Any advice for disclosing anxiety disorder at a new-ish workplace?
May 2, 2020 5:43 AM   Subscribe

I flipped out at work on Thursday with a big spike of anxiety, then took Friday off sick. On Monday, I’m going to need to explain what happened to my boss. Would welcome any advice. Sorry for the wall of text that’s inside.

I’ve had anxiety at various levels since whenever, but learned to understand it as an actual disorder about three years ago. At that point I took three months off work, took medication, had therapy, learned some coping methods, etc.

I changed jobs last September. During recruitment I disclosed my anxiety to HR as an existing condition, but declined their invitation to also disclose to my line manager - I wanted to establish a relationship with him that wasn’t already coloured by whatever prejudice he might have around mental health.

I’ve had an ok but not spectacular first six months. Work culture & status here is very much based on past achievement, and I don’t have much of that yet. I’m identified with a new line of products that these guys want to get into, but they’re having trouble breaking free of their legacy product lines, in part because the legacy-aligned people have long-established reputations & corresponding wide & deep influence.

I’ve been working on a proposal based partly on one of “my” new products. Deadline for submission was Friday. My role was quite limited - to work with offshore colleagues to agree spec & pricing. The narrative around how my product would fit into the overall proposal, where the value comes from, etc etc - the sales story - responsibility for that was assigned to a colleague. We had daily calls to track status. Each day, I was on target with delivery of prices etc but the narrative was always late. Responsibility got passed around but still no one delivered. Deadline for all content was 12:00 on Wednesday but still no progress on the narrative. The bottle span again on Wednesday morning’s call, and ended up pointing at me.

With a week’s notice & no anxiety, I could have done a half-decent job. At least a solid draft. But with a couple of hours’ notice, high pressure & visibility, everyone flapping & panicking & offering possibly well-meaning but not actually helpful “advice”, and zero offers of meaningful help - reader, I failed. I threw together something barely coherent. It was ripped to shreds over email, so I had another go but by this stage I was barely functioning. I loaded it to sharepoint on Thu then ran for cover. I set an out of office message, turned my status to “away”, and texted my boss to say I was sick & would be back on Monday. I can’t bear to read subsequent emails yet, but from what I can tell, the proposal went in without “my” product included. Seems like the legacy-aligned group are going to “review” the whole thing before any resubmission.

So... not great. On Monday I need to have a conversation with my line manager to explain what happened.

I’m still not thinking too straight, so any advice about how to break this down into manageable pieces would be very helpful. I need to somehow explain last week's fuckup, but also to put it into context of my anxiety as an ongoing reality & whatever reasonable accommodations I’m going to need for that.

All experiences from either side of such conversations are welcome, as are anecdotes, reassurance, scripts & commiserations.

Thank you.
posted by rd45 to Work & Money (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I can totally imagine checking out for a day just over anger that this was done with you. You could possibly say that your main mistake was accepting the job with insufficient time. I know that may not be the culture there, but it sounds like you didn't cry or yell at anyone, so good for you. I wouldn't necessarily approach this from a position of weakness.

If you think you can write something better today, you could go ahead and do that, without even reading the e-mail messages (until afterward). You might end up throwing it away because the ship has sailed, but at least you'll see evidence of your own competence.
posted by amtho at 6:39 AM on May 2, 2020 [6 favorites]

I feel like you are possibly framing this in a way that gives you a lot more responsibility for the outcome than is warranted. Being asked to deliver a new product narrative with a few hours' notice is frankly absurd. If your manager doesn't understand that, it may be time to look for a new job.
posted by woodvine at 6:45 AM on May 2, 2020 [15 favorites]

Best answer: Hugs to you, this all sounds very stressful. But as an outsider, I don’t see how this is really your fault. If they only gave you a few hours to work on something your colleague failed to produce in a week, it’s hardly surprising you weren’t able to put something good together, anxiety or no, especially since you’re new to this role.

If they have any sense, the meeting will be framed as more of a postmortem, asking “how do we fix this system/give you support so next time we, as an organization, wind up with what we need as a deliverable?” If this is the case, try to explain the kinds of support and structure you’d need next time; more time, a partner with equal responsibility, etc.

