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Last week, one of our developers approached the boss and asked for "some rest beginning January". We (boss, me, other members on the team) observed that he is stressed and wants to take a break from work, but the decision is not final yet. We discussed and identified a couple of points:

  1. He seems to be having a low self confidence. In many of his emails, his tone sounds like he is addressing me (I am the technical lead) like he is addressing a college professor or a CEO of some very big company.
  2. This is his first job after graduation. It has been around one year or so.
  3. He focuses on his mistakes, for example spelling errors when naming a class or writing documents (which I simply pointed out in a brief comment during reviews). It appears that these mistakes are haunting him.
  4. He is very hardworking and absolutely puts in his best to deliver. For example, he'd respond to emails some time 22:00 (which is not expected, he can simply reply the next day, like everybody else does). When I found out I need a display cable adapter but it is not working, he'd immediately rush to the nearest store and got a new one for me in 15 minutes.
  5. The project, as a whole, has not been a success. It was a complete disaster back 9 months ago before I stepped in, but it's getting a lot better and we're nearly ready to launch. During all this time he is assigned to this project.
  6. Since we are a small startup company, someone has to do the office maintenance work like changing water bottles for the drink machine, feeding new paper to the printer etc. He volunteered to do many of this type of work.
  7. The rest of the team is OK - we are energetic and motivated.

So that's the analysis. The question is, how can I help?

From both a business standpoint (we don't want to lose an employee, he certainly is helpful), and from a "human / colleague" standpoint (I hate treating people like they're machines, I care about them and I wish everyone is comfortable).

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    In his "one year or so" around, did he take days off? In other words, this "rest in January", is this in addition to the long and healthy vacation he took, or is it maybe his way of saying "dudes, what are you doing working all year, I need a vacation once in a while!" ? – nvoigt Dec 12 '16 at 9:09
  • @nvoigt our understanding is that he wants an unpaid leave without a specified period of time, which includes the possibility that he might not come back. – mandy Dec 12 '16 at 10:58
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First, if he has the vacation time to take, let him take it. If you can't let him take it, then try to assign him to less stressful tasks for a few weeks.

Next you need to address the perception he has of his performance. Good managers never let their employees get to this state because they make sure the employees know their contribution is valued all along. So what you have is not so much and employee problem as a management one.

When you need to point out a mistake, make a comment about something similar you did in the past. If minor mistakes are haunting him, he needs to know that everybody make them. It is actually good to do that with all new employees, so they get a feel for how you feel about mistakes in general. It is critical to do it for people with low self-confidence or who are new to the workplace.

For someone with this level of self confidence, it is clear that you might need to take extra steps. For instance talk about how certain mistakes made you improve your own performance to someone else but in his hearing. This way it isn't appearing to be be directed at him, but he starts to understand that people make mistakes, people admit to making mistakes and teh world didn't end when the mistakes were made.

If the project he has been associated with has turned around the way you say, then celebrate that publicly. Let people know you have gone from disaster to ready to launch and that it took all of your efforts to get there. Thank people for sticking through the hard parts of the project.

There is a phrase about praise in public and criticize in private. Most people tend to concentrate on the criticize part (although if you have been criticising in public, please stop immediately) and forget the praise part. People will be less stressed and work hard when they feel appreciated. Especially if you think someone is not confident, you need to bolster that confidence until they can internalize it. Tell him straight up what you feel about his contributions to the project.

When I was first in the workplace, my boss never gave any feedback, good or bad. I had not idea how I was doing and it was extremely stressful. I was not confident (as many people new to the workplace are not), so I assumed I wasn't doing well and tried harder and harder until I finally just quit and took another job. I didn't find out that he was happy with my performance until I quit. Don't be that kind of manager.

Talk to him about why he is answering emails at 11 pm. He should not be working those hours unless he is assigned to do critical production support that happens off hours.

For a project that has not shipped yet, working those hours leads to making mistakes, exhaustion (which means not only more mistakes but the work you do takes longer) and burnout. It is never good to work longer than 8 hour days for more than a couple of days. There is a lot of science behind that. So much that some companies turn off accesses after quitting time so people can't work in that non-productive way.

Many people push themselves to provide that level of service even when their managers do not and don't realize how much damage they are doing until they can't function at all. No one should burn out after only a year in the workplace unless they are working this way. It is a very bad habit to get into and you need to do this guy a favor and teach him a better way.

  • Thank you for pointing out it is a management problem. It makes me reflect upon my management strategy and (hopefully) avoid being called a bad supervisor one day! – mandy Dec 12 '16 at 18:40
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Thank you for posting this question and for wanting to help your employee. A few things you describe sound really familiar to my experiences with young ones entering the work field.

If he continues like this, he's likely to end up burning out (which is maybe already the case). He is giving his all in this job, and finally he decided he really needs a break. This is a red flag which indicates stress has already taken its toll.

He needs to know he is doing more than okay. Let him know you hope he'll work at your company for a long time, and that you value him highly. Let him know he can take it easy (since he's clearly hardworking and stressing about his mistakes). Let him know making mistakes doesn't matter at all, and that you're glad he makes mistakes because it's a part of his learning process.

Don't tell him he's doing unusual things like sending e-mails at 22pm, that can make him more insecure ('Oh, others noticed something and talked about it, I did something wrong'). And certainly, stop gossiping/rumors in the workplace if there are any.

A lot of young starters feel pressure and think the company has high expectations. The stress comes from 'not feeling enough/capable'. They need reassurance and a good atmosphere where they can trust people. They also still need to learn the social rules of the work environment - how they should behave and set clear boundaries for themselves. Right now your employee acts more like a slave, because he wants to do things right.

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    Emphasis on "stress has already taken its toll." - It's important to be as proactive as possible with a situation like this to avoid burnout. – silencedmessage Dec 12 '16 at 17:24
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Partial answer: A first necessary step is to inform the boss that this young colleague's opinion of himself is totally off the mark, that he is doing a much better job than he thinks he is doing, and that it would be a big mistake if he left the team. That gives everyone time to think about what to say to this developer himself.

  • Yes, the boss (and other members of the team) are aware. It's now that we're aware, what to say and what to do that's the problem. – mandy Dec 12 '16 at 8:44
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Has anyone sat down and spoken to him directly about how he feels about his job? It seems everything you listed is observation based and not fact based. Also, you say he is helpful. What exactly does that mean? It sounds Iike he may feel devalued. Calling someone "helpful" rather then talented or a valued employee certainly would make anyone feel disengaged and burnt out.

  • i'd say observation based + filtered through a huge negative filter. Which filters out anything positive and only leaves negative things through. I would interpret "helpful" as helpful - it helps that he is there. Maybe his filter takes "helpful" into something negative. – gnasher729 Dec 12 '16 at 7:08
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    This is more a comment than an answer. – Jan Doggen Dec 12 '16 at 10:02

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