update: there’s nothing I can do about my nightmare workload … right?

Remember the letter-writer asking whether there was anything they could do about their nightmare workload? Here’s the update.

I wrote in about getting through a staffing crisis after both my coworkers quit right when one of my company’s two owners went on maternity leave. I wanted to make sure that my “this is awful but that’s what all the extra money is for” outlook wasn’t distracting me from anything else the remaining owner could potentially do to help.

My letter was posted in March but I wrote it in January, during what was definitely the worst few weeks of the entire stretch. The owner came back in early February, and I was unsure of how that would go — she can be very exacting, and previously most conversations related to my work went through my supervisor. Turns out it was great! Her number one priority was figuring out what she could to do help me out and what she could take off my plate. By the time my letter went up, things were already much, much better than they’d been in a long time.

The owners were grateful I’d kept things running significantly better than they’d hoped. That was great to hear but also concerning, particularly since at the same time, we were working on two transitions to streamline the business. My biggest concern was that between the “that wasn’t so bad (for us)” relief and the efficiency gains from the transitions, they’d decide maybe we were actually fine with the one new hire we made and there wasn’t any need for another. But when we sat down for a post-maternity-leave state of the union, I was clear that I was only happy if the hiring plan was unchanged, and our next new hire is starting in a couple of weeks.

As things stand now, my workload and stress level are significantly lower than they were even before everyone started quitting, which is great considering the multiple raises I’ve gotten. I can basically do no wrong in the owners’ eyes and they’re really invested in my happiness and my growth in the company. So in theory, when it comes to my self-imposed “quit if it’s not fixed by July” deadline, there should be nothing to worry about.

In practice, I don’t think the owners have learned any lessons about the importance of staff retention, and I’m really unhappy with how our first new hire (who’s now five months in) is being treated. I get all the credit for getting the company through this mess and endless grace for any balls I’ve dropped in the process. There’s no recognition of the fact that our new hire was a huge help and that I couldn’t have done this without her, or that she was a great sport about being hired into a complete mess of a situation, with only me to guide her when I barely had the time or the brainpower for it. She’s taken on so much and made my job so much easier, and the owners extend zero appreciation for that and make her miserable holding her to a standard that’s massively unfair given how haphazard her training has been. My old supervisor used to say she was shielding us from a lot, and I took it with a grain of salt, but now I get what she meant.

So that’s where I’m going to be spending my capital for now. Most of it is that I think my coworker deserves better, but it’s also because if she quits or gets fired, I’m going to quit rather than take on the extra work. I’m gathering my thoughts right now and planning to meet with the owners soon to make it clear that if history repeats, I’m not sticking around to bail them out. I guess we’ll see how that goes, but no matter what I should have a happy update later this year — either I’ll be able to report that they’ve righted the ship, or I’ll be out of there.

{ 40 comments… read them below }

  1. HonorBox*

    It is a kindness that you’re stepping into the role your previous manager held, related to shielding you from the owners, and doing so for the new hire. But sustainability is the key, and you shouldn’t have to continue to do so. You continue to have leverage and plenty of good will built with the owners. Not telling you something you don’t already know, but in that conversation you have with them, I think it is fair to point out to them that you all risk that new hire not staying around long-term because they’re held to a different standard and are underappreciated. Hopefully by you pointing that out very explicitly and also letting them know that you won’t be there to help if she quits, they can come to a better understanding of how they’re impacting her and find ways to make positive changes.

    1. Sloanicota*

      Yeah … if I’m understanding correctly, OP used to have a boss whose job was in part to shield employees from the insanity of the owners (thus allowing the owners to be overly demanding and negative ad naseum, because the boss absorbed it all). That boss, unsurprisingly, flamed out and left the job. Were they even doing half of your current workload in addition to that sheltering task? So OP is now doing the work of multiple people who used to work there *as well as* absorbing all the owner negativity to protect people below them – and the owners therefore can continue to go on doin’ what they’re doin’ because after all, it seems to be working great for them …

      1. Kes*

        Yes, OP is taking on a task that ended up burning out their old boss on top of their work. I get that OP likes this company and job and wants to see if they can make it work, and that’s totally fair, but I hope they take care that they don’t end up burning themself out just as their former boss did.