However... they may also have a toxic work culture and fully intend to point fingers and unfairly lay blame. If that’s the case, just grin and bear it and try to stay detached and aware that it’s a company culture thing and not necessarily right, but something you may have to figure out how to navigate or mitigate if you stay there. (Document everything in writing, for starters, such as deadlines and previous agreements about responsibility...) And point out the non-ideal circumstances here. And then maybe look for a new job.

If you want to disclose your anxiety as a factor at this point, you can, but I don’t think you need to, and personally I would not make it the focus, maybe just a factor to take into account as you frame the question as: how do we keep this from happening again AS AN ORGANIZATION, so the ORGANIZATION gets what it wants in the end? In the end it’s in their best interest to put you in a position to succeed, because you are doing the work to make them succeed. It should not be about punishing you as an individual, but looking at the system and how to fix it.

Examples of concrete suggestions you could propose if appropriate: one week minimum TAT for first drafts, with three days for routing the draft for a consolidated set of comments, implementing those changes and routing again. Two rounds of feedback max. (If less time is available, quality may suffer, because that’s how reality works.) Reviewers should give a clear proposed solution with tracked changes if they disagree with something in the proposal; just saying “this is bad” is not useful. Create a template for the sales story that can be filled in. Give examples of what a success in this case would look like. Give training to people less experienced in creating them.

You are new to this role and you had something dumped on you last-minute after other people passed the buck. (Are they all having similar conversations with their managers about why this didn’t get done by then?)

If the first draft was “ripped to shreds“: was that feedback constructive and concrete, but phrased in a way that was unkind and making your anxiety scream too loud to actually act on it? Maybe you could explain the disorder to your manager and they might have a private conversation with the mean commenters about the way they provide feedback to new team members who may feel insecure. (Also, if you do want to disclose your disorder but just to your manager, I’d be clear to them that they should not bring it up with others.)

If that feedback wasn’t clear and constructive, that needs to be pointed out. How can you take some responsibility for this if your team isn’t supporting you properly?

And also think about things that are within your control that you could do better next time—raise a flag early if you have no idea how to proceed, and brainstorm with your manager or a colleague? Let your manager know if your anxiety is overwhelming you and you can’t handle it?


- They hired you because they think you can do this job, you are competent and smart and you can handle it!

- It’s your manager’s job to help you succeed.

- To the company, what really matters is getting what they need on time. Not punishing you or focusing on your failings, even if it may feel to you like that’s what they want. It’s not really about you.

- It’s a horrible, stressful, and weird time in the world, and everyone is human. You are human with human failings and this is a hard time to be taking on new responsibilities in a new role. But you might also remember, in case your manager or colleagues are grumpy or unhelpful, that they’re also human and probably stressed out just by being alive in the world at the moment, and might be unfair to you as a result, and that might require some awareness from you about it.

Good luck with the conversation! It sounds hard but ultimately I’m sure your manager would be just as happy to see this go away as you would, and again, this doesn’t seem like your fault at all to me.
posted by music for skeletons at 6:56 AM on May 2, 2020 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I don't think this has anything to do with your anxiety and I don't think you should mention anxiety to your boss.

They will be only too delighted to seize on some deficit of yours as a reason why this went sideways, when in fact it was THEIR screwups that caused the problem.

"That narrative was never in my deliverables. If it had been, and I'd had the time to work on it, it would have been done. But I was tasked with X and Y, which I did as best as I could without the narrative which was not provided. I feel like [the narrative team] has decided to scapegoat me for their failure to deliver the narrative, when in fact it was never in the assignment I was given at the outset. I'm always happy to expand my skills and scope of work, but if that's what's contemplated I'm going to need your help in being set up for success."
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:14 AM on May 2, 2020 [45 favorites]

Best answer: Agree this failure wasn’t yours.

Pull it together, act emotionally stoic, and don’t mention anxiety, it’s irrelevant to the work and will get you scapegoated.

Don’t go overboard pointing fingers at specific colleagues. Speak in the passive voice. If you say “Keith didn’t send the narrative”, then Keith and his friends will be pissed and you’ll have a hard time with them.

