My cow-orker is missing . . . her brain. (long)

Background: I work for a newsletter publisher. We publish about thirty different newsletters with relatively small circulations. I’m one of three people whose job is to sort the mail by the person or publication it’s directed to. Then, twice a week (Monday and Thursday), we go through the mail for each publication, get the checks ready for deposit and make sure all the new orders, payments, renewals and cancellations are entered in our database. We also handle any customer service issues that come in through the mail. It’s an easy job, overall. One of the people I work with has three kids and a live-in-boyfriend, had her first kid when she was sixteen and still finished high school and put herself through college. She’s smart as a whip, a hard worker and a smart person, and I really admire her. The other cow-orker, ehhh . . . not so much. She’s very friendly and nice, but she’s slow to pick up on things - any new skill we have to learn has to be explained to her in very simple language, several times - and sometimes I just get the sense that her synapses aren’t quite working right; her brain just doesn’t make connections very well. Nonetheless, like I said, it’s an easy job and we’ve always gotten along fine. Until two or three weeks ago, when she suddenly morphed into Total Airhead. This is a summary of some of the main points:

Smart Coworker was out sick on Monday, so Airhead and I were sorting the mail. Each publication has its own box, and the postage-paid business reply envelopes we send out with renewal notices, invoices, etc. are color-coded so that when they come back we know which publication they’re meant for and can quickly sort them out. Airhead is usually very fast at this, but that day she seemed to lose track of which publication went where. “That’s odd,” I thought, “Maybe she had a bit too much to drink last night.” She seemed a little out of it all day, but as I’ve occasionally mistaken Wednesday for Thursday myself, I didn’t put any stock in it. Until she didn’t come in to work the next day, without calling. I said something to Smart Coworker about her odd behavior the day before, and Smart Coworker told me, “She’s done this before. When did you start working here?”
“Last August, around the 17th, I think.”
“Uh-huh, she did the same thing last year around this time. She didn’t show up for work, she was acting really weird, she wouldn’t tell us what was going on. Finally, Superisor pulled her into her office, they had a meeting, and she got a week off for medical reasons. The girl who worked here before you kept trying to find out what was going on - she was really nosy - but we never found out. Then, suddenly, Airhead was back to normal, and she’s been fine until now.”
When Airhead finally came in, she claimed that she hadn’t heard her alarm go off. I have to say, I’ve never seen a worse liar.

At the same time, she suddenly started taking long and frequent cigarette breaks, and spending a lot of time staring off into the distance. She had been driving me nuts with her constant talk, but now she hardly speaks out loud, though I do hear her muttering quietly to herself.

A lot of the mail we get doesn’t come back in the business-reply envelopes, so those have to be opened and sorted through seperately. We split the “look-ups,” and it might take half an hour if there’s a LOT of mail. Last week, it took Airhead nearly an hour to finish her lookups, even after I’d finished and taken half of what she had left. She got a new calculator last week, too. She asked me twice to show her how to put the paper in.
"You just slip it in through the slot in the back . . . "
“Wait, what? I don’t understand.”
“The little slot in the back of the calculator. Just like your old one.”
“I don’t get it. Can you show me?”
So I showed her. “You slip the paper in here, see? Just put it in as far as it’ll go, then press the FEED button, see? And it comes right through.”
A minute later, it was the same thing. God knows why she’d taken the paper out, or what part of “Put in in the slot, press the button,” she didn’t understand.
"You put the paper in the slot . . . " I began again.
“No, here, can you do it for me?” she held out the calculator and roll of paper, pleadingly.
“Why don’t you do it, and I’ll tell you how.”
So I talked and pointed and she did it, almost giving up in despair before the calculator grabbed the paper and fed it through.

As I said, we publish about thirty newsletters, and we split the work up fairly evenly. The same day that she had trouble with her new calculator, Airhead managed to work through a grand total of two newsletters by the end of the day. Smart Coworker and I did the rest. Our supervisor had to re-total all her checks, though, because she’d screwed them up.

Last Thursday and Friday she wasn’t in because she had jury duty, and thank Og it seemed to’ve done her some good. She was almost back to normal come Monday. Then, Tuesday, she didn’t show up again. Our supervisor had a long talk with her in her (the supervisor’s) office, while Smart Coworker and I complained about her and said, “I don’t know what Supervisor is saying to her, but I hope it does some good.” It didn’t. Yesterday, she pulled my thinking-Wednesday-is-Thursday stunt and worked through the mail for two newsletters before Smart Coworker saw what she was doing and corrected her. Today, oh today, oh, oh, oh . . .

