our employee wants constant reassurance that he’s good enough

A reader writes:

I’m a partner in a small firm. There are three partners working full-time, three additional full-time employees, and one part-time employee. We provide support and training for a niche software, so our workdays are heavily customer facing. The industry we support is also heavily customer-facing. All of us came out of the industry we support, so have a strong service orientation towards our customers.

One of our employees, George, is an absolute customer favorite. He consistently gets the highest praise for his interactions. He does a terrific job, and we let him know this. He’s worked with us for nine years, and before that we were colleagues at another company.

However, he is very insecure. Over the years it’s grown from needing random affirmation — “No you aren’t going to lose your job, why would you think that?” — to every conversation starting with “Am I going to lose my job?” to which we respond “No, everyone loves you, why would you think that?”

Last year George was given an internal project to implement a new system that ended up being above their skillset. The project failed. We moved on with one of the partners taking the project over. We’ve let George know that this was on us, not him, and no, he’s not going to lose his job over it, but he is now having health issues that he feels are related to the stress of work and this project comes up in conversation.

George has said to us he feels uninvolved and doesn’t think he is contributing enough to the company or that his contributions are subpar. We’ve told him over and over that we are satisfied with his involvement and contribution level, to no avail. He will look for additional responsibilities, to the point of interjecting himself into other workflows, even though we’ve told him not to. At this point, he is considering leaving the job for health-related reasons because of job stress.

I understand George wants to give it his all for the customers and the company, but we can’t convince him that the is doing too much and needs to step back a bit. He has rejected the idea of using the EAP. Do you have a suggestion?

It’s okay if he decides to leave because the job is too stressful for him! It’s okay even if you don’t see any reason why it should stress him out so much; for whatever reason, it does.

If you hadn’t already tried to address that, my advice would be different. In that case I’d tell you he’s sending up a cry for help that you need to take seriously, by taking a hard look at his workload. But this sounds pretty clearly like a George issue, not a job issue. If that’s the case, moving on to a different environment may be what’s best for him.

If you haven’t already, it’s worth sitting down with him and saying, “I’m really concerned to hear you’re under so much stress. We value your work and want to help if we can. I’d like you to take some time to think about specific changes that would help — whether it’s workload, workflow, the way assignments come to you, or additional support you need. If you think of specifics, we want to hear them. I can’t promise we’ll be able to do everything you suggest, but I can promise that we genuinely want to know more and will try to make things work if we can.” The idea is to establish that you’re actively encouraging him to raise specific things you can do on your end. You can’t help with free-floating stress, but you can help with concrete measures if he thinks of any.

At the same time … George is asking you to take on a lot of emotional labor on your side to repeatedly reassure him that he’s valuable enough and won’t lose his job. It sounds like you’ve had those conversations so many times that it’s time to accept that no amount of repeating them will make the message sink in. There’s no amount of repetition and no magic words that will make George believe you. That’s really sad! That’s a difficult way for him to live. But you can’t keep doing that labor over and over.

That doesn’t mean you should be callous about it, but it does mean that you should significantly scale back how much energy you invest in trying to convince and reassure him. It’s okay to switch from in-depth conversations about his insecurities to much shorter, breezier responses that don’t take so much energy –“Nope, everything’s great!” / “All’s good on our end!” — and then leave it there rather than trying to dig into why he thinks otherwise. You’ve had those conversations, they don’t resolve things, and you’re not doing him any favors by indulging in those same explorations over and over. Setting limits may ultimately push him to seek out the sort of help he really needs with this and which you as his employer aren’t in a position to offer (particularly since he’s rejected your EAP).

{ 145 comments… read them below }

  1. HugeTractsofLand*

    If it helps you feel less callous, you might have one last talk with George where you clearly state “Your job isn’t at risk and if it were, we would tell you. So going forward, I’m just going to tell you a simple ‘no’ when it isn’t at risk. We just don’t need to have a long conversation unless there’s actually something real to talk about.”

    1. Sockster*

      I like this, and maybe it would be worth explaining to George the process of termination to convince him that he wouldn’t be blindsided or fired on the spot. Something like, “We love having you here, and your job isn’t at risk, but if we did ever need improvement from you, the process would involve step x, step y, step z, and finally, after x months of no improvement, possible termination. You would have plenty of warning. We’ve never initiated any of these steps with you, so you can be sure that none of our upcoming meetings or conversations will include a firing.”

      1. LTR FTW*

        This is great advice. I have a hunch that George got blindsided by a firing at some point in his career and has some PTSD over it.

        1. Cyndi*

          On the flip side, I used to be a George and then I stopped after being blindsided by a layoff–days after we’d been explicitly reassured no one was being laid off. It didn’t make me a more confident employee, but it sure did teach me that there was no point asking where I stood if managers weren’t going to answer honestly anyway.

          1. Artemesia*

            And that is the insight from this experience. I too got laid off in a merger announced two days after I had been put forward for major promotion. Our whole department was let go in the merger. We had all been assured we were good and then out of ‘nowhere’ to us the merger was on the front page.

            Reassurances don’t mean anything.

            In the case of George, the real issue is his whiny neediness. A manager should not have to put up with this soul sucking behavior. The advice to explore with George what he needs to do his worth with out stress is good. But so also is the advice to encourage him to change jobs. I would add that it is also appropriate to have a CTJ meeting with him about the specific reassurance seeking behavior. He needs to know that constantly expecting his manager to sooth him is not professional and that specific behavior needs to end.

            1. Sandi*

              Reassurances don’t mean anything.

              There’s a difference between reassuring someone about being fired and merger layoffs. Mergers, failures to thrive, and related layoffs are completely different beasts where nothing should be trusted. In a healthy company George should be able to hear “You’re one of our best people and we value you very highly” and feel reassured that he won’t be fired anytime soon.

              1. RussianInTexas*

                I was promoted for performance two months before the last layoff I’ve been through (been through two).
                Both were effective immediately 8:30am on a Tuesday, I didn’t even make it to my desk, without warning. The industry was suffering, and that was that.
                Reassurances, promotions, promises mean diddly squad in the work place.

                1. Yorick*

                  But like Sandi said, layoffs are very different. George is afraid of being fired – not laid off, fired – even though they constantly reassure him that he’s doing a good job and they want him to stay.

                2. MCMonkeyBean*

                  George is asking for reassurance about the quality of his performance. No boss can ever swear to you that you will not be laid off–most of the time your direct boss may have no idea whether or not that is a possibility! But they can absolutely tell you *if they are personally satisfied with your performance* which is what George is constantly asking to be reassured of.

                  Being laid off because your job was made redundant is an unfortunate thing that most people in a company have little to no control over. Being fired because of poor performance is a completely different thing and that is what George is stressing over.

              2. Michelle Smith*

                But you agree he shouldn’t be asking this question repeatedly, if at all, right? I have tons of insecurity and imposter syndrome as a result of my generalized anxiety disorder. I am always stressed and never think I’m doing well enough. I deal with it on my own and don’t repeatedly ask my bosses whether they’re satisfied with my work. They tell me that they are and I may not be sure they’re sincere, but I take it and smile. My boss also was clear when I started that she doesn’t let things fester until performance review time, so if I haven’t been told by her in advance that there’s a problem, nothing will show up as a surprise during my review. I’ve had two so far and she’s been honest so I believe her on that. It doesn’t mean I’m not sick to my stomach the morning of, but I don’t dump that emotional burden on her. She’s done her part. My anxiety is my own problem to deal with.

                1. RussianInTexas*

                  Yes, these doubts and insecurities (god knows we all have them) are for the inside voice. Internal.

              3. RIPoldjob*

                I once got fired for performance issues after receiving nothing but positive feedback. (Literally a complete 180). No pip, no direct warning, nothing. I went from 100% positive review and a raise to 100% negative review in a time frame of 6 months. They had already interviewed candidates for my role by the negative review. Then, I was out the door two or three weeks later, despite improving on every “weakness”. They just came up with new reasons.

                Point is: bad managers exist. Sometimes conflict-avoidant people who should not manage, do. and if they do, you get situations like this.

          2. Peccy*

            Layoffs may come without warning and it’s complicated

            Performance related termination should not come as a surprise unless it’s something super egregious (to the point where I can’t even imagine a scenario that would be justified unless it’s actually an issue of lying, being unethical etc to cover up for messing something up). If a PERFORMANCE related termination is a surprise then the manager is straight up failing to do their job (and I have seen this happen where the manager is the next one to go for performance reasons a few months later, but they’re at least not surprised by it)

        2. My Useless 2 Cents*

          I very much relate to George’s behavior and feelings. I’ve never been fired, blindsided or otherwise. But I do have anxiety. I am convinced that I’m gong to be fired when I go back to work after taking PTO, Every.Time. No real reason but I could find 1000 justifications why my concern is valid the night before going back to work.

