My Job is Stressing Me Out. Help Me Survive It.
September 28, 2015 1:48 PM   Subscribe

I work in digital publishing, mostly doing email newsletters, and the pressure and workload keep cranking up. I'm looking for something else, but I need help surviving in the interim.

Among the main areas of stress at my job are:
- It's interruption driven: I will have stretches of time with nothing to do, and then, suddenly, three assignments will fall in my lap at once. While I can usually know what to expect on a daily basis, I don't know when those assignments will land in my inbox. It could be anywhere from before I get in, to after I leave (at least most of the latter are things that can wait until the next day). I can't start working on something before it's given to me to do, either.
- The communication between departments is borderline non-existent. I'll get asked by someone to do something, say, set up targeted ads for a newsletter, only I won't have: the code for the ads (which I don't set up), or even the list to target. Hugely frustrating
- The web app I have to use to set up lists deploy emails is the most dysfunctional piece of enterprise software I've ever used---and I used to work for a government agency. It's prone to random failures, inscrutable error messages, and their support staff is beyond useless. (The app rhymes with Bilverbop.)

It doesn't help that the company culture seems to be "come in early, work late, eat lunch at your desk, and work from home after hours" for many people. I've steadfastly stuck to a 9-to-5 schedule since starting.

I've been looking, when I can, for a better job, but it's hard to search when you get home wiped out. I'm so drained, I barely have energy for my personal projects, let alone a job search. Either way, I can't just up and quit without something lined up. So, as long as this is the case, I need help keeping myself from dying of a cortisol overdose at work, so that I might come home and not want to just eat dinner and collapse.

posted by SansPoint to Work & Money (17 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Oh, another point: the more on my plate, and the more the tools I have to use break, the more likely I am to get stressed, and the more stressed I am, the more I make mistakes... which adds to the stress.
posted by SansPoint at 2:05 PM on September 28, 2015

It sounds like you're in a very immature workspace. You need to push back harder and, eventually, retrain your coworkers to be more professional. If it can't be done in an 8-hour day / 40-hour week, then there's a lot of shitty behavior going on. We have lots of evidence showing people perform worse after 40 hours in a given week.

Some obvious things off the bat:

1) I'll get asked by someone to do something, say, set up targeted ads for a newsletter, only I won't have: the code for the ads (which I don't set up), or even the list to target.

Then you DO NOT LIFT A FREAKING PENCIL until you have all materials in-hand, signed off by those responsible, and you've all agreed to a reasonable amount of time to get it done. Do this all in writing and emails. Hold people to their word. You're being way too nice when you take on jobs with missing inputs.

2) I will have stretches of time with nothing to do, and then, suddenly, three assignments will fall in my lap at once.

Once you have a method in place from part 1, then this becomes easier. You push back saying "I'm already scheduled to work on Project A, once all your stuff is ready I can begin project B at (endtime of A)". TEACH your coworkers to plan ahead better.

3) I've steadfastly stuck to a 9-to-5 schedule since starting.

Bravo to you on this part. This shows you at least have some backbone and are willing to walk out of the kindergarten and have a life beyond work. Now get cracking on parts 1 and 2.
posted by JoeZydeco at 2:07 PM on September 28, 2015 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: JoeZydeco I do push back on projects where I don't have the materials. The problems are twofold: 1) I am the bottom of the totem pole. I've pushed and I've pushed and nothing changes. 2) I'm on a daily editorial calendar, so if I get a project that has to go out at 5 PM that day, it _has_ to go out then.
posted by SansPoint at 2:09 PM on September 28, 2015

Wondering if developing some procedural checklists during your down-time might help. Checklists have a couple of advantages - not only do they make sure you don't forget a critical step, it also off loads the job of remembering what to think about. Knowing exactly where things stand can also make it less stressful - even if you know there is a time crunch, it is easier to think "I need to do step f-G on this project and E-G on that one" instead of OMG, everything is unfinished!! it also helps you talk to your manager about setting priorities if you can more specific about the status of each project without having to think it through. Having a written procedure (even if it not official beyond your own say-so) can also make it less personal/less emotional to say to someone "the procedure for this project is to have" instead of "I want"
posted by metahawk at 2:31 PM on September 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

As someone who has been there before, all I can say is: devote most of your energy into finding another job. It could mean a lateral move to another department, or it could mean working someplace else entirely.

