should I be so emotionally drained by managing?

A reader writes:

I manage in a manufacturing environment, leading a team of about 40 headcount altogether. I love my job and my company, and most of the time my work feels rewarding. I work hard to be an effective coach, identify the needs of my team and help them to achieve success. Like anyone else, I have my struggles and learning opportunities, but they don’t often weigh me down.

But the biggest issue I have found is managing my emotions and reactions when I have to deal with certain personnel issues. Twice this year I have had employee issues turn into compliance investigations. In one case, the investigation showed that there was no wrongdoing, which was an enormous relief. In the second case, it resulted in the (warranted) termination of a long-term employee. In neither case was I personally being investigated, nor was there any accusation of wrongful behavior on my part.

What I’m struggling with is that in both of these situations, as the investigation and interviews were ongoing, I felt horribly depressed and exhausted, to a degree I have not often experienced. I could hold it together just fine at work but I would go home and be unable to eat, crying, feeling like the world was just an awful place to be in. Both times I found that I couldn’t even cope with social media or listening to the news as it made me feel even more hopeless.

Is it normal for managers to be so affected by wrongful behaviors or the process of uncovering whether wrongful behaviors have occurred? What have your or other managers done to cope?

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 62 comments… read them below }

  1. spaceelf*

    I can’t read the linked article, but if it’s a highly regulated industry, that can add more stress to the mix.

  2. Clefairy*

    I think it’s a sign that OP is a kind, compassionate manager that things are affecting her this way. Obviously, for their own mental health, finding a way to compartmentalize these work stressors from their personal wellbeing is really important- but I do want to commend OP for being a manager who cares too much, because I think often the issue is more about managers who don’t care enough. I bet their team really appreciates them.

    1. Peanut Hamper*

      This! Any kind of investigation is stressful, but you’ve got to be able to put those things in a box and put a lid on it when you’re not actively working on it. You still have the rest of your job to do, and you still have your life to live.

      Learning to compartmentalize certain things is a good skill to have.

  3. The New Wanderer*

    I would think directly managing 40 employees would be taxing on anyone! I’ve reported to managers in teams of half that size and while it’s great if you like autonomy (which I do), the individual attention from the manager has been sorely lacking because there just isn’t enough time to give to employees.

    It’s not clear if there’s a system of leads or supervisors that can assist the manager, but it seems like the OP is stretched extremely thin under normal circumstances. They may not feel it for the most part in the day to day as long as everything is working well, but I’m not surprised a few unpleasant scenarios have had such a strong impact on them.

    OP, is there any way to create a better support structure for yourself within the organization? Advocate for co-managers or supervisors, whatever it takes to reduce the management load to something more sustainable.

    1. Sloanicota*

      I also raised an eyebrow at that number of employees if OP is so involved in the day-to-day that they feel personally responsible for the outcome of an individual’s possible compliance issues. Maybe they are overburdened and that’s why they’re feeling overwhelmed / depressed when things start to “go wrong.”

    2. MigraineMonth*

      My jaw dropped. I’m not sure one can do a great job with more than 10 direct reports; 40 seems remarkably high.

      1. allathian*

        My manager has about 20 employees, but we’re very autonomous. We’re a distributed team as well. So our big team is split in 3 smaller teams with about 6 employees each. The team lead tries to ensure that we have enough resources and sets priorities in cooperation with our manager, but our manager’s responsible for performance evaluations, hiring, and firing.

    3. I am Emily's failing memory*

      I agree! A manager, no matter how good they are, can’t possibly be giving substantial individual attention on any kind of frequent/consistent basis to 40 people. Even someone in a hypothetical purely-people-managing type role who did nothing but hold 1:1s with their staff – never had to file reports, review reports, create strategic plans, attend meetings, etc. – they would literally fill an entire 40-hour workweek just having 1:1s with that many employees!

