Crossover: Ask A(n Awkward) Manager

Sometimes Alison at Ask A Manager and I like to answer questions about workplace awkwardness together. It’s always fun to have an actual coworker for this strange, wonderful job, especially when that coworker is Alison.

Here is the current batch of questions, which is crossposted at her site today as well.

1. My boss keeps me on the phone for hours.

My whole company and I have been working from home since last March. I recently became the lead on a new project and am working with a boss I’ve known for years but this is my first time working directly under her, although it is not my first time leading a project.

She wants me to check in with her over the phone every few days, which I’d have no problem with if we could keep it short to go over what I’m working on and what I plan to do next. But unless I strategically plan calling her before scheduled meetings we have with other people, she’ll keep me on the line for hours. She wants to talk not only about our work, but also wants to narrate what she’s doing while she also tells me about everything in her life and every job she’s ever had. I try to redirect these conversations to “how can I help you with this right now” and “I’ll work on that, thank you for your help,” but she’s undeterred. One time this went on from 3pm until 7:30pm, until she finally told me she didn’t know how to hang up her phone.

I understand that she may sometimes want to work on something together, which would necessitate longer contact, but I can’t handle the hours-long conversations. I’m unproductive trying to keep up with my work, following her work, and listening to her stories. It’s exhausting. It doesn’t help that she often does this later in the afternoon and stretching into the evening, long after I normally log off for the day. How do I tell her that I’d rather keep our conversations shorter and more focused on work?

Jennifer: It sounds like your boss is very lonely and not functioning well in isolation. That’s awful, and very real for many people, but it’s not fair for her to pressure you to fill her social and emotional tank.

I have had several versions of this coworker, and in my experience, the professional, “we’re all adults here” conversation you hope to have, where you explain that you need to keep phone calls shorter and more focused on work from now on, is a necessary first step to remove her plausible deniability that what she is doing is normal and okay with you. But it’s only the first step; there is rarely only One Awkward Conversation To Rule Them All. Even if she agrees to be more conscious of time, next time she’s in the grip of whatever is making her “not know how to hang up her phone,” that professional, reasonable conversation you had is unlikely to translate into stronger impulse control in the moment.

You are going to have to run the meetings, interrupt her, and end the conversations. You have ample evidence that someone who will keep you on the line for four and a half hours (!!!!!!!!) will never do this on her own and will not take any hints.

Your strategy of scheduling calls with her right before other commitments so there is an external out point is a solid one, keep doing it. In addition, try this:

  • Schedule “other commitments” even if that means “you, alone, quietly working on things” so that you mentally have “Oh, sorry, that’s all the time I have, I blocked out the rest of the day to ______” in mind before you even pick up the phone.
  • Or, have you got a solid, trustworthy, team member or direct report who knows what’s up? Schedule or “schedule” update meetings with them right after your Boss calls. You’re not avoiding your boss, just, Englebert promised you a draft this afternoon and you need to check in with him.
  • Try to schedule a set weekly 30-minute status meeting (vs. “every few days”) at a time that is good for you (your workflow, your patience level, your known “out”).
  • Email your boss a very brief agenda before any status update call. “According to my list we should cover x, y, z on the call today. Sound good?” Do this even if she’s technically the one calling the meeting and should make the agenda. After each call, send a brief email with what the agreed next steps are. These are your anchors that show that you’re not being “difficult” if she reacts badly to limitations.
  • At the beginning of a call, set a timer for 25 minutes.
  • During the call, keep politely referring back to the agenda. She goes into tangent-land? “Interesting! Okay, next on my list is ____.”
  • Own “not being much of a phone person” as a personal quirk and let on when you become distracted. “Sorry, what were we talking about again? I lose track during long conversations.” “Well that’s everything from my list, any chance we can wrap this up?” “Can this wait? I confess, I’m fading.” It is okay if she gets the impression that you are annoyed, tuning out, bored, not really here for whatever this is – it’s the truth!
  • When the timer goes off? Set the timer for 5 more minutes, and interrupt her, if necessary. “I’m going to have to wrap this up in a minute. According to my list we’re good to go on x, y, and z.” After the ding, use zero question marks if you can possibly help it.
  • When the second timer goes off, if she’s not wrapping up on her own or covering anything useful for work, interrupt her again. Get. Off. The. Phone. Use whatever you need to get it done: Upcoming meeting you need to prepare for. Deadline you need to meet. Bathroom break. Vagueness is a-okay: “So sorry, I have to excuse myself, I’ll email you the details.” GO.

Hopefully she will adjust to having a predictable routine and appreciate being kept gently on task. If not, track how many work hours these phone calls are eating up, and throw your Project Lead weight behind it. How are these chats with her accounted for in the project’s time sheets and scheduled deliverables? “Brenda, we were on the phone for ‘status reports’ for 7 hours last week, and only 2 of those were billable. That is not sustainable given our deadlines. Can we agree to keep phone meetings to 30 minutes once a week unless there is an emergency?” “As project lead, I need to keep a tighter grip on the team’s time, including my own, so I’m not going to schedule calls longer than 30 minutes. Appreciate your help in keeping us all on track!” (Bestowing unearned praise for something you hope someone will do is an Ask A Manager special, I steal it all the time).

Alison: Yes, yes, yes! I second all this advice. Jennifer has covered the logistics of the how so well. What I’ll add is that you should give yourself mental permission for this. So often, I think people get into a mental mode where they feel like they can’t interrupt their boss or assert boundaries with their boss — because it would be rude or insubordinate or something in that neighborhood — and that if their boss wants to have 4.5-hour-long phone conversations (!), that must be the boss’s prerogative. And there are some bosses who would be outraged or deeply affronted if you tried to set this sort of boundary but, truly, those are outliers. Most managers are going to be okay with it. They might be a little surprised the first time, maybe even be a little hurt. But even if so, the vast majority of the time it will be fine. The vast majority of the time, it will not ruin the relationship or get you fired or ostracized. (If you have real cause to think it will, then the problems are much deeper, and likely unsalvageable.)

That assumes, of course, that you’re warm and matter-of-fact about it, and that you ensure you do cover the work-related stuff that needs to be covered. You’ll get the best outcome if you’re cheerfully efficient and then breezily bring the call to an end, using a tone that signals that of course it’s reasonable for you to need to move on to other things and of course your boss will see it that way too. (In fact, I think this technique is the cousin to what Jennifer said about bestowing unearned praise for something you hope someone will do. Often if you act as if of course everyone in the conversation will agree that Reasonable Thing X is reasonable, because it is so clearly obvious to all people of sense, you will find that they don’t object.)

2. I love my job but it makes me incredibly anxious.

I’m hoping you can help me, because I’m not quite sure where to go from here. I work at a non-profit doing policy analysis and legislative strategy. I really love what I do and am passionate about the work, tiring as it is. I also say specifically what my industry is to show that mistakes, even small ones, have a large impact on our work.

The problem is, my work environment has made me incredibly anxious. We’re a small organization (less than 15 employees including leadership), and my specific team is me and my boss, a senior staffer. Because we’re so small, my boss manages most of the rest of the employees, and doesn’t have a lot of leftover time between his management duties and the work that he himself has to do, making him really hard to reach on any given day.

