer computers to people)

      1. Detective Amy Santiago*

        Exactly. I had a previous customer facing job where I ended up hearing some pretty personal information from the people I was assisting. Normally it wasn’t emotionally intense, but there were a handful of occasions where I was told something that struck me in a way that I needed to sit and talk about it. My manager was who I went to in those circumstances.

        1. Keymaster of Gozer (she/her)*

          Once, during an IT investigation, I found files and media on a person’s computer that required me to take a few days off after because they were just…beyond what anyone should ever have to see. (The evidence went to the police let’s just say). Emotional shock isn’t something you normally encounter in IT.
          My poor boss. He got cried on.

          1. Keymaster of Gozer (she/her)*

            (He was the one who got me the time off, and a few helplines I could phone to help deal with what I saw. Still the best manager I’ve ever had)

            1. Keymaster of Gozer (she/her)*

              The guy who’s laptop it was – was arrested, fired, tried in court and thrown into one of Her Majesty’s jails. So I take some comfort in knowing that he didn’t get away with it.

              1. ampersand*

                Great that he was jailed, but wow that sounds literally traumatizing for you. I’m glad your boss had the presence of mind and decency to allow you time off, and hopefully whatever else you needed to work through that experience.

          2. Bagpuss*

            Oof. that’s horrible. I have had to read / see some pretty horrible things in my time but not normally with no warning. If you’ve had to go and physically pick up a video or dvd so you can prove who you are and sing reams of documents promising to keep it locked up and not to watch it except in a locked room then you know it isn’t going to be pleasant)

            I am glad you had a supportive boss. And that the person responsible got what was coming to him.

          3. NotAnotherManager!*

            This happens more often than one would prefer with litigation document reviews. The things some people keep on their work computers/networks is just astounding to me. I’ve had multiple review supervisors complain to me about how they shouldn’t have to warn people doing a review for financial services fraud that, hey, there may be porn (or worse) nor should their default document coding panel have to include an “adult materials” tag. Also, at least two reviews have resulted in a call to local law enforcement and/or the FBI due to the nature of the content discovered. It is very upsetting for all involved, and we’ve made multiple EAP referrals over the years.

        2. Hanani*

          One of my previous positions involved supporting people in crisis, and one of the things we did during training was identify, name, and write out (for ourselves) our own emotional support systems, as well as how we could care for ourselves while handling stress. They talked to folks a lot about how the position wasn’t a good fit for people who didn’t have those systems or those skills – crisis response work is draining, and plenty of people want to help but frankly aren’t in a place to do it.

          I could always go to my manager after a particularly difficult interaction, but that conversation was rightfully focused on 1) is there a different way I should handle this kind of situation going forward, and 2) how can I best take care of myself as I decompress. If I needed to call my manager every time I was with a client to make sure I was doing the right thing, or needed to be talked down after every client interaction, or turned those debrief sessions into a conversation about my life struggles in general, those would all be signs the position wasn’t a good fit for me. And there came a point in my life where it wasn’t a good fit, because of other things I had going on!

          OP wants to keep working with this particular employee for at least a while, and it does sound like she needs to think about how to provide/identify resources to support her employees, but I agree with Alison that this employee just doesn’t seem well-suited to this position.

          1. OP*

            I really like this idea! We’re not big enough to have formal training sessions (I only hire once every year or two) but I can think about how to work this into the onboarding process.

            1. AskJeeves*

              Even a small team can benefit from refreshed training, or an annual retreat to discuss the job and gain new resources. Although I agree with Alison that this particular employee doesn’t sound like the right fit, it’s a good idea to have formal supports available for your long-serving team members.

        3. Gerry Keay*

          Yeah, I was covering monitoring our social feeds one day and saw some sexual harassment that was pretty triggering for me and I needed to take the day. Luckily my manager was very understanding.

        4. Feral Fairy*

          I used to be a case manager and I think that there is a difference between processing upsetting work situations with your manager and processing/venting about problems in your personal life with your manager. And even with the former, there is a time & place for these conversations, ideally in a one on one or team meeting and not in sporadic texts and phone calls throughout the day.

