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My Boss’s Stress Is Affecting Everyone Around Her

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Dear Boss,

I’m my manager’s only direct report, and I’m the first full-time person she’s managed. She’s always been bad at keeping her stress under wraps, but it’s gotten much worse with COVID. For the past month, in every one of our one-on-one meetings, she has conveyed a strong sense of being overwhelmed and stressed. For example, when I ask “How are you?” at the start of our weekly check-ins, she’ll respond with a deep sigh, shake her head, and say with a sarcastic tone, “Oh, I’m just great.” Lots of temple-rubbing in response to basic requests — that sort of thing. It makes me feel like I’m just one more burden that she has to deal with.

I’ve tried signaling that she’s coming across unprofessionally by saying things like “Wow, it sounds like you have a lot on your plate right now — I’d love to help out if there’s anything I could take on to make your life easier,” or “I realize you’re crazy busy right now, so I’m just going to do X unless I hear otherwise from you.” So far, she hasn’t offered to unload anything on to me, which I suspect is part of a larger issue with her complete inability to delegate (the subject of a whole other letter).

But she’s brought that same “I am barely holding it together, but don’t worry, I’m fine” energy to a couple of larger meetings recently, to the point that other staff members have commented to me that she looks like she’s really struggling. These employees often comment that our department must be swamped, when in reality I have loads of free time — she just won’t delegate! Obviously these are unusual, hard times and I want to be sympathetic. I don’t think she realizes that she’s coming across as unprofessional and overstressed. 

Is there anything I should say or do about this? She’s a first-time manager, and if I were in her shoes, I would want someone to give me the heads-up that I needed to be better about projecting stress. Her own manager is super–hands off and is likely unaware that this is going on. Given the organization’s hierarchy, I couldn’t reach out to him without wrecking my relationship with my manager. Should I just bite my tongue?

Well, the good news is that if your primary worry is how she’s coming across to others — as opposed to the impact on you — it’s not your problem to solve, since she’s your boss rather than the other way around. You don’t really have the standing to tell your boss that she’s coming across as unprofessional.

That said, depending on what your relationship with her is like, there might be things you can do, and if they’d be effective, it would probably be a kindness to do them. But that “if they’d be effective” caveat is important — if they wouldn’t be, you risk causing tension in the relationship, plus making her stress level that much worse (because now she has all the original stress plus the stress of hearing that she needs to hide it better).

One thing you can try, though, is just saying point-blank, “You seem really stressed out. I’m here to make your life easier — and it seems like you’re overburdened with work while I have plenty of room in my schedule to help. In fact, my preference would be to fill up my day more. Can we talk about some things we could move from your plate to mine to give you some breathing room and better fill up my time?”

Or, if your relationship allows you to speak more directly and you think it would be likely to help, you could relay the concern you’re hearing from others too. For example: “I know you’ve been pretty stressed lately and your workload is high. I feel awkward mentioning this, but I also feel like I should pass it along. After some meetings recently where you seemed visibly stressed out, other staff members have expressed concern to me — I think their worry is that you might be really swamped and struggling. I figured you’d want to know people are worrying about you … but, also, I’d like to help! I have room in my schedule to take on more and wonder if we could talk about things we could move from your plate to mine to balance out our workloads better.”

To be clear, this isn’t about telling your boss not to be stressed (which could understandably be very frustrating for a stressed-out person to hear). This is about the way she’s performing her stress, so visibly and in a manner that’s worrying others. Sometimes people genuinely don’t realize how they’re coming across in situations like this; they may have developed habits (like the temple-rubbing or the deep sighs) that they don’t realize are conveying something more serious than what they intend. If that’s the case, it can be useful to hear “Whoa, something really seems wrong here.” Alternately, though, if her stress has reached the point where she can’t control these pretty intense outer manifestations in response to even minor requests, it’s time for her to send up a cry for help to her own manager.

But I also want to talk about the lack of delegating. You said that’s a whole other letter, but I think it’s inextricably tied in with this one. Your manager has a solution to some of her stress problems sitting right next to her — you, a team member with time on your hands — and she’s not taking advantage of it.

That’s not uncommon. A lot of managers are really bad at delegating, especially new ones. Delegating is a skill; in most cases, you can’t just quickly pass work off to someone and expect it will be taken care of in the way you want. To delegate effectively, you need to invest real time in getting aligned on expectations, checking in along the way so there are opportunities to course-correct if needed before the work is finished, and giving feedback afterward. And a lot of managers are pretty terrible at thinking through everything they need to communicate about a project when they delegate it — which leads to frustration on both sides when the finished work doesn’t match what they’d envisioned in their heads. Plus, delegating well takes time — and your manager might feel it would be faster for her to just keep doing everything herself. (It really might be faster in the short run, but it’s definitely not faster in the long run.)

Moreover, by hoarding all the work for herself, your manager is potentially limiting your professional growth, not just her own — and that might be an effective angle to approach her from. Especially if you were originally given the impression that you’d be able to help with more than you are, you could say something like, “It’s important to me to completely fulfill my role here, which I originally understood was meant to include things like X and Y. If there’s something about my performance that’s making you hesitate to delegate those to me, could we talk about what your concerns are so I know what I need to focus on? But otherwise I’d really like to work on X and Y so that I can expand my skills in those areas. Can we talk about how to make that happen?”

If you try all this and nothing much changes … well, then you’ve done all you reasonably can do. At that point, it might be worth thinking about how long-term you really want to stay in your current role, since you’re both underutilized and stuck marinating in someone else’s stress. But some of the above might help.

Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.

My Boss’s Stress Is Affecting Everyone Around Her