Too scared to work
December 5, 2012 5:28 AM   Subscribe

How can I cope with extreme professional/work anxiety?

My life is better than it ever has been in almost every aspect lately, at least on paper. I graduated last May with a degree in Computer Science from a good university and got a job instantly via one of my professors. I work in a research and development position funded by one of the world's most recognizable companies, dealing with challenging and interesting technology.

I am not very good at it.

For the first six months my project lead, residing halfway across the country, was on leave. Now that he is back, my various performance issues either have been or will be brought to attention.

I work in a lab with several other researchers and postgrad students and I am most likely the least experienced and educated among them. I am expected to interact with them in order to pick up on their research. For example, I need to learn to use a program I am unfamiliar with to grab recent versions of something I should be testing, but every afternoon I think "today I will ask" and never actually do it. Or I hear about tools other researchers are using and, because I am unable to inject myself into these conversations, I never learn the address of such-and-such server. Since I have been here so long, I feel as though asking elementary questions would be embarrassing.

I also have issues checking my e-mail, for some reason preferring not to know if I am being criticized or doing poorly (I had the same issue with checking transcripts while attending school). Obviously, this makes no sense, but I don't check these important things as often as I should because I procrastinate when I am worried there will be something unpleasant.

Plus, general phone anxiety. I hate hate hate talking on the phone, always have. Given that one of my bosses lives a thousand miles away, this is a problem.

My concern that I am useless and incompetent among these more experienced people has made it very difficult for me to actually get up and *go* to work. Every morning is a drag and I have to psych myself up just to get out of bed. More than once I've called in sick because I couldn't bring myself to move.

I have a long history of mental illness (surprise, surprise), having gone through depression and suffered through panic attacks extensively as a teenager, stuff triggered by some pretty extensive and complicated family issues. I got therapy for those, so I'm not unfamiliar with the whole deal, and obviously since I'm verging on non-functional I need it again. But I'm not sure how long it will be until I can find a therapist, and how long it will be until I am able to function without this heavy anxiety.

What do I do at work until then? I never saw myself working in this field forever, so I might just need to take a lower-demand job, given my history. But for the time being I would really like to keep this one.

This is my first time being independent and although many aspects of my life are going well for a change, this one has me very worried about my future.
posted by one of these days to Work & Money (21 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Well, not to pile on, but you should be worried. It's one thing to be the new person and to have to get up to speed, it's another to dick around all day.

Number one, are you taking anti-anxiety meds? If not, why not? I'm on Celexa and I don't miss the crippling midnight anxiety attacks. At. All. Make an appointment with your GP and get the meds you need. Once you have that sorted, you can work on finding a therapist. I get my meds from my GP, I don't do therapy at all.

Now, your past performance has been not-good. But today is a new day. Have a goal of accomplishing one thing every day. Mark Twain said, “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” So decide, what's the frog you're going to eat today?

If you need help in learning the new program, email a colleague and ask to make an appointment.

Tom, I really need some help learning the XYZ program, do you have some time to sit with me this week and show me?

There. That's one Frog down.

Your Email. YOU MUST DEAL WITH IT! This isn't negotiable. You have to do it. I check mine first thing in the morning. I get in early to prioritize things, and to knock off the easy to do stuff.

I find that if there are 10 things that need to be done, and 7 of them can be done within the first hour of the day, that I'll do them first. That's 7 things off my "to-do" list. That is 7 happy recipients of work product. That is 7 things I don't have to worry about. Now I can work on the remaining 3 that actually require brain cells.

Being new is a stress all it's own, but you have to power through it. You can salvage this situation, but you have to show initiative NOW!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:51 AM on December 5, 2012 [11 favorites]

I've been in IT for about 15 years and I'm now a software tester. A prominent source of bugs is when there is silence in the requirements about an issue and the developer creates a solution assuming, WITHOUT ASKING ANYONE, that it is the correct one.

There are no stupid questions. Really, there aren't. Everyone should ask more questions, including me. The more you ask questions you think are stupid and you're greeted with "hey, I'm glad you asked that" or "wow, good question, I didn't think about that" rather than "what kind of stupid question is that?" the easier it will get.

This does not apply to asking the same questions over and over. That will earn you a lot of ire and deservedly so. Make sure you take good notes in your question-asking sessions. If you forget you asked something anyway and you get a "didn't we already go over this?" then apologize and move on.