      2. The Smiling Pug*

        Unfortunately, the last part of your statement is very true. Dealing with a strangers’ emotions all day, every day is stressful and painful. Not everyone can do it. I know I sure can’t.

      3. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        It’s not my paid work but volunteer work: I’m privy to all sorts of life-shattering events including domestic violence, reporting child abuse, supporting women who have had miscarriages, premature labour, death of young babies. That sounds terrible put like that, but there is luckily far more joy than pain because nobody could deal with the harrowing stuff all the time.
        Each volunteer has a designated support volunteer. The support worker will listen to them venting, and make suggestions to soothe the pain. Support volunteers also have their own support volunteers: everyone has a person they can turn to. If ever their support person is actually part of the problem they can ask somebody else to fulfil the role.
        For OP’s structure, that might be over the top. It’s perhaps a good idea for the other workers to share tips on how to deal with stuff. OP might well learn that in fact the other staff are burning out too, just being quieter about it… or might discover that they each vent to a particular colleague.

    3. Gobbo McGobberson*

      +1

      I haven’t been this employee per se, because I have a strong abhorrence to telling workmates much of anything about my personal life. However, the more stressed I get, the more likely I am to blabber to coworkers about some other thing that’s stressing/upsetting me besides work. So I can’t deny that my sympathy goes out to the employee. They definitely need mental health help ASAP, and I hope they are willing and able to get that, and that the OP can reach a happy medium with the employee.

    4. Guacamole Bob*

      I agree with this in theory, but the examples that OP describes aren’t really about the difficulty of the clients’ situations – needing extra support with documented procedures, not having used a day off well, her personal financial situation, freaking out over realizing she’s misunderstood something, changes to scheduling requests, etc. The client work itself may be part of it, but it sounds like this person is anxious and needs a lot of hand-holding across the board. The difficulty of the client work just increases the likelihood that this work isn’t a good fit for this employee.

      Yes, OP should be thinking about how to provide the right kind of support to all employees if the work is inherently emotionally challenging. But I don’t think that will really fix this.

      1. Coder von Frankenstein*

        Exactly. It’s true that keeping employees from emotional burnout should be a high concern for the employer–but that doesn’t appear to be the issue at hand.

      2. AJoftheInternet*

        Just as a bit of a different perspective here: I’m a person who often has delayed/misplaced emotional responses. I’ll fly through a really strong, drawn-out situation dealing with someone else’s emotions (like a child’s tantrum or a friend leaving her job) and feel fine. And then six hours later will be crying on the kitchen floor because my pancakes are sticking. Is the problem that my pancakes are sticking and I’m a wreck of a human who can’t deal with scrubbing a pan? No, it’s that the emotional work drained all my stamina and now this otherwise easily dealt with problem has broken through the last half-inch of me.

        1. T. Boone Pickens*

          What does your situation have to do with what OP described? You’re describing something completely different.

          1. American Job Venter*

            What I saw as AJOfTheInternet’s point is that OP’s employee may be using her emotional reserves to deal with assisting clients, and then oversharing about her personal life and having anxiety attacks as a delayed reaction from having done so.

            1. pancakes*

              How does it change Alison’s advice if that’s the case? The amount of support & reassurance this employee is demanding is unsustainable whether it’s a delayed response or not.

              1. American Job Venter*

                It doesn’t change Alison’s advice in specific, but it is a point against the, “people like this are irredeemably unstable, fire her today” advice. If the employee can be told, once, that this is a possible mental pattern, she can then take that knowledge *elsewhere than work* to apply to her mental health, not least as part of reshaping herself into a worker who needs less support and reassurance.

              2. Seeking Second Childhood*

                If it’s the job stress spilling over into life, the EAP-equivalent becomes more important. As does the possibility of encouraging this employee to research future jobs that are a better fit.

