Feeling Spooked at Work? Don't Fear Your Future


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Tuesday, October 3, 2023
Stressed man placing head down on table

Ghouls and goblins aren’t half as scary as uncertainty in the workplace. Maybe you  are feeling unsure of yourself. Perhaps there’s turnover in management and you’re worried about your new supervisor. Or worst of all, you hear dreadful whispers of layoffs and downsizing in the future. Few things are as scary as feeling like the ground under your feet is not as solid as it used to be. Don’t fear your future! There are things you can do at work to keep your stress under control. You may not know what the future holds but if you take these practices to heart you’ll be well on your way to handling whatever comes your way.

Track Your Stressors

If you’re feeling a lot of anxiety at work, there are likely specific situations that are either triggering that stress or making it worse. Knowing what makes you feel anxious at work can help you cope with it. Is it an environment issue in the office: too much noise? Is there a specific co-worker or client that triggers anxiety? Or is it a new workplace rule or strategic goal that has you feeling overwhelmed? Tracking your stressors by keeping a journal for a week or two can be very helpful. Keeping a record of your work day will help you identify workplace issues that you may be able to address (either by talking to a supervisor, making a change in your behavior, or outright avoiding these situations entirely if you don’t need to interact with them). Part of the value of doing this is that journals help us notice patterns in our work lives that we may not be consciously aware of.

Set Firm Boundaries

If you’re feeling stressed by your work, there’s a good chance that the boundaries between your work life and home life are getting too thin. It’s important to have a healthy separation between those two worlds. You need to be able to come home and stop thinking about work (even if you work from home!). If you’re getting late night emails, chats, or texts from your manager or co-workers, that can cause anxiety from the feeling that you always need to be “on.” 

The first thing to do is commit to these boundaries and abide by them. It can be very easy to fall into the trap of “oh, I’ll just answer these emails after hours. It shows how dedicated I am.” Don’t do it! When you’re off, you’re off. Set an out-of-office responder on your email. If a co-worker texts you about something that isn’t an urgent matter, respond politely that you’ll connect with them in the morning and address thw issue then. Part of maintaining a boundary is modeling correct behavior. If you show the people you work with that you are serious about protecting your “me time,” it makes it much more likely that they’ll respect that boundary and save those late night messages for the next day.

Now, there is always the chance that you’ll work with people who won’t respect that boundary. Maybe you get a new supervisor who will insist on messaging you at odd hours after work. Communicate to them in a polite, non confrontational way about your boundaries. Check your employee manual: there’ll often be language in there specifically about not doing any work off the clock. Make no mistake: responding to a work email after work IS still work. If you have to cite the manual to back up your boundary, do so. If this continues to be a problem, you may need to seriously consider moving on to a new job. The amount of stress that a poor work/life balance can cause is tremendous. The hassle and stress of finding a new line of work may be worth it in the long run to free yourself from the anxiety of getting “urgent” work emails at 10 p.m.

Focus in What You Can Control

There’s a saying: “not my circus, not my monkeys.” A major source of stress at work can be taking on too much responsibility. Take on only what you are able to take on. Worry about what you can change. If you start worrying too much about the overall health of your industry or whatever co-workers are doing wrong, that can send you on a spiral of anxiety that isn’t helpful. If your co-workers need help and it’s within your bandwidth, by all means pitch in. But don’t always yes to things if it means you’ll have a harder time honoring the commitments you’ve already made.

Remember: you are not your work. If a project fails, you have nothing to feel bad about so long as you did your part. If you do what you’re supposed to do and you do it well, that’s the best you can hope for. As soon as you start taking the failures of other people to heart as though they were your own, you’re going to feel miserable at work. 