Also, Ruthless Bunny's comments about powering through are spot-on. Not easy for us introverts but once you start, it'll seem much easier than what you're doing now, which is just causing you more anxiety.
posted by Currer Belfry at 6:04 AM on December 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

Since I have been here so long, I feel as though asking elementary questions would be embarrassing.

If you ask elementary questions you may well be embarrassed (though maybe not, perhaps they will be embarrassed -- Oh, shit! I can't believe we never showed you that. Sorry!). If you continue to avoid asking elementary questions you will eventually be fired. Which is preferable?

Look, if they liked you enough to hire you, they must like you enough to want you on their team for some reason. Come clean about the problems you have been having, and let your co-workers and supervisors help you get to a healthier place.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:15 AM on December 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: O hey, I hear you!

I am not in IT, but I share a lot of your stresses.

I hope you are actively working on getting a therapist. I mean, when I decided to find a therapist, it took perhaps three weeks from getting recommendations to sitting on a therapist's sofa - and I assume that if you are in a large lab you're in a metro area where therapists abound.

I have found it helpful to make Very Detailed Lists of everything I need to do, and break those down into smaller lists. So, for example, I now have one master list of all ongoing projects and several minor lists of things that need to be done for each project. On any given day, I create a small list of things to do today. On a bad day, I keep the list short - I acknowledge to myself that it is better to list four things and get all four done than list eight and panic and dink around.

I also find that trying to do one thing Right Away in the morning is helpful. I find that if I drink coffee and do a task (rather than working through emails first, where it is easy to get bogged down or distracted) I am off to a better start.

I also - and this is kind of goofy - read motivational science fiction. By which I mean that I have a supply of stories in which Heroic Scientists save the galaxy through being obsessed by their work and making wise-cracks, and I read some before bed at night. I find that it puts me in a "focus on work" headspace.

Additionally, although I am not myself a scientist/IT person, I have seen a lot of STEM hiring and lab management through my job, and I've noticed that 99% of the time, a PI would rather get you up to speed than fire you, because finding and hiring new postdocs, scientists, etc is sheer unadulterated hell. If you get along with everyone and are willing to try, your PI will almost certainly want to work with you without, like, yelly hatred.
posted by Frowner at 6:22 AM on December 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

Different field, but my work has a lot of stress and this is some of the things I do to deal with it.

I get up early before my shift and have some time to myself doing something I enjoy. Sitting at a coffee shop, walking or biking to work. Something I find pleasurable to put me in a good mood about my own life in general.

Get to work early and prep for the day. I figure out as much as I can before the day starts what's on my plate, organize that.

Make a list of the uncompleted stuff and pick one thing a day (or one for the morning one for the afternoon if you've got a long list) to just do it. Before you know you'll be pecking away at all the things that have backed up.

Just ignore the embarrassment of asking questions and ASK ASK ASK. Those people that sit back and think: that's a dumb question are assholes. Fuck them. Don't let them and their sad meanness help you fail. I've found that many of the questions I thought were dumb sounding others wanted to know too or we needed clarification on it. In the same vein, I try to remember to never to judge or sound condescending when someone ask me any question and I discourage that in my co-workers.

Asking questions can be another way to interact with your co-workers. I may know sort of how to do something, but asking someone who I may have compatibility issues with to explain it to me I then, one do it correctly, and two have a professionally based conversation where I'm asking someone who doesn't really care for me to explain something they're excellent at. I'm acknowledging their excellence at work. This helps me with future conversations and helps cement a professional interaction that's resourceful and functional. People love to explain what they know well and what they are good at. They're not really thinking gosh this person asking me this is an idiot. They're thinking about how awesome they are at figuring this or that out.

Turn the phone into a game. Have an introductory script: "Hello this is dogfoodsugar, may I help you?" Have a pen in your hand and immediately write down their name and their extension. Then start the game: what is this problem and can I solve it. If the answer is no, you simply direct them to when they need or say sorry I have no idea. If the answer is yes, ask every question you can think of, write in on the same sheet as the name and extension and solve the problem. Often thinking about these things as games makes it seem as if it should be fun in some way, makes me more pleasant to interact with, makes others want to help me. And like games you get better with practice. So practice! Part of the game is answer the phone before the fourth ring.

End your day how you started it. By doing something for you that you love and enjoy. Value the little steps you make every day and congratulate yourself in doing it. The stuff you fail at or are not so good at break it down, figure it out and get started on it. Tell that voice in your head to shut it. The voice wants you to fail. Tell the voice to shut up until it does. You must stop it from condemning you to fail.