      At that level, you are necessarily having to manage by 1) trusting your subordinates completely, never or rarely spot-checking or auditing their work, or 2) managing by the numbers, reducing everything happening with your reports to a series of quantifiable metrics that a) are never a complete picture, b) are easy for people to game (manipulate loopholes and oversights to boost their perceived performance) and to get gamed by (focus on the wrong things because the metrics inadvertently reward it), and c) can contribute to reduced empathy for staff, who are abstracted away as numbers in an equation to be solved, instead of people you have a human connection with and to whom you owe some measure of human decency.

    4. Peanut Hamper*

      And this is why teachers are in short supply.

      Six classes x 30 (or more often, 35) students per class = 180 students.

      It’s not manageable.

  4. AMW*

    I feel you OP. I agree with Allison. Look for connections–if you are struggling with something personally it can definitely affect your work life too. I don’t think I’m cut out to be a manager (and thankfully I’m not) because I have similar issues with unintentional emotional over-investment. Perhaps in the future when my own anxiety and depression are less dominant in my life, I will feel more confident taking on a managerial role.

  5. Hiring Mgr*

    Do you have managers or team leads in between you and the 40 reports? Because managing that many people directly will lead to tons of stress one way or another

  6. MissDove*

    I’ve been in the same boat, albeit not in manufactoring, where I imagine Safety can be a major concern. The first time I supervised a staff member who CLEARLY needed to be fired (rolled in 2-3 hours late, left early, and watched YouTube all day instead of doing her assigned tasks), I was stressed out the entire time and constantly felt on the verge of a panic attack. I’ve gotten less emotionally charged as I’ve gained more management experience, but still even now supervising staff is probably the most stressful part of my job (but also the most rewarding – it’s a lot like parenting!)

    I’m very conflict avoidant, which I think initially made supervising others extra hard. I still hate conflict, but I’ve learned now that a little discomfort as a supervisor can truly be a kindness to my direct reports, becuase it prevents things from getting really bad down the line.

    A few things that have helped me turn down the temperature and anxiety a bit:
    1) Therapy (I found someone who specialized in career coaching as well as cognitive behavioral therapy)
    2) Starting the supervisory relationship off with really clear expectations – even on things that you would assume are common knowledge, like “you have to show up to work on time”. Some of my anxiety about poor performance was because I worried that I was unfair because I hadn’t set the expectation to begin with.
    3) Giving critical feedback immediately instead of waiting until a minor issue became A THING.

  7. Lana Kane*

    As a former manager, Alison’s answer resonated with me. I eventually found that when I had such intense reactions to things that went wrong, the intensity level was indicative that something else, something more personal, was going on. There is a certain level of discomfort and anxiety that can come with the job, and if it’s something that can be managed with coping mechanisms then I’d argue that those are just human reactions to challenges. But when I couldn’t – when I was ruminating on the issue and taking it home with me – I found I was reacting to deeper-seated insecurities and fears. For example, if my direct report made a big mistake, one that I played no part in, I would still feel like it was a reflection on me therefore everyone was thinking I was an ineffective manager. And so I’d spiral. So I’d very much agree that this is worth digging into because when it gets to the point where you are, something’s up.

    I also cared a lot about my direct reports and my department, and was known as someone who would be protective of staff when they were being unfairly “accused” (for lack of a better term) of a mistake, and if they did make the mistake I made a big effort to approach it as a teaching opportunity while at the same time keeping an eye on things to monitor improvement. Both different sides of the coin, and both also drained me a lot; I can have difficult conversations, but they’re still difficult! So I had a great relationship with my staff and coworkers, but it was just a lot for me. The reason I was effective was also a cause of burnout, and just speaking for myself, I decided it wasn’t sustainable for me personally.

    I hope you can navigate this for both your own benefit, and also so that your staff can keep someone as caring as you. But it’s also ok if you decide managing asks more of you than you can give.

    1. Badger*

      Same for me. I got great feedback as a manager, but it took a lot of work and emotional investment and just the decision fatigue if you have to make 10s of calls every day got too much. I decided I would be happier with less hinging on my performance (and I am).