          Knowing the firing process could help some but I’d guess I could convince myself why my behavior is so egregious that it would constitute an exception. The most helpful thing for me would be to have my behaviors pointed out to me, the blunter the better. Because it would help me think about what I’m doing and how I’m coming across.

          Whatever the cause, George is going to have to figure out a way to take control of his own anxiety thoughts.

          1. Landsing*

            True and even if you are anxious you have to stop asking! I swear that I would have no friends and no job if I asked everyone all the time if they were mad at me or I was doing a bad job. It annoys people and they will want to avoid you. At work it’s extra difficult as it’s unfair in a work environment to be such an emotional burden on your coworkers. Occasionally this may be ok, but asking to be fired everyday is also not something you want to be doing. The OP sounds compassionate, but another manager might not be and would cause the person to BE fired.

          2. Random Dice*

            Honestly this seems like something biochemical, that needs meds, rather than something that needs reassurance in a specific way. That’s how my brain works, at least.

            1. allathian*

              It’s just too bad that George has refused to contact the EAP so far. Maybe the LW could lay it down really firmly and say that while his performance has been good, the LW can’t continue to reassure him about his job not being in jeopardy for performance-related causes.

              In an at-will environment, the manager could potentially fire him just for being difficult to work with because he needs constant reassurance. It would be a kindness to make him understand that before he gets a less sympathetic manager.

      2. Sedna*

        Very much agreed. My first job told me I had to leave with no warning after 4 years there, which screwed me up for a while re: job performance! Knowing that there’s a structure in place that will be used if needed – and that I won’t be dumped again without warning- has helped me re-adjust my expectations of what a normal workplace looks like.

      3. MigraineMonth*

        This is going to sound odd, but it’s also important to bring it up if there are any issues with George’s performance. If he’s not always filling out the 22B5 form correctly, for example, you need to bring it up and show the pathway for improvement. First, it gives George a place to focus his energy that is going to make a difference (instead of looking for more tasks to take on). Second, it makes sure that he isn’t missing the feedback and development opportunities he should have.

        Third, and most importantly, it gives a real-life example of how issues really are managed. “No, there aren’t any issues with your performance right now. When there have been minor issues in the past, I have brought them up with you and you have fixed them. I’ll bring it up if there are any issues.”

      4. Megan*

        I was like George, always thinking I would lose my job, though never seeking affirmation. Our office manager had been telling me for a long time my job was at risk, and I thought this was part of her responsibilities. Turns out neither of those was true. There was no clear chain of command or org chart, so I didn’t know that or who else to talk to. When I finally did bring it up to someone I learned that there are steps before firing and who has to initiate that process, which was more reassuring than being told my job wasn’t at risk. Not knowing the chain of command/having too many managers is stressful. Be sure George knows who he reports to (one person!), and any coaching will come from or be overseen by that person, and what steps are taken before release. Also i would try to find out from George if anyone at the company has brought performance concerns to him, since he feels there’s a problem. Reassuring him it’s not an issue is good, but it’s more important that he knows that feedback should come from his immediate supervisor.

    2. Boolie*

      A simple “no” will probably come across to George as “oh no, they’re all of a sudden being short with me; now I’m definitely gonna get fired.”

  2. Heidi*

    I’d be confused too in this situation. George invites all this extra work but at the same time is having health problems related to all the work. It sounds like giving him more work or less work would cause problems either way.

    1. Silver Robin*

      George’s thought process is probably something like…

      I am not good enough > let me take on more stuff to prove my value > ahhh too much work > [manager steps in to reduce workload/keep workflow smooth]> oh no they took me off that project > I am not good enough

      The stress is there at every stage.

      1. *kalypso*

        It’s more like ‘I failed at this thing and it got taken away from me so I need to justify my position here’. It sounds like training on those aspects and skillset would be beneficial and give George the ‘I am working to stop myself losing projects again’ and ‘my job is investing in me’ and ‘I feel safe here’.

      2. Bookmark*

        Oh boy, yes. Plus add, “Hooray, I was right! I am not good enough, I am so good at predicting how I will fail. I am better at it than anyone I work with, which means I cannot trust anyone when they tell me I am doing fine.”

      3. Help I’m George*

        Yep. I so identify with George in this scenario and it’s killing me.

        I still think there’s some truth to my situation though

      4. There You Are*

        Ah, I see you’ve met me!

        I’m going through some health crises right now and my managers have bent over backward to make sure I’m not overburdened, including hiring an outside consultant that I can delegate work to.

        Yay, right?

        Egads, not to my anxiety. “I’m a failure and they know it. I can’t be trusted to manage a project on my own. I’m not pulling my weight; other people are having to do my work for me. I am not good enough for this job; I’ll bet they’re thinking about firing / demoting me.”

        I have, at least, communicated my anxiety to my manager — twice, with a few months in between each time — and then Shut. My. Mouth. when anxiety wants to run it.

        Manager: “Hey, TYA, how are things going? How’s the workload?”
        Me: [swallows the first thing I want to say, which is all about my worry that all the plum assignments are going to my peers, which is proof that everyone knows I suck] “It’s going good! I’m really loving working with the consultant. In the beginning, he was making some nit-picky suggestions about changing/improving things but, now that we’ve worked together longer and he’s gotten the hang of how we operate, I am really impressed with the suggestions and process improvements he has come up with.”

    2. Queen Ruby*

      It seems to me like maybe George has had a job (or several) where his job was constantly being threatened and hasn’t been able to shake that mindset. I’ve been there – it takes time to learn how to be normal at work again! But if he’s been acting like this for the full 9 years he’s worked at your company and it’s only getting worse? That’s a George problem. Maybe changing his workload will help, but I wouldn’t get my hopes up. This seems to be more than just insecurity, and really, it’s on George to try to resolve that, since it’s a very personal thing. If you can be supportive of any efforts he might make, great! Just accept that there might be nothing you can do to really change the situation.

      1. Anon for this, colleagues read here*

        Maybe. Or maybe he “just” suffers from anxiety, he hasn’t been getting treatment for it or hasn’t been getting effective treatment, and it’s getting worse.

        My spouse is a professor, has won teaching awards, is asked to take newer instructors under their wing. During the worst of the pandemic, developed depression and anxiety. Was so fraught with anxiety that they couldn’t get grading done on time, couldn’t teach without shaking, was sure they were a terrible teacher….

        Objectively, they were still outstanding at teaching and had never, literally never, had an experience of being bad at teaching. But their brain did not let them believe it.

        1. Pugetkayak*

          I understand this completely, but it’s imperative to not lay that out in front of everyone all the time. It makes people come off terribly and incompetent when they may not be! I think that is a major thing here, obviously he is struggling internally, but he needs to simply stop asking as he will probably put his job at risk – the thing he is so afraid of.

          1. Rebelx*

            Why on earth would it make someone come off “terribly” and “incompetent” to suggest that anxiety might be behind their feelings of insecurity?? Anxiety, like all mental health issues, is not something people suffer from because they are simply not competent enough to manage it. It’s not an insult to someone or a comment on their character to suggest they might have anxiety. It is simply a fairly common health issue that lots of competent and not-at-all-terrible people deal with.

            George from the letter may or may not be suffering from anxiety, and if he does, that anxiety may be due to a past job where he felt insecure in his employment or may have no specific cause at all or may be due to some separate third thing. It doesn’t really matter what the cause of the anxiety might be. What does matter is that many commenters have expressed that the behavior described in the letter resonates with their own lived experiences with anxiety, and in the event that George *does* have anxiety, it is, in fact, *imperative* that we point to anxiety as a possibility.

            Anxiety, when you are living it, can feel very isolating and warp your perspective of whether your perceptions are rational/proportional. There is also a lot of stigma and barriers that prevent people from seeking treatment for mental health issues. As such, if George (or someone like George who is reading these comments) has anxiety, and sees people commenting that “hey, actually that sounds really similar to how I used to think/feel/act, turns out it was anxiety, and when I sought treatment for the anxiety, my quality of life improved greatly”, that’s a *good* thing, because it could help them (a) realize they are not alone, (b) realize they don’t have to feel that way forever (aka treatment exists and in fact helps a lot of people), and (c) feel more comfortable taking steps to seek help.

            Mental health struggles are common and quite normal. Seeking help and treatment for mental health when you think you might need it is a good thing! I say we *should* lay that out in front of everyone all the time.

  3. The. Starsong Princess*

    I had a guy like George on my team. He cried every time he had a performance review because he thought he was going to be fired. I did the emotional labor because he was a complete sweetheart and did a good job for us. He retired a few years ago. My advice for OP is that this is who George is and he won’t change so decide if you are going to accept it or not.