A second layer to this, is that my boss is a micromanager. I don’t think he ever intended his management style to be this way (in that, he just really enjoys the work that we do, so he wants to be involved in every decision to maximize our reach), but it has led me to second guess myself constantly, and never want to take initiative because I’m nervous that it’s going to end up being incorrect. I would say that a lot of this is just my inherent need to people please, but when I try to push that aside and take initiative anyway (at things I’ve done before!) I’m reprimanded for it.

But the final layer is that since we’re such a small team, my boss needs to rely on me to get things done and manage small projects. I’m also in my mid-late 20s and would like to begin taking on some additional responsibilities, and learn how to lead/manage, but my anxiety over the potential of being wrong (and then having that confirmed) is overwhelming. For example, I want to throw up as I’m writing this, because I need to send an important email about an event next week ASAP, but a decision has to be made about the time of the event, and I’ve already called my boss once this morning and haven’t heard back, and I’m terrified of making the wrong decision and inconveniencing folks.

I really like my boss as a person, and he’s very good about making sure we’re using our benefits, etc, but I don’t know how to keep this up. I’m in therapy, and overall get good reviews (even as I’m corrected on a day-to-day basis), but I’m wondering if you have any suggestions.

Jennifer: I’m going to build off the previous advice for the Constant Contact boss. If your boss insists on having final say on anything that you do, he needs a structure. It doesn’t sound like he has an assistant managing his comms and calendar, and asking him to create a structure isn’t really going to get you anywhere except more confused about how you are supposed to simultaneously “just take initiative” and “wait for his say-so.” Ergo, you’re going to have to make a structured workflow for yourself and communications flow for both of you.

I’m going to use event planning as an example, even though your upcoming event will be over by the time you read this, and the overall method applies to any project.

Imagine you are 100% in charge of planning the next event your company hosts.

  • First step, grab a calendar and build a spreadsheet that lays out all the details: date, time, venue options, invitation list, graphics, speakers, a/v needs, catering, budget, notes, etc.
  • For each of these tasks, what’s the deadline? When must they be done in order to stay on schedule & budget? If there is no outside deadline, what is your deadline for staying sane and getting it all done?
  • Now take the actual deadlines and add a cushion of at least 1-3 days before it. That new date is your Boss Buffer Day, the deadline you tell your boss that you need a final decision by, the day you start chasing him down for one.
  • This is a confidential tool for you, to put all the details in one place so you don’t lose them but aren’t carrying them anxiously at all times, not a thing to share with your boss or coworkers. Do not reveal the secret of Boss Buffer Day to your actual boss!
  • As you move forward with the plan, for things where there are multiple options, prioritize them and try to narrow it down to the two best ones. Which option do you think is best, and why? If you really don’t know the answer or have an opinion, who else in the office is reliable with this topic?

Once you have your list, schedule, and secret buffer schedule, you can build emails to your boss like so:

“Hello, I’m ready to finalize [task].

Our best options are [A] and [B]. My recommendation is that we do [A] because of [reason].

Please let me know if I can move forward with [A] or if you would like another option by [Boss Buffer Day/Time] so we can stay on schedule, thank you.”

If, on the eve or early morning of Boss Buffer Day, you haven’t heard an answer, you can fashion a reminder like so:

“I need to lock in [Option A, recommended because ________, to stay on schedule and avoid [rush fees][losing the venue][presenter conflicts][some other consequence].

If I don’t hear different from you by [time], I’ll assume it’s a green light and get moving. Copying [Team Member] and [Team Member] on this so they can get going on [next task]. Thank you!”

I’m sure you already know how to send business emails, but here is why this specific way of breaking it down might work:

  • You are taking initiative, no air quotes.You are researching options, narrowing them down, building a timeline, and making informed recommendations. Limitations reduce anxiety.
  • You’re keeping your boss in the loop but reducing how much thought he has to devote to whatever this is by presenting concrete choices and timeframes.
  • Making recommendations and sharing your opinions is useful, even if he rejects them. It’s very easy to reply to emails like this with “Sounds good, let’s do it” or “Hold off – B is actually better” or tell you if he wants something entirely different, whereas, “What should we do about X?” takes up way more boss-brain.
  • You’re creating – and documenting – a path that lets you actually get things done.
  • If your boss gets testy that you are moving forward sometimes without his express go-ahead, it gives you a basis to ask, well, if you don’t answer your emails or phone even to say “Yes” and “No” to time-sensitive stuff, how exactly do you envision this working?

Alison: Yes! Making it really easy for him to give quick answers (yes or no, or A or B) will often vastly increase your chances of getting faster replies. Not always, but often. And “if I don’t hear from you by Thursday, I’ll plan to do X” can be highly effective. Just make sure you’re leaving a reasonable amount of time for him to reply. Don’t say at 9 am on Thursday that you’ll move forward if you haven’t heard from him by noon (unless it’s truly urgent and waiting is not an option, and in that case make sure you’re calling him too).

Also, if you don’t currently have a standing weekly meeting with him, try to arrange for one. It won’t help if you have something time-sensitive that needs to be answered before your next scheduled meeting, but you’ll be able to save up a lot of things for those conversations.

If none of that works, I would recommend having a big-picture conversation with him where you lay it out: “You’re really busy, so it’s often hard for me to reach you when I need decisions on time-sensitive things like X and Y. When I’ve tried to move them forward on my own, it’s turned out later that I made decisions you didn’t want me to make. But if I don’t do that and let things go undone until you have time in your schedule to meet, that would mean we’d miss opportunities like ____, end up paying rush fees, and (fill in other consequences here). Is there a different way to handle this stuff?”

But also, I think this is a very tough situation to be in with anxiety. Some people can just roll with this kind of work environment. They don’t let themselves get all that invested and they decide that if their boss doesn’t move things forward, well, that’s their boss’s choice. With that approach, you can sometimes work reasonably happily in a situation like this. But the combination of anxiety and a difficult-to-reach micromanager is a really hard one and can keep you on edge all the time. It’s okay to just decide this set-up is not for you.

One last random thought: if you want to learn to lead or manage, I’d be cautious about doing it in this environment! The lessons this guy will be teaching probably will not be the ones you want to learn.

3. How to be sick in a workplace that doesn’t allow it

The lockdowns have taken away some of the things I like best about my job. I (pronouns: she/her) find myself more anxious, stressed and sometimes depressed than usual. I’ve been using my self-care routines: eating well, exercise, yoga, meditation, online socializing and seeing a therapist. But I keep getting sick. Not really sick. “Just” colds and flu-like things—but ones bad enough that I’m working at about half-capacity most of the time. Doctors have checked me out and there seems to be nothing physically wrong with me—the best guess is that the stress, etc. is bringing my body down.

I’d like to be able to take time off to recover when I get sick. But even though the university I work for (yes, I’m in academia) has a reasonable sick leave policy, there’s no culture for actually taking it. The assumption is that unless you can’t physically do the thing, you should do the thing. Particularly while we’re working entirely online, there are very few occasions where you physically can’t do the thing. I’ve dragged myself through numerous online events from the couch. But I don’t want to be a martyr. I want the chance to recover when I’m unwell.

I’ve raised the issue with my manager (the head of department). His response seems to be that it’s up to each individual to figure out what they can manage and they should do just that—rather than taking official sick leave. He also noted that some of the work I do is “irreplaceable”—such as teaching. What this effectively amounts to is that if I can’t do the work one day, I just have to catch up the next day—which is hard when I’m already struggling with the workload. I think the idea of the unofficial sick leave system is that I would ask, for specific tasks, could someone else do this, citing reason: illness. But we’re a small department. I know that if I don’t do any work that immediately needs doing, I have to lay it on my colleagues, who are also having a tough time. It’s also very hard to find a specific task that I literally cannot do. I can do it. I’ll just stay sick longer or get sick again more quickly.

