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Boss More Frantic Than Usual? Here's How to Cope

Sheena Daree Miller

woman looking at phone at table

We all get stressed out, but we don’t always recognize how our anxiety impacts our colleagues. Uncertain times only amplify this and sometimes even the best managers get worked up.

From nonsensical, typo-laden emails to confusing, unorganized meetings, there are a number of unproductive behaviors that occur a little too often when we’re working under pressure or learning to navigate uncharted waters. This article suggests ways to respond when you’re working for someone whose stress is impacting you and your collective work. 

Take care of yourself  

You’ve probably heard that taking care of yourself at work will make you a more productive employee. But the real reason you should take care of yourself isn’t because your organization will benefit—it’s because you will. 

When overwhelmed, your supervisor might become so hyper-focused on a deadline that they don’t consider whether you have the direction and resources required to properly contribute. Before you roll your eyes, as you prepare to ask yet again for clarification and guidance, take a moment to check in with yourself and make sure you aren’t unintentionally soaking up your manager’s stress

First, cover your basics. From making sure you’re getting ample rest, taking a moment to breathe, moving your body, to drinking enough water and eating a balanced diet, there are a number of simple steps you can take to beat exhaustion. Next, revisit what’s been asked of you and where this fits into your personal and professional goals. Consider journalling; in tense moments, self-reflection can be effective in helping you to balance your emotions, stay on track, center your values and remember why you’re committed to this work. 

Remember: you don’t have to do it all

You’re not the first to have a challenging boss. Whether your supervisor is a micromanager or someone who disappears when they’re needed most, don’t take it personally and don’t expect their behavior to change on its own. 

Familiarize yourself with the tried-and-true method of managing up. This entails deepening your understanding of your manager’s ideals, experiences and long-term aims. Starting with a conversation (or an email, if that makes more sense for you, just keep it brief), ask questions to figure out where, in their perspective, your work fits into the team’s mission. 

Utilize the information you gain to foresee how you can make valuable contributions. What can you do to save your organization time or funds? What could you do to better situate your colleagues to respond to issues you know will arise down the line? Taking steps to alleviate some of your boss’s stress could ultimately better your own situation. 

Be mindful, though, not to do your boss’s job for them. If it isn’t feasible to reduce your supervisor’s workload without burdening yourself, start preparing to speak up. 

Let your boss know this impacts you

Give your boss the benefit of the doubt, especially if you haven’t ever talked about the impact their stress has on you and your work. When reaching out to discuss how you’ve been impacted by their franticness, make sure you have some suggestions and thoughts on what would make things more manageable for you.

If your boss tends to be vague about deadlines and expectations, create a quick template to share when you receive your next assignment. It could be a simple table that makes the due date and deliverables clear; ask your boss if they’d be willing to fill it out, so that nothing slips between the cracks. Bottom line: try to always accompany your feedback with actionable solutions.

Be polite and thoughtful. Instead of, “It drives me crazy when you aren’t explicit about your expectations,” say, “To make sure we’re all on the same page, could you confirm when you need this by and the format you’d like me to follow?” Find a balance between being mindful of their time and asking for the support and resources you deserve. 

Show empathy. It can be tough to hear criticism, so be sure to let your supervisor know what they’re getting right. Finally, if you think your boss would be open to it, consider being totally transparent. Admit you know they’re going through a lot and that you’re starting to absorb some of that stress. Share strategies that have helped you overcome tough periods and ask, point-blank, what steps you two can both take to protect your physical and mental health.

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Sheena Daree Miller

Sheena Daree Miller is based in Brooklyn and divides her time between working in faculty development at a university and managing a black heritage center at a library. She is committed to promoting equity, with an emphasis on supporting graduating students and career changers.

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