the anxiety spike
December 1, 2020 6:18 AM   Subscribe

I made a few mistakes at work last week and have fallen behind on a project that was assigned to me. I'm scared I'm going to lose my job.

I started a new job at the beginning of October. I feel lucky to have found a job during COVID-times. The job is a type of work I've been doing for years and while it's not particularly challenging work, I find it fulfilling and I like my boss and my colleagues.

I took Thursday and Friday off last week for Thanksgiving and on Friday my boss was at work and caught a few mistakes I had made in a report. It was nothing earth-shattering or company-jeopardizing, just some careless mistakes that I could have caught had I checked my work more thoroughly. These were pointed out to me yesterday, when I returned for work, and I apologized sincerely and said I would slow down and double-check whatever I create in order to avoid repeating the mistakes.

This morning, my boss came to talk to me and ask me if I was "happy" in this job, or bored. She apparently is still not happy about the mistakes I made in that report. She also is furstrated that I have fallen behind on an ongoing project that needs to be completed by the end of the year - though this is a project with many stakeholders and everyone else involved has also dropped the ball, so she did admit that she is frustrated with everyone right now.

This is a small company, and everyone is expected to jump in and help keep things running - especially as they are staffed shorter than usual due to COVID. I consider myself that kind of person and am surprised that my boss was conveying that she didn't feel the same way based on a couple of mistakes and a group project that everyone is to blame for not following through, including herself.

We had a positive conversation about the issues she was seeing and I told her I would be more proactive in getting everyone on board with finishing the project, and again reiterated that I would be more careful in checking my work for errors.

I am now terrified that I'm going to be fired. I suffer from major anxiety, and this has triggered me intensely. I am in recovery from a major mental health crisis from back in December 2019/January 2020 - I was in a psychiatric facility for 8 weeks outpatient, and in the process was diagnosed with CPTSD and borderline personality on top of my bipolar II and anxiety. I had an extremely traumatic childhood which led to maladaptive coping mechanisms in adulthood that resulted in a lot of erratic behavior, binge drinking and job instability. I have been fired outright from jobs twice and had many conversations about "performance issues" before. The only job I was able to finally excel at was the job I was working part time when I was in outpatient therapy and finally was getting my head screwed on straight, and then I lost that job due to COVID decimating the industry. I cannot fathom how much losing this job - in this economic climate, when I was so lucky to find a job in a pandemic - would destroy me and my self-esteem at this point, not to mention my partner's respect in me.

I do admit that some days at work are boring - business is slow, and sometimes there's not a whole lot going on, and the main co-collaborator on this project is often on the road visiting clients so I can't seize that downtime to get work done. I also admit that in general, COVID-stress has taken a toll on me - I graduated from my 8 week psych program literally days before New York went on coronavirus lockdown, my boyfriend and I were both laid off two weeks afterwards, and I was unemployed from April - October until I landed this job. My boyfriend is still out of work and collecting unemployment. Money is tight. My new job doesn't pay very much. We are stressed about how long we can keep up with our bills (including starting mortgage payments again in January when my forebearance term is over, Obamacare for my boyfriend and his kids, his child support and alimony that he has to pay his ex). I have been depressed and having trouble sleeping for months. This probably doesn't make me as sharp as I could be in this job, considering how easy the tasks are.

But up until yesterday, I had gotten nothing but positive feedback about my work here. My predecessor in this job was apparently pretty terrible and misrepresented her experience with this kind of work, and I think just the sheer contrast in having someone who actually knows how to do this kind of work led them to be super impressed with me in the beginning. I feel like now that I've revealed that I'm not always 100% accurate, or that I haven't forced the issue on this project that four other people have to contribute to as well, that impression is gone, and the writing is on the wall that I will be let go soon enough.

What can I do? I am unable to gauge how much of this is my anxiety talking or if this is a really serious issue that indicates that my job is on the line. Can anyone help me understand how to fix this so my boss isn't disappointed with me anymore?

posted by nayantara to Work & Money (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
This is 100% your anxiety talking. Your job is not on the line.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:24 AM on December 1, 2020 [17 favorites]

There's not much you can do about the mistakes you made in the report, aside from working hard to avoid making such mistakes in the future.

With regard to the project that's behind schedule: Be proactive in developing a plan to catch up, and see if you can get everyone else on board with your plan, as well. Without knowing the specifics of your situation, it's hard for me to determine the exact nature of the plan, but make sure you do SOMETHING tangible to get the ball rolling faster. Doing so would demonstrate to your boss that you are taking her feedback seriously and acting on it.
posted by alex1965 at 6:27 AM on December 1, 2020 [3 favorites]

The, "Are you bored here," question can be an opportunity. It seems that a lot of the progress you're able to make on that year-end project is being hindered by outside forces, so you could frame that question in a way that asks how you can navigate around those blockers (other employee being on the road, people dropping the ball) to keep you busy during the slower times. It may turn out that those blockers can't be worked around, but letting your boss know that it's not boredom at the job and that you're reaching out to see how to work on more things tends to resonate with managers.
posted by xingcat at 6:55 AM on December 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

Thanks everyone for the answers so far, and please keep the advice coming - I find it comforting.