Am I being unreasonable in wanting to be able to call in sick when I’m sick? Is there a way to have a conversation with my manager that makes it clear that it’s a reasonable request? Or is there some way to mentally reconceptualize the situation so that the workload and sickness policy don’t feel stacked against me? How do freelancers manage these things?

(In case it’s relevant, I’m in a tenure-track position, but the review system isn’t cutthroat. The department and head are both supportive—so I don’t think raising the issue would be a problem per se. So far my teaching and admin performance haven’t suffered. Research has, but we’re anticipating research expectations will be adjusted, given the pandemic.)

P.S. I did very much take a lot from this and this.

Alison: I’m going to defer to Jennifer to talk about the academia-specific part of this, because academia is very much its own weird thing. But no, you are not being unreasonable in wanting to call in sick when you’re sick, and it’s awful that your workplace culture has made you question that.

I would take your manager at face value when he says that it’s up to each person to figure out what they can manage and they should do just that. Great, that is what you will do! When you need time off to recover from being sick, take that time. I would also take your official benefits package at face value as well; if it says you get X amount of sick time, assume you get X amount of sick time.

And then with your manager, when you call in sick I would proceed as if of course what you’re doing is reasonable. I wouldn’t have a big “look, I will probably need to use some sick days throughout the year” conversation with him … just like you also wouldn’t have a preemptive “I will probably need to use some of my salary throughout the year” conversation either. Going back to that “of course you’re reasonable” tactic we talked about with Constant Contact boss in letter #1, proceed as if of course you will occasionally use a sick day and of course that will be fine and normal. Because truly, both those things should be taken as obvious realities.

I know this can be hard to do when it feels like you’re being pressured not to, and especially when it means there will be a pile of work waiting for you when you get back. But you should not compromise your health for a job.

As for how freelancers handle this … well, it sucks. In practice freelancers don’t have sick pay or (usually) anyone to cover for them if they need time off. Ideally they handle that by creating enough of a monetary buffer for themselves so that it’s not a disaster if/when they need time off to be sick, but that can be easier said than done, especially when someone is just starting out. But I also think it’s interesting that you’re asking about freelancers when you aren’t one — because if you’re feeling like you’re that much on your own despite having a salaried job with a reasonable-on-paper sick leave policy, that is a sign of how sick the system you’re in is.

Jennifer, why is academia so messed up?

Jennifer: Alison, institutions of higher learning have figured out how to charge learners astronomical sums while paying much of their teaching workforce with an idea (“If you just keep working here, eventually you might be good enough to work here!”) instead of money and benefits.“Irreplaceable” teaching activities are carried out by highly-trained but increasingly disposable humans, who are the products of the same educational institutions that exploit them. Basically, take the common toxic non-profit mindset that treats workers who expect livable wages, regular raises, and sustainable working hours as if they’re being disloyal to “the mission,” but make it Snowpiercer.

Letter Writer, you’ve got more job security than some, but tenure track isn’t tenured, and the pressure to never actually be sick in academia is real at every level. My last semester as an adjunct, two years pre-pandemic, I was reprimanded for using my union-mandated sick day, singular, to go to urgent care, unable to breathe or stop coughing, because while I had created an online lesson plan to cover all planned material and notified students, I hadn’t notified the department 24 hours in advance or found a substitute myself. I was told that if I was “truly ill,” I should “of course” take time off to recover, but also, more missed days would not be paid.

So, I did what everybody who can’t afford to both eat and be sick does: I mixed as many cough suppressants, painkillers, and anti-inflammatories as I could legally be prescribed, coughed my way through the rest of the semester in a fog, turned in my final grades, promptly collapsed, and spent most of the summer recovering instead of working on my own projects.

Any workplace that experiences significant setbacks if just one employee is out for a few weeks to recover from an illness is revealing a management problem. What is their plan if someone gets COVID-19 or something else that makes them seriously ill? I mean, I know the real answer is “wing it + everyone else will obviously do even more work,” but that just proves the point: You taking some of your actual sick leave to recover from illness is not causing your workplace to be like this, and it’s grotesque that you are being pushed to second guess whether you’re even “allowed” to care for yourself.

Viruses, or whatever you’ve got going on, don’t care about your work ethic or passion levels, and I agree with Alison.You’ve asked, they’ve given you the “take whatever time you need” (text) “but don’t actually stop working” (subtext) message, so you’ll have to forcibly ignore the subtext, follow the written policies, and decide for yourself when a sick day means logging out of absolutely everything to actually rest.

I think my advice comes down to this: You probably know a lot about excelling at your job, spackling over all the cracks where your institution is stretched too thin is second nature by now. But what would your C+ effort look like, and can you do that for a while? (If your colleagues are as overloaded as you say, your students probably are too, so how long until they even notice that you’re pacing yourself?)

If you really can’t take significant time off to recover, then you’ve got to adjust your expectations. If you knew that you probably have about 20 good work hours in a given week until you’ve really kicked this thing, what’s the best use of those hours? Who do those working hours need to serve? Your students? Your own research, and tenure preparations? Your “service” work within the department, that you’re afraid will just get piled on others? You can’t be true to all three of these endeavors and to your health at the same time, so choose the most important and prioritize those. I vote “health,” followed by “students” (who really won’t get this time back). I think your department head voted for the students, too, when he said that your teaching was “irreplaceable,” so go with it. Make a list of the rock bottom things that need to happen each week to maintain your teaching and do your best with them.The rest of the work will either be so urgent that someone else must step in and do it, or it will still be there in a few months. Objections can be met with “[Chair] told me to really prioritize my students while I’m recovering from illness.”

This also means accepting that some of your work will not get done as it normally would, possibly ever. This is scary because it goes against the culture of constant productivity, but it is also necessary for the project of remaining alive. As long as you keep powering through out of fear that it will all just pile up more later, the department can pretend everything is fine while adding more to the pile. Clearly nobody you work with is ever going to reach in and take things off your plate. Even if any of them had management training of any kind (they don’t), they’re all too busy with their own plates. You must take things off your plate, or you’ll end up plowing through what’s put in front of you until you drop.

If you’re willing, I have a starting baby step for you:

Look at your syllabi. If your students wanted or needed to take their upcoming spring break completely off, could they still keep up with the work in your class? If the answer is no, adjust your assignments until the answer is yes. Then, tell your students that you plan to unplug over spring break and you hope that they will too. Set up an email autoresponder for the entirety of spring break, the most generic, “Hello, I’ll be responding to emails after (date), have a wonderful break.” Don’t tell people where else they can reach you for “urgent” matters, don’t qualify it or give reasons, and definitely don’t tell your colleagues you plan to do this in advance. This is an exercise in taking something that will never be given.

Over break, only you can decide how bad you want to actually rest vs. logging in to read emails that the senders have already been told will have to wait a little while, at least 75% of which can be answered with the words “It’s in the syllabus.”