          2. c_g2*

            The point is the LW’s employee might be reacting to the emotional stress of the job by overreacting to minor things like scheduling issues or unused PTO

        2. Momma Bear*

          A lot of people with anxiety hum along at say 40%. It might look like they went to 100% over nothing, but like you pointed out, it’s a delayed or cumulative reaction. It sounds to me like the OP’s employee needs to be nudged toward support from pros, like a therapist or work life counselor or something. What OP can do is address the things that pertain to work, like the back and forth about time off. Make it clear what the protocol is and if they can’t accommodate an expanded request, be upfront about that. The employee will have to learn how to handle time off. It sounds like a stressful job and maybe it’s not the right role for the employee but I’d try to steer her to resources first.

          I would also try to wean her from the long conversations. Maybe say upfront that you are between clients or meetings and have 5 minutes. Then stick to that. I have a coworker who likes to wax poetic and sometimes I preface their “stopping by” with a time limit. It keeps them focused.

      3. Myrin*

        Yes, the type of work OP and crew do came up in the first paragraph and by the end of the letter, I had forgotten all about it because it seemed almost irrelevant to the multiple problems at hand.
        I mean, for someone who is as anxious and insecure as the employee seems to be, I can well imagine that a job dealing with other people’s stressful situations will only amplify one’s perception of one’s own stressful situations but from how this employee is described, I really, really don’t think that OP’s providing tools to decompress is going to help a lot.

        1. Worldwalker*

          Agreed.

          Someone with a bad back isn’t a good fit for a warehouse job. Someone with math anxiety isn’t going to do well as an accountant. And, yeah, someone with anxiety issues and difficulty processing stress just isn’t going to work out well in a job whose entire function entails … more stress.

          This person might be a wonderful warehouse worker or accountant, or for that matter engineer, game designer, or zookeeper, but they’re just not in the right job here.

      4. pancakes*

        Yes to all this. There’s no indication in the letter that this employee’s anxieties are mostly about stressful interactions with clients.

        1. WellRed*

          Agreed. I suspect this employee has anxiety and an inability to process stress etc no matter what they do for work. I’m exhausted just reading it.

    5. Dust Bunny*

      One of the reasons I no longer work for veterinarians is that the ones I did work for didn’t have any support mechanisms in place, and the work is great but also enormously stressful.

      I get it–small businesses and cost consciousness, but if you’re going to work in an emotionally intense field, you need to do this for your employees.

    6. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

      Yep.
      And I’m wondering if the problem employee consciously or unconsciously sought out this type of job.

      “Helping other people will teach me how to manager my own demons”
      “If I see how bad other people have it, I’ll feel better about myself”
      etc.

      1. OP*

        I try to screen that out during the interview process. It’s hard, though – in interviews people are trying to put their best foot forward, but at least if we ask the questions/point out the emotional intensity of the work it will give them pause before moving forward. Early on I hired one or two WONDERFUL people who just couldn’t compartmentalize and we parted ways amicably. These days I try to be much more upfront about what the work entails.

      2. pancakes*

        That is faulty decision-making, whether conscious or not. On the level of “I’ll learn to swim by jumping by into the deep end of the pool.”

    7. MK*

      I was imagining something like biohazard cleanup or mortuary services, where the clients have experienced something traumatic but the work isn’t directly related to helping with the trauma.

      I don’t know what kind of support those workers need, but it doesn’t sound like the problem employee’s issues are work-related.

      1. Smithy*

        I’m in nonprofit fundraising for humanitarian organizations – and in my time, I’ve certainly seen some fundraisers come from similar types of organizations but then find themselves overwhelmed by the nature of humanitarian work compared to their previous organizations. Fundraising certainly can included encounters with difficult external people or working on an issue that will touch a person really strongly at a given time – but overall it’s not considered a job that expects to have a lot of emotional support built into it.

        Lots of these ngo’s do have EAPs in place for that kind of support should someone need it, but I can see sympathy for both sides of this equation. A field that can have a range of emotional intensity where it’s very often expected that the individual will self select their fit. And sometimes people misjudge their own bandwidth/anxiety before taking a job that in a different sector wasn’t an issue.