Good luck! You can do it (handle stress) or you can start figuring out which direction (another department, job, field) is right for you. In fact you're figuring out how to deal with this right now by asking this question.
posted by dog food sugar at 6:27 AM on December 5, 2012 [4 favorites]

Also, if you are the new person - are you, like, a junior scientist or some such classification? - please trust me when I say that you have not been hired on the assumption that you already have eighty million kinds of lab skills. You've been hired on the assumption that you will be ready to learn and do as you are bid. The biggest issue with jr and assistant scientist types (in the large lab that I used to work closely with) was people who were intentionally lazy because they figured hey, I'm going on to bigger and better things, why do I need to do wash all this glassware in a timely fashion?

If you just have your undergraduate degree, you are there to learn and to do routine tasks. If you made an important discovery or did something really awesome, that would be nice, but that's not why they hire people fresh out of undergrad. Remind yourself that it's okay to be the new person and it's okay to learn.

And if you have struggled with anxiety for your whole life, you are probably imagining that you're doing worse than you are. In every similar situation where I thought I was a total failure, I was never doing worse than "acceptable but please pull up your socks" and was sometimes doing fairly well.
posted by Frowner at 6:28 AM on December 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, do you have someone to check in with? I helped a friend who was in the throes of depression once by having a "debrief and planning" meeting with them every night (we lived in the same house, but you could do this by email). For a couple of weeks, we talked in depth about every day and talked about plans for the next one. After the few weeks, things improved. If you have a friend or family member who could do this with you - or who would be cool with getting a nightly email about it, even if they were not able to make detailed responses) that might help.
posted by Frowner at 6:30 AM on December 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have been there!! And recovered. Even though I still struggle with these issues privately, I have a good reputation at work.

First, your reputation among your coworkers is probably not as bad as you think. You are probably much harder on yourself, and paying more attention to your failings, than they are on you. Which means that you can come back from this. It's only been six months, and people expect new coworkers to flail around a little at first.

Second, consider talking to someone BEFORE they bring it up. Could be an HR person especially if you want to frame it as an anxiety/mental health issue, but if you want to focus solely on your performance, talk to your project lead. Schedule a meeting and say that you are concerned that your performance isn't where you want it to be. Outline some problems and propose some solutions, and ask your project lead if they have any ideas. By doing this, you are acknowledging that you could do better, showing that you care and want to improve, and making a plan.

You mentioned you're at a big company. Do you have an EAP program? You can call and talk to someone there. They are trained to be very calm and sympathetic, and it's totally confidential. It might help to get some outside perspective on this. As someone who has successfully achieved a computer science degree for a good school AND gotten a desirable job, you are not useless and incompetent. You have struggled for a few months and now you can move on. It's hard, but you really can.
posted by chickenmagazine at 6:56 AM on December 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

There are no stupid questions.
posted by Dansaman at 7:13 AM on December 5, 2012

I've always struggled a little bit of anxiety, and I hear you on the phone thing and talking to other pple, etc. I found ways for me to deal with this at other jobs (it was painful at times, for me), and although I still rarely talk on the phone, I can function in a business capacity.

People may roll their eyes at these suggestions, but they work/workd for me.

First, remember there are other tools that you can use. Also, pinpoint what triggers you (i.e. would you be more comfortable speaking one on one versus interrupting a group?). Once you ID the features that you are okay with, work from there.

First the email thing, because it can be a great tool. Set up a place, ideally twice a day, where you review emails. If you need to then set up a positive reinforcement immediately you could check email before lunch, for example (and no lunch until you read them all). Or, if you are comfortable at home, read it from home. Again, ideally twice a day. Once you go through your pile, you will be over the first hurdle (if this is too much ,can you get a friend to work with you at home the first time you did this). People may roll their eyes at this as a challenge, but believe it or not, lots of people have dealt with the "don't open the "email, envelope, etc, bill, until it gets out of hand.

Once you have that email cleared out, you have one great tool to use.

Email can be a great tool to do step one of your appts with people, so you can use it as a tool."Hi postdoc Bob, I would like to talk to you at 9AM to find program X. Is this a good time for you?If not can you suggest another time?" Then you will have broken barrier 1, because Bob will see you at 9 and know you are there for that. Also, remember the part about identifying the other features that bother you? If it is a group, etc., then pick a time when Bob is least likely to be around a mob and meet him then (2 barriers down).

As someone who used to work in labs and was phenomenally shy/anxious, if you meet people half way ...they will talk to you, so this will become less and less painful. Keep talking to them, so eventually they may see you off to the side and ask if you have a question.

