How can I make this not be so hard?
July 28, 2012 9:29 AM   Subscribe

Why am I having anxiety about certain tasks at work?

So, I’m an administrative assistant at my workplace. It has become my job to write the personnel evaluation forms for the employees. Initially, they were Word documents-- what we had done was add rows, like you would a chart, and each row would have a task that the employee had, as well as a couple of lines for feedback. We were pretty pleased with it, but then the supervisor noticed that once you added feedback, it would change the spacing/placement of everything, so she had me make them into a PDF form that you could fill out. Another employee told me how to make them by turning the doc into a PDF and adding text boxes via LifeCycle. (This is all on Acrobat 8, BTW.)

When evaluation time came, things went well, but then some of the employees wanted to be able to change their own duties on the form without having me do it on the Word doc. They also wanted the ability to add rows, so they could add duties on the PDF without having to do it on the Word doc. My supervisor asked me to try and research this. I had already tried importing the Word doc to LiveCycle without converting it, but no go.

When I first arrived at the job, I would have been eager to do this. I really enjoyed learning new things, which is why when we did the forms using the old method I liked it, even though it was a pain. But for some reason, I’m not looking forward to researching how to do this new way, and I’m not sure why. It’s like, I’m afraid something would go wrong. I could try asking the employee who initially taught me, but I think she’d only be able to address my issue with the text boxes and not the other stuff. The only way I can think to get around it would be to create a form from scratch on LiveCycle, and everytime I try and see that blank form, I nearly get a panic attack.

And it’s not just this. I’m also supposed to do receptionist duty and take over lunches for the receptionist and possibly even do half-days when she’s absent. I had done it before, but for a variety of reasons, that was put on hold, and now I’m doing it again. I’m supposed to be learning from our current receptionist, and while I try to find time to do that, and get over it somehow, I’m deathly afraid of when I’ll have to take over. I’m afraid I’ll hang up on someone, or not know how to operate the phones when more than one person calls, or say something I shouldn’t. (In the field I work in, special attention is given to what we can say and what we can’t.) We also get irate/stressed out/"crazy" callers.

The anxiety about these two things is affecting me at work. I spend a lot more time on the internet/my phone lately, and I’ve been showing up late, mostly because I don’t want to have to face another day and face reception and doing these forms. People are starting to notice, and while I wasn’t laid off, I’m afraid I’m about to be (but then that feeling isn’t really new). I plan to try and start on Monday by showing up on time, etc., but it won’t help the anxiety go away. I liked what we were doing before with the forms, and I liked not doing reception. Why is this so hard?

(I am in therapy, but I’m already speaking to her about something else that’s going on in my life that has nothing to do with this, and I can’t afford to get an extra session. Also, she'll be away the week after next.)

I hoping I’m coming across. I just want to learn how to get it together at work. And if anyone can help me with the Adobe issue, or point me to any books that can, that would be great.

Throwaway e-mail: M8R-c0m0051
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (8 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I’m afraid I’ll hang up on someone, or not know how to operate the phones when more than one person calls...

Can you arrange to do some extra practice on the phones? Or could you come in on a Saturday (or whenever, after hours) and get a couple of friends or family members to call you so you can practice putting people on hold, transferring calls to the next desk over, etc.

Would it help to make yourself a "cheat sheet" of instructions to keep by the phone, both what buttons to press, but also a flowchart of how to appropriately handle angry callers?

But, yeah, ultimately this sounds like therapy fodder, when you have the time.
posted by BrashTech at 10:04 AM on July 28, 2012

I know this is not your question, which I'll weigh in on in a second, but:

We were pretty pleased with it, but then the supervisor noticed that once you added feedback, it would change the spacing/placement of everything, so she had me make them into a PDF form that you could fill out. Another employee told me how to make them by turning the doc into a PDF and adding text boxes via LifeCycle. (This is all on Acrobat 8, BTW.)

My solution to this is just to use Excel. Excel can do all sorts of things that makes Word cry, and you have a lot more control over things like spacing.

OK, regarding your actual question.

I get like this, too. In fact, I get it so bad I sometimes can't get my work done.

I'm going to address the receptionist thing, because I, too, HATE IT when my supervisor asks me to research a whole new way of doing something that already worked sort of OK and is getting way too out of hand with the complexity I'm supposed to take on so that others can, say, look at a document that looks exactly the way they want it to. Whew.

Receptionist stuff. There are two components to this. The first is phone manner: saying the right things to the callers. The second is learning the technique of how to operate the phone.

The second part is the easy part. In order to get this down, practice with a no-stakes test call (have the receptionist or some other friendly coworker call in from their cell and practice transferring them around and such). Do more and more complicated things with your testing-out buddy until you can do all the things. I love the idea of staying after hours and having friends call to help you practice, by the way!

The phone manner part is the hardest, in my opinion, because knowing how to use a tool (phone system) is easy enough, but there's always the chance you're going to piss someone off. But it's OK. The best thing here is to get a little zen about it. Don't think too much about WHAT COULD HAPPEN, or about the emotions on the other end of the line. Just do.