As I formatted these and got them into WordPress, I noticed the questions all have something in common: They are about conscientious, dedicated employees who must “manage up” and work around systems, constraints, and personalities that are not really the Letter Writers’ responsibility to manage, and where a significant portion might be outside your ability to change. Alison and I can suggest tactics that will hopefully help you regain a sense of control and get you more of what you need from difficult situations. But I hope all of you take away the knowledge that people don’t suddenly forget all sense of time and phone manners, become micromanagers who can’t be pinned down, or fail to make sick leave policies transparent and actionable, because of anything you did or failed to do. Sometimes the win condition you get is “Welp, at least I can be sure I tried my best to make it work and kept it professional.” If that ends up being the case, please don’t turn it all into a story about how you failed somehow in situations that are so obviously failing you.

Comments are open. Please review the commenting guidelines and keep it kind, on-topic, and constructive.

56 thoughts on “Crossover: Ask A(n Awkward) Manager

  1. Hello! I just came here to recommend Dr Devon Price’s new book Laziness Does not Exist to all the LWs, and the academic one in particular. I think it will be very validating for most of the readers her and at Ask a Manager.

  2. Re: #1, I have had several versions of this boss/coworker and have had to get really, really good at interrupting. I hate to do it, but there is absolutely no alternative. Your choices are (a) listen to stories all day and get no work done, or (b) semi-politely talk over your boss.

    More scripts if you need them:

    “I don’t want to interrupt you…”

    “Not to cut you off…” [these two are my favorites, because you *are* actually doing those things]

    “I realize we’re getting a little off topic — could we circle back to Z?”

    “I just want to interject for a moment.”

    “I think I need to go soon. I just got a missed call and I think it might be A.”

    “Can we wrap up? I want to make sure I have the time to get something to eat before my meeting with B.”

    “Can we continue this tomorrow? I have a phone call to make at noon.”

    “I think I have all the information I need. I’ll call you later about C.”

    “I have to get off the phone in a minute.”

    “Before we start talking about D, I want to make sure I get your input on E…”

    1. Yes, scripts!

      Not a work context, but I have friends where we both tend to think of “one more thing” at the end of a call, & end up still chatting sort of by accident even after we’ve both said we ought to go. & sometimes it’s very useful just to bluntly & cheerfully wrap up with something like “OK, I’m gonna go now, talk to you soon, bye”. It works because that line goes along so quickly it doesn’t leave room for another topic to sneak in. But you do have to trust that it’s OK to deploy it.

      1. Yes on not leaving room for more topics! The best call-ending transition lines are the ones that sneak straight from “I’m interrupting” to “gotta go, bye!”

      2. This is my mother when she’s on the phone with me. I’ve gotten to the point where five minutes *before* I have to go, I say “I’ve got to go now” and then it’s “Okay I really have to go bye mom” and hang up. You’ve warned, time to bounce.

        1. It’s amazing that we have the same mother. Before I answer the phone with mine, I lock into my head how much time I want to give her. Then, at the end of that time, I state that I have a commitment whether the commitment is an actual work thing or an hour to myself with pajamas and Netflix.

  3. I have a boss a little like the first LW’s – I’ve honestly found he’s been very receptive when I’ve been blunt about being done with the conversation. He’d happily keep me on the line while he mutters to himself filling in a spreadsheet (which is… not fun) but if I say “hey, I don’t think me being on the phone here is helping much” he’s all “oh! right, yes, sorry, I’ll drop you a message if I need something else”. I do it semi-regularly, and he’s now started to catch himself when he’s going on for too long, and tell me to be free to go and do things I need to get done.

  4. For the LW who asked how Freelancers manage it –
    It’s essentially a constant exercise in carving out sick time – really any non-work time at all – for yourself. Nobody is there to give you a sick day so you have to arrange it yourself. Ditto vacations, even weekends.

    For me, what that looks like in practice is setting up do-not-disturb times where my phone doesn’t show me email.
    It means being honest with myself and any interested parties about what I can and can’t accommodate (“No sorry, I’m booked up” is equally true when you’re booked with client work and with getting some goddamn sleep).
    It also means shifting work hours – if a migraine stopped me working during my usual hours, I will have to make it up another time, which could be evenings or weekends. In Academia you probably already don’t even have any more of those to work through.
    As a freelancer I also don’t have the pressure to constantly! do! more! that academia imposes either.

    So uh… good luck?

    1. I’m also a freelancer (therapist, private practice) and I have to be strict with myself about my time off. It’s really tempting to sneak in another client on a weekend or evening, or when I’m sick or on vacation, because (a) money, and (b) I hate disappointing people. But I make myself adhere to regular working hours because I realize that I’m no good to clients when I can’t recharge, and all the money and warm client feelings in the world isn’t worth it to me if I can’t enjoy my life. With practice, it’s gotten a lot easier to say “Sorry, I’m off that week” or “I don’t check my email on weekends” to clients even when I know that I’m the sole person controlling my schedule, and I’ve figured out that clients don’t usually question it.

      I’ve also structured my budget around a certain number of cancellations, non-payments, and vacation/sick days. So when I do take time off, I don’t worry that I’m cutting into my “salary,” since I’ve already mentally “paid” for those days.

      1. That is an excellent way to frame time off!
        I’ve functionally taken holidays only by getting four weeks of work done in three weeks, and/or scheduling at least a little work time while travelling. Your way sounds better, I gotta adapt it for my things.

  5. My two favorite advice bloggers in one column? This is the best way to start the week!!

    I feel for all of these letter writers and feel that I’ve been them (or some version of them) in my own life. I think the most constructive through-line of all to this advice boils down to some kind of office version of the serenity prayer: figure out what you have the authority/capacity to change or do, focus and prioritize that work, and learn to let the rest go in some fashion. I am a hard-core people pleaser/overachiever who has had to work hard on the “letting go” piece of that equation – but it’s the best thing I ever did for myself and my own well-being.

    Do I still periodically over-extend myself in a desire to be a good employee/boss/leader/advocate/community partner/crusader for community wellness? 100% yes. But have I also learned to let go of a lot of things and give myself both room and grace to de-prioritize what I don’t have time/energy/capacity/other forms of bandwidth to do? Also 100% yes. Part of this comes down to having a wonderful boss who says “no one is perfect and we can’t do everything” and then demonstrates that she means that by not micromanaging, harping on things, or berating you for every missed task or dropped ball. But part of it also comes down to saying “even if I don’t do this thing perfectly (or at all) knowing that I’m not going to have a nervous breakdown is worth whatever the consequence is of that choice because my well-being and sanity are as important/more important than my work.” Feeling confident in that makes it much easier to push back when and where I need to, both inside and outside of my organization – and to encourage my team to do the same.

    Interestingly, one of the things I’ve learned is that often times when I de-prioritize something or it falls off the to-do list, I’M THE ONLY ONE WHO NOTICES. And if/when it does get noticed, its generally the kind of thing where I can go “My bad, I dropped the ball and I’ll take care of that ASAP.” And it’s 100% FINE. I’m not saying unlearning these behaviors isn’t hard – it is SO hard! But I think you will find that as you do it, you’ll get better at figuring out which column things go in (must do, really should do, nice to do, not doable) and having peace with those decisions and their consequences. I’m so glad I got better at this stuff before the pandemic hit because I shudder to think about where I’d be mentally now if I hadn’t. This has been the hardest year of my relatively high-stress career on so many levels, but I also know I’m coping better than a lot of my colleagues because I don’t expect perfection from myself – or others – and taking care of my health & sanity is giving me more bandwidth when working to handle the craziness coming at me day in and day out.

    I wish all the LW’s the best of luck and hope they extend the same amount of care, kindness and grace to themselves that I’d be willing to bet they extend to others. Happy Monday y’all!