Our supervisor is out sick. She’s having back surgery at the end of next week, so she’ll be out for at least two months, which creates a certain urgency to making sure Airhead is at least functional by the time it’s just the three of us. Today Airhead failed entirely to help sort out the mail. That was fine with me, though; there wasn’t much and it was certainly faster for Smart Coworker and I to do it ourselves. She and I got to work on the newsletters. This afternoon the shit hit the fan.
She hadn’t. even. started working on a newsletter. The mail that came in today for the work she’d (accidently) done yesterday was still in the boxes. She finally picked up one of them along with (apparently) another newsletter’s mail. By the time Smart Coworker and I had finished everything except for the two newsletters she’d done yesterday, plus one other newsletter she does every week, she hadn’t finished a single thing. Smart Coworker and I agreed that we were done picking up her slack. Then, she said one of the newsletters she’d done yesterday was done.
Smart Coworker: “These are the checks you did yesterday. Where are the checks from today?”
A: “I don’t know. There weren’t any checks.”
SC: “Yes, there were. There were check in today’s mail.”
A: “Well, I don’t know where they were.”
SC: “They were in the box, where they always are.”
A: “There isn’t any mail in the box.”
Me: “You took that mail, remember?”
A: "Oh, yeah . . . " drifts off
SC: “So where did you put it?”
A: “I don’t . . . I have no idea. There aren’t any checks back there.”
SC: “You took the checks; where are they?”
ad nauseam
I had gotten up to go get another batch of mail and was standing next to Airhead’s file drawer. “What’s this?” I asked, indicating a pile of mail on top of the drawer. It was, of course, the “missing” mail.
By 3:30 pm, when we have to be done so that the checks can be deposited, she was still only halfway through the last newsletter. She didn’t finish until at least 4 o’clock. Smart Coworker, who totals all the deposits, found several errors she’d made - she didn’t stamp these checks, that total is off by $3,500, etc. We didn’t make a deposit today. The manager who makes deposits when Supervisor is out is seriously pissed. He, Smart Coworker and I will all be talking to Supervisor tomorrow about Airhead’s behavior. This is fucking ridiculous.

It seems pretty clear from your description that your not-so-swift coworker has some medical issues. Intermittent out-to-lunch syndrome, maybe? In any case, she’s more to be pitied than pitted. Maybe some of our amateur diagnosticians (and not so amateur ones) will come along and offer their take.

Sounds like she is having some depression issues. Do you know anything about her personally? Do you or smart co-worker feel friendly enough with her to ask her is she is OK, that you have noticed she has seemed distracted and preoccupied, and you are worried about her?

Showing concern instead of being angry might be the better approach. If something is wrong with her, and you go to your supervisor and she gets in trouble, that might make problems worse. Keep us updated.

Why did she have the same issues last year? Did something bad happen to her at this time of year and she gets reminded of it?

I was the Supervisor in a similar scene, and the thing that tipped me off was the yearly cycle of this behavior: it turned out to be the anniversary of her son’s death. Screwed her up big time for a week or two. The worst part? It was due to circumstances she told me about in strict confidence, so I couldn’t share it with the rest of my staff. I, like your supervisor, gave her a few days off to get her head together, figuring she was making more work for the rest of us with her mistakes.

Perhaps the long conversations with your Supervisor are not “shape up or else!” convos, but “How you holding up?” convos.

“Not for nothing,” as my girlfriend used to say, but as a person with bipolar disorder, I find that the fall season knocks the crap out of me almost every year. It’s going to sound weird, but my own, personal belief (not supported by research, as far as I know, so don’t bother asking for cites) is that the same mechanisms that make squirrels and other small animals go hyper at this time of year in preparation for winter (as they forage for last minute edibles) affect people, as well, and that the results are a lot more pronounced in people with an underlying disorder.

Oddly enough, one of the most obvious signs is that I become extremely disorganized and forgetful and absolutely screw up any work that has to do with numbers. Sound familiar?

I’m going through a very rough spot right now, and am just barely holding it together with great difficulty. Coincidentally, the only time I was hospitalized was within a day or two of this very date, albeit many years ago. Maybe your co-worker is just getting her butt kicked by those ol’ circadian rhythms.

Are we still doing that whole “Cow-owker” thing?

Or even cow-orker … Smack self

It predates the SDMB (I think) and it will outlive it as well. Nothing anyone can do to change that.

I can feel all kinds of sympathy for people who are having personal issues that are affecting their work, but the bottom line is that it is affecting their work, and therefore affecting their co-workers, and that is not acceptable. If she needs to take a couple weeks of leave each year, and you get a temp in for that time, that’s what needs to be done. All the sympathy in the world doesn’t get the work done.

Is it possible that this coworker is actually her evil twin sister who is trying to assume her identity and live her (more sucessful) sister’s life? They sound like totally different people. Or maybe I have just been watching too much TV.

