Ask a Boss: My Office Is in Chaos, and I’m the One Holding It Together!

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Dear Boss,

I work in the executive office of a very busy national nonprofit. I used to be half of a “dream team” supporting the two top executives, along with “Anna.” Over the three years that Anna and I were a team producing excellent results, both of us were consistently given more responsibilities, at higher and higher levels. Things were excellent and all four of us felt that our work and our organization were thriving. 

Unfortunately, Anna unexpectedly moved because of a family crisis. She gave a few weeks’ notice, and left a manual of the work she was responsible for. We were sad to lose her, but optimistic about filling her spot with another high-capacity person. In the meantime, we’d use a temp agency to help manage the workload. I got a small promotion and a raise with the understanding that I’d supervise the temp and onboard the new hire. 

That was ten months ago. Since then, we’ve been through the hiring process three times with no luck. Bottom line, the CEO only wants an Anna clone. In the meantime, we’ve had a series of mostly disastrous temp workers. It’s unbelievable how awful they’ve been. One faked a workplace injury on her first day and sued us; Two refused to speak to me or do anything I asked because I was “young enough to be her daughter”; Three couldn’t use basic computer programs like Word; Four dropped all the outgoing mail into a bin under her desk and would no-show about once a week. Five was fine, but left one day and never came back. Six was excellent but quickly found a new job. Seven was okay but inconsistent, but she suffered an actual psychotic break in our office last week and is now hospitalized.

I loved my job. It energized and motivated me, and ten months ago I never dreamed of leaving. But now I dread going in and find it hard to get up in the morning.

As the months have dragged on and our expectations for the temps have lowered, I’ve been asked to take on more and more of Anna’s responsibilities without giving up any of mine. Everything is moving through our office at a snail’s pace because I’m constantly onboarding someone new, cleaning up mistakes, or fielding a crisis. Even so, I can’t do the amount or quality of work on my own that Anna and I did together. I feel like my professional reputation is suffering — even though people are verbally sympathetic, they’re still frustrated when I’m holding them up, and I can’t believe that doesn’t hurt the way they see me. I feel taken advantage of by the organization, which I hate, because previously I felt respected and valued. 

I’ve stopped saying yes when my bosses give me new things to handle. Now I talk through what I’d have to drop to take something on, and we prioritize together.

After these conversations they don’t give the de-prioritized responsibility to someone else — they either ostensibly take it on themselves, or leave it owner-less. Either way, this functionally means they just wait until a crisis comes, then ask me to drop everything to resolve it. Then, next time, it’s my job because I fixed it before.

How do I handle this professionally? I’m struggling to find a way out that doesn’t burn a bridge, leave the office in an extremely difficult spot, or keep me trapped in this. Also, I think I’m just angry and very sad that my fantastic job is now such a nightmare. What do I do?

Well, you get to leave if you want to.

That’s not necessarily the solution I’d go to first — there are other things you can try first — but it would probably be really good for your mental health to remember that you can walk away if you want to. Sometimes in this kind of situation — and especially in nonprofits, where people tend to feel personal loyalty toward their organization and its mission — people forget that they don’t have to stay and put up with whatever is thrown at them. And even if you don’t leave over this, remembering that you can may make things more bearable, and may change the way you’re dealing with the situation. In particular, it might make you firmer about what you need when you talk to your bosses.

Here’s something else to keep in the forefront of your mind: You probably have a great deal of leverage right now, maybe more than you realize, because you’re the person who’s keeping things together. If anything, the last ten months and the parade of incompetent temps have demonstrated exactly how crucial you are to the smooth functioning of your office right now. That means that if you put your foot down and make some reasonable demands, you’re in a good position to be taken seriously.

So talk to your bosses, and lay this all out for them. Say that what you’re doing now isn’t sustainable, and isn’t a situation you’re up for continuing on in. For example, you could say it this way: “I’ve been trying hard to hold things together in the ten months since Anna has been gone, but it’s not sustainable for me to keep juggling this many things and working at this pace. I’ve been asked to take on more and more of Anna’s work without giving up anything to make room for it, and I’m constantly training someone new, cleaning up mistakes, or fielding a crisis. When we’ve talked about how to prioritize projects, the items we take off my plate don’t end up with someone else, which means that eventually I end up needing to drop everything to deal with them anyway. Continuing on like this isn’t feasible for me. The last ten month have been exhausting, and I’m on the road to burnout if it continues. I loved my job before this vacancy opened up, but I want to be transparent with you that I don’t see myself staying here long-term if it continues much longer. At this point, I don’t think shuffling my workload around is the solution. I think we need to take swift action to hire someone — not a temp — into Anna’s position, even if that means raising the salary or otherwise changing whatever the obstacles have been in the past hiring rounds.”

If they give you some lip service about how they’re working on it, without offering any concrete specifics that indicate anything will be different than the previous times they were working on it, say this: “I appreciate that you’re working on it. But I also know that we’ve been working on it for ten months, and so I feel like I owe it to you to be honest that I won’t be able to do this much longer. If there’s nothing more you can do to push the process along, I understand — but I wanted to be up front with you about where I’m at.”

If you’re thinking that this sounds more demanding than you’d normally be with an employer, this is where leverage comes in. You’ve been the linchpin keeping things from completely falling apart for the last ten months. When you prove your value like that, you get to be up front like this. If you had this conversation after just a week of doing Anna’s work on top of your own, that would be way too prima-donna-ish. But it’s been ten months. You’re on solid ground in saying it now.

And keep in mind that all you’re really doing here is letting them know where you are, and what is and isn’t feasible for you, so that they have that highly relevant information as they decide what to do. That’s the kind of information that decent managers want from employees.

Of course, there’s a danger that this conversation will push them to hire quickly but poorly, just to get someone in there — which will still leave you shouldering too much of the work. So, if at all possible, push to be involved in the search process and to have a real say in who gets hired.

But if they mess this up — if they still don’t hire a permanent person or if they hire someone who’s not up to the job or if they otherwise don’t fix this — you can cut your losses and leave. I know it’s tough to walk away from a job that you used to love, but at this point, this isn’t that job anymore, as much as you might want it to be.

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Ask a Boss: My Office Is in Chaos & I’m Holding It Together!