‘I’m Scared to Tell My Boss I’m Behind on Work and Need to Ask for Help’

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Dear Boss,

I’m awake at 2 a.m. because I’m ashamed to say I’m six months or more behind on my work.

I work in the accounting department of a service organization, keeping the books for multiple clients. Back in June, my department migrated to a new software that none of us had worked with. A consultant helped teach us the system, and things went okay the first month.

In July, when we started to reconcile bank statements, my regular work began to fall behind (as did many of my co-workers’). Entering data and reconciling June, July, and August was pretty much all I did for three months because the learning curve of the new system and new workflow processes slowed me down. I started to defer any work that didn’t have hard deadlines, and everyone’s job duties expanded as we took on tasks that another team previously did. Our overtime policy went from “no overtime at all” to “do all the overtime you can work.” On top of that, we changed to an open office environment, so people were interrupted much more often. There was a ton of change.

Since September, we’re no longer allowed to work overtime. I completed everything with a hard deadline, and I tried to catch up on other projects when I could. I did everything I know to do to maximize efficiency. My boss gave me additional responsibilities not assigned to most of my other co-workers because I’ve demonstrated that I’m good at what we do, and I’m conveniently located right next to her.

The company is growing at a phenomenal speed but we haven’t hired more people in months, and most of us have said we’re at max bandwidth and can’t take on more clients. Our boss alternates between A) sounding incredulous that we can’t complete all of our work in 40 hours, and B) recognizing that we need help, while blaming her boss for not letting her hire more people.

Meanwhile, my husband has not worked since April due to factors beyond his control. He was diagnosed with cancer in June. This made me a de facto single parent in some ways, and child care limited how much overtime I could work. The stress made me so forgetful that our bank account was overdrawn a couple times during scheduled bill payments. We’ve had numerous late-night trips to the cancer emergency department, my husband’s four hospitalizations have included major surgery, and my car was totaled in an accident. My boss has been amazingly understanding through all of this, but work continued to pile up while I was absent.

Yesterday, I finally had time to revisit the work I’ve ignored. I realized I hadn’t finished some work from August for at least one client. Most of my other clients are backed up at least to the end of December. I’m so ashamed. Their money could have been stolen in August and I wouldn’t have caught it until now. My clients are going to have to know that I’m just now correcting errors that happened in August, because I’ll need their help to resolve them.
I haven’t asked for help before now because everyone else at the office has been crazy-busy too, and I didn’t realize I was this far behind until yesterday. Even my boss is too swamped with extra work to review our work like she used to do. I’m in disbelief at how long I let this work sit. Time flew by. I feel like I need to speak up and ask for help, but I’m so ashamed. I don’t want to face admonishment. What should I do? How can I say it? 

Reading your letter, my first question was: Who in your position would not be behind on their work? Even leaving out the many stresses in your personal life, the changes at your company would be enough to make anyone fall behind. You’re being asked to do considerably more work than you used to, but without additional time or staff to get it done. You aren’t superhuman; the numbers here just don’t add up in any realistic way.

And on top of everything else, your husband has been seriously ill? Of course your work suffered. What you’re dealing with is really hard. You are not a bad person for letting this happen. You’ve been trying to juggle an unrealistic amount, in terms of both time and logistics but also in terms of emotional bandwidth. It’s too much! You fell down because you are human.

That said … next time, tell your boss what is and isn’t getting done so she can provide input on things like “let’s prioritize X over Y” and “let’s cut out Z entirely for now” — which will ease your stress and help you know what to focus on first. At the very least, if you’re honest and open with her, she’ll know what’s happening and what to say (and she’ll be able defend you) if clients get upset or if her own boss has questions. Not alerting your boss to what was happening was the real mistake here.

But it sounds like you may not have had the emotional bandwidth to even fully realize the extent of your backlog until you finally had a moment to catch your breath. You were juggling so much that something in the situation had to go, and that turned out to be your broader awareness of how much work was piling up.

Right now, you need to talk to your boss. You said you’re scared of admonishment. But what if you reframed this fear in your head so that admonishment doesn’t mean “you’re a terrible employee” (which it usually does not mean) but rather just what you already know — that yes, you messed up and you’ll have to talk about how to fix it, but then you can move forward?

When you talk to her, don’t pull any punches or make excuses; just lay it out bluntly. In fact, the blunter you are and the more you own what happened here, the better your conversation is likely to go. You could say something like this: “I need to talk to you about being really behind on my work. Some of the unfinished work is from August and December. I knew it was piling up partly because of the new software and our increased workload over the past six months, and partly because of the stress I’ve been under due to John’s illness, but I didn’t realize how far behind some work had gotten until this week, when I finally had time to review everything. I’m mortified, and I know I should have caught this and come to you sooner. I wanted to talk to you about it immediately, and I have a plan for how to get caught up.”

That last sentence is important because ideally you’ll have prepared at least the start of a plan for how to tackle the backlog, so you’re not just dumping a problem in your boss’s lap. Make sure your plan is realistic, though! Don’t propose working around the clock every day for the next month or anything else you can’t really commit to. It’s better to be brutally honest about what you can do and how long it will take than to over-promise. (Also, if you’re too overwhelmed to have a plan, that’s okay too. I’ve had overwhelmed employees come to me and say, “I don’t know where to even start cleaning this up,” and it was fine. We came up with a plan together.)

The thing is, all of us mess up at work sometimes, and your manager’s job is to make sure you understand what happened so that you can both ensure it doesn’t happen again. Bad managers can be punitive about that, but good managers won’t be; they just need to make sure that whatever happened is addressed and guarded against in the future. If your boss tells you it’s a problem that you didn’t catch the backlog earlier and tell her about it — well, that’s true, and you can agree with her, because if you could do it over differently, you would. Sometimes simply agreeing to criticism (“I know this is a huge problem, and I’m mortified”) can really defuse things — because this shows the person who’s criticizing you that you already get it. Your manager isn’t there to berate you, after all, so if you show her that you understand your mistake, you can both move on and fix the situation. (If your manager is the berating type, that’s a different story. But you said she’s been great about accommodating your needs during your husband’s health crisis, so I’m hopeful that she’s reasonable.)

You’re a good employee who got hit with a perfect storm of increased work pressures at the same time as a crisis at home. Explain it, take responsibility for it, work to fix it, and you will likely be okay. The more you can reframe this in your head as “yes, I let things slip during a time of great stress and need to fix it now, but people mess up, and I am human,” the better.

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.

‘I’m Scared to Tell My Boss I’m Behind on Work’