  6. The academic comment gave me flashbacks to when I was a TA and couldn’t take time off when my mom had brain surgery because we didn’t get sick days and there was no one else to teach my sections. I taught while she was in surgery and then flew home for the weekend and back on Monday to teach some more.

    And we had a union!

    Academia is a dumpster fire re: time off. There is just NO plan for when people get sick or have emergencies. What disturbs me the most is that I didn’t think that was fucked up until years after I quit my PhD program.

    1. Out of curiosity, does anybody know if this is true in European universities too, or if it’s an American thing?

      1. Pretty sure it’s true in Australian universities. I remember weeks when there was no tutorial because the tutor was sick, or having to join another class for that session. It never occurred to me that there are no substitute teachers at university level!

        1. Here’s a horror story about Australian universities for you. I’m doing my PhD. Last year I got pregnant right as the pandemic started because I accurately surmised it would be a good time as nothing would happen for a while (I was right). Turns out pregnancy and me don’t get along and I nearly died at three months, had a termination, pregnancy over, escaped with my life and some light mental scarring. Pretty good reason for sick leave right? Apparently not. My uni got really shitty with me because I put in for sick leave retroactively for when I was in surgery (despite it technically being allowed). My supervisor had to step in and tell the admin department to back down. I have no more sick leave left for the rest of my candidature. Better hope I don’t get sick any time in the next few years.

        1. It might not happen in the universities, but my mum taught secondary and sixth form* before she retired, and I’m very familiar with the ethos of “you will work every hour of the day & night and you are allowed sick leave if you are dying (maybe)”.

          At one point, when her college was being inspected, she got four hours’ sleep a night for most of a term. We were all extremely worried about her. Her colleagues would of course have been under similar pressure.

          From what friends who are currently teaching tell me, it hasn’t changed at all in the last 15 years.

          I don’t have any new advice for LW3, but I do have lots of sympathy.

          *Here in the UK, secondary is 11-16 years old, with compulsory schooling ending at 16. Sixth form is the next two years, doing A-levels, which you take if you want to go on to uni.

      2. There usually are good policies regarding sick leave and hours and stuff in European universities. Working conditions (at least in France and Belgium) are aligned with general employee regulations (35-38 hours weeks, several weeks paid holidays per year, paid sick leave etc).

        This being said, the peer pressure to not take time off can be horrible. All my colleagues were working during weekends, usually at home but some of them came to the office on Saturdays and Sundays. I have witnessed the head of my department taking naps on the table in front of her between talks at an internal event because she had just arrived from the airport and hadn’t slept in 48 hrs – and that was apparently perfectly normal.

        And when I told my PhD supervisor I couldn’t sleep anymore and that is was becoming a health issue (after my therapist asked me to tell him), the reply I got was: when you wake up at 2 in the morning and can’t go back to sleep, get up, eat something and start working.

        I burnt out, and then I quit.

      3. I feel in Europe it depends on the university. I’ve taught at three different universities in Germany, two of which are very good with sick days (in one, my boss literally sent me home because I was looking a tad off on the day – I’d not been sick, but instead watching Trump become president that night, but I really appreciated her looking out for me). Then there’s the university I was working at when my grandpa was dying, and instead of offering any words of comfort, my supervisor told me “Well, you know you’ve got to teach the sessions you’ve missed some other time.”

  7. Generic comment for LW#3: I agree with the Captain and Allison, that if you have mandated sick days, use those sick days! Academia is terrible about time management and having a life, so if you’re lucky enough to actually have those benefits defined, please don’t feel guilty about using them.

    Specific suggestion: I ran into a similar situation with my online class recently, where I did not have enough time to prep a couple of lectures because #reasons. I found another instructor who had uploaded her entire semester’s worth of lectures to youtube, skimmed the relevant videos to check quality, and then sent them to my students to cover two of my lectures. It bought me some breathing room to recover from a rough week, and aside from fielding a few extra questions, the students seemed to learn just fine from it. Particularly right now, when it’s harder to tell if you’re physically with your students for every class period, that might be a way to buy back some time for yourself when you’re sick.

  8. Ugh, the academia question is way too familiar. In my case, I did stop doing the work that I couldn’t do in my allotted hours (I was hourly, and while I had been putting in routine overtime to actually cover the extra workload for a few years, I was told I had to stop the last year I was there because the department couldn’t afford the additional pay), it was a problem, and so I was put into some kind of probation status where I’d be fired if I didn’t start doing my 60 hours of work in 40 hours by the end of the period, which also entailed additional reporting so my work could be surveyed in detail and additional meetings/trainings that were putatively intended to help me manage my workload, which added even more stuff to my plate. (Even after cutting the staff that handled the work by more than half over 2 years, and despite covering my workload when I was working longer hours, HR and management refused to accept that I was simply being asked to do too much, that THAT was the problem rather than my behavior.)

    I didn’t even wind up with the benefit of getting fired so I could collect unemployment – I had a nervous breakdown as a result of all this, and they declared that I quit when I had to stop showing up entirely, a claim I didn’t have anything close to the wherewithal to fight at the time.

    My only real useful advice is to do whatever you can to make them fire you rather than claiming you quit if your attempts to stay functional and sane as suggested in the actual advice are declared unacceptable. The institutional side isn’t going to get better any time soon (side note – vote socialist if you want to see this change; Right-wing Dems like Biden are on the same side as Republicans when it comes to creating this problem, and they have no interest in solving it, whatever they may claim), so you’re stuck trying to navigate an inevitably dysfunctional system. Academia is a mess, especially at public universities, because its budget model and legal mandates so frequently demand the impossible after three decades of steady disinvestment across the country: the money necessary for the mandated mission isn’t there, and there’s no way for the institution to get it when all aspects of their income (public funding, tuition, licensing services and IP to private companies) are governed by the same legislatures that have been actively slashing that funding.

  9. Hi LW3! I (she/her) am also in academia, so I understand your struggle. I agree with the Captain’s suggestion to prioritize your health and your students. I know that some institutions have canceled Spring Breaks, though I hope yours isn’t one of them. If you do get a Spring Break, definitely consider the Captain’s advice. If you don’t, you might still want to try following the Captain’s advice about readjusting some of the assignments where you can. You deserve a break, and I’m sure the students could use one too.

    Have you talked to your colleagues about how they approach the admin/service side of things when they are sick? I’m guessing that they have some way to deal with it, even if it’s as simple as just dropping things for a while. From my experience, universities that evaluate research as part of tenure applications don’t weight the service/admin side of things as heavily as they do the research and teaching. Every institution is slightly different, though, so your mileage may vary. Still, if the understanding is that research expectations will be adjusted because of COVID, I imagine that taking a couple of brief health-related breaks from service/admin tasks will be okay.

    At the end of the day, the most important thing is your health. Period. I worked myself sick (literally – I ended up in the hospital) during my first three years of graduate school before I realized that my health was more important than anything else. I scaled things back after that and I still got my PhD. I found that I could still do great work, maybe even better work, if I prioritized my health.

    One last thing that you might find helpful – a blog post at Scientific American titled, “The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tenure-Track Faculty Life” by Radhika Nagpal.

  10. For Letter Writer #2:
    I also have a micro-manager / very busy boss in a small company. I hear ya — it is confusing!

    My favorite strategy is to compose emails and give him the opportunity to edit. So I am not asking him any specific questions about what time the event starts, etc. I just compose the email with all my best guesses and let him edit the entire thing. Also, he generally just sends it without editing, but he feels like he is in control, so that’s good for him, and I still get praised for showing initiative.