      2. OP*

        Trying to maintain anonymity here but you are in the ballpark – we are providing a service to clients who are going through a major life transition and/or losing a loved one, not necessarily traumatic but most are working through or anticipating grief when they reach out to us. Counseling is not our primary mission, and the role being discussed is basically a receptionist position, but people being people, they share a lot when they call and behave in all the strange and sometimes challenging ways that one would expect.

    8. Dasein9*

      Yes, there needs to be something in place for employees to decompress and get support.

      The something is not extreme handholding from the boss. The something should be more in the line of providing access to professional support.

    9. OP*

      OP here!

      Some additional info: one of the people on our team is there to emotionally support clients and also be a sounding board for us when we struggle with client issues and interactions. We meet regularly to discuss such challenges and my employee knows she can turn to this person for help, and we can make referrals to mental health pros (she does already have a personal therapist btw). I think the reason she has been turning to me instead is that I am available “in real time” when she’s stressing out.

      The problem hasn’t been so much her saying “I have trouble dealing with X or knowing how to respond to Y, can you help work through this?” but just vague “I hate answering the phone!” and “People stress me out!” and I just don’t know what to do with that…in real time…while I’m driving?

      The good news is that some time has passed since I wrote in, and I already did more or less what Alison suggested (her scripts are better but I did OK) and things have improved greatly. I wasn’t sure this employee would work out but she has been very responsive to respecting boundaries and meeting expectations once laid out in very explicit detail. Part of what made it so difficult for me is that she didn’t intuitively understand some of these things without having them spelled out, something I haven’t encountered with previous hires.

      1. American Job Venter*

        A comment from a random worker — I’m really delighted by this update, that you were able to give her guidance and that she was able to take it and work on the situation. May things keep improving, and thank you for doing the difficult work you do.

      2. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        “I hate answering the phone!”
        Yeah, so do I, because it interrupts my train of thought and you have to be on the ball. What exactly do you hate about it?
        “Yeah, the feeling of having to give an answer off the top of my head”.
        I know the feeling, you can feel pressure from the client who needs to know now. In my experience, if you’re not 100% sure of the answer, it’s often better to take a deep breath, explain that you’ll need to look into it, can you get back to him tomorrow morning?

        “People stress me out!”
        Yes, working with people can be stressful. Who’s been stressing you out to make you say that?
        “Client X was demanding I deal with his issue straight off”.
        Yes, he can be impatient. Don’t let his stress get to you. Take a deep breath and explain that you need to hear back from the lawyer before you move ahead, because there was that legal loophole you thought might be applicable.

        Those are not answers you can give while driving. I’d tell her straight up not to text you when you’re out unless the support staff tell her to, or at least not to expect an answer until you’re back in the office. And you might ask her to try to be more specific when she vents, otherwise you do the unkind version:
        “I hate answering the phone!”
        Unfortunately it is a large part of our job and I can’t possibly tell the other staff to answer the phone instead of you.
        “People stress me out!”
        Why did you apply for a job working with people then?

      3. Shirley Keeldar*

        OP, I’m so glad to hear that things have improved. One additional thing—can you not pick up the phone while driving? It would help reinforce boundaries with this particular employee and be a lot safer for you and everyone else on the road.

    10. Jessica Fletcher*

      +1

      How are the other employees handling their work stress? It sounds like this employee might be new to this type of work and could benefit from advice from her more experienced coworkers.

      Is there a quality audit of the telephone calls, to ensure all employees are handling issues appropriately and according to policy? That’s a necessary part of this kind of work. LW doesn’t say if this is counseling or what exactly, but you’d need a way to ensure all staff are delivering appropriate care/services/referrals/whatever.

      When I used to do drug and alcohol mini-counseling sessions for teens, we would do review sessions among employees and the supervisor. Everyone listened to an example session from each counselor, and shared feedback on what we did right and how to improve. It helped us all improve, and could be a confidence boost. (All clients had signed consents, of course.) It seems like these calls would almost have to be recorded, so a QA process should be in place.