With irate callers, the thing that works for me is to remember that they're not actually calling to talk to me. My job is to get them the person they need. That is all. If they're so irate that we can't even get there, I'll try to just be perfectly calm (this isn't about me, after all), and play kindergarten teacher: "OK, I'm going to connect you with Jennifer in accounts receivable. She handles all the invoices from outside vendors, so I'm sure she'll be able to help you out." Then I transfer the person to Jen in accounting and it's over.

With all of the phone stuff (though I think it's harder if you're doing it only sometimes), a good day or two of doing it is all you need. Once you establish a rhythm it's the easiest thing in the world.
posted by Sara C. at 10:42 AM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

This sounds like anxiety. And it sounds like you have a higher level of anxiety than before, since you say that you would've enjoyed this task when you first arrived. That suggests that something has boosted your anxiety. This might be a new stress outside of work that uses up your anxiety tolerance and has you already on edge.* It's like, if you can carry "5 pounds" of stress at any given moment, are you now perpetually carrying "3 pounds" of stress because of an outside issue (your family member's health, or your finances, or something else), making it easier for minor work stress to push you over your limit? It could also be a self-care issue. Are you exercising less, not going to bed on time, or not taking the time to eat right? It could even be a more serious health issue. In other words, what's new that could make you less able to handle general stress?

(* I suspect it's this: "I’m already speaking to her about something else that’s going on in my life that has nothing to do with this.")

While you work on solving the underlying source of anxiety, one coping method is to boost your willingness to withstand discomfort. Tolerating anxiety is painful, so you have to boost your ability to withstand pain and panic instead of running from them. For me, the best way is to do really hard yoga. (Holding poses until my arms are burning, my body stress goes up, and my brain starts to flail helps me also hold on through work tasks that are stressful enough that my body stress goes up and my brain starts to flail.) You could boost your tolerance via other exercise, meditation, or just making a deliberate effort to do the things that you most want to avoid.

Another coping method I use when I'm really stuck is to write all the negative thoughts down. Whatever negative thought comes up, just write it down, look at it, and have a conversation with yourself about it ("so what?" "is that so bad?" "would that really happen?" etc.) So your internal conversation might go like this:
"Sue, the form expert, won't know how to do these forms." (Write that down.)
"Okay, so what?"
"It's just going to be a big waste of time." (Write that down.)
"Maybe so. Is that so bad?"
"Well, no, it won't really take that long... But then I'll look really stupid because people will know I'm *trying* but can't figure this out." (Write that down.)
"Really? would people really think you're stupid just because you can't do advanced Adobe forms that even Sue can't do?"
"Well, no, most people are nice... But Beth would think I'm stupid, that jerk!" (Write that down.)
"Okay, well, does that matter? What's the big deal about that?"
"... Yeah, you're right. Beth already thinks I'm stupid. So who cares? I'll go talk to Sue."

Basically, keep examining fear after fear until your head feels clear. At the end of five to ten minutes, your piece of paper might say "Sue won't know how to do all of this. Asking her will probably be a big waste of time. People will know I don't know how to do this. Beth will think I'm stupid." It's kind of like looking under the bed (then in the closet, then behind the curtain) until you're convinced that the scary monster is not there.
posted by salvia at 11:03 AM on July 28, 2012 [6 favorites]

I know your pain. I have a lot of anxiety too, and have worked as an admin assistant for many years (now the office manager - woot!). Anyway - it's tough being an admin because you have a large variety of tasks you are expected to learn and do well - regardless of whether you like them or even have any talent for it. You are also supposed to do them cheerfully. This sucks when something like the eval form arises, and you find yourself getting input and criticism from multiple quarters. It's annoying - but your job doesn't tolerate annoyed - so you just internalize it. I think you're not anxious about doing the form, you're anxious that you will bite the head off the next person who adds their 2 cents to the project.

On to the receptionist duties. Argh! I hate reception! I'm terrible at it! I had tons of anxiety about doing it, and since in my previous job I only had to do it once a week for an hour, I never got very good at it - so I understand your anxiety about this. The next time you train with the receptionist, just have them sit there while you do the entire job. You will have someone there to help you if you make a mistake, and you will have backup if you get confused. Once you've had some time doing it yourself, the anxiety should abate (and the boredom will grow).

As for the forms, send out an email to everyone who will be working with the eval forms. Let them know you are redoing them and list the changes you will be making. Ask them for their input on the proposed form. Run those proposed changes by your supervisor and then implement them. If ANYBODY who was included in the email comes to you after the fact and complains about the form - let them know (cheerfully!) that you will be sure and speak to them the next time you work on the form (hopefully next year).

Remember - you won't be good at everything. No one is. All you can do is the best you can do. You are going to have way more problems by not doing something than doing it less than perfectly.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 11:34 AM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Salvia's advice about ways to manage the anxiety is spot on.