    My process is that I send him an email that the outgoing email is in my draft folder. He edits and presses send or replies to me to send. It is a little belittling, but he micromanages everyone, so I am trying not to take it personally. (I don’t care that he has access to my email, especially because it’s reciprocal. And only work-related. Alternatively, you can send him the composed draft.)

    I feel like my boss and I work well together, but it wouldn’t be for everyone. He isn’t going to change, so it’s me conforming to his style, not taking it personally, and/or moving on to a different workplace. We’ll see how it goes.

    Hope this helps~

  11. I hear you about academia – I’m currently crashed out on the sofa recovering from today’s teaching.
    My way of carving out a little more space – and please note that this might or might not be feasible, depending on your job security etc – is to treat every single administrative email (not students’!) not from my boss as ’if it’s important, they’ll mail me again.’ None of the inexplicable requests for information, or a summary of what I think of X or Y, or attendance at some seminar that’s not in my field gets a response until the second time they mail me (not staff mail: me). It has saved me a lot of time and aggravation, and the vast majority of requests are never repeated.

    1. This is a boss move.

      I wasn’t actively teaching when the pandemic hit, but I am still active in the system, so last March I went into the course design software and built a dummy course where I put all the online resources I’d ever created or curated in one place, organized by topic (Lighting, screenwriting, editing, etc.)

      I had a lot of experience with online instruction and designed a fair amount of “try this at home” exercises for production courses to accommodate students who were ill or needed to miss class, and I had also built a bunch of extremely low budget/low tech moviemaking materials and exercises for smartphone moviemaking and journalism. So I figured they might be useful to people trying to quickly adapt to asynchronous/online only teaching.

      I posted them as is, with clear guidelines: These were created for my past courses to meet specific learning objectives, and people should feel free to adapt them, update them, pull information from them, use them whole, in whatever manner they wished. I hoped they would be useful for people who were new to online teaching.

      I got back a flurry of complaints, 100% of them from white men over 50:

      “This is a PDF, I need you to send me a Word document so I can put my name on it.”
      “This says it’s for _________ course, but I teach _________. Can you edit it so it says it’s for my class?”
      “You left out _____ and _____ specific things I need for my class. When will you be updating?” Never?
      “This presentation called “iPhone cinematography” is only for the iPhone. Why didn’t you make one for Android?” (Ummmm, I definitely did make one that was like “This info is common to all cameras,” “This is how it works on iPhone,” “This is how it works on Android” but whatevs.)
      “I don’t agree with what you put on slide #47. I prefer ________.”
      “The information about facilities and equipment is from 2017, why don’t you have the most recent info in it?” Idk, maybe because it’s from a class I taught in 2017 and has the date “2017” right in the filename?
      “This hasn’t been updated to include the 2020 version of X, I can’t use these out of date materials.” So, don’t!

      I realize that they were stressed out and scared, but I don’t know that I’ve ever been so stressed out and scared that my first reaction to someone’s free help was to complain and immediately demand more.

      While it was tempting to answer all of these with “My free labor + your 5 minutes of extrapolation = learning!”, the moment I realized that I never, ever, ever, ever had to answer any of these emails if I didn’t want to, or do any free work for the institution ever again in this life was a good one. Thank you, Patreon subscribers!

      1. I love everything about this and second (third?) this approach. If people really need something that only you can provide (or that they really want from you) they will contact you again. But plenty of those requests are also “please do something for me because it is easier for me to ask you to do it than to spend 5 minutes figuring out how to do it myself.” Depending on the sender of those particular missives, I either never reply (they’ll figure it out if they need to and I don’t owe them my time or support), or will reply “I’m so, so sorry I won’t have time to help you with this. But I’m pretty sure I just googled it when I was figuring things out myself so hopefully you’ll be able to figure this out pretty easily/I don’t remember how I did that before, so sorry/I don’t have access to that file b/c of remote working.” Or something along those lines depending on the request. But I no longer feel obligated to respond to those requests and spend my time doing work on their behalf when they are clearly emailing me to “help” them because they are too lazy/unmotivated to do the work themselves.


    2. +1

      For in-person or phone call requests, I say that I will help them… tomorrow. And then I let them be in charge of remembering to contact me again or schedule time.

      Does great at weeding out those who could help themselves but just don’t want to.

  12. The thing about sick days on the tenure track, or anything else on the tenure track, is—everyone around you has been doing this job a long time and your problem has come up before and you will be expected to solve it in the locally accepted way. This probably involves at least a minimal show of acting tough—keep in mind that every prof mom in the US has had some version of “it’s too late to get a sub for my class and I have deadlines but my baby just threw up so I’m turning the car around, oh shit, now I’m throwing up, also my partner is away/doesn’t exist so I guess I’ll be up every two hours until this is over, oh god so much laundry, oh no, I also have an older child??” and just whatever you are actually doing try to seem like you are basically dead but holding it together.

    1. “The thing about sick days on the tenure track, or anything else on the tenure track, is—everyone around you has been doing this job a long time and your problem has come up before and you will be expected to solve it in the locally accepted way.

      Yes, and, this is why this is a management issue, because if the issue has come up before (it almost certainly has), but the “locally accepted” way is a secret, then you have a sick, vulnerable, overwhelmed person having to play guessing games. You will be expected to solve it in the “locally accepted” way but there might not be anyone who knows what that is or who remembers to tell you. And if it’s treated, de facto, like a brand new problem every time, and an individual issue about “maintaining appropriate work-life balance,” that’s what leads to the LW’s feeling like they’re not “allowed” to be sick. If using paid sick leave that is allocated on the books is a matter of asking exactly the right questions and guessing the answer correctly, does it really exist?

      1. Captain, what you’re saying is true. But as someone in the same job, I think the letter writer would be cannier to ask a mentor or colleague how things are done than to ask a wise advice columnist (or two!) how they ought to be done.

        1. You’ll get no argument about that from me, and I wasn’t arguing with any of that! The Letter Writer should ask around at their actual workplace and check in with whatever mentors they have. “How does this usually happen” is a most useful question.

          The problem is, I think they did ask people where they work, and got “Eh…????” as a response so far. And then…they asked me what I think. (Alison was a bonus due to timing). And one of the things I think is that having to play guessing games about what’s “culturally appropriate” vs. what’s written down about taking sick leave when you’re sick may be necessary, but it’s also bullshit. Perhaps acknowledging how and why it’s bullshit can help someone in the Letter Writer’s shoes take less of the guilt or worry on themselves.

          Respectfully, after 12 years in higher ed with the tenure track dangling in front of me like a delicious-yet-unobtainable carrot, listening to constant advice on how to get onto it, and how stay on it once I got there, and literally doing the exact same job as everyone at my institution who was on the tenure track (including curriculum design, and mentoring both new hires to the department and graduate students) I actually do know something about how university departments operate. It might be the one thing where my paper qualifications and my real ones actually line up.

      2. Also—check out the book Professor Mommy, which is largely about surviving and having a good career as a parent in academe. There’s a lot about what to do when you’re sick/can’t work.