We’ve tried asking her, gently, if anything’s wrong, but she always says, no, she’s okay. Clearly she isn’t. And a big part of the problem is that she doesn’t seem to understand that there is a problem. I said as much to my supervisor this morning, and my supervisor said she’d noticed the same thing in talking to her earlier. Airhead isn’t giving us any signs that she realizes her work isn’t up to par.
When I talked to my supervisor a couple days ago about taking a few days off around Christmas, she checked to make sure no one else had already asked for those days off, and mentioned offhand about Airhead, “No, she doesn’t have any days off left.” So that makes it hard for her to take any time off now.

Regardless, I am sorry that she’s having . . . whatever problem she’s having, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating when she can’t competently do her work. I’m sure we’ll be getting extra complaints from customers, too; it seems unlikely that her mistakes are confined solely to getting deposits together and not spilling over into customer service and entering orders and payments in the database. I’ve already dealt with one customer whose check was returned by her as unidentifiable when they’d clearly written their order number on it.

Oh, and Airhead isn’t in yet (35 minutes late and counting) and the manager who was supposed to make the deposit yesterday just walked past, commented on her absence, and said, “I just got out of a small meeting about that.”


I’m glad someone mentioned Bipolar Disorder – there’s other, similar reasons for what’s going on, though. Even people who are otherwise untroubled can suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder; those who are bipolar can get it in spades. She may also be adjusting to a new medication or a new dosage level of an old one, or all of these may be working together.

Remember: people with mental illnesses are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and must be accommodated, within reason. Here’s a website discussing accommodation for workers with psychiatric disabilities:

Of course, there’s also the possibility of drug abuse, as WhyNot mentioned. Drug abuse is not covered by the ADA, but drug addiction (specificall, problems related to past drug abuse) is covered.

Yeah, a guy I knew in college had serious bipolar disorder which was affected by seasonal changes. He would typically be able to go on “medication vacations” for the summer and restart meds in August in preparation for the fall, but one year things were worse for him than normal. He was on his meds but they hadn’t kicked in yet (many can take weeks to be effective), and he just got up in the middle of the night, walked to the lab where he worked, and killed himself there. (In other words, it was bad enough that it wasn’t a “cry for help” gone wrong - no one could have found him in time there.)

That being said, it does suck terribly to be on the side of the fence where you have a coworker with mental/emotional issues that screw up your own work - I’ve been in your shoes too.

I really hope she gets better, that whatever problem this is gets resolved. That said, the fact that she may well have a good excuse doesn’t make it any less frustrating.

I was just filing the work I’d done yesterday - all the orders, renewals and payments get filed chronologically by state. One of the newsletters I’d worked on was one that Airhead usually does. As I was filing it, I saw that an order for a completely different newsletter had accidently been filed in with the one I’d worked on. I decided I’d better go through all the files for that newsletter to make sure there weren’t any other mistakes. I found four different newsletters that had been mistakenly filed with the other one, on four different dates. One of them had been done by a temp worker we had filling in at the beginning of the year, the other three were by Airhead. One was from Sept. 6, the other two from January and February, respectively. Of everything I pulled out, I found two new orders from Sept. 6 that hadn’t been entered - we’d received and processed the check, but not put the order in our database, so the customer wouldn’t have received their subscription. We may well have to go through everything we’ve filed this year to make sure that everything ends up in the right place. If we’d needed to look up any of these orders for any reason, we would’ve been screwed. And I get to do more work to make up for her mistakes, because she hasn’t showed up for work or bothered to call.

Making all of this even more frustrating is that the company’s board of director’s has placed a freeze on the budget until the end of the year, so even though I’ve been working here for a year as an exemplary employee, I won’t get a raise until next year at the earliest.

I tend to get antsy, edgy, and easily depressed every year around the second week of September, and each year, I couldn’t figure out why until I realized what date it was. You see, on September 11, 1992 in the aftermath of hurricane Iniki, I became almost completely catatonic and didn’t come out of it until September 13th. While I may not have been conscious of the anniversary, apparently my subconscious was. On the other hand, I refused to let it affect my work. I just put it down to an odd mood.

The Weird One, I know you’re swamped, but all I can suggest is keeping a close eye and a tight leash on your coworker until she cycles through this. Maybe something about the events of September 11, 2001 hit her particularly hard? At any rate, if both or all three of you are still around this time next year, maybe you can take steps before she starts to get too bad.

Good luck! You’ve got my sympathies!

One of my neighbors has a similar problem in spades. Pretty much all of her close relatives that have died did so between Thanksgiving and Christmas, or so she says. She’s an alcoholic with a penchant for wine all year 'round and is really a mess by New Year’s Eve.

I become dangerous to myself and others the day of every office christmas party. Bad Things happen.
Not a joke about drinking. My first job, I was fired at the christmas party as part of the entertainment.

Anyhow, I really can’t be trusted that day.