For the phone calls, you can also use the email to set up some of the material/exchange information.

For the phone calls, I absolutely used scripts in my early work years (probably for 10 years, but ...hey, it worked). Some people may be very verbose in emails, and it may even eradicate the need for phone calls,too.

Feel free to memail me, this is something that I struggled with at previous jobs. I still haven't conquered anxiety and shyness in all settings,but I've been there....

On preview, there are great comments about the expectations of an undergrad versus grad students. They are not your competition. Moreover, believe it or not, most grad students ask:"How did I get here? How did I get into this program? My work is poor. I'm doing worse than all the other grad students or people in my lab..." So many are likely struggling with the same aspect of what you are struggling with.

Good luck.

posted by Wolfster at 7:16 AM on December 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Make appointments with a physician and a therapist. Today. You do this today. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. You need help, possibly pharmaceutical but that's for a doctor to figure out with you.

Many, many companies SUCK at on-boarding new employees, particularly recent grads. There isn't a lot of documentation for new hires to use and most of the knowledge of the company is transferred informally. New hires flounder for weeks or months. It's amazing to me how many companies are horrible at bringing new hires up to speed. It sounds like that's what happened to you. Unfortunately, you still need to do the job you were hired to do. When people talk about something you don't know about you need to ask. In a place were information is transferred informally you don't know stuff until people tell you.

When your boss shows up I highly, highly recommend the following approach: "I don't think I'm doing the best job I could do here. I'm not fully fluent in how I should be doing this work. Can I shadow someone in the department for a week? What other ways could I increase my competency to do this work?" Either you can bring it up or the boss can. Trust me. It's better if you do.

Also, its important to know that all is not lost. I've had plenty of employees turn around performance problems. In fact, I would say that a motivated employee can almost always reach satisfactory performance with some coaching and training.

Bonus tip: You need to deal with that email backlog. Learn to use threaded email in the corporate email program and just read the final email in each thread. You'll be through that backlog in no time. And having that behind you will eliminate a cause of that anxiety.
posted by 26.2 at 8:52 AM on December 5, 2012 [4 favorites]

I used to have the same problems, now I'm on an antidepressant with a good track record of soothing anxiety and I'm much better. If you can reach a therapist I would try to do so ASAP.
posted by stoneandstar at 9:02 AM on December 5, 2012

In my first ever proper job my then boss gave me some of the best professional advice I've ever had and it went something like this. At a work social we were randomly chatting and he asked me more or less out of the blue "Koahiatamadl, do you know it all?" When I looked somewhat perplexed at that he said "So why don't you ask more questions?"

Now I'm not profesionally anxious, I just like to observe and reflect and learn mainly by myself and I was not performing badly. Nevertheless he had a point, I did start to ask more questions and kept doing that and still do to this day. The questions change as you progress but asking is a good thing. And by now I am training people myself, all new graduates. And the ones who don't get over this reluctance to ask questions fairly quickly and who don't pay attention to how others do stuff and observe and pick up different ideas in doing that invariably don't do well and end up leaving before too long.

So please get whatever help you need to get over these issues. Unless you aim for unskilled work you will struggle in most careers, especially in large organisations, where the teams are larger, where geographic proximity is not a given and where you have to acquire a range of experiences on the job.
posted by koahiatamadl at 10:21 AM on December 5, 2012

For the first six months my project lead, residing halfway across the country, was on leave. Now that he is back, my various performance issues either have been or will be brought to attention.

This could be a face-saving way to start asking questions. Now that he's here, you want to ask him questions.
posted by BibiRose at 2:04 PM on December 5, 2012

I am not in a sci-tech field but I am in a very demanding field (nonprofit) and have struggled intensely with similar anxiety and performance issues.

First of all, I nth the recommendation for a therapist. Managing your anxiety generally can only make your work-anxiety better.

Secondly, one thing that is very common around my (high-pressure, million little tasks, constant interruptions) office is to write down LITERALLY EVERY SINGLE THING YOU HAVE TO DO and then cross it off triumphantly when you're finished. I've never been particularly good at organizational systems, keeping track of tasks, etc, and this system has really helped me both stay on track and reduce my anxiety because I have an absolutely concrete record of everything I've done -- so those voices in my head that say "you're not doing enough" have to shut up.

For me this looks something like:
- Check voicemail.
- Return ABC's call.
- Return XYZ's call.
- Email FM about XYZ's call.

etc etc etc. The feeling of crossing off is so good and helps me stay grounded throughout the day.