    1. Chutney Jitney*

      That’s a false choice. You chose to do emotional labor for – that doesn’t mean anyone else has to. Accepting someone for who they are does not mean having no boundaries.

      This may indeed be who George is, but only *George* has the power to control George’s behavior. OP can accept George being an anxious person without accepting George’s behavior *and* can still retain George if George is willing to stop the anxiety behaviors.

  4. Sally*

    A step a lot of managers miss is telling someone that part of their job is *not* needing constant reassurance. I see a lot of job descriptions phrased this way-“able to work independently and without daily oversight or feedback,” or something like that. At this point I wouldn’t say everything is great, because it isn’t. You can still have the “I understand that you’re stressed, here are some resources to help” conversation at the same time that you have the “Part of being successful in this position means not asking for vague reassurance as often as you do” conversation.

    1. Queen Ruby*

      My dad told me early on in my career that my constant need for feedback was going to become annoying and needy, and make me look weak or insecure. I didn’t get it at the time, but he was basically telling me what you just said, but not as nice as you put it lol.

      1. Pugetkayak*

        This is so true. And it happens in personal relationships too. No one needs a friend who needs constant reassurance that you like them when you’ve given them no indication to the contrary.

        1. goddessoftransitory*

          Yep. When somebody is CONSTANTLY asking “are you mad at me?” over and over and over again, sooner or later the answer is going to be “Well, I am now, because you never believe me!”

    2. My Useless 2 Cents*

      Yeah, it sounds harsh but a candid conversation the next time George mentions his job is in jeopardy along the lines of “You say that a lot. Is there more going on than I am aware of? I have told you multiple times that everyone thinks you are doing quite well. However, it is getting to the point that I am genuinely starting to worry that I am missing something.”

      (I’ve noticed that I get into worry loops when stressed, which just increases my stress level in a self perpetuating cycle. Hearing something like that would give me pause to stop the comments and think about how I’m coming across. Which is usually the first step in breaking the loop.)

      1. Sally*

        To be honest that’s still too vague. He hasn’t even responded to direct questions of, “Why do you ask?” and keeps engaging in the same behavior. At this point I would be looking into concrete solutions like a weekly check-in meeting, or drawing the line that he’s only allowed to ask about specific items. “Is this spreadsheet formatted correctly?” Seems like a good questions for him but “Am I doing okay?” Seems like more of the same and is just feeding into his insecurity.

  5. EUXdirector007*

    Maybe he has outgrown his role or the industry in general. Sometimes when a person can effortlessly do their job, it leaves one feeling like they should be doing more. If that is the case, it sounds like he may need guidance on progression.

    To be clear, I am not advocating for a promotion but an opportunity to stretch to the next step in his career.

    1. My Useless 2 Cents*

      I think this could be a good point to bring up. George might feel like his job is too easy if he’s been doing it for 9 years. He’s forgotten that he knows more than he thinks does and wouldn’t be as easy to replace as his anxiety is telling him.

  6. Fleetia*

    It might help to have a conversation with George, if you haven’t already, about what things would look like if his performance WASN’T meeting your expectations. My performance anxiety is better when I remind myself that, if I were failing, someone would be talking to me candidly about what I am doing wrong and helping me out together a plan to improve, and I would probably have at least one performance review where my average score was below “meets expectations”, and then I’d probably be put on a PIP…there would be signs. Absent those signs, I try not to let myself dwell on anxious feelings of inadequacy and doom.

    1. ferrina*

      Agree. I came from an environment that didn’t give me feedback then blindsided me with negative feedback, so knowing the process at my new company was super helfpul.

      I was also wondering- how does George respond to weird reflective questions? What if the conversation went like this:
      George: Are you going to fire me?
      OP: I wasn’t planning to. I was going to ask you to walk me through the TPS report. Would you like me to fire you? (said in a baffled tone of “I’d rather not, but I’ll respect your wishes”)
      I’ve used this technique a few times- sometimes it gives people a bit of a jolt to reflect on their own thought process and they realize that the brain weasels took the wheel for a moment. Or they get confused that I’m confused, and we can talk over where the miscommunication was. Occasionally they get huffy, but they realize that I’m not the right person to validate that kind of anxiety, and they calm down with that kind of questions (so I don’t have to do the emotional labor any more).

  7. Decidedly Me*

    Does the company have a clear, transparent structure in place on what happens if someone isn’t performing well? Something like: performance calls -> coaching plan -> PIP. If there is one, but it’s not clear, it would be a good idea to let George know of it, so he can remember that there would be a very specific way to know he’s not performing well. If there isn’t this structure in place at all, it’s worth exploring implementing one – not just for George, but for everyone’s piece of mind.

  8. SimonTheGreyWarden*

    Poor George. It must be rotten to feel that level of anxiety/stress all the time. I agree though that you can’t keep doing all the emotional labor for him.

  9. Name Name*

    In my old job – I was George. Just wasn’t fit for me. I am in a new role where I don’t need thaaat much reassurance and also in therapy!

  10. heather*

    Any time we are dealing with anxiety (whether clinical or just normal human anxiety), there is assurance, and then there is reassurance. All of us need assurance at times– “Is my work okay?”– but re-assurance tends to be counterproductive. That is, if you’ve already had conversations about the project that didn’t succeed, it isn’t going to be helpful to keep re-hashing it with him. I totally agree with Alison’s encouragement to be breezy, and decline to get caught up in the reassurance trap.

    1. ferrina*

      Agree. George’s anxiety stems from a place that you cannot reach. And if you make your communication patterns about his anxiety, that 1) defines your relationship to George and 2) can unintentionally reinforce that he should be bringing his anxiety to you to fix (which obviously you have no ability to do). Look for ways that you can redefine your communications about George.
      George: Am I going to be fired?
      You: You need to stop asking me that. I will tell you if I am concerned with your performance. As of now, I am officially banning you from asking that unless and until you have performance issues. Got it? Good.

      later that day….
      George: Am I going to be fired?
      You: Nope, you’re banned from saying that. Let’s try a different conversation opener. I’m a fan of “Hello”, and for special occasions, “Greetings oh Wise One”

      1. Good Enough For Government Work*

        I can definitely have George-like anxiety, though not to this extent, and I love this approach!

      2. Sleeve McQueen*

        If I work with someone who apologises too much I might say in a jokey tone “Ok, you’ve used your allotted sorry allowance for the month, you can’t say it again”

        1. Slow Gin Lizz*

          One of the best lines from my favorite movie: “Don’t be sorry, be quiet!” (Spaceballs, in case you were wondering.)

      3. Lana Kane*

        George’s anxiety stems from a place that you cannot reach.

        This is exactly right. OP can’t “fix” George;’s anxiety because it’s a lot deeper than his job. This is a good approach.

    2. Alanna*

      Yes!! Lots of people are suggesting how to better reassure George, but reassurance does not make reassurance-seeking behavior go away. (Plus, that behavior is frustrating and annoying to the people it’s directed at.)

      I’m pretty anxious and highly strung myself, and one thing I’m really working on as a manager is that I don’t have to mirror my anxious or highly strung employees if they’re getting wound up. It’s OK not to go down the rabbit hole with them!

  11. MadCatter*

    As someone who, at least kind of, related to George, there isn’t anything you can do that you aren’t already doing. I’m also someone who routinely gets very positive feedback and reviews and is still consistently worried that I am about to get fired if I mess up one simple thing. It’s really difficult to push past that idea of yourself and you can’t fix that for George. It’s unfortunate he won’t use the EAP but you can’t manage his emotions for him.

    It does suck, OP, for all of you and for George, but it sounds like you have been really kind and trying to communicate to him that he is a strong and valued employee. I have always been appreciative of the managers and coworkers who have clearly communicated with me like this (though I have not let my internal worries go as public as George has).

      1. IzzMcFizz*

        I’m not who you asked but also relate deeply to feeling tons of unfounded anxiety around my work and, well, everything. Frankly the only thing that’s ever made a difference is going on non-stim ADHD medication at the beginning of this year. Anxiety is still there but significantly lessened; it’s night and day.

      2. MadCatter*

        I am honestly not great at it. For the most part I have been able to manage my actions, so as to avoid a situation like OP is in. I have also recently been diagnosed with ADHD which helps give some context to these feelings and reframes them a little. I am also hoping to start therapy soon.

        It can be really difficult to manage, but you aren’t alone in it!

      3. Trotwood*

        I think it’s important to be able to recognize whether your feelings are rational or irrational and try to interrupt the anxiety cycle before it leads to irrational actions. I am assuming you know on some level that your work is good and your management is satisfied with your performance. My previous boss was very prone to sending a message that just said “can I call?” and it always triggered an anxiety spike for me. But I learned over time that he usually had a question about a report he was reading or a meeting he’d had, and it was never related to anything I had done. So I would try to break that pattern of anxious thinking by referring to my previous experience with him, and knowing that it was extremely unlikely that I’d made some massive unforgivable error that I hadn’t noticed. I don’t think you can stop the thoughts entirely, but if you can recognize the pattern and learn to disrupt it before you’re asking your boss if you’re about to be fired several times a week, that will go a long way.