With regards to the forms, it might be possible to take a simpler approach. How about suggesting just adding a number of blank rows in an additional sheet so that people can fill these in with new tasks when they complete the form?
posted by freya_lamb at 11:49 AM on July 28, 2012

Remember, your supervisor has asked you to research this, not implement it. You don't have to go out of your way to reinvent this form. All you have to do (at this time) is see if it can be done efficiently. There comes a time in every Admin Assistant's career where you can say, "I'm sorry, it can't be done." or even, "it would take way too much time out of my day to do what you want me to do and get my other work done too." I know, I've been there. If your boss is in any way shape or form a good boss, they will accept one of these two answers. If not, well, consider finding a new position. There is always a demand for good admin assistants out there.

I cannot stand receptionist work, and I have felt the way you feel in many MANY times. I would go out of my way to avoid receptionist work for the exact same reasons you do. What if I hang up on someone? What if I say the wrong thing? What if I transfer them to the wrong person? OMG! This is not my job!!! Panic attack galore. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it. But they made me do it anyway. Then I had an epiphany. It is not my job. I am not a receptionist. I wasn't trained to be one, and if they expect perfection, well, they shouldn't put me on the phones. Of course, I still did the best job I could do, but I didn't sweat the mistakes. If someone pointed out that I transferred so-and-so to the wrong person, I'd smile sweetly and say, "Sorry, I'm just covering for the receptionist, I'm actually an admin assistant for so-and-so." After a while, you make fewer mistakes, but yeah, you'll never be as good as someone who covers the phones all day, every day because -- you know-- it's not your job.

That's what worked for me anyway. Good luck, you have my best, positive thoughts.
posted by patheral at 12:14 PM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

I too came in to recommend that you shift the entire form to Excel and if you run into trouble on that, there's many wizards that love related Askme questions.

Regarding the receptionist duties, I got past similar anxieties by treating it like an acting job. I really enjoyed working on the voice: that combination of warm but distant and correctly professional that smacks of 50s or 60s offices. Treating it as a role helps make it less personal while, ironically, improving my ability to perform the task.
posted by carmicha at 12:32 PM on July 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

This is definitely in the therapy "to do" list. In the meantime, I think that a lot of this can probably be addressed by some basic CBT and DBT tricks, so I'd like to just send you here. They have a LOT of worksheets and self-help manuals and stuff (most of it is CBT or DBT, some of it is ACT, a little bit is other stuff.) One that might help you try and reframe, in the short run, your anxious thoughts is a set of techniques called "defusion." Another handy one is the idea of writing out actual helpful self-talk - there are a few ideas up above. And if you're starting to get in a place where you're saying to yourself something like "I'm incompetent, I don't do anything right," some brute-force writing down a bunch of things that are good about yourself can help to short-circuit that. An exercise that's similar to what Salvia talked about is to use a "thought record"/"thought challenge" sheet (2).

I would definitely embrace the narrative/self-talk of "this isn't what I do full-time, all the time, I'm just here as a backup, no one expects me to be perfect at it." Because, well, yeah - you don't do it full-time, you're just there as a backup, and actually, no one (who's even a little bit reasonable) expects anyone to be perfect. Hanging up on someone instead of transferring them is not good, sure, but it's not a crisis, either. There are, in the immortal words of Peter Venkman, many subtle levels of getting something not-perfectly-right.

I also definitely recommend asking people to help you prioritize your tasks. This is something I've worked a lot at: asking my boss how important something is. A lot of times it turns out it's not nearly as big a priority as I think it is. Like, I gave her a list of unfinished tasks before going out on short-term disability, framed as necessary "to-do" items for me to try and take care of - and she quite ruthlessly axed a bunch of them as unnecessary for me to worry about. Ask your boss how soon something needs to happen, or which of several other projects should be put off to accomplish it, or whatever.

If you have trouble with assertiveness or asking for help, you are not alone. I've spent a lot of effort on this and it's very slow-going; the best suggestion I have is to try to write out as many different scenarios as you can and try to come up with the best written assertive requests/responses as possible. It may help you to read up on how shame and dysfunctional environments can teach us how to act in inappropriately passive, passive-aggressive, or aggressive ways. We've been talking about that a lot in my current IOP program and it's been very helpful to realize that I was taught to treat communication like everyone else is secretly the ambassador from Syria (prepared to nuke me if I do anything "wrong",) and this is not true about most people even if it is sort of true about my mom, and that therefore I can learn to communicate in different ways, at least with everyone else.

Feel free to MeMail if you want to talk. They say my own anxieties at work are wrapped up in OCD and perfectionism - they were super long-standing in my case, but I experienced a significant letup at work after a) falling flat on my face re: "everyone will see I'm a total loser who's faking it" (going into a mental health program and taking two months off of work strips away a LOT of secrets) and b) doing a LOT of CBT. I still struggle, but not nearly as much about work tasks as before.

And I Nth switching to Excel. So much easier, for this exact thing, it's actually kind of ridiculous.
posted by Fee Phi Faux Phumb I Smell t'Socks o' a Puppetman! at 1:47 PM on July 28, 2012 [4 favorites]

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