You're facing a problem with workplace culture, and it is difficult to change workplace culture.
posted by Nevin at 2:41 PM on September 28, 2015 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Checklists are a good idea, and I use them to a degree. However, I'm regularly thrown curveballs that require me to change the process, to the point where I'm finding the regular stuff I can use a checklist for are becoming the exception, rather than the rule. That comes back to communication. For example, if a campaign ends, the first I know about it is when I try setting it up, and the ads don't work.
posted by SansPoint at 2:41 PM on September 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

2) I'm on a daily editorial calendar, so if I get a project that has to go out at 5 PM that day, it _has_ to go out then.

I'm in a different field, so I really can't address this. But I get the feeling there are many, many other organizations out there that operate in a similar fashion without shitting all over their junior staff like this.

(Personally, I'd just start showing up to the office at noon and leaving at 8. It sounds like mornings are dead and afternoons are DEFCON 1, so why not just be better refreshed and handle the hard work when you still have mental energy?)

but yeah maybe it's time to head for the escape pod
posted by JoeZydeco at 2:44 PM on September 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I should explain a little more about my job. We have daily editorial emails that go out. Many are prepared the day before, but not all... and all are dependent on when the editorial content comes in. This means, I could get an assignment to set up an email anywhere from before I get to my desk, to after I get home in the evening. (As stated, the ones that get in after I leave are usually ones that can wait until morning.) Typical send times are: noon, 5-6PM, or 6 AM the next morning.

There's also setting up email lists, building promotional emails, and other stuff, but the bulk are those editorial emails that are based around when I get the content from the editors.
posted by SansPoint at 3:09 PM on September 28, 2015

Best answer: You're not going to find any answer here that will solve your problem, which is that you work with a toxic environment. You cannot do anything meaningful that will change the culture enough to fix that. You can only change how you feel about that.

It is clear that you really care about your job. You're following this thread very closely and replying to every answer, which is a clear indication of how badly you want a clear answer. It is awesome that you are looking for solutions and know that you have to leave this job. But really, the best and most effective thing you can do is not care so much until you can get another job.

I tried for a year to fix a workplace like this. I was an in house graphic designer and dealt with a lot of the same shit you describe. No matter how many best practices I educated coworkers about or processes I perfected for myself, the only time the stress went away was when I spontaneously told my manager I was quitting and told her I would be leaving in a month.

That month was great. I still wanted to leave with my professional reputation intact, so I worked really hard the whole time but my stress level was finally manageable. Just knowing there was a finish line made it tolerable and honestly, I wish I had stayed at that job (since I didn't have another one to go to) and figured out how to stop caring, because it would have been fine.

How you can achieve that same level of "don't care, not my circus not my monkeys" is a tough one. It helps a lot to find a phrase or bring a picture for your desk that reminds you to step back when you get too invested in your work. You're already leaving at appropriate times, which is amazing. You need to find a way to mentally leave work behind at those times, and ratchet down the fucks you give when a project gets thrown on your lap. It isn't your problem, you get paid whether you're busy or not, so don't assign a level of annoyance to the times that you're busy—just even it all out. By this time next year you'll be somewhere else. In five years your career will be advanced enough that nothing you did at this job now matters in the day to day. Just focus on the accomplishments you can make over the period of time that you're at this job and then let the rest go.

Does your employee offer an Employee Assistance Program? Use that, go see a mental health professional and work with them to come up with a plan on creating boundaries at work. Boundaries are the answer to the question you didn't ask: How can I handle a toxic work environment when no one respects my time and efforts and I can't change the organization?

Finally, check out the Ask a Manager blog archives for similar stories to yours. It should fill you with hope that this isn't a normal workplace and give you more energy and hope to find a workplace that doesn't wear you down like this.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 4:28 PM on September 28, 2015 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: Yeah, they ain't got anything like that at my job. We just got friggin' access again after a year of it being taken away 'cause they didn't want to pay for it (and nobody was using it).