    1. allathian*

      Yes, this. And if the LW makes it clear that it’s beyond their pay grade to keep reassuring George, and tells him that the EAP is a better place to seek help for the obvious anxiety behaviors that he’s exhibiting.

      If you have any empathy at all, it’s really hard to watch someone suffer like George obviously is. But continuing to do emotional labor by constantly reassuring him is also enabling behavior. It needs to stop, both for the LW’s sake and for George’s own sake, and once the LW makes it clear that they’re no longer available for that sort of reassurance George might just decide to seek help elsewhere.

  12. gonna be okay*

    If you haven’t yet, I’d explore whether there’s another way George could receive feedback from you that would be “sticky” for him. For instance, would it help him to have in writing that at least at this current moment, he’s doing a good job, meeting/exceeding benchmarks, etc?

    I ask because I am also a professional who externally seems quite successful, but internally I experience a lot of doubt, and continually feel as though I’m underperforming my peers, or the average. For me this feeling is linked to neurodivergence, and one possible accommodation is receiving feedback via different means, written vs. oral; I’ve found written feedback is the most useful in getting me to the point where I believe that yes, my supervisors think I’m doing okay and where I don’t continually seek reassurance (I can just go re-read the written feedback instead). You probably can’t/shouldn’t ask George directly whether he’s ND (I actually don’t think it’s legal to ask, though IANAL) but asking about feedback method preferences, or other things he thinks might help good feedback to “stick” could be a good step.

  13. EMP*

    George rejecting the EAP is a red flag for me, in the sense that it flags that he’s unwilling or unable to accept the help that you can realistically offer. This job may not be a good fit for him anymore but it doesn’t sound like an issue you can manage him out of. I would set (or reset) some boundaries about how much emotional work you’re willing to do moving forward.

    1. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

      I can see his reasoning for not engaging with the EAP being “they deal with mental illness, counselling, etc. I don’t need that because my issues come from this job, and from never knowing from one day to the next if I’ll be set up for failure with a project, or just fired”. He would be wrong in that line of thinking of course but I bet that’s what it is.

      Any time something changes, there’s a reason. He has had this low level anxiety for long time but now it has ratcheted up. I wonder if it started with the stalled project or before.

  14. erg*

    Something else to consider (maybe not in George’s case, it might be too extreme – although maybe still yes) is thinking about whether you know how George likes/wants to be recognized and what makes George feel valued. Something is missing for George – and probably always has been if George has always asked these questions. Now, this may be a George problem; it could also be a “we’re not speaking George’s love language” problem. (The ones for the workplace!) If you keep telling George “you’re doing great work” and showing this by making George give speeches (because I love giving speeches so they must see that it’s a gesture of how great they are that they get to give the speech) when George hates giving speeches… then maybe George’s thought is “they say I’m doing a great job and they keep making me give speeches instead of letting me go on that training course I asked for, this is the worst.”

    Basically – knowing how your team members like to be recognized and feel valued can help you help them feel more secure.

      1. Tio*

        I would be very hesitant to reward such behavior with a title bump, especially since the last project he was on was beyond his skillset. And this assumes there is such a title available. Also, this could backfire by adding more stress onto George. If he doesn’t think he’s doing well enough now, is giving him what reads like more responsibility really going to help?

      1. allathian*

        Real time off without having to work twice as hard before and after and without overloading my coworkers… Fortunately I do get that. (I’m in Europe where long vacations are the norm so resources tend to be just a bit less optimized for the ideal situation when nobody’s away and some cross-training is the norm.)

      2. Grith*

        But I worry he’ll see that as a suspension and his bosses identifying his weaknesses and trying to fix them.

        He’s so perfectly positioned himself on a tightrope where a push either way will feel disastrous, trying to do things to make him feel better is a no-win situation. I think the only possible way forward is to back off from performing the emotional hand-holding, tell him this is what you’re doing (as others have suggested, “I’ll tell you if anything is wrong, if I don’t then you have to assume we’re happy with your work”) and then let him decide if he can get past the anxiety or not.

  15. *kalypso*

    The failure of that project, and the stress of trying to do something that (as you’ve determined) was beyond George’s scope, probably triggered something, and seeing that project continue under a partner may be a constant stressor. If you haven’t offered George training to work on the relevant skills, or you haven’t sat down with George and really shown why the *project* failed independently of George failing – not just gone ‘oh it’s our fault we shouldn’t have given it to you’ but more like ‘It’s our fault we didn’t put x and y resources into this project’ , then look at framing it like that – and if doing that helps you identify any areas where you can provide training and support to everyone.

    George is probably just trying to justify their position having lost the project – if those duties weren’t replaced they may be feeling that.

    1. Be Gneiss*

      Yes! I know there’s a gap between what I know is true, and the goofy stuff my brain tries to tell me is true….but I could see myself getting hung up on “It’s our fault it failed (because we made the mistake of giving you that project, and clearly you’re incapable, and you’re only still here because we haven’t hired your replacement yet!)”
      Not that it’s fair for you to have to put more emotional labor into George. You’re already being very compassionate and kind. But if George is carrying the failure of that project around like a mental backpack of rocks, maybe have a final conversation about reasons the project failed that weren’t just “we should have known George couldn’t hack it.”

      1. *kalypso*

        Yes! And it’s totally possible that seeking out more work is a response (consciously or not) to having had the extra project work and that being taken away – LW doesn’t go into that, but if the work hasn’t been replaced or restructured or a discussion hasn’t been explicit in the ‘we’re taking this project off your hands and not replacing it with more contact hours or clients because we need you to have capacity to cover the others at short notice/we want all our employees to have a maximum number of clients and you’re already at that point/this was an extra thing that you’re saying was stressful and you still have a full workload without it so just focus on your existing clients and bringing your stress levels down until our next check in/etc.’, then it’s super easy to just keep carrying it around and feeling like it has to be made up for or accounted for.

  16. Good Luck*

    I would suggest offering the EAP again (unless you have offered many times before). I went through a phase similar to George. Although I never got to the point of asking if I was going to be fired. I just couldn’t stop worrying about it. I went to alot of therapy and I now I am much more confident employee. I hope George is able to find some peace at work.

  17. lucanus cervus*

    I think George needs a lot more help than you can give him. He’s terrified and the terror did not originate from you guys, it’s coming from inside George.

    That said, I suspect the constant rounds of reassurance are actually perpetuating the anxiety, if that makes sense. George feels anxious about his performance, he asks for reassurance, he gets it – and his internal alarm system goes ‘thank GOD, that very real and credible threat has been averted for another day’. It unfortunately doesn’t conclude ‘cool looks like we never needed to worry about that at all’. Then the next time he begins to feel stressed, he automatically links it to the fear of job loss and seeks reassurance again because it made him feel better last time. The more times he cycles round this fear-reassurance loop, the more convinced he becomes that one day his job will actually be at risk. It’s a really unfortunate quirk of the human brain.

    Kind boundaries around these conversations might actually be better for George – reassuring him that you will absolutely let him know very clearly if his job is ever at stake, that he’ll have warnings, etc. etc., but that you’re not going to hold the same discussion over and over when there aren’t even any problems with his work.

    1. Hashtag Destigmatize Therapy*

      +1. Was going to say the same thing–reassurance reinforces the behavior of seeking reassurance. If you stop giving it to him, it could *possibly* help him worry less. Ideally he’d learn that he doesn’t need to seek reassurance in the first place, but while it is totally possible that he might be able to learn that, it’s obviously not appropriate for OP to try to be his therapist or make him go to therapy. And it almost certainly wouldn’t happen overnight.

      I won’t speculate on where his anxiety comes from, but I agree with everyone saying it seems very unlikely that it comes from his job.

      1. allathian*

        It might not make him worry less, but it just might stop him demanding emotional labor from the LW in the form of constant reassurance, and that’s what should be the goal. George’s emotions are his own to manage, but as George’s manager the LW has the right to determine which behaviors are unacceptable.

    2. allathian*

      Yes, this. And with a less sympathetic manager, George could even be fired for unprofessional behavior at work. Constantly demanding reassurance from your manager that you aren’t about to be fired is unprofessional.

      1. lucanus cervus*

        Yeah – George’s next manager may very well be less patient with this behaviour. He needs to get a handle on it for everyone’s sake. I sympathise with him enormously but it’s really not appropriate to ask this of a manager or colleague, even if it was ultimately helpful to George himself (which it isn’t).

  18. Jessica*

    Oof. I wonder what George’s previous employment history is, because that sounds like trauma from a toxic workplace.

