My Boss Is Trying to Kill Me

Last Updated May 3, 2010 8:00 AM EDT

Dear Evil HR Lady, My boss is killing me. She constantly takes on more and more for our department. We recently got impressive new titles, which elevated us to an exempt salary level (no more overtime), no raises, and a few more hours work per day for each of us. Stress is so high, I dream about work at night (when I can sleep at all), my hair is falling out, and I'm having digestive issues and sometimes, when things are really bad, chest pains. I wake up every weekday morning with a headache. I've been at this job for 14 years and can't go elsewhere because I won't be able to put in enough years for a decent retirement if I start over again somewhere else. I want to talk to HR, but I'm afraid my job and boss relationship will not go well after I do that. We have tried to talk to our manager about her taking on more and more work and are accused of wearing our "negativity hats." I have been on the team the longest and know for a fact that I am the lowest paid, although I've always had excellent reviews. I keep trying to tell myself I don't care about sloppy work and missed deadlines that are now unavoidable, but I DO care. I am very angry most of the time. If I talk to HR, what can be done to help me (and my coworkers) without making our boss mad and our lives even more difficult? Thank you. People like to think that HR is like the teacher. When there is a bully on the play ground, you run get the teacher and she solves everything. It doesn't work that way.

Your first step is to pick up the phone and call your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) if you have one. If your stress level is that high, you could use some help. EAPs operate confidentially. Even HR doesn't know who called, just that someone called. (If you're not sure this is true in your company, ask the EAP person when you call.)

The EAP people will help you with your stress and medical related problems (and probably direct you to a physician for a work-up). Now, let's tackle your boss problem.

You are not trapped there because of retirement. You are trapped there because you have made a decision that this is what you want to do. Honest. This is a choice you have made. It's time to re-evaluate that choice. Sit down and make a list of the pros and cons of staying, because while you may get a better retirement from staying, you also may be dead before retirement. You should update your resume and start looking for a new job. You don't know that this is the best place for your retirement. Plus, there's nothing to stop your company from determining that you can't handle the workload and terminating you anyway. Best to be prepared.

If all your co-workers are under the same stress, you can work together on this. The accusation of wearing your "negativity hats" can be difficult to overcome. But, first you need to take a look in the mirror and see if you are indeed wearing one.

You see, not all bosses are irrational and have unrealistic expectations. Negative people tend not to be able to accomplish as much as positive people, and if you expect to fail, you probably will fail. One other unpleasant thought: if it's true that you're the person with the longest tenure and the lowest salary, then (and I hate to say this) it's possible that you are not doing the best job and you weren't doing the best job before the work load increased. Ouch, I know. But, you need to think about it. Be open to the possibility that the person who needs to change is you.

Your boss is responsible for managing her department's workload. Let her, then.

  1. Write down a list of your current responsibilities/projects/expectations.
  2. Sit down with your boss and go over your list of responsibilities.
  3. State clearly and firmly that you cannot accomplish all of this in the time allotted.
  4. Ask her to prioritize your work load.
  5. Ask for an explanation of how she wants you to accomplish what she requires.
  6. Shut up and listen.
The last step is the most important one. You must shut and up and listen to what she has to say. Take notes. Don't interrupt. Let her tell you what she expects you to accomplish and how she expects you to do it. You may find out that you've been doing things that are unnecessary and neglecting things that are necessary.

Unfortunately, you may also find out that your boss is a complete jerk who just screams at you to get it all done. If that's the case, then go back to your list of pros and cons and decide if you really want to stay here. Most likely, the end result will be a prioritized workload for you.

If the end result is a list of tasks that there is no way on God's green earth you can accomplish, then you need to say so. Say it like this, "There is no way I can accomplish that in the time frame you are talking about. If this is because of a lack of skills, what can I do to increase my skill set?" And let her answer.

Unfortunately, you may find out that she believes you are not capable of doing the work but that others are. If all of your co-workers are experiencing the same problems and you all go to her, she may see the light. If none of this helps, then you can go to HR for advice on transferring out of the department and obtaining better skills. But they aren't going to rush in and solve the problem for you. You need to tackle that one yourself.