      To the OP: Apart from the above, I did find any periods of performance managing due to low performance extra exhausting. Not because I didn’t have it in me, but because it’s just a far-above-average time commitment to monitor the person’s work, talk to them, talk to other decision makers, document etc.,all on top of your usual tasks.
      So if you’re already stretched thin or have some kind of emotional investment, I can see how that would tip the scales too far.
      But it’s definitely not sustainable to be so stressed you’re unable to eat (it did not go that far for me). I hope you find the thread that you need to pull on to figure this out.

    2. Random Dice*

      I agree.

      I noticed that the thing that seemed to trigger all of this was the idea that someone they know committed wrongdoing.

      I’m guessing there is baggage in her past about broken trust.

  8. Dust Bunny*

    It’s also OK if managing just isn’t your thing.

    I was a supervisor, briefly. I wasn’t a great candidate but I was the best one they had, and they weren’t offering pay or benefits enough to attract anyone from outside (yeah, I know). I was “good” at it because I wasn’t close friends with anyone else on staff and wasn’t willing to bend safety rules. But I hated it. Not losing my **** over normal-grade whining, recurring mistakes, and all the other stuff that comes with being in charge of something was entirely too draining. I basically don’t like people all that much in the first place and after a while I just wanted to start knocking peoples’ heads together and telling them to grow the f*** up.

    I was happy to leave for a job where I will never be a manager.

    1. Ama*

      Many years ago, when I had a boss who had to be fired after it was discovered that he’d been embezzling funds from the employer for years, it demoralized his boss so much that she willingly took a demotion (this was at a university so she basically stepped down from being vice provost and went back to just a faculty member). She really didn’t need to — my boss was incredibly charismatic and well-liked and the discovery that he was also a pathological liar and crook shocked everyone and no one blamed her (if anyone deserved blame it was our finance department who had left a huge loophole in their processes that enabled his embezzlement to go unnoticed for as long as it had). But I heard from people who knew her better than I did that she hadn’t been sure about taking the Vice Provost position initially and so the entire scandal just made her doubts about moving into leadership even worse.

  9. MassMatt*

    IMO good managers should feel SOME stress and responsibility for their reports, but still need to be able to have some distance/reserve. It’s similar to doing customer service—you may get lots of irate people, or people may have hard times and yet regulations or common sense means you have to say no. To survive, let alone succeed, you need to let this sort of thing roll off you and not let it bother you to the extent it’s affecting your health.

    I would try to build up a support network. A therapist, understanding spouse, or experienced mentor at work can help you sort through these feelings and establish a better work/life balance.

    You may also simply be overworked. I don’t know whether you are directly managing these 40 employees or whether there are assistants/team leaders between you and them; 40 direct reports is a LOT. I mean, even if you were doing 1 check-in meeting a month that would take a lot of time, that’s probably two meetings per work day on average.

  10. Anon Nona*

    I’m a newer manager and I had to let go of an employee ~6 months after I hired them, and they were one of the first people I’ve ever hired. It was awful. I felt so incredibly guilty. I knew it was ultimately the right thing to do and I had done everything I could to prevent it from being necessary, but that didn’t make it suck less. The meeting where I let them go was traumatizing for everyone involved. To make a long story short, they were suicidal and we had to make several emergency calls. I still think back to the situation a lot and wish it could’ve ended so differently.

    I don’t have much advice about getting past the guilt and emotions of it all other than I had a lot of support from HR and my supervisor throughout. I also talked about the situation (in an appropriate way) with friends and family outside of work. I think when you’re a good and compassionate person, it’s always going to be hard to go through something like this. And that’s a good thing to some extent. But if it’s deeply affecting you in this way, it may be time to ask for additional support in some way.

    1. Roy Donk*

      1000% same. Which is tough because in my career, there aren’t many places to go from here that aren’t management–but I’d rather stagnate in my job than have to manage people ever again. *shudders*

  11. WeGoHigh*

    Could we get a Thursday ask the readers about how to balance managing others with your own emotions? I’ve been a manager for a while but am managing a team with a lot more emotions than ones I’ve had in the past. They care deeply and passionately about the work, but that also means we spend a lot of time hearing about how they feel about the work, which is starting to be exhausting to me. I want to them to be able to be open and honest about challenges they are having (we are undergoing some changes in our work) and have been told they appreciate that I care about them as people and am willing to listen….but sometimes I just want them to do the work, you know? By nature, I am more task-oriented and have been around long enough that I’m more comfortable with ambiguous/changing situations, so striking the right balance on this is tricky for me because I just don’t have the same emotional responses as my team. Would love any feedback/insights!

