When lockdown began, my department initiated a daily online catch-up, usually lasting about half an hour, to see how everyone’s doing and for important work updates. Originally it was a nice way to check in, and though I don’t think a daily meeting is necessary, I really appreciate the effort to keep everyone connected.
The issue is that my manager, “Ron,” is not enjoying lockdown and is letting everyone know it. Our daily check-ins regularly feel like mini therapy sessions for him. He goes on at length about our government’s handling of the pandemic, our company’s response, the stress he’s under at work, how his two kids are struggling, the public’s inability to socially isolate, the bad weather, his wider political grumblings, his general bad mood and mental health, and so on. It’s incredibly draining and can leave me in a rut for the rest of the day. Often the rest of us will be having a fairly upbeat chat until Ron starts his piece, and you can literally see the life draining out of people’s faces.
These vents go on for some time, and while other people join the conversation, it’s very much Ron’s show. He’s an otherwise great and supportive boss, and the department is a close one with fewer lines drawn between senior and junior members of the team, so I understand how he might feel like he’s expressing his feelings to his friends — but still. What’s even more frustrating is that he regularly apologizes (in a “ha ha, oh well” manner) for venting but makes no effort to change, and at the end will emphasize how lucky we are to still have jobs or urge people to share one positive thing at the meeting so we can “end on a high note.” Of course, by this point no one’s in the mood to feel lucky and can’t think of anything happy to save their lives!
I really, really feel for him and totally sympathize with his frustrations, but I’m beginning to feel like an outlet for free therapy. I don’t feel like it helps to get regular buckets of negativity dumped on us like this, and I really don’t feel it’s appropriate for managers to vent so much to subordinates who can’t get out of listening to him. (Particularly about the stress from an increased workload as a manager — isn’t that part of being in management, and one of the reasons for an increased salary?) Surely it’s more appropriate for managers to vent to their peers or their own bosses than to pile on downward, to what is essentially a captive audience?
Am I just being heartless? I’m also unsure of how to handle this — while people are technically allowed to leave the check-ins early, consistently leaving early when everyone else is sticking around and while Ron is in mid-vent probably wouldn’t look too good — any advice?
You’re not being heartless.
Ron is clearly getting some relief by venting to your team, but in the process, he’s transferring his distress to the rest of you.
It’s stressful to listen to someone else vent, and that increases the more the person harps on the same topic. It wears you down and uses up emotional bandwidth that you need for other things. That’s even more true when the thing the person is venting about is something that you’re anxious about too. For a lot of people, exerting some control over when and how they think about a stressful topic is a key part of how they manage that stress. Having that control removed and being forced to dwell on the Very Bad Things we’re facing right now, especially if you’re not in the right mindset for it, is bad for your own mental health and ability to cope with the situation.
So Ron is asking for emotional labor from you that he doesn’t have the right to expect. And it’s made worse because he’s your boss, which — as you point out — means you’re a captive audience and probably don’t feel as comfortable asking him to cut it out as you would with a peer. As a manager, it’s his responsibility to be aware of that and not use his employees as an emotional dumping ground.
But what Ron should do and what he is doing are, of course, two different things. So what can you do?
One option is to try to change the ground rules of these meetings. You could say something at the start of the next one like, “I’m finding I’m burned out on talking about how bad things are right now! Would people be up for keeping today’s meeting pandemic-talk-free?” If that works, then at the next meeting after that one you could say, “I found it so helpful for my mental health that we didn’t get into the stress of current events at our last meeting! Would other people be up for keeping that as our default for a while?” (You could even check with co-workers ahead of time to see if they’d like to enthusiastically support this suggestion.)
Alternately, toward the end of one of the meetings, you could say, “We often end up spending these meetings talking about how bad things are in the world, and I find it pretty stressful! It’s easier for me to manage the stress of it all when I don’t focus on it at work, and I wondered if others would be up for staying more focused on work if we can.” In fact, when Ron asks people to share something positive to “end on a high note,” you could use that as your opening to explain why the meetings make that tough to do and note, “We spend so much time talking about how hard things are that I usually feel very down by the end of these meetings.”
Another option is to talk with Ron one-on-one and make these same points. He might be responsive to you explaining the impact it’s having on your mental health – and if he’s not, you could ask, “Would you mind if I duck out of the calls once the conversation goes in that direction?” You say he’s otherwise a great and supportive boss, so there’s a good chance he’ll be receptive to hearing how this is impacting you and either rein himself in or give you his blessing to bow out when you want to.
You could also consider whether it would make sense to suggest killing the daily meetings altogether! Daily is a lot, and it sounds like they’re not especially work-focused. You could point out that now that you’ve all been working from home for a while and are in more of a remote-work groove, they might not be necessary.
But none of this is heartless to raise. In fact, you’d be doing your similarly emotionally besieged co-workers a favor by being the person who speaks up and says, “This is too much.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.