  13. LW#2, I want to let you know that I really feel having a boss who is both a micromanager and yet very hard to get in touch with. Jennifer’s and Alison suggestions are awesome, I also wanted to add a bit from my own experience:

    Sometimes people like this are carrying their own anxiety. They ask you to “show initiative” but then rip your work apart because they are anxious about doing the right thing. Sometimes what these people need is for you to bring confidence and to convince them that your way is the right way. If your boss is like this, it is necessary for you to keep a very straight face and even demeanor, and to have a good line of reasoning ready in support of your proposal.

    My heart goes out to you, though. I’ve had two bosses like this and managing their emotions was exhausting. One boss stopped coming in, stopped answering emails, stopped answering his phone… for a year… and only got in touch to fire me in a fit of outrage that I did one particular project differently than he wanted it. The other busy micromanager only talks to one of my colleagues, who has much less insight into the work than I do but has the even, confident demeanor thing locked down.

    I hope this isn’t too discouraging, just wanting to let you know that sometimes, fixing the situation is beyond your control. J+A’s suggestions will show you how much is in your control and how much is just your boss being himself.

  14. And of course the trick dysfunctional workplaces play is convincing people to give up their end of the employment bargain, by persuading them that their labor is essential but their compensation for that labor is not.

    Most of us would notice a problem right away if our employers said, oh, we know that we agreed to pay you $X, but do you really have to draw that much of a paycheck, can’t you accept a little less to show you’re a team player and make sure the company’s bottom line is good? But because we have this cult of being a productive, 24/7 badass in the US, we’re trained to see it differently when the compensation that the employer is stealing back is our time.

    (And then there’s the Mission Negging that goes on in nonprofit cause work, where working for free or giving up money you earned back to the company is supposed to be a symbol of what a good person you are)

    1. “And of course the trick dysfunctional workplaces play is convincing people to give up their end of the employment bargain, by persuading them that their labor is essential but their compensation for that labor is not.”

      This is a perfect sentence.

  15. Lean management has so much to answer for. So many workplaces (including mine) operate on such a thin thread and have no flex, and because so many people are dilligent and hardworking and want to do well, they can’t/won’t push back on this. I’ve tried to push back, and it hasn’t worked, so I’m working on leaving instead. Fingers crossed my next workplace isn’t lean!

  16. I have a teammate I am expected to work closely with, who’s a bit like the boss in the first letter.
    Two things that helped me here are scheduling more frequent, shorter meetings, and saying things like “I don’t want to take too much of your time today,” “I know we’re both really busy,” or “I sense we’re both feeling a bit overwhelmed this week, let’s keep this short.” I try to frame it as a way of helping them. A few months in, the coworker has started to thank me for keeping our meetings on track.
    I also added a “good things” bit to the end of our agenda every time, where we thank and appreciate each other for things that have been helpful recently. This seems actually to make a difference – on a conscious or subconscious level, people look forward to saying and hearing nice things, so want to move the meeting along to the end. If we only have a minute left then they might not get to hear nice things about themself, and that would be sad! So we need to keep moving along!
    Truthfully I’m kind of astonished this works? But it’s been working for me.

  17. I really appreciate Alison’s response to #2,
    “But also, I think this is a very tough situation to be in with anxiety.
    . . . It’s okay to just decide this set-up is not for you.”

    This feels like a very kind and generous thing to say! I was in that situation and had to quit, so I felt really seen by this. Thank you.

  18. Academia is a harsh place, and if you don’t set up solid limits, you will be sucked dry. I say these as I enter my second decade (!) of working in academia. So, how do you take sick time? You take it.

    My triage: teaching is likely required/really hard to take time off from. BUT setting up a teaching swap with a fellow faculty member has been pretty normal every where I have taught. I’ve almost always been able to get courses covered if I needed to take time off. There is sometimes paperwork, but it can be done. You can also reach out to the library/writing center/ other support service and see if they would be willing to run a session for you (this worked REALLY well if there is an upcoming research paper). Also, you can cancel a class or two, especially if you do it in advance. I mean, run by your department head, but “I have a makeup assignment/online practice thing/ support service appointments” is NOT canceling class, and you can take the day off.

    Responding to student emails: set limits. Be transparent. I tell my students “I do not check email on weekends, but I will check first thing Monday morning (everything is due Monday at 11:59 PM).” I put my work hours (10-6 M-F) in my syllabus and my contact page and my email signature. I answer everything within my work hours. Even when I was very sick, I did answer emails once a day. 24 hours is a reasonable turn around time for weekdays at my college, but you can stretch that if you are transparent.

    Boss emails: yes, ok, answer these, withing working hours.

    Committee work: volunteer for NOTHING until you feel better. Magical phrases: “I can’t take that one right now.” “I’m stretched really thin right now, and can’t help.” “My turnaround on that will be at least (long period of time you might feel ok with as a deadline X3) on that. Will that work for you? If not, perhaps someone else could take point on this?”

    Scholarship: Table. MAYBE read some stuff in your field if it brings you joy.

    All the other stuff: Talks, trainings, professional development, student zoom plays, whatever? NOPE. No one cares.

    The secret is to just… make space and time. No one will give it to you. If you can be REALLY blunt with a trusted faculty member or your chair, talk about what you can cut safely; they will likely have a list.

  19. Letter writer 1-if you’re at the team lead stage the best thing you can do for your career is to take control of meetings. Always have an agenda. I don’t time my agendas per se but have a good feel at this point when we need to get on to the next topic. It may not happen at once, some people are determined to talk. But the more you take control of time the more likely they will grudgingly give in. This is great to practice in your project meetings, being confidently in charge.

  20. Nothing particularly relevant in my comment, except to say that I LOVE it when you and Alison do this. I was just thinking the other day that I really hoped you two would answer letters together again. And then my wish was granted. 🙂 Thank you!

  21. LW 1: I find the thing that’s worked best for me is to always have another “meeting” scheduled 30 minutes after the start of a call with a person who I know will never get off the phone. The important thing for me personally to feel comfortable doing this is to say it as soon as I can in the call. If I start the call with, “It’s great to talk with you, but just so you know, I have a hard stop at 4 for another meeting,” then it’s easier for me to start making “wrap it up” noises at 3:55.

    I am a person who has sat petrified on the line, unable to disentangle myself from hours-long calls in the past, so I know that it can be difficult, but with practice this has the way that works for me.

    Now I manage a customer support team, and some people who call us like to use their calls as free training or essentially getting us to do their jobs for them. I have told every single person in my department that whenever they feel a call veering into this territory (or when they get a call from a know offender) to pick the next half hour interval on the clock, and the next time they get a moment to talk, let the caller know that they have a meeting at that time, and will be happy to cover whatever can be covered on the phone before then, but the rest of the caller’s questions should be emailed to us, because they can’t go past this time. Some of the awesome, diligent folks on my team were like, “but I don’t actually have a meeting then” (they are very diligent), so I told them that as far as I’m concerned, taking a break and getting a coffee or tea officially counts as a “meeting,” after an exhausting client call.

    No one taught me how to be a manager, but I do read a lot of Alison’s work. : )

    1. I had a caller last month who was one of these, and because I felt for their situation, they managed to soak most of my week, between answering their (frequent!) calls, researching their issue, contacting other departments, and documenting their question for my boss. And it wasn’t even an issue our department had any capacity to address. Finally, on the fourth day, after I’d done everything I could think of to do and they still weren’t satisfied, I had to be very up-front with them about the (unusually (very!) high) load they were placing on me individually, and our department in general. It took several tries, but I finally pushed back hard enough to get them to back down and let go. It was a weird experience, and actually left me feeling oddly upset afterwards.

