ask a boss

‘Is My Job the Problem, or Is it Me?’

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Dear Boss,

How do you know if the problem at work is you and that you’re just going through a hard time in life, or if you’re in a toxic workplace that has exacerbated your mental-health issues?

I have been in my current position at a small nonprofit for a year and a half. As you can imagine, COVID has put a lot of emotional stress on me, like it has everyone. On top of that, about a month after starting this position, one of my immediate family members passed away under traumatic and unexpected circumstances. The death of this family member has completely changed my priorities in life, and I am investing a lot of time and energy outside of work hours to make a fairly significant career shift. So this would be a difficult and stressful period in my life regardless of my job.

On the other hand, my work is legitimately stressful. The nature of my job is very reactive and urgent, with emergencies popping up and requiring me to dedicate entire days of my schedule to addressing them, shifting everything else aside. I often feel like I’m behind or become overwhelmed, and sometimes I need to work overtime (I am exempt, so I don’t get paid for this) to make things more manageable. There are days when I don’t have time to eat lunch or even stop to drink enough water. I reach the weekends completely emotionally exhausted. I am stretched thin and overworked. And during COVID, I have been focusing a lot on public-health issues that involve working closely with trauma in a way that’s weighing on my heart. 

On top of that, my workplace has a culture of niceness and pretending everything is fine, which sometimes feels like borderline gaslighting. When I bring up issues around our work culture or the immense stress of my job, I am treated like I’m making things up or like I’m bad at time management and need to work on my skills. During weeks when we have many internal meetings, I sit through discussions where no one wants to address the elephant in the room. At the same time, my job does have really sweet and caring staff and a degree of flexibility of scheduling. It just seems like the problems are systemic and inherent to the nature of my role — and to working in a small understaffed nonprofit.

I have options. I am an amazing employee with glowing assessments and qualifications. I could find another job. But I am not sure if the problem is me or the job, and whether my job is contributing to my mental-health issues or vice versa.

It’s not you.

There are so many factors in play here that I can see why you’re having trouble sorting them all out, but there’s one factor on its own that tells you everything you need to know: When you bring up legitimate concerns about your job, your employer treats you like you’re making things up. That alone says something is rotten at the core of your job.

In theory, it could be true that you need to work on your time-management skills — but in practice, I doubt it. You’re at a small understaffed nonprofit, where overwhelming workloads are usually part of the package. That’s just the reality of small nonprofits, a fact widely recognized throughout the sector! That’s workable when everyone acknowledges it’s the case and talks honestly about what to prioritize and what to push back, but it’s utterly unworkable if the organization’s leadership won’t acknowledge it. You still could have bad time-management skills for all I know — some people do — but if your employer isn’t willing to talk about priorities and trade-offs, especially in a job that has frequent emergencies, they’re a far bigger part of the problem than you are, regardless.

Frankly, I suspect you don’t have bad time management skills, based on those glowing assessments. But let’s say you did. An effective manager — hell, even just a manager rooted in reality — would be looking at the hours you’re working, the number of emergencies you’re fielding, the projects you’re not getting to, and your stress level and would be talking to you about what’s going on. Even if your manager were certain the problem was on your side (based on, say, seeing other people handle an identical workload without difficulty), she would still be having conversations with you about your workload and how to prioritize tasks. And if you were just not well suited to the pace of work, she’d be having more serious conversations with you about your performance.

But none of that is happening, which says that your organization has its head in the sand. That’s bad enough on its own, but it’s even worse when you’re desperately trying to flag the problem and they’re not only refusing to discuss it but making you feel like the problem is you.

None of that is to discount the very real impact that outside stresses are probably having on you. You’ve got the strain of the pandemic plus the unexpected and traumatic death of a family member. And you’re in a job that involves working with trauma. Even without your employer’s management problems, you’d probably be having a hard time. Understandably so.

But your organization is making it so much harder on you than it needs to be, and I don’t think you’re wrong to feel that their “everything is fine” culture is gaslighting you. It’s gaslighting you into believing it’s your fault that you’re behind, exhausted, and working horrible hours, and it’s gaslighting you into questioning whether you can walk away in good faith or not. And all that is happening at a time when you’re already vulnerable.

That approach might not be intentional on their side — it often isn’t — but the end result is the same, and they bear responsibility for that. It’s not even to their advantage to make you feel this way, because while they might get more work out of employees in the short-term, it’s highly likely to lead to people being burned out and disengaged and eventually leaving. (And over time, if they get a reputation for that culture, it’ll make it hard for them to attract good people in the first place.)

So, no. It’s not you. It’s the job.

You deserve a job where you can say that you need help and be listened to. You deserve a job where your legitimate concerns about your role and your workload aren’t minimized and turned back around on you. You deserve a job where you can eat lunch and pause to drink water and not spend the weekend exhausted. This job isn’t it.

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.

‘Is My Job the Problem, or Is it Me?’