Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Enough already!: pushing back when the economy (and your job) pushes on you

If you've been working throughout this economy-from-hell for the past 12-24 months, you're likely seeing the effects of the economy's stress on your coworkers. Perhaps you're experiencing it yourself. It often manifests itself as reflexive irritability at little requests and the tiniest criticisms, anxiety about your present workload and tasks and your future job stability, fear elicited by every minor mistake, and even physical symptoms and ailments such as headaches and migraines, stomachaches, heartburn, and even dizzy spells. A bad economy takes its toll on pretty much everyone up and down the food chain in a company, but it can especially wear on the newest folks to the profession. Because interns have only a few years of experience in their profession, they may feel as if they have few or no options if they are laid off or fired. They feel backed into a corner, so they tolerate a lot of demands and allow their project managers to lean extra-heavily on them.

It's completely understandable--and acceptable--to be angry and annoyed and furious and cranky after having to work more for less money for so long. After a while of acquiescing to each and every demand, even the most balanced person will snap. The goal is to open the pressure valve on your stress levels before you engage in a scorched-earth policy with your boss and firm (and possibly your career). The main things to do are 1) help your bosses and coworkers manage their expectations of you, and 2) give yourself a break.

Managing expectations
People often don't realize what they're asking of you when they assign you a task or make a request. By highlighting for them in no uncertain terms what the cost of compliance is, you hold them accountable for either the unreasonableness of the request or for the poor outcome. For example, if your boss has given you three major things to do by Friday, and on Wednesday she walks up with yet another major task, remind her that she's given you this, that, and the other to do by Friday--is this task more important than those? If she pushes back that "they all have to be done by Friday," it's on you to express just how realistic that deadline is. Just saying "okay" and then falling short is a much worse deal than pushing back on her--more than once if you need to--that what she's asking for is not possible. Even if she insists and then walks away in a huff, you've spoken up, and chances are someone else heard you too.

One intern I know of has a boss who constantly tells her that she can't spend a lot of time on certain projects because there's little fee left on them. Then, when he needs her to put together a plan or update a drawing on those projects, he'll redline them and fiddle-fiddle-fiddle with them, causing her to do the very thing he didn't want her to do. She began calling this to his attention: when bringing him the drawing after the second round of redlines and changes, she would tell him how much time she had spent so far on the project ("Okay, Marco, here's the plan with your changes, and I'm at two and a half hours on this so far."). It might seem a little like hardball, but she wanted to make the cost of compliance very clear to someone who is extraordinarily obsessed with the bottom line.

You may not feel like asking for questions and details when someone is in a hurry and acting extra rude to you at when they assign you a task, but it's more important than ever to do when this rude person's request is setting you up for failure. You also may feel nervous turning down a request at a time when you're easily replaceable. My advice: don't. If you know you won't be able to do the job right in the time allotted given the resources you have at hand, then let the person know. Maybe they want you to finish a code study in three days that someone else started a month ago and now they're gone on maternity leave and you've barely cracked the spine on the 2006 IBC. Maybe they need some nice marketing graphics done today and your knowledge of Illustrator is prosaic at best. Whatever the reason, tell them in the service of the job: "It would take me longer to do that than you have, and I wouldn't do the job it deserves with my limited skills. Perhaps so-and-so could help you better? Or I could help you if I had six days instead of three?"

Give yourself a break
Seriously. Give yourself a break. You're living through the worst economy in the past 30 or so years. There are people your parents' ages that haven't seen an economy this bad. No wonder you're feeling blue and anxious. Take a deep breath. Get a massage or spa service at a local spa school (they do just about as well, and they're way cheaper). Get away from your desk to eat your lunch. When my deadlines were extra stressful but I didn't want to go out to eat every day, a few colleagues and I would go eat lunch in a conference room just to get away from the phone and have a good laugh.

Take a mental health day. You heard me--call in well. As long as you're not playing hooky on an important day, like the day before or day of a major deadline, or on a day where your boss has meetings and will very likely need to handy to help out, there's nothing wrong with taking a sick day and sleeping in, going to a coffee shop and reading the paper for an hour, browsing in a bookstore or library, volunteering, even doing some housecleaning and laundry (unless you like that sort of thing, or as long as you do something else fun that day). If you're so angry and anxious that you constantly find yourself snapping at people or barely able to contain your anger or annoyance, then take a day. You may not be physically or visibly sick, but I guarantee that you are not well and need time away. Take an afternoon or a whole day, either way it's good for you.

If you have a question or a topic you'd like to see covered here, let me know in the comments or email me at the address in the sidebar. Thanks!

No comments:

Post a Comment