Working with distractions
December 16, 2017 10:05 AM   Subscribe

tl;dr I am expected to do exacting work. I have distractions and I'm not the kind of person who can "tune things out."

I have loud, disruptive co-workers--they congregate and talk and gossip (and yell, sometimes) for hours. Previously, I'd brought in an M.D.'s note for a quiet and distraction-free work space and was given token (not effective) accommodations. Even without my specific condition, I would think a person would have to be in a zone to compose and edit minutes. I've already fallen out of favor for the last set of minutes--the day I worked on them, my supervisor (let's call her Mrs. Cherry) interrupted me twenty times (no hyperbole) that day. I just could not concentrate. The co-workers basically practice the art of subterfuge and quiet down when others enter the room, ergo, making me the crazy person. Neither Mrs. Cherry nor her supervisor see a problem. Besides, it's not like you can force adults to do anything.

(I feel kind of bad. My last couple jobs--all open office setups--people hung around and talked, talked, talked. They must have a secret -- I'm still working while people socialize. Guess I'm slow like that.)

Earphones are not an option. Another work space is not an option. Calling in sick to work at home seems a bit over the top, but I can't think of another option at this point (Working from home as well as different hours were also examined, and discarded, by the accommodations committee).

(If you are going to suggest another job, I am light years ahead of you and applying for both exterior and interior positions (But, who's to say the next job won't be louder?) But I have to get through this now. The stress is close to making me ill.)

There is more, but I have made this intentionally vague and brief as they are also experts at the game of retaliation. I also understand that HR is not my friend.
posted by Rumi'sLeftSock to Work & Money (12 answers total)
Are ear plugs an option?
posted by lazuli at 10:07 AM on December 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

A fan, white noise app, or other sort of noisemaking device that might at least partially drown them out with a sort of noise that might bother you less?

Keeping an eye out for any predictable time when things get quieter (does everyone else go to the same meeting or get lunch at the same time?) and rework your own schedule to jealously protect that time for your most important work?
posted by Stacey at 10:34 AM on December 16, 2017

I would ask if you can work from home a day or two a week and really push for it. I have found that when I am in the office with my co-workers, they will interrupt me to ask questions about anything. But when I work remotely and there is a barrier to it, they will figure it out on their own unless it's actually important. I asked to work remotely and I sold it as something that allowed me to dive into bigger projects and get more stuff done on days where I wanted to grind my way through the project. I sold it as a benefit to them to allow it.

With email, chat, phones, etc., most jobs can be done remotely fairly easily, so your office should be willing to let you do it one or two days a week. Ask if you can try it and see how it goes -- that's a low risk proposition for them if it's a trial and not a commitment to allowing it forever. And if they grant you that, don't forget about your co-workers entirely while you're gone too -- make sure to take breaks to check-in and keep up with email/messages. While pitching why I thought it would help my company, I also pre-emptively addressed any concerns by saying I would have regular check-ins with my team. When I went remote full-time, we set up performance and action metrics to make sure it didn't get in the way of my work, and it didn't. So make sure you do get a lot done on your remote day and then it will be hard for them to say no in the future.
posted by AppleTurnover at 10:34 AM on December 16, 2017

White noise? Plenty of excellent phone apps exist. I know you said earphones aren't an option but if you tell us why maybe we can figure out a solution.

This may be farfetched but I have a soft headwrap with tiny wireless speakers in it for listening to books while lying in bed. You could possibly pretend it is just a fashion accessory? It's inaudible to anyone else. You could play white noise on it to yourself to drown out their chatter.
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:41 AM on December 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

If there's no way to fix this then you just have to hand in the best you can do and not stress. Turn in your work late and say to your boss sorry this is late but my accommodations weren't made.
posted by bleep at 11:29 AM on December 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

Also something I had luck with in the past is blocking out some time on my calendar and going into a conference room. Or if a conference room wasn't available I put up a little sign that said "I am in the zone, please send me an email"
posted by bleep at 11:59 AM on December 16, 2017

One option not on your list: Have you asked your co-workers to STFU? You could do this with kindness and good humor. Research suggests that the best way would be to ask for help and to frame your request as a net gain for everyone: "You all are cracking me up! However, I really have to do [X] important thing, and I can't do it when I'm distracted by you! Could you help me figure out how I can finish this thing in peace and quiet so that I don't run the company into the ground?"

If you had a note from an M.D. requesting accommodation, I also wonder if this might be an issue to raise again with your M.D. -- not for another note, but to discuss any adjustments that might be made to your prescription (or if you don't have a prescription, a prescription that might help). I say this as a person who has a really low-level of tolerance for distraction, especially noise, and who was helped immensely (IMMENSELY) by medication.
posted by pinkacademic at 1:39 PM on December 16, 2017

Ear plugs (used correctly, I read the package instructions) are only strong enough to block out 20 to 30 percent of it--and I hear this annoying background garble, which is almost worse.
posted by Rumi'sLeftSock at 6:45 PM on December 16, 2017

They would not listen to me, and I would probably get written up for asking. Their contempt and disrespect for me is palpable. Example: once I DID have the conference room blocked off (with a sign, "Room in use") and they came in and out anyway. Why? For the important task of getting their coffee. I am already on meds that help a great deal, yet I don't want to be on meds all the time/have to medicate my co workers away. Already running the white noise (I love the white noise jet airplane) but it isn't enough. Earphones aren't allowed because the manager said so. I'll look into the headwrap. And even my manager isn't allowed to work from home.
posted by Rumi'sLeftSock at 7:01 PM on December 16, 2017

I think you need an employment lawyer. You have a disability and they refuse to accommodate it.

I have tried everything suggested by others and the only thing that works is quiet working conditions *combined* with noise cancelling headphones on top of the meds.

So all you can do is see if you have any legal recourse. I don’t suggest allowing yourself to underperform because that only gives them grounds to fire you.
posted by tel3path at 12:27 AM on December 17, 2017

Keeping an eye out for any predictable time when things get quieter

Stacey: I definitely do my work when they are gone, which various from day to day. It's still a matter of being ripped out of my zone as I never know when they will return. This is another problem entirely: the anxiety generated by wondering how soon they will return and how much I can get done before they do.

tel3path: A big company with big lawyers. I lawyered up years ago on an unrelated matter (work comp) and they are vicious. It's a good idea to explore, though. Perhaps I will also write HR one more e-mail, not for results, but to document that I asked for more help.
posted by Rumi'sLeftSock at 5:29 AM on December 18, 2017

And if you wonder why I am still working for this company: the company pays 98% of the insurance premium(s).
posted by Rumi'sLeftSock at 5:39 AM on December 18, 2017

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