      2. fhqwhgads*

        I mean, I sort of think every boss’s job is to some extent shield their direct reports from the chaos from above? The manager gets whatever info instruction etc from higher ups, distills to what their reports needs to know, pass along in that form, in order to ensure their reports focus on what their actual responsibilities are. It’s the bosses’ jobs to deal with the big picture stuff – whether it’s cuz the owners suck or just because that’s higher level stuff that would be overwhelming to the people below. That’s the nature of the gig.

  2. Pastor Petty Labelle*

    My goodness OP. Yes you are letting the money blind you to the reality. They are paying you so much because they need you to keep juggling all the balls. You shouldn’t have had to make it clear to them that the hiring schedule needed to stay the same. They should have realized that your workload was unsustainable for on eperson.

    They treat you well because they need you to keep all the balls juggling. They don’t realize that other people are also juggling balls. You shouldn’t have to do a treat other employers better or I quit line.

    In other words, your company sucks and isn’t going to change.

      1. MigraineMonth*

        Yeah, they’ve identified the source of the main problems (failure to retain their employees, leading to too few people to do the work). They also know they currently have the capital and leverage to demand pretty massive changes, and they sound ready to walk if that doesn’t work. I don’t see any rose-colored glasses.

        OP, it sounds to me like the company needs to keep hiring, in addition to working on its retention problems. Even if the owners take your ultimatum seriously and worship the ground your trainee walks on, what if the trainee decides to move to Guam? Are you willing to go back to being the company’s sole support? (The answer should be no!) In my opinion, a company that will go under if it loses any one person isn’t a company, it’s a freelancing gig.

    1. Venus*

      It’s possible that they will change. OP hasn’t tried, and feels that there is a chance. I don’t think that OP is blind at all! They seem very aware of what is happening, and it’s okay to do a difficult job for a while if the compensation makes it worthwhile. I would say that OP was ignoring bad managers if they never planned on speaking up or leaving, but I’m very impressed with the update and view it as positive.

      1. Kyrielle*

        Yes, this. OP is going to go to bat for the changes needed for sustainability – that’s a great way to use the sort of capital OP has built up. And if they fail, and the result is the predicted loss of staff, OP is going to move on – very wise, because at that point, you’ve proved it’s a “your employer sucks, get out” situation.

        OP would have been justified calling it that earlier, but made the choice to ride it out for more money, which I think is reasonable for this OP based on what they’ve said. (I would have flamed out before the owner returned, in OP’s shoes, but OP isn’t asking what I’d need to have done.) And has now identified that if it’s *not* going to get better, they will leave. Also quite reasonable.

    2. Beth*

      I really don’t think OP is blind to reality. They know there’s been a problem here; they’re seeing some progress made; they continue to see symptoms of the underlying problem; they have a drop-dead point where, if they don’t feel secure that the problem has been solved, they’re out. In the meantime, they’re getting paid enough to justify giving their employer a chance. All of that sounds sensible and coherent to me.

      OP, the one caution I’d give is, the bar for “this is good enough” should be high! In my experience, when I’ve been in crunch-time “drop all the balls and hope none of them shatter” mode, it feels like a huge relief when my workload drops again…even if it’s still higher and more stressful than “normal” should be. When July comes, make sure you’re thinking about whether the status quo is really sustainable for you long term, not just whether it’s better than it’s been.

      1. ferrina*

        I’ll second that caution should be used. I have the feeling that by July, things will be good and OP will be much happier, but wait a year and the owners will be back to their old ways.