      When you’re new to this kind of work, in my experience, there’s a real fear that you’re going to hurt a client. I vividly remember being terrified I was going to say the wrong thing and ruin some kid. But you won’t! But you don’t know that at first, and it’s a valid concern!

  25. Beautiful, talented, brilliant, powerful musk-ox*

    I was never quite to this level, but a string of bad work experiences, a couple of very unexpected layoffs, and one vindictive boss did leave my confidence completely shattered a couple of years ago. I’ll be honest: it did take consistent (note: not CONSTANT. Just consistent) encouragement/some reassurance from some more experienced coworkers as well as some therapy to really get my confidence in my work back. I don’t know that that was the best way to do things; I know this was a Me Problem even if the cause was someone else’s mistreatment of me. But I did eventually bounce back, and I can at least say that my coworkers communicating that I was doing well was very helpful.

    My point is just that it is possible to regain confidence, and I wouldn’t be shocked if the employee in question has been isn’t multiple dysfunctional work environments (or if she’s a burnt-out “gifted kid”. I know because of my schooling, I assume things should be harder than they often are and thus think I’m doing something wrong if something is easy). Having some reassurance that 1. My new boss WILL communicate if he doesn’t want something done a certain way and 2. That I’m doing things well has certainly helped in the reassurance department for me. BUT, I also know that my confidence in my work can’t be based solely on those things.

    She sounds far more intense and may be in a worse place than I was. I do think professional help can be very beneficial in situations like this, but that is obviously the employee’s choice. Setting your own boundaries around communication and also communicating that you WILL tell her if something is wrong should be helpful to both of you. But if she really can’t handle those things, it may not be the best fit.

  26. OP*

    Someone mentioned above that maybe I could pick up the phone instead of texting and she brings up a good point. I use voice-to-text and keep messages short, otherwise I pull over which will get me behind schedule. So yeah, text communications need to be kept to a minimum and part of the problem was she was sending me questions and problems that can’t be dealt with in this way if at all. A conversation is always better for emotionally loaded issues but I can’t safely drive and talk.

    1. Sea Anemone*

      Can you wait for a time when you are no longer driving to return texts/make a call? It really sounds like in the short term at least, you are going to have to plan some return texts/make calls and coaching time into your schedule. You say that you think this employee has potential. If you mean that and you want to keep her around to see whether she will work out, the price of admission is going to be more time spent with her. Only you can decide if she is ultimately going to be worth the price of admission as an employee.

    2. Sea Anemone*

      Oh, just found your reply above with more details about what she was texting you (and the update that she has improved now that you have spelled things out for her.

      Things like, “I hate dealing with people!” don’t require a response practically at all, and definitely not while driving. Maybe you have already made this change, but let texts like these wait. When you do reply, if you reply, use my suggestions that I made above: “Dealing with people can be tough!”

      And while it can be disconcerting to have to spell certain things out that you have never had to spell out before, people need different stuff spelled out. Distinguishing what to text you about and what not to text you about is a skill, just like learning how to fill out the form to order office supplies is a skill. If it is something that came easily to you and to everyone else you have hired, it might not seem like a skill, but it is. Reframing boundaries as a type of skill that some people need to have taught to them might make it easier for you accept.

      You could also frame this as management development for you, which will make you more effective for all your employees. You are learning what level of responsiveness is effective for various problems and how to teach someone non-cognitive skills. Those are overall plusses for you, your current employees, and future employees!

    3. Detective Amy Santiago*

      I am glad that things seem to have improved.

      My thought process in my initial comment was that the stressors involved in the work were exacerbating the employees personal issues which was leading to this behavior so I wasn’t intending to derail the conversation as much as I was thinking the two issues could be linked.

  27. Baron*

    “today is such a bully”? There’s something childlike about that phrasing that makes me feel sad for the employee, but also, that isn’t something you say to your boss.

  28. Me*

    I may have missed if someone else pointed it out but OP please consider that your employee may be struggling with boundaries partially because your workplace is so small in addition to being empathy tasking work!