Instead use passive framing: “the narrative seemed to be behind schedule, and to my eye the main difficulty with this project was that this led to a need to retroactively create the narrative in a very short timeframe.”

If anyone asks why you left on Thursday, act innocent and say “I left at 4pm (or whatever) since my part of the project was completed,” as though that’s reasonable. If they press, you can say “actually to be honest I felt a migraine coming on, sometimes it happens when the weather changes, and it lasted all day Friday.”

Your feelings were very heightened but it sounds like your actual BEHAVIOUR was well within normal and justifiable scope. So give boring, low-drama explanations for you behaviour, and only when explicitly asked. What you DID was all fine. What you FELT is your private domain and your inner life is none of their business, and not on their radar at all. Keep it secret for now, it’s not relevant to this situation.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 8:13 AM on May 2, 2020 [31 favorites]

Best answer: I would not disclose the anxiety disorder to your boss under these circumstances. What they will take away is "rd45 is unable to handle pressure situations at work due to an ongoing anxiety disorder." It unjustly blames the anxiety disorder, and you, for a failure that should more properly be attributed to others on the team who should have dealt with the issue in a timely manner and should not have dropped it in your lap like a flaming turd at the last minute.

I think going with the narrative suggested by fingers and toes or nouvelle-persona above would be a good bet, along with a feigned illness. Migraine is good. "I had an upset stomach, and needed to be near my own bathroom" is another good one, because people very rarely want the details of your sudden-onset diarrhea.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 8:49 AM on May 2, 2020 [12 favorites]

Best answer: With a week’s notice & no anxiety, I could have done a half-decent job. At least a solid draft. But with a couple of hours’ notice, high pressure & visibility, everyone flapping & panicking & offering possibly well-meaning but not actually helpful “advice”, and zero offers of meaningful help - reader, I failed. I threw together something barely coherent.

So to break this down a bit:

The more experienced members of the team who were specifically assigned the work (presumably because it's a known strength of theirs) came up with nothing at all, despite plenty of lead time, as well as daily check-ins to brainstorm things and make sure they were on the right track and ask for help.

At the absolute last minute, when your experienced teammates had failed to produce anything, you were assigned a job that had initially been planned to have at least a week of focused attention, and given 2 hours to do it. You had already successfully completed your own assignment with no issues, and everyone else had failed or bailed.

The more experienced members of the team, understandably panicked, failed to ensure a working environment that you could actually succeed with, and instead kept interrupting so you couldn't focus.

Despite all this, you successfully produced a narrative within that 2 hours. It wasn't perfect but it existed, and gave your team something to work with for the first time.

Rather than passing the narrative on to a more experienced teammate to polish and refine now that they had a working draft and a tight deadline, they sent all their feedback to you, and you incorporated it as best you could and put the second draft where it could be easily accessed and worked on by anyone else.

And then you collapsed, because holy crap that was a freaking stressful two days of nothing but adrenaline and panic.

That has nothing to do with your diagnosed anxiety per se; you say yourself that everyone was flapping and panicking. Panic is an appropriate response in a pressure-cooker situation, and unlike everyone else you coped with it by actually producing something.

reader, I failed

THAT is your anxiety talking. You produced what they asked you to produce, at the last minute with no warning. Even if it wasn't perfect, it was 1000000000x better than what everyone else produced, which was zilch. Don't mention your anxiety to your manager, because seriously, it has nothing do do with what you did and everything to do with how you're perceiving what you did.

Seriously, you have nothing to apologize for or explain.

If your manager is decent/reasonable, they'll know that.

If not and they get blame-y, the point I would focus on is that you hadn't realized you should be pre-emptively crafting a narrative for projects you're involved in, in case of emergencies like this. Going forward, you'll remember to take notes or rough something out (and then do so), so you're not caught unprepared again. You're six months in - that is a valid lesson to be learning at that point. (But also it's not remotely your fault that you didn't do that - you were assigned a job, you did the job, you showed up to the meetings, other people were supposed to do their jobs and didn't. You can't lay the groundwork to do everyone's job during every project just in case other people screw up.)
posted by current resident at 10:23 AM on May 2, 2020 [13 favorites]

Yes, take a deep breath and step back from the situation, because your perceptions of your "failings" here is badly skewed. (I thought you were going to say something about throwing things or yelling or sending scorching emails!)
In fact, I'd say--stop reading this post, put all this aside, and give yourself a full day of not thinking about it before revisiting on Sunday. Then follow the advice here--though I'd skew towards not assigning specific blame to other co-workers, but presenting the situation as a matter of processes that went awry.