        OP, it’s okay if you decide not to leave in July (and you deserve to bask in what you earned!), but start working on an exit plan. You don’t want to wait until you’ve burned out before you leave. You know the owners didn’t learn anything, and you can’t protect someone from themself. You don’t need to run away right now, but I wouldn’t stay past 2 or 3 more years with this place. Start thinking about where you’d like to go next, maybe with plans of starting a low key job search next year?

        1. RVA Cat*

          This. You can’t care more about the business than the owners. If they can’t stay afloat without you, stop bailing out their sinking ship.

        2. MigraineMonth*

          This is so smart. Don’t wait until you’re burned out before starting the search, and don’t wait until the owners do something stupid enough to threaten your livelihood.

  3. Momma Bear*

    Please do advocate for her. Not only for your own sake (so she doesn’t quit) but for hers (so she’s not burned out and demoralized). You say she’s 5 months in – I think if things don’t vastly improve for her you have just a couple of months before she’s job hunting, if she’s not looking already. They’re happy you held it together, but are blind to bigger issues. This is better but still not great.

  4. Sloanicota*

    This is such a classic situation. OP you are being so thoughtful, I just want to make sure you know that *you can’t care about the company more than they do.* You can’t fix it enough for them to treat people well if they don’t want to, and don’t have appreciation for what it takes to work there. You can’t do that for them. It’s like being in a relationship where you try to do 250% of everything so the other person doesn’t even have to care about you, because you are caring! enough! for both of you! and … that’s actually just not a relationship. They may desperately need to learn that turnover is fatal to them and treating people well is one anecdote for that. You can’t learn it for them.

    1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      All of this. Definitely make it clear that you cannot and will not stick around through months of hell as the only trained staff person again, if you haven’t told them this already.

  5. BellyButton*

    OP, as everyone else is saying- please advocate for your employee. I would actually sit the owners down and have a heart to heart with them and let them know exactly what they are doing, how it is being perceived by you and the new hire. That if they do not stop what and give her the recognition she needs, she is likely to leave and it will put undue stress on you AGAIN. When they put her down or underplay her contributions call them out right then and there.

    Good luck.

    1. DyneinWalking*

      Op said that she would rather quit than take on the extra work – and she definitely should mention that to the owners, in very clear and direct languages.

      “[New employee] is not appreciated enough for the work she has done, especially considering the messy situation she was hired under. I wouldn’t be surprised if she was looking for other positions already, because many employers would treat her much better for the same quality of work. If she ends up leaving – whether she quits or gets fired – I am going to leave, too. You can either extend more respect and recognition for the work she is doing, or try to fill both our positions at once.”

      1. Quill*

        Also, make sure to mention that the onboarding process will be difficult for the next new hire too, because the job has NOT been organized and documented and there is NOT time for 1:1 knowledge transfer on top of everything else. They are not going to see rockstar performance from New Employee for quite some time, or any new person, and need to adjust their expectations accordingly.

  6. Ama*

    OP, I am glad for your sake that you are aware that the owners haven’t really learned anything about staff retention and have some benchmarks for getting out (although I’m sorry that this is the case). I made the mistake a couple years ago of thinking that because senior management listened and followed many of my recommendations on restructuring my department to ease my very overwhelming workload that they had finally “gotten it.” And then we lost one of the people in a position that was working half for my team and half for another team and suddenly everything that person was doing for my team was shifted back to us not temporarily, but permanently, because the other team’s lead was now the one screaming the loudest (she did need help but the solution should have been for the split role to become two roles, not for her to get the help while my team got nothing). It made me realize that senior management has a bad habit of playing whack-a-mole with staffing issues instead of developing any kind of long term strategic plan for growth. So I’m on my way out the door and my entire team will have turned over completely in less than a year.

  7. Dasein9 (he/him)*

    I’m glad things are going more smoothly for you, OP, but it looks like it could happen all over again at any time.

    Part of me is daydreaming about how you and New Hire could take all that money they’re throwing at you and go into business for yourselves.

  8. WellRed*

    Hmm. I’m glad this got better but like you say, concerned with the bigger picture. Please advocate for new hire but lean more toward fair treatment and pay etc. I see a lot of expectations around thanks and gratitude but while that’s nice and often important, it’s not the bottom line of what employees need. You can’t make people grateful or appreciative.

