I am feeling stuck and hoping you can help me. I am a case manager working for a small organization with only 5 employees. Over the past couple of months, I have noticed that my boss, who is the founder and Executive Director, has been showing signs of burnout. He no longer seems passionate about the work and he keeps missing deadlines and forgetting to follow through on things. At first it was small stuff, but last week he missed the deadline on a major grant application that we were expecting to fund the majority of our program next year. I can see it starting to impact the organization and our clients. I have tried to pick up the slack, but now I’m putting in 12 hour days and I am not sure how much longer I can take it. I have great respect for my boss and without him the organization wouldn’t exist at all. I love this job. I worry that if I say something he will be insulted and things won’t be the same or, worse, I’ll be fired.
What should I do? Is there a way to make a change without risking my job? Should I just keep my mouth shut and hope he snaps out of it?
Working with colleagues who are experiencing compassion fatigue can take a big toll on our own workplace happiness. But, when the person in charge is no longer able to provide leadership due to burnout, the whole team will suffer immensely. I understand what pressure you must be under right now—feeling like you are having to compensate for work that is not getting done on top of your own responsibilities. I applaud you for everything you continue to do for your clients and for seeking help.
You’re right. Speaking up could affect your working relationship with your boss and there is always the chance that he will retaliate. But at this point, what’s the alternative?
If you do nothing, your boss may realize that he’s burnt out and correct the problem himself, but how long will that take? Will you and the rest of the staff still be standing at that point? What other important things will have been missed by then? Is it worth the risk to your clients to wait?
If you think that the consequences of continuing as is are greater than the risk of speaking up, then it’s time to talk to your boss.
My advice would be to schedule an appointment to meet with him privately. It may be tempting to gather the rest of the staff and talk to him “intervention” style, but it is best to avoid putting him in a situation where he could feel attacked and become defensive. Your goal should be to be honest about what’s going on, but also supportive and helpful. You are coming from a place of concern not just for the organization, but for his personal wellbeing.
Once you’ve made an appointment, decide what you are going to say and rehearse. Having a clear plan of action will give you more confidence and keep you from getting sidetracked. Write down exactly what you’ve seen and gather any evidence or records you have of the issue. You won’t necessarily bring these or give them to your boss, but it will help you make your discussion clear and concise. You will also be ready if you need to bring this issue to someone higher up.
Don’t be accusatory. This is the fastest route to defensiveness and nothing changing. You can approach the situation softly at first. Try: “I’ve noticed that you haven’t seemed like yourself lately, is everything ok?”. Chances are he already recognizes the problem, but either thinks he is handling it or he can’t figure a way out of it. Just having someone else notice could be the push needed to get help or take some time off.
If this approach doesn’t work, you should be direct about what you have seen over the past several months. Make sure be clear about the impact it is having on you, on your ability to do your job, and on the clients.
Offer to be part of the solution and help him figure out how to balance his workload or (even better) take a vacation. But be careful! While you should help figure out a solution, you have enough on your plate. Make sure that solution isn’t just you taking on more of his responsibilities. Are there tasks that could be outsourced to contractors or other employees? Is there enough money to hire additional staff? Could he work with the board of directors to have them donate some of their time to help with high-level tasks?
Don’t expect change to happen overnight, but don’t accept no change at all.
If he is not receptive or things don’t get better, it is time to get someone else involved. If there is a staff person who is in charge of human resources in the organization, you can go to them first to help you strategize next steps. But ultimately, this is an issue for your board of directors. Within your organization's policies, there should be a designated board member that employees can go to to report issues with the director. If not, contact the Board President or a board member that you are comfortable with. While the board may or may not decide to take any action, it is their responsibility to provide oversight of the Director.
Stay strong and be confident,
Do you have more advice for Sarah? Have you ever faced a similar circumstance in your organization? Share in the comments.
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