If your manager is decent/reasonable, they'll know that.

If not and they get blame-y, the point I would focus on is that you hadn't realized you should be pre-emptively crafting a narrative for projects you're involved in, in case of emergencies like this.

You're going to learn something through this, and it's going to be about how good your manager and your work culture is, not about how good at your job you are.
posted by praemunire at 10:27 AM on May 2, 2020 [5 favorites]

To be clear, was this manager the one who assigned you to write the narrative in 2 hours (and who failed to make sure the person who was supposed to do it did it with time to spare)? Or was that someone else?

I also wouldn't chalk this up to anxiety. (A lot of people without chronic anxiety would still be completely thrown by the stress of what you describe.) You could say that you'd already been pushing through a cold or other situation during the week (or I like the migraine suggestion above) and were unable to keep going through Friday.
posted by trig at 10:53 AM on May 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

I think you need to look at this situation as a question of what you should have done. Because the answer isn't, as you seem to think, "do a good job with the narrative in the limited time they gave me after they punted it to me."

The answer was probably "refuse to take responsibility for that" or "consult with my boss earlier about how it's not getting done." Your anxiety made you put up and out of office message and run on Friday, because it prevented you from facing and dealing with the situation, but your anxiety did NOT cause the poor outcome for the project--that was not your fault.

I have less advice on how to handle it, because that will depend much more on your workplace--would it be seen as throwing someone under the bus to bring up who actually didn't do their job? Would it work better to take responsibility for not raising the issue sooner, or just making it clear that you're sorry you couldn't write something brilliant and pulling the rest of the team out of the fire, but you're not a miracle worker? I don't know, but the key thing is for you to recognize what was not your responsibility (doing someone else's work) and what was your responsibility (dealing with a work crisis when it comes up) and only admit fault where it actually lies.

I hope that doesn't sound like I blame you--I have dropped many a ball based on anxiety. I think everyone else is right that you need to take less blame for it, but that will feel more honest to you if you look at what you should have done, vs. what you wish you could have done.
posted by gideonfrog at 11:28 AM on May 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Agree with everyone saying you should not disclose about your anxiety.

On Monday, I’m going to need to explain what happened to my boss.

"Hey boss, I could really use your help. As you know, my role in Project X was to work with offshore colleagues to agree spec & pricing. We had daily calls to track status. Each day, I was on target with delivery of prices etc but the narrative was never available. Then last week, on Wednesday morning’s call, I was asked to come up with the narrative in time for the content deadline at noon.

"Other people had several weeks to come up with the narrative and failed. I did my best in the time I had but naturally, it wasn't very good. I am not sure how I ended up with responsibility for a key component of the project at the absolutely last minute, with not enough time or resources. Can you help me understand how to prevent this from happening again and/or how to respond if this happens again?

"Unfortunately, a migraine made it impossible for me to explain the situation to you last week. I am eager to contribute to this company, and I was careful to meet all the original work deadlines related to this project. I just need your help to understand how to navigate such a situation in the future. Should I have asked you about it right after the call? What should I have done?"

Be quiet and listen. Then go back to your desk and send an email to your boss noting the essence of what you said and what your boss said, along with any agreement about how to proceed in the future. End with something along the lines of "Please let me know if I have overlooked anything important that we discussed."

This was not your fault. Best of luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 9:12 AM on May 3, 2020 [5 favorites]

PS: If your question describes the situation accurately and your boss blames, shames, or criticizes you on Monday for not being able to come up with a narrative in two hours then you need to keep your calm during the meeting and keep the peace at work as best you can while looking for a new job immediately.
posted by Bella Donna at 11:37 AM on May 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

tell us how it goes
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:44 AM on May 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

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