    That’s still my internal monologue. I don’t say it out loud, because I know it’s not reflective of reality–it’s my broken reactions to normal job stuff because I worked in places that weren’t normal–but every time someone above me schedules a meeting without telling me what it’s about, my jerkbrain starts screaming that I’m going to be fired. I trust negative feedback, and distrust positive feedback.

    That’s obviously my responsibility, with the help of my therapist, to work on, not my manager’s, but I did tell her I struggled with anxiety due to previous jobs, and she has adapted some of the ways she interacts with me to help ramp it down (e.g. giving me concrete positive feedback (“you did X, which was super-helpful because Y” rather than just “you did a great job on that project!”)). And it’s slow-going, but that’s helping.

    What stuck out to me is that George is in an environment that sounds like it’s supportive and he’s getting positive feedback, and after 9 years, regardless of what may or may not have happened in previous jobs, it sounds like his anxiety and insecurity have been getting *worse*, not better.

    If George is a valuable employee you really don’t want to lose, it might be worth doing something that I’d normally consider overstepping and just having an honest conversation with him, and being like:

    “Hey, George, it seems like your anxiety about your performance and job security is getting worse, not better, and we’re kind of stumped about why that is. We really value you and we want you to feel valued and secure here. I feel like the feedback we give you reflects that we think you’re doing a great job. We don’t want to lose you. Is there something I’m not aware of that’s happening that’s undermining your confidence in yourself or making you distrust the positive feedback we give you?”

    1. Juicebox Hero*

      I was very George-ish when I started my current job. In my case, it was a combination of a perfectionist mother who punished even minor mistakes harshly, and coming from a retail environment so toxic it made Love Canal look like a cleanroom. It took years plus therapy and medication before talking to the boss didn’t scare the bajeebers out of me.

      While in George Mode, a conversation like you’re suggesting would just have ratcheted the anxiety up to 11, unfortunately. “Oh, god, they think I’m a pain in the ass, they’re sick of having to reassure me so much, they think there’s something wrong with me, they’re gonna fire me for sure over all this.” Totally illogical, but anxiety goes straight past your logical circuits and right to the “OMG PANIC MODE” center.

      I don’t envy OP’s position. No matter how well-liked George is, they’re rapidly becoming a broken stair. They’e refused the EAP and don’t seem to be taking any steps to manage their own issues. The constant reassurance and stuff like pushing themself into someone else’s projects in order to take on more work have to be exhausting for management and coworkers alike. If George wants to leave, let them.

    2. Daisy-dog*

      I also have these same feelings! It doesn’t help that my department is undergoing some major changes right now. But I’ve also only been in this role for 6 months. I know I need to work on this myself and it’s not my manager’s responsibility.

      I do think that question is a valid one to ask. I would add on to it: “You should take some time to think about this and we can revisit it in [time period].” I am the worst at giving feedback immediately when someone asks a question about what I need. I need time to process it and I would also appreciate knowing when we can reassess.

      1. Jessica*

        That’s a really great addition!

        I just feel like I saw a lot of attempts to reassure George in the LW’s account, but maybe not any real *investigation*?

        If someone’s behaving in a way that seems irrational to me, my first thought is “do they have information (whether or not that information ends up being accurate) that I don’t have?” (Maybe that’s my own insecurity talking, but I always feel like other people probably have information I don’t.)

        Like, was George getting information or signals that made him feel like his job was in danger from somewhere other than management?

  19. NeedRain47*

    People who think they’re a burden generally aren’t, except for the fact that they won’t stop asking if they’re a burden, which becomes burdensome. Someone finally puts their foot down as LW is trying to do here. In this way they fulfill their own prophecy and are able to say, “see? I told you I was about to get fired!”

    1. GreenShoes*

      I was writing up a similar comment so will just tag onto yours.

      The OP may want to have one last conversation noting this behavior as the thing that will put George’s employment in jeopardy. And I’d do it soon before they lose all patience with him. Even the best most supportive manager will have a breaking point with this kind of thing.

      1. NeedRain47*

        Yep. George may be reacting to a previous manager who, in fact, fired George or was otherwise punitive without ever giving him any feedback ahead of time. It’s LW’s job to not be that guy, but it’s not responsibility to fix George.

    2. Silver Robin*

      The same kind of cycle of “are you mad at me?” over and over until it irritates the person being asked. Self fulfilling prophecies, both of them

  20. Lorax*

    I have general anxiety disorder, as do a lot of folks in my family. Obviously, we can’t know if George is dealing with the same thing, but his need for reassurance sounds very, very familiar. I think Alison’s advice about defaulting to an easy, breezy script is spot on. You’ve tried pushing back against the erroneous thought pattern, which is good, but at this point, extensive conversations about his performance might be fueling preoccupation with his performance more generally. That is, performance in general — good or bad — is taking up way too much of his brain space, so it could help to minimize your response to his performance anxiety and redirect. I think the redirection right after the breezy response is important, because it reorients to something concrete that can replace his free-floating anxiety. So maybe the conversation looks like this:
    “Am I going to be fired?”
    “Not at all! Actually, I was going to ask for you help with project X. Do you have some time to talk about it?”

    “I’m worried I’m not making valuable contributions.”
    “You’re doing great! Actually, we just got a new client I think would be a good fit for you. If you’re not too you busy, do you want to talk about it?”

    “I’m worried I’m messing up.”
    “Your work is great! Hey, I was meaning to ask you — can you sign this birthday card for Karen? We’re doing a party on Friday…”


  21. Day Job Haver*

    My knee jerk frustrated response, which obviously I would not deploy as a responsible manager, might be to say:

    “George, you’re not going to lose your job, you are great, everyone loves you, that dumb project was not your fault. The only way I can see that changing is if you SIMPLY CANNOT SHUT UP about how disappointed in you we all must be, and that because of this, you are of course about to lose your job. The only thing you have to be wary of is inceptioning this situation into coming to pass, so PLEASE cool it you weirdo”.

  22. Momma Bear*

    This sounds like a George needs a pro to help him with his insecurity and anxiety more than George needs a pat on the back. He may not take you up on the EAP for other reasons, like having a provider or looking for one on his own. Regardless, I’d focus on what’s going on in the office. He didn’t fail the project, the company failed. Lessons Learned – one of which should be how to move on. If there was no specific Lessons Learned meeting, then consider having one. I also agree that less may be more. We may want to soothe someone but “No, really, it’s fine” and moving on may be better. You’ve already belabored the point. Encourage him to move on by keeping it short. But that said, if he needs feedback maybe give him the feedback that while he does a good job, this frequent reassurance and meddling in other people’s jobs is impacting the perception of that good job.

    Bottom line if he decides he needs to go, though, let him go. Don’t beg him to stay if he’d really do better at a bigger company with more defined roles, for example.

  23. Student*

    Conspicuously absent in this letter: what is George’s reply when you ask him, “…why would you think that?”

    You’ve framed the letter in a way that makes George sound, well, crazy. That could be your answer. But you left out his reply to a question you have apparently asked him many times over. So, why? Does the answer he gives reinforce your implied narrative that he’s crazy? Or does he point to something or someone specific as to why he expects to be laid off at any minute?

    It looks like a “missing missing reason” situation to me, to borrow Internet parlance and give you something to search.

    If it backed up your narrative about George being crazy, then it seems likely that you would’ve included it. So, his answer likely points to something you don’t want to (or can’t) deal with that is causing him most of this stress. If you mainly want to keep George, you’ll need to deal with whatever thing he points to as a root cause of his desire to leave, rather than reducing his overall workload.

    Or, possibly, you’ve never actually asked him why he’s worried about being laid off, or never stopped to listen to his response. If that’s the case, go actually ask him, then listen to what he says and try not to be dismissive towards his response.

    1. Qwerty*

      I would tweak this to be have a conversation with George that is *just* about why he constantly asks if he is going to be fired.

      Because I wouldn’t be surprised if George’s response to the in-the-moment questions is a sort of non-answer. It’s what I’ve run into – if you say “no”, then they are validated that they are safe and not interested in discussing it further. If you skip the no and just respond with “why do you ask”, then they don’t want to give you ammo against them and just sort mumble-ramble.

      It’s also very possible that George doesn’t really know what the reason is and to be prepared on what conversation to have if he doesn’t provide a reason (either doesn’t know or doesn’t feel comfortable sharing). I’ve helped people through this and never really got an answer, even after it was resolved, even when asking them to help someone else dealing with the same thing. I coached where I could, but they had to do the hard work of self reflection and most of the battle seemed to be figuring out the source of the problem.

    2. BuildMeUp*

      The OP isn’t painting George as “crazy,” but as someone who likely has anxiety that isn’t being managed. If George has general issues with anxiety, there probably isn’t anything wrong with the work or job itself that is causing it. George is just going to be anxious.