The thing that concerns me is that the two times I've been let go in the past, the process of being fired always started with the question "are you happy here?" and that's what my boss led with this morning. In my brain, that feels like a euphemism for "do you care about this work because we think you don't". (Admittedly, these questions came up when my mental health was significantly more unstable than it is now.) Has anyone experienced being asked this before, or has anyone as a manager asked this question of one of your reports? What do I do to convey happiness at work, especially during the stress of a pandemic? My job requires us to report to the office every day because we are considered an essential business, and two people who work here have been exposed to COVID in the past two weeks, even though they are careful about mask usage and social distancing. We try to do social distancing in this office but it's not always easy, but we all do use masks as well when we interact directly with one another. Having two employees out right now waiting for COVID test results and quarantining has me a bit freaked out. I'm not at my best, and it's hard to convey happiness at this particular moment. Is there a way to fake it?
posted by nayantara at 7:02 AM on December 1, 2020

As someone with pretty significant job-related anxiety myself, I don't think your job is on the line. This part in particular stood out to me:

"This morning, my boss came to talk to me and ask me if I was 'happy' in this job, or bored"

For one thing, the fact that you enclosed "happy" in scare quotes leads me to believe that you are not, in fact, happy at this job. You outright admitted multiple times that you are bored. So this shouldn't actually come as a surprise, except... most bosses aren't perceptive enough to notice this. Most bosses just throw stuff at you and expect you to keep up. This conversation indicates to me that your boss is going beyond that, that they actually seem to be interested in your success.

The thing is, being bored by your work is actually a leading cause of errors. If you don't feel like you have to pay attention, you stop paying attention. Ask me how I know this.

Your boss has the power to change that, though, and more importantly, maybe the willingness. The key is going to be in how you approach it. Don't just say "yeah, this is boring AF". As one of my better bosses used to say, don't come to me with a problem; come to me with a proposed solution. This is your chance to figure out what would make you less bored at work. Think about what would help you to "operate at a higher level", and then think about how you could propose those things to your boss. Like, maybe weekly check-ins (or even daily scrums, in programmer-speak) might help keep the ongoing project on track. Maybe delegating some of your colleague's responsibilities to other team members (you?!) while that person is out meeting clients could help.

Before I get your hopes up too much, it's entirely possible that this is not what your boss is suggesting. Don't go in guns blazing like "this is what needs to change to make me better". I did this once; it went badly. Like I said, most bosses don't care about your feelings and just want you to do what they tell you to do without asking questions. That's why the preparation is so key. If you frame it as "this is what I need to do a good job", it will come across as "I can't do a good job unless I'm coddled". If you frame it as "I'd like to take on x, y, and z responsibilities, because I think that could help me do a, b, and c better too", your boss is much more likely to listen.

If you have a co-worker you can trust, talk to them and run your thoughts by them. Since they know your boss, they have an idea how they'll respond, and can tell you if you sound whiny or lazy or anything else a boss would look down on.

On preview: This is dicey, but in these times I think it's OK. When your boss asks if you're happy, answer yes (if that's true, at least), but explain that, even though you like the company and the work, everything else (this is the part where you wave your hands at... everything) is getting you down, and you're struggling to keep that separate from work. Everyone is, to some degree. Don't use it as an excuse, but just let them know that your overall happiness is not where it normally is. If you can make it sound authentic and not ass-kicking, you might say something like "yeah, actually, I'm having a pretty tough time outside of work, so my duties here are one of the few things that are cheering me up".
posted by kevinbelt at 7:14 AM on December 1, 2020 [5 favorites]

The conversation you describe is actually pretty positive on the whole. You have been gently heads-upped that she's frustrated with everybody on the project - including you but not only you - and you have responded that you hear and understand.

Your next step is to not fuck up the opportunity to stay in better graces with her. One way to do that is to check your work and get yourself back on track, obviously, but is there anything else you recognize as being a drag on the project as a whole? Do you need more all-hands or sub-group status meetings (everybody hates Death By Meetings but I am finding in this year 2020 that it takes frequent internal deadlines to get anything done)? Is there someone acting as a real Project Manager keeping the running list of weekly/twice-weekly/daily deadlines and being a pain in the ass about hitting them? The right time to talk to her about this is NOW, because if you wait until everybody's off the rails in flames to be like "we should have inflicted more organization on this project" you're not going to make any friends.

