Q: Around a month and a half ago, one of my mentors passed away unexpectedly. He was a former boss of mine, but also a friend, and the most supportive person in the world. He was one of the few people in my life who supported me 100%.
My current boss knows what I’m going through, but seems completely uninterested in supporting me through this very painful moment. He doesn’t say a word to me in person, and only talks to me through work chat to ask about upcoming tasks. I’ve told him what I’m dealing with, and he hasn’t given me much of a response aside from “I’m sorry, dude.” This is made a thousand times worse because we sit right next to each other. I’ve tried to spend as much time as possible working from home in order to avoid this anguishing office environment, but he chided me for “abusing work-from-home privileges.”
There’s a massive hole in my heart, and his complete neglect for my feelings is tearing me apart. I lost what was probably the best boss in the world, and instead of feeling supported in my office, I feel cold and isolated. Every single day in the office feels like a poisonous dagger in my heart. Nobody likes feeling ignored, but this feels so powerfully suffocating emotionally. What’s the best way to confront this? Do I need to find a new job, or is there some other way to ease all this anguish? — Anonymous
A: Before doing anything else: Schedule an appointment with a therapist. Neither your boss nor your newspaper columnist is a viable substitute for a mental health care professional. Exploring your distress with a trained guide could help you recalibrate in the wake of this death. PsychologyToday.com and other sites have therapist search tools that allow you to filter by factors like location, insurance and specialization. Select “grief.”
Few environments are less conducive to grieving than the average American office, devoid of privacy and irradiated with fluorescent lighting. We do not have good norms for grieving at work. In fact, since the practice of wearing mourning garb for prolonged periods fell out of favor around World War I, we have not really had any norms for grieving anywhere. Today, employees are lucky if we receive three paid days off for the death of an immediate family member, after which we are gently expected to return to work and make our colleagues uncomfortable for the foreseeable future. (Is it OK yet to instant message him office gossip? Or is he still upset that his sister died?) Grief is like an injury; workplaces should make more room for it. Of course, they should also offer good parental leave. It’s all mostly dreams at this point.
It can be a source of great distress — and stress — to not feel supported by your boss. But it sounds like you’re expecting a lot from this man, and resenting him for a reasonably professional reaction to the news that an employee’s former boss died several weeks ago. (Of course, while emotional support peaks in the immediate aftermath of an event and dwindles over time, grief is not necessarily linear.) Your high-key reaction to his low-key reaction may be making your boss apprehensive to get personal with you, creating a cycle of perpetual dissatisfaction for both.
The only person you should rely on to support you 100% is you. Your boss’s job is not to offer you unconditional comfort and encouragement; it’s to make sure you’re doing your job, which is to perform work tasks the way he expects. If you can’t, that’s on you to manage by, for instance, going to therapy or seeking out a grief support group. You cannot make your emotional labor a collaborative project with co-workers.
If you truly feel your workplace is cold to the degree that you can no longer handle being present, look for a new job. If you don’t want to leave, you should discuss with a therapist how to communicate with your boss before he decides independently it would be best for you to go.
Who’s afraid of the big bad board?
Q: I work for a tiny nonprofit. I love my job, my supervisor and the rest of our team, but I hate the very “engaged” board of trustees. They frequently interfere with my work, upset our partners and disregard the staff.
When I was hired two years ago, I made it clear to the board that I was interested in eventually pursuing a graduate degree. It looks like I’ll be doing that next fall, pending acceptance to a program, which I’ll find out in the spring. I’ve already given my supervisor a heads-up that I was sending in applications, and he was supportive. I’m nervous that if I let them know before I hear back from the programs and then don’t get in, they might end my contract anyway. If I wait too long to tell them, I’ll put my organization into a tough spot for hiring my replacement. Either way, they could make my last months with this organization miserable. What do I owe the board and my team? — Anonymous
A: This is the beauty of supervisors: They run interference with scary people in exchange for better titles and salaries than their subordinates. It’s easy to prioritize an underresourced workplace’s interests over your own, especially if you admire its purpose. Work, however, will not reciprocate selflessness. It will become accustomed to it. You owe only your agreed-upon terms of notice. (Maybe your contract requires two weeks in exchange for paying out unused vacation?) It was considerate to loop your supervisor in early. Since you two have a good relationship, keep him updated. He can worry about what, when and how to tell the board.
A little too much information
Q: I’m a 70-year-old man who is happy to still be employed and evolving. Almost all my co-workers are much younger than I. We have a great relationship. I enjoy (most of) their conversations and look forward to work each day.
Just one concern: Two women tell us each month when they are on their period or when it is approaching. I don’t know what to say or do when they tell me this. I never worked with other women who made their periods public.
What, if anything, should I say when my co-workers announce they’re on their period? — Anonymous
A: Be grateful you are not on your period and say nothing.