Teething troubles at new job
August 1, 2011 2:32 AM   Subscribe

My new job is really stressful and demanding, and it's making me unhappy, but I don't want to leave after only a couple of months, because it would look really weird on my resume and I would feel like a failure. Please help me stick it out for the medium-haul.

I was really pleased to get my new job in a big and well-known national organisation. However, I'm having difficulties settling.

But before I start talking about the problems I'm having with the job, I need to say that I would like to stay here at least for a year - long enough for it not to be a blip in my resume - and I would like to learn to like it and even (gasp) be good at it. The people are cool, and the organisation is great - it would be brilliant if I could actually be good at my job too.

But basically, I feel most days like I have two jobs - one, the one I'm being paid for, and the other is just "fire-fighting" - stuff comes up and I need to deal with it immediately. I do not handle that kind of thing well. I do not thrive at all under pressure. I get extremely unhappy.

The job is extremely varied. It was actually two jobs before they combined it, and as a result I feel like I am doing things which bear no relation to each other, or to my job title. A lot of the stuff I need to do wasn't anywhere in my job description either and I didn't know I'd have to do it until I arrived. Some of the stuff I'm doing, I love (and that is the work that I thought the job would entirely consist of); the other work, not so much. Also, I find myself getting roped in to help other people with their work as well and I don't want to say no and be thought a poor team-player. There just isn't enough time to do it all in. I'm more the kind of person who gets stuck into a project for a few days happily beavering away - but I am not a multitasker.

I don't think anyone else knows exactly how much I am struggling - my "work self" is very different from my real self - very chirpy and can-do. But my boss is a kind man who said to me recently, "I know this job can be overwhelming and let me know if you're struggling" - but how can I do that without coming across as incompetent or in some way not good enough? I already feel not good enough. My three-month probation is coming up but I don't know how I am meant to bring these issues up with him without looking pathetic.

tldr: Please help me to be better at my job - better equipped to fire-fight; less susceptible to stress; better able to juggle a bunch of different, clashing priorities. I want to be good at all these things. I know it'll help me in the future.
posted by Ziggy500 to Work & Money (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Firstly, tell your boss. Most people who work in a fire-fighting kind of environment have been there, and if you can't talk to your boss about it then you sort of need to be looking for something new because your boss is shit.

Also, the thing about fire-fighting is that someone runs round with a burning thing and is desperate to offload it. If you say no, it's not going to take them long to

a) find someone else to do it
b) sort it themselves
c) burn to death.

Saying no is a valid option and encourages people to stop setting fire to things, or at least makes the gene pool a bit less incendiary.

Disclaimer : Unless you're talking about actual fire-fighting with you know, proper heat, at which point saying no is not an option.
Genuinely just came off a shift which included the exchange
Joe : "where's Bob?"
Me : "Hehehe, Fire-Fighting"
Bob : "Yes Sir, I am aware out of hours support is a chargeable expense and normally requires your approval, but your data centre was on fire"

posted by fullerine at 3:11 AM on August 1, 2011 [5 favorites]

Chances are, if you really sucked at your job, someone would have already said something. I'm a boss, and I'd never let it get to three months of someone sucking at what they do without at least a couple of sit-down meetings. So you won't come across as incompetent if you mention in your three-month review that the multi-tasking is a challenge.

Perhaps you could list the most out-lying/least "relevant to the job you thought you had" tasks, and ask if there is someone whose job description might match up with them better. Obviously you're willing to do them, but they are clearly compromising your happiness and ability to do the main part of your job.

There's a fine line between being can-do and unwilling to complain, and being a martyr. Speak to your boss.
posted by indienial at 3:14 AM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

You need to talk to your boss. Either as an oversight or lack of grasp, the scope of your position is not what you were initially led to believe.