      You’ve made the assumption that the OP not including George’s answer definitely means that his answer points to something they don’t want to deal with, but there are many other options here. George could be saying he doesn’t know, or talking about something irrelevant, or saying the OP & other partners had a closed-door meeting that he assumed was about firing him when it really wasn’t, etc.

    3. a clockwork lemon*

      OP very clearly articulated a reason–George messed up a big project, someone senior to him had to take over the big project, and he’s now spiraling about it and that spiral becomes evident every time the project comes up.

      The problem here is that George will not accept the true things that his management is telling him: He is a high performer, his job is safe, and the project he whiffed should not have been assigned to him in the first place because it wasn’t within his skill set. It sucks that George is having a bad time and that failing at a project has exacerbated an ongoing issue he’s been dealing with for what sounds like many years.

      OP can’t (and, frankly, shouldn’t) try to fix the underlying problem here, which is that George has some sort of ongoing issue with anxiety which is manifesting inappropriately at work. It’s not on OP to treat George’s anxiety, and George has already rejected the resources made available to him.

    4. Myrin*

      That seems like an overanalysing stretch, to be quite honest. Like, I know how and why you’re getting there and everything but it’s a hyper psychological reading when I’m willing to bet his answer to OP’s “Why would you think that?” is the same I’ve encountered literally every time with people like that – a noncommittal shrug and/or a an “I dunno” and/or a “Just ’cause” and as such doesn’t really add anything to the letter.

      1. Student*

        It’s a law firm, and OP is only one partner out of three. Is it really such a stretch to guess that something in the law firm outside of OP’s control might be the source of George’s anxiety?

        This isn’t a situation where George has always been this way, or got this insecure from a bad experience in an earlier job. He was moderately insecure earlier in the job. He’s been there nine years, and the insecurity about his job has steadily gotten worse. So, most likely, something in the job has made him feel less and less secure over time.

        Maybe one of the other two partners gives George wildly different feedback from the OP, and the OP doesn’t know about it. I’ve worked at jobs where I’ve had multiple, equal-level managers (like a law firm, but a different industry) and I know it can be hellish to manage workload and expectation if the managers aren’t all on the same page.

        Maybe it’s about the business fundamentals. A lot of businesses were hard hit by the pandemic, and we don’t know what George’s role is – maybe he has genuine and well-reasoned thoughts about why his role is potentially on the chopping block, and is trying to figure out how to adapt his role to the firm’s changing needs to survive. It sure sounds from the letter like George thinks his role needs to change – and maybe the OP should pay more attention to where that’s coming from. I think managers sometimes underestimate how closely some employees will track the business’s health. I’ve had jobs where managers were dismissive of employee concerns about business fundamentals, or would try to pretend nothing was wrong when we all knew otherwise. If this is the case, then lowering George’s workload, as the OP is doing, will only make him feel like he’s getting phased out.

        I think less likely, but also possible, George might be getting wildly different feedback from a client directly. OP said they George gets good client reviews. Maybe 9 out of 10 clients sing George’s praise to the OP – but for George, dealing with dissatisfied client #10 is a bigger part of his overall workload and is undermining his confidence over time.

        I think it’s far more of a stretch to leap to the conclusion that “anxiety that is solely George’s internal problem and not at all job-related” to be the problem for a great employee of nine years who’s been steadily getting more anxious over time. That would make more sense for a new employee that is like this, or someone newer to the workforce. Sure, it’s possible! But, OP could do some actual digging here, and might find something substantive and work-related as a cause.

        At minimum, OP ought to hear George’s reasoning out, and it’s not clear that’s actually happened.

        1. lucanus cervus*

          “He was moderately insecure earlier in the job. He’s been there nine years, and the insecurity about his job has steadily gotten worse. So, most likely, something in the job has made him feel less and less secure over time.”

          It honestly seems more likely to me that George’s anxiety has mounted generally over time and LW is seeing it play out at work because that’s where they see George. Maybe it’s worth enquiring more deeply into George’s reasons, but I think your original comment does LW an injustice. And, frankly, anxiety like this is very real, pretty common, and not some kind of unheard-of ‘crazy’ thing that just wouldn’t happen to a competent person. It absolutely happens.

        2. BuildMeUp*

          I’m sorry, but you’re writing a lot of fanfiction here and continuing to make a lot of assumptions. The OP not including a specific detail is not an indication that the OP has never had a conversation with George about whether something specific is causing his anxiety. It just means the OP didn’t have the space to include all the details; this happens with many letters.

          And I don’t think anyone is saying that the anxiety isn’t job related. It’s more that his anxiety is causing him to read into things in ways he shouldn’t (constantly thinking he’s going to fired, etc.) and get far more stressed out about small/innocuous things that most people would be able to brush off.

          1. Jessica*

            I don’t think it’s fanfiction.

            If someone’s anxiety is ramping up rather than down with no apparent stimulus, there’s a possibility that their brain is just misfiring, but there’s also a possibility that something is happening that’s driving it up.

            As I said elsewhere, if someone behaves in a way that seems irrational to me, my first question is whether they have information I don’t have.

            Maybe OP did tell George that they’d noticed his anxiety seemed to be increasing, and ask him if there was something going on they weren’t aware of. But it’s not clear from the letter if they actually investigated or went straight to reassurance.

            Right now, the pieces don’t feel like they add up: great employee, highly competent, reassuring management, but increasing rather than decreasing anxiety.

            The missing piece there might just be “brain chemistry,” but before I lost a great employee with a long positive history at the company, I’d want to try to figure out what the missing piece was.

            I don’t think there are any villains here–I think OP is acting with compassion. But maybe the compassion needs to be paired with more investigation.

            1. BuildMeUp*

              it’s not clear from the letter if they actually investigated or went straight to reassurance

              I think we’re reading the letter differently, because to me it definitely is clear. The letter describes this repeated interaction/conversation:

              George has said to us he feels uninvolved and doesn’t think he is contributing enough to the company or that his contributions are subpar. We’ve told him over and over that we are satisfied with his involvement and contribution level, to no avail

              George is being asked why he is worried about losing his job, and he’s pretty clearly communicating what he feels his stress/anxiety is stemming from. The conversation has been happening, and he has been given the opportunity to raise any other issues he thinks are the cause.

              1. lucanus cervus*

                Yeah, I’d be really astonished if George had somehow expressed all these worries over and over again – including discussing the project that failed, his concerns about not contributing enough etc. – but somehow kept the true and rational cause of them secret.

    5. Roland*

      You’re making up a lot of details that just aren’t there to paint OP in a bad light.

    6. Seagulls, NO!*

      You come off like you’re trying so hard to look smart by using the name “Student” and engaging in what you think is a scholarly thought experiment exercise. But all you’re actually achieving is attacking the OP with fanfic and assuming bad faith, which are both against the site rules.

  24. RPOhno*

    Not that this is necessarily something that OP can do anything about, but… this sounds an awful lot like the kind of attitudes I’ve seen in people with lingering issues from abusive workplaces that make things like the EAP look like a trap and seed major distrust in any positive comments with an expectation that they are just window dressing to make the following negative ones “feel less bad”.

  25. Jellyfish Catcher*

    This can’t continue with constant emotional support.
    At least 2 other commentators have suggested therapy and/or said it helped them. Perhaps someone can discuss their personal experience (or not9 and encourage him to give it a try.

    As Alison discussed, have one discussion about what the office can change for him. Let him know that the office will always be honest with him, but going forward, reassurance needs to be brief, so he’s knows that.
    Reinforce that he is already very effective, but therapy can help make him feel more effective.

  26. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

    George is wrongly (consciously or unconsciously I can’t quite tell) attributing the stress to this job (external) rather than where it actually originates, an anxious (internal) state that is getting worse.

    As such, until he gets the needed help, I think this situation is likely to follow him around. I am curious whether there were any indications of this trait when OP and George worked together before.

    It seems to me he is fixated on “losing the job” and so as another commenter pointed out, he feels driven to do more and more in an effort to ‘prove’ that he really is ‘worthy’ to stay at the company. “Please keep me around, I’m really good and can do all the things!”

    Paradoxically I think a job search may actually help with his stress, as he realises there are other viable options and so losing his job might not be the catastrophic, unrecoverable event he’s built it up into.

  27. NeedRain47*

    I see lots of comments here saying this might come from a prior abusive workplace, and yes that’s true, but this kind of thing also comes from peoples’ home life & childhood. If you never know whether your parents are going to parent you or just get mad…. it’s a lot like feeling like you might get fired any minute.

    1. Capt. Liam Shaw*

      I was thinking the same thing . Childhood or a previous toxic workplace. Either way something bad happened and there is some unresolved trauma.