    1. MurpMaureep*

      Yes I would love this. There’s so much advice and instruction on “how to be a good manager to your staff” (which I appreciate), but it would be nice to get some input on how to care for oneself while managing others, how to advocate for yourself and your team, and how to navigate the wants and needs of multiple individual contributors. Right now I manage too many people as well as all their projects and a lot of political stuff with leadership and other departments. My higher ups kind of acknowledge it, but their suggestions on how to deal with it boil down to “don’t care so much” and “it’s ok to let some things slide”, neither of which give good success criteria for my job.

    2. Liz*

      Thirding this request! I mostly enjoy managing my team but boy do I feel drained some days by so much exposure to their emotions, my boss’s, and all the other middle management stuff that comes my way.

    3. I am Emily's failing memory*

      What’s the venue where their feelings are being aired? Is it derailing meetings with off-topic digressions about feelings, or is it setting up too many meetings that are entirely about feelings, or is it manifesting as an unworkable level of push-back that’s affecting your process timelines too much?

      Obviously it’s hard to give a great answer without knowing all the details, but I would probably make sure employees have an appropriate place to air their feelings, like weekly or biweekly 1:1s with me, a monthly listening tour or department town hall devoted to surfacing and discussing employee concerns, etc. Then, if a working group conversation digressed for more than a couple of minutes into that kind of conversation, I’d gently but firmly redirect them to bring those concerns up at our next $appropriate_venue, and remind them that this meeting has an agenda we need to stick to, or this project has a deadline we need to meet, so we do need to be mindful of staying on task.

      Of course, you’d need to use judgment to discern when there are some cases where it would make sense to hear out a concern immediately or not move forward with some work until a concern is resolved – but in most cases it’s usually fine to say something to the effect of, “I hear this is an important issue, and we will dig more into this in/at $appropriate_venue. In the meantime, we can’t afford to put this on pause, so until we hear otherwise, we need to proceed forward this way to stay on target for our deadlines.”

      Reasonable people know that sometimes they have to suck it up and do something they don’t like, but just having the manager acknowledge that it’s crappy and knowing the manager is looking for a possible solution, even if nothing is going to change in the meantime, goes a long way in feeling supported.

      1. WeGoHigh*

        It’s the one-on-ones, which we have weekly. That’s their time to bring me challenges they are having and/or how things are going. It’s just that it’s not conversations around, “I’m having trouble getting info to finish this project; can you help me think it through or connect me with so-and-so who could help” – it’s constant conversations around how the project is making them feel. And sometimes people just need to vent, and I’m happy to give them the support/reassurance that yeah, sometimes things are hard and we’ll figure it out together, and that’s what I’ve been doing. But sometimes it wears me down and makes me dread the time with them because my own well has run dry and I just want us to actually focus on the work.

        1. AcademiaCat*

          Having a place to vent and process feelings can be nice, but venting can also color people’s perspective of the work. And that’s not really your job. You’re their manager, not their therapist. How would they react if you asked what actions they want from you? So if they spent their 1×1 saying “I feel a type of way about the project!” could you respond with “I’m sorry to hear that. Are you asking me to find solutions to to a problem, or just letting me know that it’s affecting you?” Then you can brainstorm or start changing the topic to actually actionable items.

          Fair warning, when I worked retail with a lot of emotion-driven artists, this meant that I got a reputation for being cold and process driven unless something was truly wrong. The manager you wanted in a crisis but didn’t want to get a drink with. But otherwise I wound up sucked into their drama, which completely derailed my own work, which meant that I wasn’t managing and the day would start to fall apart.