I was in the same position, I changed bosses twice in less than 5 months, the latest boss was totally unreachable (like me, always traveling, either one of us was either passing through the metal detector at the airport or sitting on the airplane with the flight attendant in the background screeching about turning the mobile off. Seriously), emails were going unreturned, the company is infamous for the "do it yourself" approach rather than a super structure such as Procter & Gamble, I struggled for 5 months to figure out the scope of my role and it was a nightmare. It was only after wards when I finally rose above and started to succeed when my boss could see how deep of a ditch I was initially in. But I digress.

If you can get face time with your boss, take advantage of it. If you think you'll break down emotionally, maybe to send a a short email briefing what you want to talk about.
posted by peachtree at 3:34 AM on August 1, 2011

Get yourself a whiteboard and organize your tasks. I would first make a column with all your actual job duties. Then separate areas for the other tasks that have been thrown your way, say by department. Put what you think are the most important at the top and the least important at the bottom. Make it neat and orderly, but at the same time as chaotic as you can get away with. If it is a one time task put the deadline. If it is daily/weekly/monthly maybe put a checkbox. The idea is that before your boss assigns anything else to you he can see at a glance what is already on your plate. He may also prioritize things for you, or reassign things to someone else.

You shouldn't look at it as being a failure if you can't handle the workload. Your company has failed to be able to continue to provide the two or more positions that are likely needed to do your work, and because you seem to handle it they give you more responsibilities to save even more.
posted by Yorrick at 4:12 AM on August 1, 2011

Most jobs these days involve a lot of fire drills and doing stuff that wasn't on the job description. Welcome to no jobs economic recovery. Corporations are ringing up record profits by doing more with less, or more specifically, expecting the staff to do more with less.

It may not help your current situation, but quitting and going somewhere else isn't likely to be much better.
posted by COD at 4:42 AM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding fullerine; "no" is definitely an option and one you'll need to learn to use. Something along the lines of "I'd love to help but I've got three higher priority items in the queue so I can't get to that before next Tuesday" used to work well for me.

I'd also backup the folks that said talk to the boss.
posted by Awfki at 4:48 AM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

More on dealing with arsonists...

I kind of love fire-fighting and the particulars of my job lend themselves to a more fluid working environment which some people would label as chaos.

I have a few things I tell my new staff members on how to deal with the job.

1) The only thing you can definitely affect is how this affects you. You can take a tilt at those distant windmills of improvement (and everyone does at least once) but very very rarely are you able to affect the situation other than how you react to it. If you were in the position to be able to change the situation, you kind of wouldn't be fire-fighting.

2) The Decision Monkey who caused the situation which led to the bucket-chain, smoke and shouting almost certainly does not care. Either through ignorance, malice or incompetence. If they cared they would change it, if they're ignorant they're too stupid to.

3) The only thing which keeps you sane is your colleagues. Fire-Fighting in a great team is fun, in a bad team is a short-cut to insanity. Look after your own and remember where the charred bodies are buried just in case.

Why do I do it? It's fun and you can effect genuine resolutions to actual problems. The thing about thankless tasks is, the people who are not there to thank you are also not there to get in your way.

and if they do, well drop a couple of buckets and bury more charred remains ;)
posted by fullerine at 5:44 AM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've been there - still am, actually, though several months further in.

Fullerine is right - the analogy someone gave me is that in an environment like that, people walk around carrying a shoebox full of shit, looking for someone to hand it to. Don't let them give it to you without putting up a fight. 'I'm happy to help, but I won't get to it for at least a few hours because I have x and y to do right now' will often as not lead to people deciding that they can do it themselves after all, or go and bug someone else.

On multitasking: your number one job with any new task is to get it off your desk as soon as possible. That doesn't necessarily mean giving it to someone else (although sometimes that's the right answer), often it means doing the task just well enough that it can be moved on to the next step. Most of the time, near enough is good enough (presuming you're not a surgeon or an air traffic controller). If you have any tendency at all to perfectionism, this is a hard thing to do, but it's necessary.