  22. If you are your own manager, by choice (freelance) or not (your boss abdicated responsibility) it helps to check in once a week with yourself. You’re on team you, so be nice to yourself – note what worked, where you’ve shown competence – and be a supportive manager who acknowledges that sometimes things don’t work out. Don’t blame yourself, don’t expect yourself to be superhuman, always operate on the basis that you are doing your best, and if your best isn’t good enough right now (you’re struggling with motivation/deadlines/fuck up otherwise) find out why and what you can do to fix/help with THAT. (And yes, sometimes the answer is ‘look for a new job’. More often it’s ‘pace yourself, take it easy for a bit, remind yourself of why you love your job, and rope in any help/support you can.’)

    1. THANK YOU for this comment! I’m a full time parent, and I love being at home with our kids, but I do really notice the lack of management. That “How are you doing? You handled X problem really well, Y looks tricky, let’s talk about options…” I sometimes end up doing this with my husband, but that’s not great because he’s not my manager in this.
      This self-management is a really great technique. I think I often end up downplaying the good and worrying too much, so hopefully this will help.

  23. My favorite prof had a system for essays that might help #3 with reducing workload. She would assign five essays to be submitted over the course of the semester, and the students only had to submit four of those essays. If you were super keen and submitted all five then your lowest mark would be dropped, but most people would skip one of the five when their other courses had a deadline that lined up. Students benefited from having more flexibility and she ended up with fewer essays to grade.

    In grad school I also had profs who would essentially delegate teaching parts of the curriculum to the students. For specific counseling methods or examples of like cultural grieving methods this was a really great way for students to explore and apply some of the stuff we’d been learning. There was a different prof who essentially had the students teach segments of the class each week for her and that didn’t go so well because we all just paid attention to our own presentations and those who presented in the first two weeks were at a huge disadvantage. The presentations at the end where we demonstrated and applied course teachings to an example were always the best. I hadn’t even realized it was also time for the profs to write exam questions and finish grading other assignments, but I think it would help with workload too.

  24. Letter #2 is eerily familiar to a job I recently left! All this advice is perfect but I wanted to add that no matter what your mission is, having this job at this org is not the only way you can make a difference! If you end up leaving over this, you will find other ways to take part in the work, even if it feels that way from inside a small nonprofit.

  25. For letter writer 3, another thing to consider here is that the best teaching you can do right now should take into account that our students are as stressed and burned out as we are (I am also an academic.) My students have been amazing in showing up and bringing their best, but this is hard! I have found that by simplifying my courses significantly we’ve all been able to get more out of our classes together. So maybe look at your syllabus: are there readings you could make optional in the second half of the course? Assignments that you could simplify or reduce the number of and still feel good about your students learning what they need to? What’s the core of the course that your students ideally need to learn, and what’s stuff you could put on their radar without requiring it?

    Could you use some of that extra time to give your students structured days to work on assignments for the class–like a day to do peer review and swap paper drafts? Or a day to write up a preliminary outline, or reverse outline a few readings? One post and two responses to others on a class forum? (These should not graded but posted for participation credit, or graded with a check for completion to keep your labor low, and the stakes low for your students!) Like one of the commenters said above, having an online assignment or some asynchronous work every now and then isn’t a failure on your part, it’s adaptability and, often in current pandemic contexts, solid, compassionate, and sensitive pedagogy for stressed out students in unreliable learning contexts.

  26. To see my two favorite advice columnists collaborating is a joy I did not know existed. Yay!

  27. Re #3: So, obviously this doesn’t automatically mean anything, but… that description of frequent cold/flu viscerally reminded me of a period I went through. I had a year or so where I kept getting sick, over and over again, for a year or so, and “nothing was wrong”. Then, one time I got sick and didn’t get better again. I eventually got diagnosed with CFS.

    (It’s a diagnosis of exclusion — there never was a lab result that meant “yup, that’s definitely a real, serious illness.” And…you know, I used to have this idea that modern medicine had basically everything figured out, except for the things you hear about as still needing more research like cancer. Nope, there are some things modern medicine has essentially no clue what to do with, *and* most people never hear about them. But what we do know: overdoing it makes it worse, rest is good.)

    I’m definitely hoping for LW’s sake that the series of colds has some other basis. But, count this as a vote for “take the sick time.”

  28. Excellent advice – mentally build ‘sick leave’ into your timetable and budget!…

    I’m one of those underpaid and ‘overworked’ academics (quotation marks because I work part-time, by choice, so I have time in my week to recover, although financially I lose out) and this year, on the one module of which I have full control, I have earmarked the last 2 weeks of the semester as ‘individual meetings week’ and ‘writing week’, and told my students upfront that this is a deliberate ‘cushion’ for us in case I or they get sick. I asked their feedback on this and they all sounded massively relieved.

    I really feel for you – the one time I had to take a sick day (when I was throwing up and hugging the toilet all the previous night) i was aware that I would need to reschedule every class I was missing that day. So, not really a sick day at all!… (Boo.)

    Best of luck to you and look after yourself – you are doing an amazing job and you don’t bed to be ‘perfect’ all the time.

  29. I’ve noticed over the years the truth of what I heard once about planning for disabled kids in classrooms: If you plan for accommodating disablity, everyone can benefit. And looks like the same is true for workplaces, too, allll the employees. Having real, humane plans for really everything, apparently, is just better.

    Also, these scenarios are a big big reason I have not been overjoyed about finishing my MSW. I would be fighting all the way, just to finish a degree in ways that don’t kill me, fighting the institution itself. I still fantasize about the application essay, in which they ask for a social problem that social workers could help solve, and I write about social workers organizing inside academia to change the eff out of it.

  30. For LW2, a few ideas from someone who has had to manage up a fair amount:

    I currently have a boss who tends to prioritize tasks associated with projects that are nearing their final deadline, but also to hang onto minor decisions she ought to delegate. (Though she would agree the 3 of us who report to her do excellent work, because it is her name on the bottom line she can’t seem to let go). As a result, projects in earlier stages constantly get hung up waiting for some minor sign-off or decision we need from her. By the time the ultimate project deadline nears, we are way behind and things are stressful for all.

    To manage that, I suggested that my counterparts and I needed a way to put our task-level priorities in front of her on a day-to-day basis, so she’s aware when small stuff is essential to progress on big stuff.

    We now use a shared spreadsheet on the network, with just a few columns:
    -who needs her to do the task
    -what project it is on
    -what task/approval is needed of her
    -wherein the urgency lies (e.g., this has to happen before that, that needs 90 days, the whole thing MUST be done by [date])

    We still have to direct her to the spreadsheet, but presenting urgent things to her at the task level instead of the project level has helped. I think she likes having a list of tasks she can do in small-ish chunks of time that nevertheless have big impact on our collective ability to meet deadlines.

    When the thing I need is a decision, I keep communications brief, bulletized, and as kit-like as possible:
    -we need to make this pivot by [date] because [consequence]
    -the options are:
    -the considerations/advantages of each option are:
    -I recommend [this] because [reason]
    -attached for your convenience is the stuff you might want to look at

    With another boss, I often had to send emails like that, but still had no answer when decision-time was nigh. On the day before the pivot had to be made, I’d send one last email (forwarding the one above), saying “Per my recommendation, I am going to do x tomorrow. Let me know if you have any concerns.” At that point, he had no call to complain that I went ahead with what I thought was best. And to be fair, he never did.

    Hope these ideas help someone.

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