        2. Jaydee*

          I’m assuming their feelings are primarily negative because positive feelings are usually not as exhausting to deal with.

          Are they complaining about everything or are there specific things that keep coming up week after week? You might have to dig into their frustrations a little bit to find ways you can help them – they may be struggling to pinpoint the exact problem or articulate it in a way that is actionable. “You’ve mentioned a couple of times that you’re really stressed out about this project – are there specific things that you’re struggling with?”

          Or there might be nothing you can do. The project sucks. The people they’re working with are obnoxious. The process is unclear. The guidance from management keeps changing. They have every reason to be frustrated and there’s nothing you can do to fix it. In that case, you probably need to be clear with them that whatever they’re dealing with is part of the job, and it is frustrating, but it’s also outside their control and your control so they need to figure out ways to cope with their frustration. “Complain to WeGoHigh” can maybe be a small part of that coping process, but their 1:1s can’t just be 30 minutes of complaining each week.

        3. I am Emily's failing memory*

          It sounds like you’re doing the right things, and your staff might just be skewing really towards the extreme end with how much venting they want to do, though it’s not clear to me if that’s because of pervasive/systemic dysfunctions that you can’t do much about, or if it’s something more like “we are social workers and there’s a tremendous emotional load inherent to this kind of work.” Or if your team has inadvertently developed a groupthink that routinely makes mountains out of molehills and has gotten everyone believing that regularly griping about minor slights and inconveniences is normal?

          If it’s #1 or #3, maybe it would help to just be candid with your employees that you understand their frustrations, but you’ve begun to realize that you are spending a lot of time talking about how unhappy they are, and it’s not sustainable or good for either of your mental health to spend so much time rehashing things that don’t have solutions and maybe even can’t (realistically, in the context of your company) be solved, and essentially, “This is the job, can you live with that?” Be willing to hear them out for a reasonable amount of venting or when there are actions you can actually take, but from time to time you may need to say, “This is the kind of conversation that I mentioned earlier isn’t productive. If you have any new ideas or insights, by all means share them, but for the sake of our mental well-being we can’t keep having the same conversation rehashing the complaints about things we know are here to stay.”

          If it’s #2 (work itself is inherently traumatic or trauma-adjacent) then I’m totally out of my depth, but would suggest/hope that professional organizations in your field might have some resources on best practices for supporting your staff in that kind of work.

        4. Marie*

          It can be helpful to name and separate out three things that often end up mushed together — information, process, and support.

          People remember, access, organize, understand, and communicate information using different processing methods and with varying amounts of external support. Some people do their processing in quiet, individual ways, or prefer little external support because they think better without interruption or interference.

          Some people process verbally, by describing their thought process, and the support they need is just somebody standing there nodding while they talk.

          But some people process emotionally, and the support they would like is an external partner to witness, reflect back, and respond to those emotional thoughts. The same way a verbal processor might need to talk through the steps they took on a project to identify a problem, an emotional processor might need to share how they felt at each stage of a project to do exactly the same thing.

          If that’s not your style, you might interpret the emotional processor as asking for emotional support; that is, asking you to solve their feelings rather than listen to them process their feelings. Then you both end up frustrated, you because they never answered your information question, and instead you had to do therapy for some reason, and them because you didn’t seem to *want* them to answer your information question, and are now mad at them for some reason.

          It’s fair as a supervisor to decide when your supervision time is and isn’t available for processing and support. You could have supervision meetings that are info only — staff are told they need to do their processing before they meet with you, so they can deliver clear, concise task status updates. And you could have supervision meetings where you *do* want to hear about process and provide support, because it helps you understand how your staff operate and think.

          If you end up with staff who don’t seem able to ever get to the information part — they just spin in process and support — that’s probably showing up elsewhere in their work, too, and is a potentially coachable skill.

    4. Frankie*

      I would love this. This has been the biggest struggle for me with management. The emotional cost of managing poor performance (hopefully never again!) and boosting my team’s morale while managing my own has been challenging, and I haven’t found much beyond the standard self-care fluff to help navigate it.