Guess I gotta find another gig... I've got some feelers out, but I was honestly lucky to get this one. I've got a pretty unique skill set, and I've been bouncing around between basically entry-level jobs with a one-year stint in a startup, since leaving college in 2008, so...
posted by SansPoint at 4:52 PM on September 28, 2015

Mod note: Hey SansPoint, not a big deal, but at this point just sit back and let folks give the best answers they can; it's not really a space for back-and-forth discussion.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 5:08 PM on September 28, 2015

Response by poster: LobsterMitten: can do. Sorry. (Oh, no! I'm doing it again!)
posted by SansPoint at 5:30 PM on September 28, 2015

I work in a similar field (digital marketing) and have been in a similar position: junior staffer, sending emails for other departments, struggling with an insane editorial calendar.

I'll tell you two things:

First, your only chance of salvaging this job is to get your boss to take this seriously. Right now, the relationship between your department and the other departments seems horribly unequal - they get to get you materials whenever they want, but you have to get stuff out on this strict calendar. That's completely unfair and unsustainable.

This is a common problem with digital departments. The solution is that there need to be really clear guidelines about deadlines and format for submitting materials. For instance, after a while at my old job we had rules: there were certain materials that people had to submit and they had to be submitted by three days before the email went out. If that didn't happen, it was the submitter's responsibility, not my department.

But this didn't happen by accident. It happened because the email marketing staff was getting completely burnt out, and our boss went to bat for us. And then stood behind us when we held people to the rules.

So I would talk to your boss. Frame it as an issue that's making it hard for quality emails to go out on time. See what happens.

Second: If you can't fix this situation, see what you can learn from it. If you are interested in staying in digital communications, this experience, while frustrating and exhausting, is really useful. You'll leave this position being able to churn out quality digital materials under crazy circumstances and with little time. Speaking as a hiring manager, that experience is extremely valuable.
posted by lunasol at 5:34 PM on September 28, 2015 [6 favorites]

While this may not necessarily help at this job, this is a good book to check out: Content Strategy for the Web. Since you have plenty of down time, you should be able to quickly read it. It explains how things are *supposed* to work. It's possible it might give you some new ideas to suggest to the people that you have to work with.
posted by three_red_balloons at 5:40 PM on September 28, 2015 [5 favorites]

To piggyback on lunasol, you can control the quality of the email based on your workload. Maybe you start coming up with some templates, or canned language.

And you don't say anything about your boss, but this editorial calendar, is it just a thing that hangs out there, or can you add comments/status/etc. like it was Trello or something? Alternatively, you can email the task-givers with the particulars and the deliverables you need when you get assigned, and again when their job is on the calendar for that day. If they're the same day, send the second email at lunch or whatever. CC your boss, if you can. You can at least lay a paper trail as a defense against being fired for non-performance if they're that sick.

Lastly, your downtime is an opportunity. Maybe something you can do with this time is to start expanding your role so that you, then, are the one to hire someone to do these ads and run the operation better.
posted by rhizome at 9:02 PM on September 28, 2015

You mention personal projects. Unless they are necessary to getting a better job, shelve those for now. Work as little as you can get away with at your current job, use all energy you have left over for finding a new one; make THAT your most important personal project for now. If you have downtime and enough privacy at your desk, go ahead and surf for job listings, craft cover letters, and send in applications (or email recruiters, or however you want to go about this search). Take your lunch, and go make phone calls. Chances are, even though your not working long hours is something people dislike, you are probably more competent than a lot of the folks there (because competent people leave shitty jobs; you won't be the first to do it there, I can almost guarantee). So unless your boss is particularly firing-prone, you will probably not get into too hot of water if you keep working only what you have to in terms of hours.

If you have a hard time getting your head out of the space of fantasizing about all the ways you could make this place actually work, (and I feel you on this) then open a Word document and write down all the things that are wrong/you would fix at this job. Save the document/send it to yourself to keep, and then get back to finding a better job. Maybe those insights will be useful to you in a future situation; what you know now is that no-one here wants to know about them. Their loss.
posted by emjaybee at 9:30 PM on September 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

I will forward you to the advice of Neil Fiore, author of the frequently rec'd 'The Now Habit':
Planning Your Escape: What to do when your job is doing you in
(Google cache link, since the site seems to be temporarily down)

Basically addresses that point of being able to quit stressing once you know you have an escape route. Which I'd sum up to, always try and make sure you have an escape route - you'll be able to shake stress off easier.
posted by Elysum at 5:19 AM on September 29, 2015 [5 favorites]

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