Monday, July 27, 2009

How to Survive When You're Drowning in a New Job

I've had a lot of "first days" at work in my career, but none were like the summer when I was 19 and got a job as a bank teller.

My trainer, obviously overworked, said to me on the second day: "You know, normally we train someone at least a week or more. But I think you're doing so well I'm just going to let you handle it on your own. Let me know if you have any questions."

She disappeared, and I didn't see her again for two weeks.

You can imagine the outcome. I made lots of mistakes that cost money -- literally. (My cash drawer was always short at the end of the day). I was forced to bug my co-workers constantly with questions. I ended up detesting that job.

So when I got an e-mail from someone telling me how she had felt in over her head on a new job -- I knew it was a story that had to be told. Here's the story I did for my Gannett column:

Darcie Borden believed herself to be fortunate to land a job as an account executive for R&J Public Relations in Bridgewater, N.J. last September, especially when she had little experience in the arena.

It wasn’t long until Borden realized just what that lack of experience meant: insomnia, carb-loading and lots of shallow breathing.

“I was floundering,” she says. “I felt I was in over my head. I couldn’t sleep at night, and I found myself sometimes literally forgetting to breathe.”

While Borden knew there was a learning curve with any new job, she didn’t think her experience as a journalist was serving her well in her new job – despite the fact R&J had hired her after four interviews, fully aware of her background.

“I certainly did not want to admit to any uncertainty. There’s so much competition for jobs these days, and I just didn’t know if they were glad they hired me or not,” she says. “For the first month, I was pretty anxious. I ate lots of carbs.”

Finally, Borden, a self-admitted “perfectionist,” began achieving results. The company also paired her with a mentor, a senior employee who “really helped me calm down and gave me lots of private, non-judgmental feedback.”

Borden’s experience is not that unusual for a new employee, says
Phyllis Mufson, a Philadelphia-based career and business consultant and certified coach. The difference these days, she says, is that employees are terrified they have to learn a new job more quickly in order to avoid being booted back into the unemployment ranks.

“Many firms these days aren’t willing to pay for any training an employee might need,” Mufson says. “And the employee is afraid to ask.”

Another problem is that new employees have to be cautious when telling others they are have difficulty in a new position. “The politics of an organization can be hard to figure out in the beginning. You have to figure out how things work and who has your best interests at heart,” Mufson says.

Anyone faced with learning something quickly can feel overwhelmed and become disorganized, gelling into a mass of anxiety, Mufson says. Coupled with the knowledge that landing a job in this bad employment market is tough only ratchets up the stress for new workers, she adds.

In Borden’s case, she says she’s received lots of support from her employer, and has become more confident as she sees that she has valuable skills, and is now learning new ones. “I’m starting to get more comfortable,” she says. “I don’t think I oversold myself to them. They hired me for my brain and what I know.”

That kind of positive self-talk is important, Mufson says, for any employee who feels they are in over their head. Mufson also advises anyone in this situation should:

• Look for training. “If there are actual skills you need, then you can create a proposal asking for more training,” Mufson says. “But these days, it’s really more up to the worker to get the training they need. “ If that’s the case, then look for online classes, weekend seminars or even a local university student willing to tutor you at home, she says.
• Ask questions. “Be willing to look like a nerd and ask questions when you need to,” she says. “Don’t put yourself down when you do it. It’s much better to ask questions early on in a job rather than later.”
• Talk it up. “Remind yourself of when you’ve been in difficult situations before and you came out of it OK,” she says. “Tell yourself you’ve done it before and you can do it again.”
• Find support. A buddy or mentor who can listen to your concerns, help you come up with some problem-solving and “just let you vet” can help release some anxiety so that you can focus on the issues and not your fear. A career coach also can be a good option.
• Keep your body in tune. Exercise, take yoga or even go online to learn how to do deep breathing to stay calm during these stressful times.

Finally, Mufson says she advises that anyone can avoid feeling overwhelmed in a current career or a future one by making a regular “automatic professional development” deposit.

“It’s just like a Christmas fund. Only with this one you put away money regularly that is for you to do something that keeps your skills updated. It sort of helps take the heat off so you don’t have those ‘uh-oh, I’m in trouble” moments. Lifetime learning is the best strategy against that happening,” she says.

What are some other tips to cope with being overwhelmed at work?

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Monday, June 15, 2009

Procrastination Thriving in Stressful Workplace

I'm always impressed when I watch a movie like "Apollo 13" where people under enormous stress perform really well. That doesn't usually happen for me.

There have been a lot of frantic, stressful days in my life, and sometimes by the end of the day I realize I didn't get enough done and feel really frustrated, or angry or depressed. Sometimes I feel all three.

Dr. Neil Fiore says I'm not alone. A psychologist and productivity guru, he says that the increasing stress of our daily lives, combined with anxiety about the state of the economy, has contributed to our loss of motivation.

The author of "The Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play," Fiore says people have gotten into the bad habit of saying "I have to get the project done" instead of "I'm going to get the project done."

“By saying, ‘I have to’ instead of ‘I choose to’ or ‘I’m going to,’ you really increase your stress levels,” he says. "Replace "I have to get this overwhelming project done" with 'I am choosing to START on one part for 15 minutes with plenty of guilt-free play on my schedule.' You then avoid both stress and anxiety. Anxiety is stuck energy trying to get into the imaginery 'future','done' or 'finished' place."

Fiore says that while we’ve all heard of the “flight or fight” response to stress, a third component is “freeze.” That means that people who are confronted with a possible layoff, or have already lost their jobs, may find that they’re shifting into a “wait and see” mode, procrastinating on doing anything about their careers.

“It’s part of our survival mechanism. When you have a broken leg, your body will tell you to lie still. That’s what is happening to a lot of people right now. They’re just staying still, trying to figure out what is going on,” he says.

Fiore offered some tips to those of us struggling with these issues:
  • Notice your immediate, "default" reactions -- your most frequent thoughts, feelings, and impulsive reactions -- to stress and pressure. Take a few days to identify which reactive habits you need to update to fit with your current vision, abilities, values and challenges.
  • Remember how you felt when you helped a friend cope with a stressful or heart-breaking event. You observed their problem from a distance and shifted to the role of a compassionate, wise counselor. Do this for yourself and experience the freedom of observing old habits and thoughts without having to identify with them.
  • Play and work consistently at your personal best by connecting to the rest of your brain and body -- when you feel like a Tiger Woods, a Danica Patrick or an Oprah Winfrey. Begin performing at levels far beyond what the ego knows how to do. Integrate all parts of you into the grander whole that is your strongest self.
  • Notice how self-criticism and telling yourself "you have to" lead to stress and anxiety. Get ride of self-threats.Tell yourself: "Regardless of what happens, I will not make myself feel bad. I will not let any event or person determine my worth."
  • Communicate to your mind and body a clear image of when, where, and on what to work, and you'll significantly improve your productivity. "Pour the foundation at 9 a.m. Wednesday at 322 Garfield Ave." is clearer than "You have to finish construction on this house by next month."
  • Change "I don't know" to "I wonder what will come to me." Watch for the surprise as the creative side of your brain starts working to bring you from "not knowing" to "knowing."

What are some ways you avoid procrastination or keep yourself motivated?

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