  12. HIPAA Not HIPPO*

    In my previous job my Director ran afoul of legal/compliance/cybersecurity in our organization (large academic medical center) and I bore the brunt of the investigation, documentation, communication, damage control, fixes, and ongoing monitoring. I was absolutely consumed by it and it impacted me in many of the same ways LW describes.

    While it may not be “normal”, it’s very understandable, especially if you care about your work and your staff!

  13. EPLawyer*

    Dealing with compliance investigations IS stressful. Those things can be tough, even if you did nothing wrong, you worry if you missed something or could have done something different.

    If this is the only part of being a manager that is really stressful, get some help during those times and carry on. Nothing wrong with getting a little help once in a while (or long term either).

  14. Gerry Keay*

    Honestly this is why I’m planning on staying on the individual contributor track for as long as humanly possible. No matter how much therapy I do, I will always to a certain extent sponge up the emotions and stress of people around me, and I know it would be 10x worse if it was people I had that degree of power over. Not everyone has the temperament for managing others, and that’s 10000% okay.

    1. MassMatt*

      “Not everyone has the temperament for managing others, and that’s 10000% okay”.

      It’s not just OK, being an individual contributor and a manager take very different skill sets, and sadly many organizations seem to figure if you are good at sales (or whatever) you are cut out to be a manager of individual contributors, and it just isn’t so. And sometimes there isn’t much room for growth without managing people, so folks can feel pressured to take promotions to management they really don’t want because they feel their career will stagnate otherwise.

  15. DCompliance*

    There have been so many during an investigation where I have wanted to tell someone that they are not in trouble. It can tell you that as soon as we are done an interview, Compliance and HR often lament that wish we could reassure an employee. They are stressful and I am sorry that you have to go through them. If I had the magical power to take away the worry, I would.

  16. cosmicgorilla*

    I think LW has some subconscious thoughts that are causing emotional distress, and identifying them could really help them shift their perspective and gain some needed distance. They can’t address them until they know what they are.

    These thoughts could include variations on if they were a good manager, this investigation wouldn’t be happening, somehow it’s their fault, it’s a reflection of themself as a person and/or manager. They could be future-projecting around the results of the investigation, how the imvestigee might lash out, or how the investigee’s life might be adversely impacted by the investigation or the results of the investigation. Thoughts could even be just “I don’t like conflict” or “I shouldn’t have to spend my time like this” or “that accusation shouldn’t have been made.”

    Obviously I don’t know what exactly LW is thinking, but I’d encourage them to consider what underlying thought about the situation makes them so stressed.

  17. Quickbeam*

    In my first management role I had to fire three people in the first year. It was gut wrenching. I was also expected to put in 60 hours a week. I left the job for a clinical role.

    Years later I was in the same sphere with some of the prior job’s managers. They told me that the grand plan had been to saddle me with all the low performers that no one else wanted to fire. I had no idea it was a plot, I had thought it was just chance.

    If the letter writer had these situations by chance, that’s just management and it can be draining. If it crops up more often, I’d look at levels above.

    1. Marie*

      Ooh, the ol’ manager to clinical work pipeline.

      I definitely felt like my clinical skills got “used” in a management role, in that I had difficult staff dumped on me, because other people didn’t want to deal with the big feelings that staff would have, and I was “so good” with feelings.

      I just thought people were making good use of a specific clinical skillset of mine. Then later as a therapist, I *still* had supervisors and coworkers dumping “difficult” clients on me, even though we all presumably had the same specific clinical skillset.

      Made me realize it hadn’t been my clinical skillset people were making use of when they sent me difficult staff or clients, but my eagerness to please, my helpfulness, and my lack of experience. I could have done a *terrible* job dealing with difficult staff/clients, but as long as I was willing to do it, they were gonna keep sending them my way.