Good luck. And I agree with previous posters -- you have to be honest and get on top of this ASAP. The consequences will likely be WAY less dire than your anxietybrain imagines.
posted by andhowever at 3:00 PM on December 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Nthing the advice to see a doctor for possible Rx evaluation. As for a therapist, consider one who practices Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is supposed to be pretty effective in addressing certain types of anxiety disorders. But IANAD and YMMV. Good luck.
posted by DB Cooper at 5:20 PM on December 5, 2012

I'm not as good at this as I'd like to be, but I'm working on it: When I get intense anxiety about a work task like talking on the phone, I find that just DOING IT is the best way to deal. Even the most hellish phone call has never been as bad as the shit I put myself through while avoiding that phone call.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 5:32 PM on December 5, 2012

Another note: Screwing up got me two of the most admiring professional references I have today. I hope my examples help you see that it is possible to start with negative performance in an anxiety-riddled job and wind up with strong performance in a job you like.

At one job, I missed an important deadline and then turned in shoddy work, and my boss called me to his office for a Fix It Or You're Gone meeting. Rather than fight what he was saying, I accepted responsibility: "You are right, my performance was not acceptable and I will do everything in my power to make sure it does not happen again." I didn't do much more that day, because it was pretty humiliating, but once I'd cooled off a bit I went back to my boss to outline strategies I'd come up with for staying on top of future deadlines and to ask for his advice and guidance. And then I worked by butt off, turned in consistently good work and met deadlines for the rest of the time we worked together. There were other people at my job that kicked at least as much butt as me, but my boss saw me at a low and then was there as I worked hard to reach a new high, and that turn-around impressed him and led him to see me as a dedicated, hard-working person.

At the other job, I got a mostly good performance review, but was marked down for being disorganized and bad at time management. I talked to HR to identify a one-day organization and time-management course the company would pay for and attended it. The seminar didn't do much for me, except to make me realize that my challenges were extremely different than those of everyone else in the room -- I didn't need practical tips on filing and using a calendar, I needed to tackle anxiety and attention issues. I sought out a counselor who specializes in workplace coaching for people with add/adhd and other attention challenges, and worked with her to develop systems for tracking what I'd done and what I had to do. I didn't tell my boss I was seeing a therapist, but I did tell her I was seeing a coach to help me with organization and time management.

In both cases, I took my superior's negative feedback seriously, explained to my boss how I would work to improve, repeatedly provided updates on the work I was doing to get better, and also improved the quality of the work I was doing. In both cases, I went from anxious and dissatisfied to completely in love with my work as I tackled the things that were holding me back.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 5:45 PM on December 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

There are stupid questions, but everyone asks them sometimes (even geniuses), and people who don't just keep them in their heads and never learn anything.
posted by walla at 7:56 PM on December 5, 2012

Fake it, fake it, fake it!

I was you until a year ago (before I started therapy - something you need to do ASAP). At the beginning, even though I started to work on my issues I found I didn't know HOW to be confident.

What really helped me was pretending I was Ms. Competent. In my head, I chose a very productive woman I know (let's call her Betty), and I simply *became* her every morning. It sounds strange, but somehow this tactic made me feel less pressure and apprehension about the consequences of my actions. If I had to ask a question I would ask it, if I had to check my email I would -after all, it wasn't me. It was alter-ego me. So I spent several weeks faking it, until it finally clicked, and I realized that no email can carry a catastrophe big enough that it's worth it for me to not open it and freak out about it the whole fucking week.

If you pay attention, you will see a lot of people do this. Have you noticed how many people change their voice when they pick up the phone? How they become more serious and professional when they are speaking in public? That's what they are doing, even if it is subconsciously. The phone is ringing? Your alter-ego will answer in a second, and be super friendly and confident! It doesn't matter if the real you would FREAK OUT (believe me, I know how it feels), let the real you freak out in a box in your brain. Right now your alter ego is working hard and enjoying it.

Seriously, your situation is not uncommon at all. Look at this question and look at how many people marked it as favorite. You are not a bad or lazy person. The fears you have are normal, and you just need to learn to control them.
posted by Tarumba at 8:24 PM on December 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

I love walking into a place where I know nothing. And I let people know. "You're the expert, I know nothing, help me understand." I repeat things back, draw pictures, and ask questions. Then I go try something and immediately ask for feedback. "What did I do wrong here? What am I wasting time on."

Experience and education is just how you spend your time.
posted by jander03 at 8:53 PM on December 9, 2012

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