    1. Raida*

      I think LW means “setting expectations too high and therefore the new person cannot meet them” lack of appreciation rather than “oh gosh thanks so much for your work with week Susie” lack of appreciation.

      They won’t get a pay rise or a bonus if the management think they are underperforming.

    2. amoeba*

      I feel like fair treatment is exactly what new employee is missing (and LW is advocating for)!

  9. Mark This Confidential And Leave It Laying Around*

    I think it likely that the owners will forget that OP saved their business and throw her under the bus with the new hire if she pushes hard for change. They are reverting to the mean, pun intended. Job hunt sooner rather than later. And if New Hire leaves/is fired, quit immediately. Or history repeats.

  10. Michelle Smith*

    I always try to talk up my colleagues at any chance I get, particularly the quiet ones or ones that tend not to get recognition. I recognize that as a person with “senior” in my title, I have a bit of political capital I can spend to help bring other people up with me. I do this a lot in the moment. Example: “Thanks so much for your work on this project Michelle! The client really liked the layout and design.” Response: “You’re very welcome! Jane was really instrumental in helping me source the graphics and wordsmithing the content, so I want to thank her for all of her help making this project successful!” Then in performance reviews or meetings like you’re describing above, I reiterate specific examples that I’ve raised over the course of the year where the folks on my team have really come through.

    I think your plan to support your colleague in this way is not just good for you and your workload, but it’s also just the right thing to do.

    1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      I do the same thing, also as someone with “senior” in my title. Because of the nature of my role, I get A LOT more face time with management than my colleagues without “senior” titles. Which makes it extra important to be clear whenever I can about how most of our work product is collaborative with the team.

  11. Hrodvitnir*

    I get that this isn’t ideal, but I will say it was a balm for the soul to read any acknowledgement of the situation from the owner and a somewhat positive update!

    You sound like a great person, and I do echo everyone saying you should be looking for work elsewhere *while* advocating for your coworker.

    1. Jaydee*

      Right, so often in these situations you get an owner who is completely clueless or even willfully awful. So it’s nice to see an owner who gets a C- instead of an F or an all-out zero. But LW doesn’t need to grade on a curve. There are employers out there who can get a higher grade, and she’s well within her right to go find one.

  12. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

    I hope you either have had a nice, long vacation, or are taking one very soon! That kind of workload takes a lot out of you and I think it’s probably really important to recharge your batteries and bring more joy into your life.

  13. Raida*


    The newbie will appreciate your efforts, and the managers will either learn or they won’t.
    The best possible leverage is your value, and you’re using it the right way, to shield them from poor treatment and to attempt to change the approach by the managers.

    BUT – it’s tiring. Standing in the way of bad bosses and trying to manage up is really tiring. So save all the pay rise monies, and look for a new role. Support the newbie in finding a new role too, as their reference.

  14. Festively Dressed Earl*

    Thank you for the update, OP. Your first letter had me really concerned for your wellbeing! It’s great that the pressure has eased and that the owners appreciate you, but if they haven’t learned a lesson about valuing their employees I don’t think the situation will improve overall. Please put your wellbeing first, no matter what.

  15. DJ*

    Yes wise to talk to the owners again. I’m sure you’ll mention how great your new colleague has been and the challenges that person has had to work under!
    And yes seeing they are playing the blame game with this newbie time to look around for new work. And offer to act as a referee for newbie!

  16. Reader*

    – It’s great that the new person is so helpful. This seems like a good time to start a tradition of thank you notes or peer awards.
    – The writer seems to be stepping up to ownership levels of responsibility at a time when stock options may be on the table.

  17. Bill and Heather's Excellent Adventure*

    I agree your bosses haven’t learned their lesson about staff retention, because they’re treating poor New Hire as the scapegoat while lionising you and your every move. I hope you can make them see reason.

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