  18. Mrovka*

    It’s not hard to be -a- manager… but it is so, so hard to be a GOOD manager. It does take a lot out of you, and yes, maybe to a certain point it’s why you get paid the big bucks. But only to that point – and that’s why boundary drawing is so a difficult and yet crucial lesson to learn. This is where the oxygen mask metaphor helps so much (put on your own before you help others – SO HARD!). You can’t take care of your reports without taking care of yourself. And you owe it to your reports to do so, to draw and hold those boundaries.

    In addition, 40 is a LOT to manage, much less manage well. Does your leadership understand the time commitment for effective team management? In our training, we were asked how much of our work time should be spent on section management. We all guessed maybe 15, 20%. No, said the trainers – you should be spending at least 50% of your work time on management tasks and issues. AT LEAST.

  19. Serenity*

    In addition to Allison’s excellent answer and the great comments here, I also want to name how stressful life in general is and has been for the past few (many) years. Do you pay attention to politics in the US/world? Stressful. Do you pay attention to the environment? Stressful. Have you had to pay for gas, eggs, or housing? Stressful. Trying to save for retirement? Stressful. Have kids and/or aging parents? Stressful. Been through a pandemic lately? Stressful. Then add your own personal list.

    My point is that work doesn’t exist separate from our lives (just like Allison is saying it doesn’t exist separately from our histories or personalities). When I have more going on at home, I have less resilience at work, though where the crack lines will show up could be either place. It’s important to recognize that, because part of the solution might be to address the outside-of-work stresses as well (sometimes to acknowledge, sometimes short term fixes, sometimes long term plans).

    1. Frankie*

      I am trying to remind myself of this before I make a true decision whether to continue or leave management. It’s been such a weird and draining time and it’s hard to sort out if it’s partly because I was given an opportunity in such a stressful time or if I’d have the same experience if the world were looking a bit brighter.

  20. Prospect Gone Bad*

    I have a fraction of what you have and often get burnt out. It’s normal! TBH the only answer I have is to keep getting experience, anything becomes easier the 2nd or 3rd time and eventually things that used to stress you out don’t phase you.

    Of course we are stressed, we have to do things for the business to stay open, watch what we say at a level line-level employees don’t, since our words are always under scrutiny and taken the wrong way (she smiled, must mean I’m getting a raise!), and loads of complicated issues get thrown on us under the vague blanket of “management issue.” There is also more of an expectation you’re ultra-positive and actively coaching people in a way past generations of managers didn’t have to. The focus of management has been taken off the manager and placed on individual employees. Meaning, my day isn’t about me, my day is about other people. That will defacto be stressful. The soft skills needed now are also at a higher level, managers used to bark orders or just tell you what to do and retreat to their office. Now every interaction is about making employees feel empowered, feeling like my ideas are their ideas, making sure they get proper credit and feel valued. You can debate all day whether it’s good or bad, but no one should deny it’s more draining.

    There is also an area that is a bit unfair that IMO will make less people want to go into management. Everyone assumes we get all of these perks to exchange for our extra stress but most companies gutted that stuff years ago. I do not have a nicer office or expense account or access to the corporate lounge with stocked fridge or whatever people used to have. I just have more work and slightly higher pay.

    This type of comment usually leads to some sort of “well then you shouldn’t be a manager then.” Which is not the approach to take. My point is macro. If we make the job miserable, no one will want it. Then who is going to lead businesses in the future? Someone needs to be in charge to keep places open to allow us to have our WFH jobs!

  21. some of us have mediocrity thrust upon us*

    Commiserations, LW. I hope you’re doing better now!

    I’m a new manager and I absolutely hate it. I wish I never agreed but I didn’t really have a choice.

    The first person under me I had to fire for poor performance and now the new person nearly cried when I told them that calling out once every week for the past month is not acceptable.

  22. Ally*

    Oh my gosh, same. It does sound like a particularly rough time though. It might get better going forward. And you learn a lot from difficult situations.

    But yea I agree it sounds like you care! And that’s good!

  23. Marie*

    Not sharing this to armchair diagnose anybody, but in case it helps anybody.

    I have always been praised for how good I am at recognizing other people’s needs and helping them find solutions, especially when those needs are confusing, ambiguous, or abstract. I am incredibly good at breaking vague things down into concrete action steps and keeping everybody moving toward a shared goal with direct, non-shaming communication.