    It’s super easy to fall into it, but in general l the we’re like family works great when everything is well, but is disastrous when not. So maybe in addition to all the great suggestion, look around and see if there’s places where boundaries could be better overall/with everyone.

    She’s definitely treating you more as a friend than as a boss. I don’t know if there’s any good training out there on improving professionalism, but she may be a good candidate for it and it could help her see more broadly how outside professional norms she’s behaving. In addition to you formally setting boundaries with her of course.

  29. Oh Behave!*

    This really does not seem like the job for her. You know it’s a stressful job. You’ll have to stop responding to her complaints about her day. If you must respond, say, “Some days can be like that!” Drama feeders like getting responses to their verbal angst. For your sake and the sake of the other employees (Really, what are they hearing when you’re not there?), something must be done.

    1. Gerry Keay*

      Calling someone who’s struggling with panic attacks a “drama feeder” is pretty uncool, my friend!

  30. Jennifer Juniper*

    Oh lord.

    This employee needs to learn ASAP not to share her personal life with her boss. Yikes!

  31. SomethingClever*

    I did not read all the comments but I hope we get an update for this one! I am interested to see how the OP’s employee reacts or adjusts.

    1. pancakes*

      You should read the comments, then, because the OP has given some updates, and fortunately has seen the employee’s behavior improve.

  32. raida7*

    I know it’s extra hard because this person clearly is going to take any feedback as negative – you talk too much. you don’t understand professional behaviour. you are annoying. you ask too much. you message too much. you messed up a meeting. you don’t know how to stick to an agenda. you are too needy. you are too emotional. you are too much.

    But the only approach you have is the completely professional one that A has suggested – frame everything as “this is how the workplace is to function” and set boundaries.
    That may easily still result in her not emailing, or sending HUGE emails. Or not texting, but calling instead. Or thinking she’s supposed to solve a problem herself and having a panic attack when she just had to write out the points that need covering and clarifying before messaging you. Or printing out all the process documentation to have ‘on hand’ so she doesn’t ‘bother’ you with her ‘stupid’ questions. Or any other number of anxiety-induced behaviours.

    But without her taking responsibility for her anxieties and getting help (which she may not be able to afford) there’s nothing you can do if trying to manage her professionally doesn’t work. Being the absolute kindest you possibly can would still probably result in her internalising it all as her failure and you just being ‘so nice about it’.

  33. NOK*

    >More worrisome is that I’ve had direct reports do this in the past and the resulting perception of “friendship” makes it difficult for me to be an effective and objective manager.

    This gave me pause. We’re talking a lot about the employee’s issues but if over-familiarity with your reports is a habit for you, OP, well…you’re now seeing the worst consequences of it. Might be some time to do some reflection on your side as well on what boundaries you’re setting from the get-go, especially in what sounds like a high-pressure workplace.

  34. Elm*

    The first one reminds me of me at a previous job. I had such severe trauma (ultimately was diagnosed with PTSD) from previous bosses, in front of whom I never cried. But something broke the first time something went wrong, the dam broke and I burst into tears.

    The boss handled it really well, saying “Sometimes things happen. This wasn’t your fault and you handled it as best you could.”

    I won’t say the trauma and anxiety disappeared, but it lessened until it was gone. This person may simply need some reassurance that they’re doing fine…AND have boundaries set at the same time. “You’re doing XYZ really well, so you can stop worrying. We need to talk about the frequency, content, and length of communication intraoffice, though.”

    For me, while I was able to write a professional email, I had never learned to write one tailored to my “clients” at my first job. My boss helped me craft a sample one. Maybe this person has had zero of this training and doesn’t realize how it comes across. Plus, doing this and following up with an email to summarize the training could help put together a PIP later if needed. It seems like something they should already know, but they either don’t or have some kind of struggle with it, both of which deserve training.

    I empathize, though. I’m not the manager, but I’ve got one of those faces that makes everyone tell me everything. It can get draining.

Comments are closed.