      1. lucanus cervus*

        Yeah, George has learned somewhere along the line that any mistake might be world-shattering. Unfortunately LW can’t magic this better for him.

  28. RussianInTexas*

    People like this are exhausting. As coworkers, friends, siblings, significant others, dates, etc. Everyone who is not a narcissist has some level of insecurity. People with anxieties have higher levels of insecurity sometimes. It is on everyone to deal with their own insecurities and issues.
    I am not a therapist, therefore I am not performing this level of emotional labor for anyone who is not myself.

  29. Still Nameless in MN*

    Lots of good suggestions.

    I’d personally take Allison’s advice about having George come up with ideas that would help him feel more secure (emphasize that you may not be able to implement them all but you want to hear his suggestions), make it clear what the process to firing is, and also make it clear that you cannot spend hours in lengthy meetings to rehash the past or reassure him. Then do the easy breezy “all is well” replies when he questions.

    As a manager you cannot be expected to Pat him in the back his entire work day.

    At the same time you need to be crystal clear that he is not allowed to insert himself into others project work unless he has been asked to assist by you. You don’t want to have problems with other staff having problems with George because he jumps in or takes over without being asked. If I was George’s coworker and he did that to me I’d have a big problem with that. If I had to say something to him or bring it to your attention that would surely only add to George’s lack of confidence.
    But it would also create another problem among your reports that you’d need to manage.

    Whatever time frame you give it, give him one more chance to provide possible solutions, lay out extremely clear changes you need to see (verbal and written) by x date, step back from being his emotional security blanket and then see what changes happen (if any). When you get to x date then follow the procedures you’ve given him regarding what happens before he’s fired.

    You’ve invested a lot of time and energy trying to help him. Now it’s his choice whether he wants to work with you to improve, quit or get fired.

  30. IsMe*

    This behavior reminds me a lot of my husband, who engaged in a lot of reassurance-seeking behavior within our relationship. He was recently diagnosed with OCD, specifically the type that shows up as insecurity in close relationships. His compulsion was seeking reassurance. This is probably not the same as your employee, but the way you handle it would need to be similar. My husband didn’t improve when I offered him lots of reassurance. It improved when he got diagnosed and received treatment. You simply aren’t in a position to offer that as the employer; all you can do is make sure that you’ve provided a reasonable amount of reassurance that would ostensibly work for him (speaking his “love language” for lack of a better phrase), and letting him handle his own feelings as an adult. If he needs to step away from the workplace, that’s his call. If he gets treatment, that’s his prerogative. At least in my situation, continuing to provide lots of reassurance was actively harmful because it was a positive feedback loop.

    1. allathian*

      Yes, this. Although in the case of an employer, it’s not always out of line to direct them to the EAP. I’m not in the US, though.

      It wasn’t anxiety, but a few years ago I was burned out following a very long and exhausting project where I’d worked much longer hours than normal. The project required much more work than my manager and I expected. It came to a head when I yelled at my then-manager, when she decided to take another project off my plate so that I could recover after the big one. HR told me in no uncertain terms that my behavior was unacceptable and that a number of sessions with an occupational psychologist through our EAP were a condition of continued employment. If I’d refused to go, I would’ve been fired. We also had a joint session with my then-manager to hash it out. Our conclusion was that I didn’t respect her right to manage my workload, and that this was the case because she’d confided in me like a friend and I didn’t really think of her as my manager (she’d told me all about how her son slept with her daughter’s MOH at the daughter’s wedding and the resulting divorce and friendship breakups, etc.).

      I apologized to her sincerely and took a week of sick leave followed by two weeks of comp time that I’d amassed during the big project and another three weeks of vacation. I really needed that much time to recover from burnout. After that it was my coworker’s turn to go on vacation, and when I returned to work I bought him a box of chocolates to thank him for doing more than his fair share when things were difficult for me. I then scheduled another session with the occupational psychologist to help me avoid getting burnout again. Now I know the signs and I also know how to ask for help.

      Not long after this incident, my then-manager decided to get out of management altogether. She went to a sister organization on job rotation as an individual contributor and then returned to us to do a specific project for about 6 months before retiring. This was to avoid being managed by a former report, which would’ve been awkward for both.

      My then-manager was a lovely person and under different circumstances she would’ve been a great friend, but she wasn’t a great manager. She cared too much about being liked by her reports, and that was awkward when she had to make decisions that we didn’t like. When she got less than stellar feedback on our annual employee surveys, she went on sick leave for a week. (People are honest on the survey because the organization as a whole is genuinely interested in the results, employee satisfaction is one of our core values, and we aren’t in an at-will environment so saying negative things wouldn’t risk our jobs even if she’d figured out who said it.)

      I did learn my lesson, and I know that if a future manager tries to be too friendly with me, I’ll have to keep my distance a bit because I can’t respect the authority of a manager who’s also a friend. My two subsequent managers have been friendly but professional and I’ve never had any issues respecting their authority.

  31. Anne Wentworth*

    I feel so bad for George; it sounds like he might have experienced a traumatic and sudden lay-off in the past that he can’t move beyond. I can’t personally recommend EAP (in my experience, they’re useless) but George definitely needs to talk to a therapist about why he has these persistent fears in the midst of overall success.

  32. Traumatized worker*


    I was laid off or fired many times because of a lack of funding or a pandemic or because I worked at Wells Fargo (taking vacation and asking for a quarter raise). It’s been one year since my last being let go and I still am traumatized. I would suggest george see a therapist who specializes in trauma. I got reassurances so many times. They are as useless as promises, unless they are on paper. I would be patient and give it a couple of years. I don’t have nightmares about my boss yelling at me, but I did for 6 months after it happened. I am in a much better situation now. George needs therapy.

    1. Happy meal with extra happy*

      Did you see in the letter that George has worked there for nine years? I don’t think a couple of years is going to make a difference at this point, and even if George was relatively new, waiting that long for a performance change is not reasonable. Also, George refused to reach out to the EAP, so I’m not sure how actionable “George needs therapy” is for the OP.

      1. RussianInTexas*

        Yes, your boss should not be telling you what kind of medical treatments to take. All he can do is to lay out why the current behavior is not working.

  33. Qwerty*

    One source of George-like behavior that I’ve seen is people who haven’t really shifted out of the school mentality. Especially in this combo of George being a high performer but still constantly worried.

    I’ve seen younger employees not have a good baseline for what gets someone fired. If they have always done well – top marks in school, used to getting praise – not being awesome at something is new and hard to handle.

    Not discounting the posts about how past negative experiences could be influencing George’s behavior. Just wanted to add an additional perspective as I’ve also seen the opposite where people in good workplaces who have never or rarely seen anyone fired at their work end up not having a baseline for what would reasonably get one fired. Imagine if all you had to go on was the horror stories of the internet.

  34. lucyp*

    Maybe this is a “love language” thing? Being told verbally that I’m doing a good job is what’s really real to me. For my partner, verbal praise isn’t where it’s at. They feel appreciated when I do them a favor or give them a gift. It took us a little while to sort this out. I’d be telling them “good job” and it’s just not registering. They’re making me coffee and honestly I don’t really care about that. But they throw me a “good job!” and it makes my entire day. I make them coffee, and they know for sure I really care about them.

    Same thing in the workplace, yeah? I think a good manager has to be open to the idea that different people on their team might need to be shown appreciation in different ways. I think that maybe it wouldn’t hurt for LW to at least consider other ways to reassure George.

    Though at this point it’s probably a “too little, too late” thing. Oh well.

    1. RussianInTexas*

      There is affirming “good job” and then there is constant stream of “am I going to lose my job?”. It’s exhausting and stressful for the person who has to shoulder the constant reassurance.

        1. Feral Humanist*

          In the traditional sense, you’re of course right. But in a practical sense, different people are different and the same types of reward and recognition don’t work for all of us. I would be stoked to get Employee of the Year. My BIL, who is an introvert and hates being the center of attention, literally hated it when it happened to him.

          I think lucyp’s point, which has been made in a number of places on this thread, is that it’s possible that the way recognition is done in this work place doesn’t work for George, and there might be other things that do. That’s all “love language” really means.

          1. Feral Humanist*

            (That having been said, everything in this letter screams ANXIETY to me, so I’m not sure this is actually the answer. I just thought this was an unnecessarily harsh response.)

          2. RussianInTexas*

            Up to which point the LW should be adjusting his and company’s way of recognition? How much handholding every person needs? We are talking about an adult here and not an elementary school student.
            He’s been employed for 9 years. He’s been reassured multiple times that he is not in danger of being fired. He’s been told everyone loves him there. What else can they possibly do?

  35. Underemployed Erin*

    I am a little bit of a George.

    George seems to have a strong sense of ownership and wants to be involved with what you are doing. The lighter workload is intentional to help him deal with his health issues. You can let him know that the lighter workload was to give him a little bit of downtime in his day to disengage from work, so the stress does not build up.