    So naturally I became a manager at one point, and those skills were put to great use… and I was tired. So tired. So drained. So depressed and empty all the time. Even though I could tell I was doing really good work! And I liked doing it! I got tested for anemia, I went on anti-depressants, I changed my diet and sleep and exercise, and it did nothing.

    Well, turns out I’m autistic. Got missed my whole life because autistic people aren’t “supposed” to be able to recognize and manage other people’s feelings… but that’s how I learned to navigate a very confusing world, and it’s just as easy to read “patterns” in people’s faces and actions as it is to spreadsheet a bunch of data and find trends and patterns there. I am GREAT at communication, especially for confusing ambiguous topics, because I had to figure out how to compensate for why everybody else was seemingly terrible at it.

    That all comes at a cost, and it was cumulative. The energy I have available to dedicate to those skills gets smaller and smaller as I get older. It’s 24/7 acting while speaking a different language, and it’s mentally and emotionally exhausting.

    Becoming a manager was what made me realize it and go get tested. So wanted to share that story in case it helps anybody else feeling similarly and at the end of their wits trying to figure out why.

    1. Specialized Skillets*

      Hi Marie,

      THANK YOU for sharing. I’ve been told recently that I’m likely autistic and I have the same type of life experience as you – an excess of empathy, it sometimes feels, along with significant skill at communication and “translating” confusing things for others (as well as analysis and pattern recognition). I see my son’s more “traditional” autistic traits that differ from mine and it makes me tend to dismiss my own lived experience and difficulties. I’m deep into burnout and trying really hard (with therapy) to allow myself to drop balls to preserve my health.

      Anyway, what you said really resonated so thanks again.

      1. Marie*

        While autism presents differently in everybody, I want to mention that maybe the reason your son presents more traditionally isn’t because he has a version of autism that’s somehow more valid than yours, but because *you let him be himself*.

        If you’d grown up more able to express yourself as you were, rather than overdeveloping empathy and communication skills to cope and mask, you might also present more like your son does.

        That’s the big bait and switch of masking! The skills we developed to allow us to manage being neurodivergent become (bad) evidence that we’re not neurodivergent.

        Think of it this way — if a neurotypical person is really good at customer service voice, we don’t expect that means they use it 24/7, or that they don’t have a personality or life that might conflict with the version of themselves they present on the job.

        We’ve got neurotypical service voice, but that doesn’t mean we’re not 100% neurodivergent when we’re clocked out. It’s just *really* hard to learn how to clock out when you’re late diagnosed.

  24. Me ... Just Me*

    I’ve been in management a long time. It’s very lonely. If you’re at the top, there’s really no one to commiserate with, and you can’t be friends with your coworkers. I’ve fired and laid off more people than I can remember. Gut wrenching and stressful. The investigations are terrible. Even writing folks up or putting them on performance plans can be super stressful. I just wrote someone up last week; and had the adrenaline jitters afterwards. Just keeping everyone pointed in the same direction, heading towards the same goal, can be difficult. You’ll think you’ve addressed one issue and another pops up. And, this is just personnel stuff, not the actual deliverables that you’re supposed to ensure that your department/facility is producing.

    I’m stepping out of management (tomorrow is my last day in this role – I’m moving to an adjacent role that is a sole contributor position) primarily because I don’t like the internal politics of organizations (as directors/managers jockey for position — sometimes there’s astounding levels of pettiness in middle/upper management). I’m crossing my fingers that my new co-workers (each individual contributors, themselves) will be collaborative and professional.

  25. Merrie*

    I was a manager for six years and now I’m back to being an individual contributor and I do NOT miss it. I liked organizing the place, solving problems, and helping refine people’s training, and I didn’t mind the administrative stuff, but people management was so tricky, doubly so since my support staff were underpaid and I had no control over that, and dealing with pissed-off customers was miserable. I don’t ever want to do that again. And the situation described in this letter sounds ghastly, having to be responsible for that many people.

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