You Can't Fix Everything in Your Workplace
At one point in my career, I decided to leave a job because it was affecting my mental health. I share the story here because I hope it might persuade people in a comparable situation that sometimes, it is in your best interests to do the same.
I had been feeling pressure to solve a problem, not of my making nor under my purview, but one that was affecting many other colleagues. Try as I might, I could not produce a solution. I kept reviewing approaches and checking the math. But I could not figure out how to do it.
I have always taken pride in being “a good employee.” And I have always felt the pressure to be a problem-solver. If I put my head down and muscle my way through things, solutions tend to emerge. There are narratives in our career culture that say a good employee “finds a way through.” They tend to make a person feel like a failure if they cannot resolve things by overworking.
The truth is, though, that’s toxic thinking. It actually does not matter how good an employee you are. You cannot always pull a rabbit out of a hat. And good employers do not ask their people to be magicians. To do so is to set them up, in some ways, for failure. In my own case, I found myself dreading going into the office. The feeling permeated my personal life and I started to have anxiety attacks. I could not be present for people. I was a bit of a mess if I am honest. It was not my greatest moment. It was though an extremely human moment.
It took me a while to get over it. I blamed myself and doubted myself. My confidence took a knock. But I did get over it, and healing and learning from the experience gave me more confidence when it comes to coaching other people through similar times.
I had a chat recently with a staff member at a very high-profile start-up on the east coast. She has reached her breaking point. She has an impressive work history and educational background and came into her role keen to tackle a challenge. In fact, she previously had significant confidence in her ability to take on anything new to her.
But she has gotten walloped by this situation:
- Management is not happy with her and yet continues to give her more responsibilities.
- She is taking them on because she wants to be a team player.
- Her pre-existing projects are suffering because she does not have the time to do them effectively.
- She fears that the strong relationships she has built will begin to suffer because she has lost faith in her leadership and no longer trusts them.
- She is worried because she thinks that failing in this situation might hurt her reputation.
She is in a bit of a no-win situation, especially given her efforts to get support from colleagues that is more than lip service. I have a lot of compassion for her situation, and if you are facing similar struggles, then I feel the same for you.
The key point is this: If you are the kind of person who takes the world on their shoulders, then you are actually risking hurting yourself and the people around you. It is not just a professional risk but a personal one and it is important to manage that risk aggressively as soon as you find yourself in a situation.
Do not try to be the hero. Here are a few questions to ask yourself as you consider taking on new responsibilities in a situation like this, and, simultaneously, you might also be thinking about leaving your current role.
Should I Take on this Problem?
Does it fall within your job description? Is this something that makes sense would be asked of you given the rest of your work? I do not think you have to limit yourself to what was in the description, but if it isn’t, does that mean someone else should own this and might even get upset that it was offered to you? Also, if new work is added, can another project be removed or can dates of completion be shifted? You do not want the quality of what you do to suffer.
Do You Have the tools (training/resources) you need? Just because you are the person who always has gotten it done in the past does not mean that you can manage coding the new website, drywall and tending to the company nursery. If you lack the tools, what resources would it take for you to be successful? What happens when you bring up that request to your supervisor?
Do you have support for your manager (and management)? We have already mentioned resources and time above. Are they going to be engaged in ensuring you are successful by giving you useful feedback and additional ongoing support and encouragement as you move the work forward.
What is success? Is there an end date? How long are you taking on this additional piece of work? When can you hand it off to someone else? Is there a date set, or some completion point that once you reach someone else is passed the rest.
Do I need to step away from the Job? If you have done the assessment above and took on the job or it was thrust upon you it is possible that you are now wondering whether you can continue on. Here are some questions that can help you frame next steps:
Is there an end date to the problem? How far away? Is it a month away and you can return to some prior version of fulfilling? Is it misery that has no specific end in sight?
Is there an end date to what I need from the role? Do you have a goal date where you get a bonus or other financial reward? Are you nearing a date where you feel more comfortable departing? Many people try and hold out until they hit a year.
Is it undermining how I see myself and others see me? Are you losing confidence in your ability and sense of competence? Do you feel yourself becoming a less sure version of yourself as a professional? Do you think that peers and partners are losing respect for you?
Is it impacting my life outside of work (and those around me)? Are you growing impatient or irritated with those you care about because you are so frustrated by work? Are you experiencing the kind of mental health issues I mentioned at the start of the article? How about your physical health or ability to sleep?
Caring about work and striving to be your best in the workplace should not come at the price of your well-being. I believe in your ability to make good decisions that sustain you over the entire arc of your career. Best of luck.
—Russ Finkelstein [linkedin.com] is the opposite of your High School Guidance Counselor. A career coach, social entrepreneur, and advisor to founders, he is currently the Director of Coaching with the Roddenberry Fellowship, Coach-in-Residence with StartingBloc Fellowship, and a Co-Founder of Title8 a Legal Marketplace. He was a founder of the noted careers website Idealist.org and was chosen as a Generation Z Influencer by LinkedIn.