Cope in a Healthy Way

We all have our ways of finding comfort when we’re stressed. Some of these coping mechanisms can be quite unhealthy, unfortunately. Turning to “emotional eating” or alcohol may offer some brief respite but the long-term ramifications on your physical and mental well-being can be serious. Unhealthy stress responses can actually make things worse, making you feel progressively more unwell. Instead of indulging in self-destructive or avoidant behavior to get through this rough patch at work, consider healthier ways of managing your stress

Exercise is a fantastic way to let off some steam while improving your health. Gina Pinch, Rio Salado College's Faculty Chair for Business, Management, and Public Administration, suggests combining taking a walk with meeting with a colleague. “It’s a great way to talk through an issue while also getting some exercise,” Pinch said.

Quality time with friends and family can also help center you and distract you from your work anxiety. Board games, video games, recreational reading, and other hobbies are also a fun and safe way to relax when done in moderation. 

One thing to watch out for is your caffeine intake. A cup of coffee is usually okay to get you through your work day, but too much coffee could agitate you and make your anxiety worse. Consider switching to black or green tea: you’ll get a similar boost of energy with a more mellow caffeine buzz.

Have a Backup Plan

Few things can be as terrifying as the prospect of losing one’s job. If your workplace is going through hard times, there’s always the possibility of a down-sizing. The uncertainty of not knowing if you’ll be one of the people cut can eat away at you like a corrosive acid. Truth be told, there’s not much you can do in these sorts of situations beside continuing to do as good a job as you can and seeing how things shake out. You can’t change what could happen to you; what you CAN do is prepare yourself to have as soft a landing as possible if the bottom falls out.

If you’re feeling insecure about your job security, don’t wait for that Sword of Damocles to fall on you. Be proactive! Network as much as you can. Put the word out there amongst your friends, mentors, and former colleagues that you may be on the market soon and would appreciate any recommendations or leads they can offer. Polish up your resume and cover letters and see what other opportunities are available to you. In the event the worst happens you’ll be ready to hit the ground running.

It also doesn’t hurt to look into unemployment. Eligibility and application requirements for these benefits vary from state to state, so definitely do your research. Have your paperwork ready to go so you can file for benefits. It can take time for unemployment benefits to kick in so it’s best to apply for them as soon as you can. And finally: if you don’t already have some money set aside for emergency savings, put aside as much as you can during this time of uncertainty so you’ll have some kind of cushion to help you get through this rough landing.

“If you do find yourself getting laid off, try to look forward to the next opportunity,” Pinch said. “It might be a better fit for you than the job you just lost.”

Use Your Vacation Time

Do you have vacation days? Use them! Taking time off from work to recharge mentally and reconnect with the things in your life that bring you joy is important. You may feel like using up your vacation time is “putting too much work on your team” but that isn’t true. Remember: it’s NOT your job to balance other people’s workload. If you communicate your vacation plans far enough in advance, it’s the responsibility of your supervisors to figure out coverage and make sure things get handled properly. If you have a “I’ll take my vacation time when it’s the right time” mentality you may never go on vacation. Things may ALWAYS be busy; there may very well be no good time to take a week off from work. You do want to try to be reasonable, though, so avoid taking time off if you know there’s a critical all-hands-on-deck season coming up.

The same philosophy applies to sick days and personal time. You’re not doing yourself or your co-workers any favors by going to work sick as a dog. Even if you work from home and run zero risk of infecting co-workers, you will most likely be off your mental game while sick. It’s a better use of your time to rest and heal up than to try to work through a bout with the flu. Much in the same way that a workplace that won’t respect your boundaries is a workplace you should move on from, if your job can’t handle you taking some time off to recuperate from an illness or handle a bad mental health day then it’s not a place that will be good for you in the long run.

Talk it Out

If you’re feeling anxious or stressed, it doesn’t hurt to talk it out. If you feel like it’s safe to do so, talk to your supervisor. If you have an issue with a co-worker or your current workload is just too much for one person to handle, that’s something they can help you with. If you feel it’s best to unburden yourself outside of work, having a mentor or peer in your field that you trust can be an invaluable sounding board for getting some perspective on your problem. Sometimes just talking about something that’s causing you stress can help alleviate it. You may also find that you’re stressing about things that aren’t as bad as they seem or aren’t your problem at all; that’s why it’s good to get an outside perspective to see what you aren’t seeing.

Article by Austin Brietta


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