    If that lighter workload is stressing him out and making him think “They are giving me less work because they want to fire me,” then different talks are needed like the ones Alison mentioned.

    There was a TikTok about work personality types.

    One of them was a manager personality type who would always try to delegate their work to you even you are on the same level. Another was the person who gives 110% all the time, not because they want a promotion, but because they fear getting fired. A third one was just perfect in every way. A fourth one was the complete screw up where you constantly wonder “Why are you still here?”

  36. GlitterIsEverything*

    I wonder if there’s something in the work environment that’s feeding into George’s insecurities. From the sounds of it, they weren’t there at the beginning, and they’re getting worse.

    Is there a coworker who started, or started working more with him, about the time his insecurities showed up? Did a higher-up change how they were communicating with him? Was there a conversation or disciplinary action that took him by surprise, and now he’s concerned things aren’t being addressed in a timely manner, or when they’re small enough to rectify easily?

    It’s obviously possible that this is something entirely internal to George, or that there was something that happened on a personal level that is manifesting itself at work – neither of which are things OP can control. But usually people come into a job with insecurities that get better with a better work environment or better management. This time, we’ve got someone whose security is decreasing.

    Something else to consider is the possibility that George is in an abusive relationship. The symptoms of abuse will manifest differently in men than in women, and the complete erosion of his confidence can be one of them. I’m definitely no expert on how to handle the situation if this is the case, but I know there are posts here that give some great suggestions.

    1. BubbleTea*

      He may have been abducted by aliens, or had a head injury, or developed an allergy, or any of a million other possibilities, but given that he’s refused to access the EAP, there’s really nothing LW can do with any of these speculative scenarios.

      1. GlitterIsEverything*

        If the issue is a coworker, or a change in communication from management, or that he’s been blindsided by current management, those are all things that OP can address.

        The rest of it, EAP isn’t the only option at OP’s disposal.

  37. Happily Retired*

    I have to say that by now, the next time he asked if he were going to be fired, I would answer along the lines of, “No, I’ve told you that, over and over. Are you calling me a liar?” Said not with anger or an offended expression, but with a look of complete bafflement and concern.

    He’s so absorbed in his own anxiety that he is not seeing the effect of this behavior on others. And he needs to. His constant ruminating is interfering with his work relationships, which is affecting his ability to do a good job.

    Then follow up with a “here’s how we fire people; notice that we’re not doing any of this with you” talk, as described above, ask him if he has any questions about the process, and then ask him if he believes you.

    And then let him know that this endless need for reassurance is a problem, even though his actual work output isn’t, and that you will support him in whatever he needs to do to get this under control, including EAP as a start, because you do value him as an excellent employee, but that this behavior is exhausting for you and simply can’t continue.

    Maybe tell him – with a grin – that he can ask you this once a week, on Wednesdays at 2:30. And that’s it!

    He needs to get knocked out of his endless negative self-feedback loop. Good luck.

  38. jojo*

    Start an employee of the quarter pogram. Put George up first. A little plaque and a letter saying how he is number one in customer satis faction scores. Something he can touch saying how valuable he is. Might be a little moral boost for all employees . Everyone likes to be recognized. Putting it in writing gives them bragging rights.

  39. kiki*

    So I’m hearing that a lot of folks are telling George verbally that he’s doing great whenever they’re asked by George. I want to ask, though, if George is getting regular, thorough reviews with his manager? Does he have an avenue with his manager where he can raise his concerns and mistakes? Does his manager have enough insight into George’s work to adequately assess his work?

    A job where I had the worst anxiety was one where people told me every day that I was doing great, but none of them were actually in a position to adequately assess how I was doing. I really needed to hear my manager give specific feedback, critique, and advice. I didn’t need positive affirmation, I needed real mentorship and management. So many things slipped through the cracks because I didn’t know what I didn’t know and my manager didn’t realize I didn’t know them. Nobody blamed me for it when things went wrong, but it was deeply frustrating that 5 minutes with my manager to review my plan likely would have prevented issues that delayed the project by weeks.

    It sounds like this is a very small business, so that may not be something this company can provide, but it’s not a wild thing for George to need.

    1. KateM*

      This is definitely something I can relate to. And, inspired by previous comments, if people told me every day that I’m doing great but actually I knew had things slipping through cracks because I don’t know this or that, yes, I would absolutely think that those people are lying me – possibly because they are sorry for me being such an useless crap so not nefarious reasons. Or, well, the alternative is that they are so incompetent themselves that they can’t even understand that things are slipping. (How could my master’s supervisor suggest that I should go for PhD is still beyond me – I get that other people thought so based on how well I did in courses, but he should have known how very much over my head I was already with my master’s thesis.)
      Thankfully what I do get now is stuff like “this thing? that’s exactly what we need, try to find more of these”. But the minus side, it came yesterday after four hours of me just reading some documentation because my taskmaster (or how do you call the person who is responsible in finding stuff for you to do?) was in back-to-back calls and couldn’t make the time for that earlier. So I feel day-to-day that I’m mostly useless, but at least (unlike in previous project) I do manage to do something useful a couple times a week…

  40. Lozi*

    I wonder if your work has specific, measurable goals, or if it is the type of work that can feel nebulous, like you don’t know if you’ve accomplished what is expected (my field is kind of like that). I wonder if it’s possible to invite George to set some specific goals (perhaps with coaching) about what “success” in the job would look like. Obviously, these would be goals that he is capable of meeting, or perhaps a range that includes minor stretch goals that feel achievable. Then, invite him to reflect on the goals and how he did … let him give himself the reassurance, so that it doesn’t always have to come from you.
    Just an idea because I see myself in George … when the work is customer-focused, it’s hard to know when you’ve done enough. I can become a tad work-a-holic thinking I just need to keep doing “more” and it’s never enough, even though my bosses have said I do good work.

  41. Shiela*

    He’s rejecting the EAP because it feels like weakness to him. What about assigning him trainings as a development opportunity?

    For example, you can fund employee access to LinkedIn Learning and assign him a curriculum on imposter syndrome, stress management, and other soft skills you would like him to work on.

  42. Bowserkitty*

    My former colleague, and now former best friend, was consistently like this at work. Like every week for two years straight. It was exhausting to deal with but at least I wasn’t her boss.

    I hope everything works out.

  43. Delphine*

    This type and level of anxiety is irrational and self-perpetuating. Which is to say, you are not likely to have any luck getting through to him with assurances and reassurances. The problem isn’t what you do or don’t do. The problem is internal to George. You may just need to let him leave if he won’t even consider an EAP.

  44. TootsNYC*

    I know I’m late to add this comment, but I was swamped yesterday and didn’t have time to compose it.

    When people are anxious, it really doesn’t do any good to reassure them.

    i learned this as the parent of a daycare-age kid. My child was a regular at a drop-in, backup daycare center, and I saw this play out SO often.
    All the other kids were in a new place. They’d be nervous, hesitant; they’d ask mom or dad, “don’t leave.”
    If the parent was sympathetic and stayed to reassure them, that ramped up the child’s fears. After all, Mom had essentially said, “It’s reasonable for you to be afraid.”

    The parents who said, kindly, “You’ll be fine, look, it’ll be fun, go play with the toys,” and left? they were sending the message that there was nothing to be afraid of, and their kids trusted them. It took a bit to settle, but they had received the message.

    The same is true of these sorts of “am I good enough?” anxieties.

    I also learned this when my son was in treatment for OCD, and we were all coached on the tactic of “Talking Back to OCD.” Do not indulge irrational anxiety or irrational feelings; that only strengthens them. (in fact, some of those techniques, such as naming the anxiety as being a separate thing from the person–“that’s your anxiety speaking, George; you know better than that”–could be tactics that might be useful)

    Someone with our LW’s situation would be better off if they kindly dismissed, and perhaps even scoffed at bit at, these constant requests for validation and reassurance. At most, a brief explanation (“asking for information isn’t a criticism, bud”), but even that could be too much and might “feed the OCD monster.”

    That would probably benefit the anxiety-prone employee as well.

  45. rebelwithmouseyhair*

    This sounds very much like George has some kind of trauma over being fired. In The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, there’s no point being logical with this kind of person. I think I personally would tell him once and for all that I would no longer be taking that kind of question from him, that if there were ever any kind of problem, I would come to him myself to tell him, and apart from that, he would have to assume that the answer to “Will I get fired for this?” is a resounding No. I’d put a card in his drawer saying just that, for him to look at any time he might start wondering. I’d tell him it was upsetting for me to see that he doesn’t think I’m caring enough to fire one of my best team members, and that he had to stop it for my sake.
    It’s very much a George problem and while I’d be sympathetic, I’d also think that if he drains me too much it’s better for him to leave.

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