Since you're quite new, I think the right approach to bring up anything you see is a sort of "since we talked about it, I do wonder if everybody would move faster/we would be more coordinated/etcetc if we did X, do you think that's feasible?" If you are part of a subgroup of work, or you have a subset of people dependent directly on your work for theirs, just go ahead and approach them yourself about increased touch-points.

Now is the point to take recognizable action if you're able.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:08 AM on December 1, 2020 [2 favorites]

I cannot fathom how much losing this job - in this economic climate, when I was so lucky to find a job in a pandemic - would destroy [...] my partner's respect in me.

That definitely reads either like serious anxiety talking, or like you have a condescending and unsupportive partner. Or has your partner's current unemployment destroyed your respect for them?

Especially if treatment has helped you in the past, it's probably one of the best things you can do for yourself and for your job right now.

Good luck. You're dealing with a lot in a uniquely stressful time. You'll be okay.
posted by trig at 8:22 AM on December 1, 2020 [2 favorites]

trig, I think that's just anxiety. I'm feeling a lot calmer now. I worry a lot about disappointing the people I love. I have the utmost respect for my partner - his industry has been completely destroyed by the pandemic and probably won't bounce back till Q2 of 2021, optimistically. He's doing the best he can and he has a side-hustle that he's been focusing on to bring in more income.

Honestly, I just have had such an erratic job history due to my mental health issues that anything remotely negative sounding scares me. I finally got to a place where I was able to be a good employee in March after I finished treatment and that's when I was laid off due to COVID-19. It was terrible timing and re-entering the workforce after so long when I am so out of practice just has me paranoid.

I want to thank everyone for their responses. You have all been really helpful and I feel better and have a clear action plan for moving forward.
posted by nayantara at 9:09 AM on December 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

As an anxious person who has been on both sides of these kinds of situations--yes, your anxiety is definitely making this into a bigger mountain, but this is also a good opportunity to check in with your boss about your work performance over the next few weeks/months. I always think of myself as a hard worker who pulls their weight, but I realized through a similar conversation that everyone around me doesn't actually know what I'm doing! Can you send daily or weekly work summaries to let your boss know what you're up to? I think the suggestions others made above are really good, but a key element is to make sure there's an email or paper trail of all those steps, and that you're letting your boss see your work. Since I started doing that my anxiety has been somewhat relieved, because I know my boss knows I'm doing my work, even when my anxiety tries to tell me I am going to get fired.
posted by assenav at 1:12 PM on December 1, 2020

I haven't been asked if I was happy at a job ever, I think, good or bad, but as a manager I have definitely tried to find ways to suss out whether my direct reports feel engaged and like they're getting to work within their skills and interests—not because I was working up to firing them, but because I want to set people up to do well. There are probably better and worse ways to frame the question but I don't think the question itself is a red flag.
posted by babelfish at 1:55 PM on December 1, 2020

You're banging right up on that 90 day period. You're probably fine, nerves and mistakes are normal during that time. This is when employers sound you out and make sure you want to stick around.
Whatever you do, don't bring up 90% of what you did here at work. Ever. If you're really worried your boss might flip you, well it happens to the best of us (and the worst ;), be sure you have your resume ready and interviews being artfully delayed in your inbox because that's just the way of life in this century. Relax, you're in great shape. Even if you decide (yes, YOU) to go elsewhere, you now have some time under your resume belt that isn't dead time (ok, it's like undead time but you proved you can land a fish--errr--job).
Aside from all that mess, the first few months anywhere are probationary or somesuch term. That doesn't mean YOU. It means the synthesis of your energy and that of your team. Who or what ever your team is.
You're nervous, especially after some time out of the workforce. Your boss is nervous because they might have to go through that hiring hell again and start from scratch.
As annoying as your job may be, remember those bastards can only be lazy after they put together the perfect team to do all the work. Regardless, they're liable for all the failures, all the mistakes and all the time lost training replacements. Once they put together a team and get their department running like a well oiled machine, however, those who stick through it with them get to enjoy the slack of a job well done until the next reorganization.
In short, everyone's a nervous wreck in these situations. In parting, I leave you this:
Hope for the best, prepare for the worst. -- Some asshole I respect.
posted by IronLizard at 3:56 AM on December 2, 2020

I'm sorry you're going through this, and that anxiety is making it worse. There's lots of great, actionable advice above; I only wanted to add, please don't discount what a terrible year this has been for everybody -- including your boss. The business is short-staffed, the main project co-collaborator is out of the office a lot, and the boss admitted she's "frustrated with everyone right now"... to you, as you were available to hear about it.

She's not especially concerned with your individual performance, nor are you at risk of being fired. I think you were present as she was unburdening herself in general, and now you have some good opportunities to pursue from that discussion.
posted by Iris Gambol at 9:16 AM on December 2, 2020

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