ask a boss

‘My Stressful Job Is Giving Me Panic Attacks, But I Feel Guilty Leaving’

Photo: The Cut

Dear Boss,

I’ve been at my company eight years now, working my way up to the manager of my location, and have seriously loved it here. I am in my early 30s, and this is my first job with direct reports. Due to a variety of corporate-level decisions, my job has gotten harder to enjoy, as my team has become more and more unhappy with the retail side of the company (pay, hours, staffing, etc.). Because of that, my employees have been taking promotions that I have helped develop them for and supported. This has caused some severe staffing issues on my team, and due to the limited support from management and the company as a whole, my health has declined from the stress. I have needed to start taking anxiety medication to prevent panic attacks. I even looked at whether or not I qualify for medical leave. I thought I could work through it and come out the other side, but I don’t think I can. I am just so burned out. 

However, I feel so guilty about possibly leaving. With all of the staffing changes, if I left too, there’d be even less stability at my location, and the team that’s left would suffer (albeit temporarily). One employee is transferring from another location to mine specifically to work with me.  Another employee recently received an offer at another company with a slightly higher salary, but she elected to stay on my team because of how much she liked me as a manager and the “stress-free” environment I create (since she herself is going through some significant life changes and stresses).

I keep being told by friends and family that I don’t owe my team my health, and I need to look out for myself. But these are people I am emotionally invested in — I have sacrificed my time, energy, and health for these people, and the idea of leaving them is racking me with guilt. People are turning down better paying jobs to stay on my team! One of my friends says that it’s because of this guilt I need to leave more than anything, and that I’ve lost all semblance of work-life balance.

So, how do I do this? How do I convince myself I’m not as important to these people as I think I am? How do I tell them I am leaving, when/if I find a new job? Will the guilt go away? 

The guilt will go away.

Step back and really look at this: Your job is making you sick. You are having to medicate yourself to get through your days. You’ve seriously considered taking medical leave to find relief.

You get to leave.

Frankly, you could leave without guilt even if none of that were true! You could leave even if your only reason was “I feel like it,” because this is a job — a trade of your labor for money. It’s business! You get to walk away at any time, as soon as you decide it’s no longer serving your needs. And it’s definitely no longer serving your needs if it’s making you sick.

I don’t mean to discount the investment you feel in the people on your team. Those emotions are real, and if you’re a conscientious manager (and it sounds like you are), it’s natural to feel reluctant to do something that will disrupt your team.

But that disruption will be temporary. Your team will survive. It’s very, very normal for employees to move on, even managers, and people and businesses deal with it. They might feel panic at first, but they will quickly figure out how to move forward … maybe even more quickly than you’d like to imagine. It’s also possible that your leaving will even create opportunities for some of your team members to thrive in ways you can’t anticipate right now.

And truly, there’s almost never a “good” time to leave most jobs. There’s always something that will need to be reworked, or another key person who left recently, or a project that will struggle without you. If you wait for an easy time to go, you could be waiting years.

And yes, news of your departure might be harder on the people who have turned down other opportunities in order to work with you. But that kind of decision always comes with a risk that the manager you love could move on, because everyone does at some point! They may be disappointed, but you can’t sacrifice your own career decisions — or your health — because other people want to work for you. Obviously if you knew at the time that you were actively working to leave, it would have been a kindness to discreetly let them know to factor that into their plans — but it doesn’t sound like you had made your decision then. .

If that doesn’t convince you, look at what kind of example you’re modeling for your team. Would you want them to stay in jobs that were making them miserable and harming their health? Would you want them to stay out of guilt about leaving you? I’m guessing your answer is no, so you need to think about what you’re teaching them if you do that same thing. Show them it’s healthy to recognize when it’s time to move on, and show them that they don’t need to have any guilt about doing what’s right for themselves personally or professionally. That’s a really valuable lesson. (Imagine if you’d a previous manager had helped you internalize it!)

As for how to tell your team when the time comes: All you can do is be straightforward. Think back to times when managers you liked departed, and how they handled it. You’ll sit down with your team and say something like, “I’ve loved working with you all, but I’ve made the difficult decision that it’s time for me to move on. My last day will be (date). Plans around the transition are still being worked out, and I’ll share details as I get them.” Truly, that’s it! People may express disappointment or surprise, and that’s okay. If anyone tells you they wish you weren’t leaving, remember that that’s a pretty normal thing for friendly colleagues to say — it’s not a sign that you should question your decision or get pulled back in. Just respond, “I’ve loved working with you too, and I want to stay in touch.”

And here’s the good news: This type of guilt tends to go away really quickly once you’re gone. You’re going to move on to the next phase in your career, your staff will move on to theirs, and you’re going to look back and wonder why you stayed so long.

Take care of your health, and don’t feel guilty.

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 Job Started Giving Me Panic Attacks. How Do I Get Out?’