Sometimes, that will mean just ignoring a task, and dealing with the consequences later. I have decided that in my job it's just not possible to keep all the balls in the air - I have to work out which ones to drop, and try and make conscious judgements about that rather than having it happen by accident. Sometimes you'll make the wrong call, and that's OK - it happens, and it's still better than stuff slipping randomly.

Ask your boss to help with prioritising - this is a way to ask for help but look pro-active while doing it. You can do this on a micro-level - when you get given something new, ask if it needs to be done before x and y or can wait. Three months is also a good point to sit down with the boss and ask for some constructive feedback e.g. 'Given I have a wide variety of tasks to do in this job, I'd like your advice on whether I've been prioritising appropriately, or if there are things you'd like me to do differently.' Some bosses are better than others at doing this, though.

Get a to-do list system going that works for you.

Make sure you have someone outside of work that you can safely vent to - whether a relative, a friend, or a therapist.

The other thing that helps is to know that you don't have to stay a year. You can quit any time you want to. I got through some of my worst days by rehearsing my quitting conversation with my boss in my head. I don't care how impressive the job title or the company is - if it's making you this miserable the option is there.

Feel free to memail me if you want to chat.
posted by une_heure_pleine at 5:58 AM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't think your premise that you need to stay there for a year is necessarily valid. Good people and good companies are often not a good match. The reasons are varied. As long as you can part amicably and explain what you learned from the experience in an interview, you'll probably be okay.
posted by jeffamaphone at 6:17 AM on August 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

This is what I would do:

1) Make a list of everything you've been doing so far. Not knowing your industry it is hard to say how you should do this, but organize it by project or whatever makes the most sense. Something like:

*Launched "Sizzle Project" from inception through opening
*Assisted marketing team, at their request, with "Project Seahorse", by doing A, B, C
*Assisted development team, at their request, with "Project Blueberry" by doing D, E, F
*Completed and filed Forecast Reports
*Currently working on Communications Reviews, Inventory Destruction and Overhead Lighting

2) Take this list to your boss and ask to review your work flow. Keep it very positive and very professional. Do NOT talk about feeling stressed and unhappy. Rehearse what you're going to say ahead of time with a friend.

Something like: "Things are going great so far. The job has been a whole lot more varied that I expected it to be. {Here comes the part where you lie} It's good to have a chance to take on these challenges. I want to show you what I've been working on and make sure that I'm prioritizing things the way you'd like me to. It's great the marketing and development teams like my work enough to pull me into their projects, but I want you to know how I've been spending my time, and be sure that your expectations are being met."

Then show him your list. Don't wait for the three month review. Be really proactive about defining your role there, with his help. Maybe it makes sense to ask him if other teams should go through him instead of approaching you directly - you'd know this better than I would, of course, but it's an option if you think it makes sense in terms of how the place is run.

Just make sure that you always present yourself as 100% on top of things, capable and confident, even if you don't actually feel that way. You don't want your boss to think, "Oh great, ziggy is overwhelmed and stressed out and whining about how the job is more than s/he expected, now this is my problem and I really don't want to deal with this". You want him to think, "Wow, ziggy sure has been doing a lot of work since s/he started. I had no idea that marketing and development were using him/her. S/he must be really good. So I better keep an eye on things to make sure MY projects get done on time".

Checking in is perfectly reasonable. But seriously, practice again and again with a pal before you go in. Good luck; let us know what happens!
posted by Kangaroo at 7:10 AM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Lifehacker recently had a blog post addressing this issue:

Create a Personal Renewal Program to Protect Yourself from a Toxic, Life-Sucking Job

For what it is worth, I was once in a similar situation. I too was able to make it through just under a year. I started looking for another position 6 months in, and when asked in interviews I explained that the schedule was not disclosed to me in the interview - though I asked. This actually was not held against me during the interviewing process. Then again, I was seeking a job very different from where I was working so it was obvious to the interviewer it wasn't going to be a problem at their place of employment.
posted by BuffaloChickenWing at 7:18 AM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Thanks people. As ever, some great food for thought here.
posted by Ziggy500 at 3:07 AM on August 2, 2011

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