How To Deal With 4 Common Work Worries

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Last Updated Sep 9, 2009 11:56 AM EDT

As you head back to work after the sun-soaked days of summer, chances are that what awaits you there is not filling you with joy and optimism. While job losses have slowed, they still are piling up at an astounding rate, and even the most productive workers are not immune if their entire division is cut. It adds up to a pretty tense environment at work; with the unemployment rate approaching 10 percent, a recent Gallup poll finds that nearly one in three workers are anxious about being pink-slipped.

But when you start living in fear that every lackluster presentation or lukewarm performance review will be your last, anxiety has taken over — and that very fact, rather than any single mishap at work, may put you at risk. High anxiety undermines your performance on many levels: emotional, interpersonal and cognitive.

The first casualty is attention. A 2009 study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council in England found that anxiety reduces your ability to block out distractions. It can also set off a physiological reaction, the so-called fight-or-flight instinct, which is very helpful when a bear is charging you in the forest, but not when the boss is calling you to the conference room. When the boss beckons, you need to be on your game — hard to do when your chest is pounding and you keep forgetting to breathe. The bear presents a clear and imminent danger; your boss probably doesn’t. “It’s like worrying about an exam when you haven’t even taken the course,” says Carol Kauffman, and assistant clinical professor at Harvard Medical School and director of the school’s Coaching and Positive Psychology Initiative.

So how can you keep anxiety from sabotaging your performance? The answer, according to Kauffmann, is simple: Get real or rather, realistic. If you still have a job, don’t act as if you don’t. Says Kauffmann: “I’ll ask my patients, ‘Are you personally in danger? Are your finances at risk? How can you deal with what’s actually on your plate, as opposed to what you see on other people’s plates? How can you find the areas where you can take charge?’ ”

Here, we offer specific steps and expert advice for taking control of work situations that send your blood pressure soaring, and your critical abilities plunging.

Situation #1: You’re not making quota, and your boss is all over you. You’re so panicked you can’t think straight.

Step 1: Breathe. First things first: You need to get your physical agitation under control. Start by doing breathing exercises: Inhale for four seconds, hold the breath for two seconds, and exhale for four seconds. Don’t breathe too deeply, but keep that rhythm going until you feel calm enough to think straight.

Step 2: Distance yourself from the individual. You need to let go of your feelings toward your boss so you can focus on what you need to get done. “If anybody’s going to get in your way right now, don’t let it be you,” says Kauffman. Try to figure out how much of your boss’s anger has to do with your performance versus his or her own set of stresses. Odds are he’s feeling the heat from above, and simply transferring it to you. If you’re angry in addition to being scared, focus on the times your boss has been helpful to you, given you a raise, or otherwise gone to bat for you. By focusing on your boss’s good qualities, it’s easier to put her bad ones out of your mind and get back to work.

Step 3: Take stock. Ask yourself: “What’s the truth here? Are these run-ins fatal, or merely really unpleasant? How bad a job could I be doing if I just closed three major deals?” Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that everything that happens and everything you do is terrible just because the guy in the corner office is making you miserable.

Situation #2: You’ve got a huge presentation tomorrow and you’ve hardly slept all week. You’re thinking that if you blow this one, you’re done.

Step 1: Seek the truth. You’re doing what psychologists call catastrophizing —imagining the worst possible outcome even though it’s unlikely. You won’t just blow the presentation, you’ll blow your entire career, and your family will be out on the street, in tatters, begging for spare change.

In situations like this, you need to pull back and gain perspective. Ask yourself: “On a scale of 1 to 10, how much do I really believe this presentation will decide my fate?” Then try what Kauffman calls “rapid-fire disputing” by coming up with three thoughts that prove your fears wrong. Has anyone in the company been fired because they gave a bad presentation? For that matter, has anyone ever been promoted for giving a great one? Think about other times you’ve worried about blowing it, but everything turned out OK.

Once you’ve gained perspective, set realistic goals for your presentation. “Focus on the things that you can control,” says Julie McCarthy, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Toronto. “Make sure that you have practiced enough, because it will increase your feelings of mastery.”

Step 2: Think backwards. Pull in a positive experience from the past to counter your negative thoughts. What did you do last time that worked? What did you do to get through? Remembering your successes helps to build resilience, according to Kauffman.

Step 3: Turn it off. Go to the gym or for a run, take some Ambien, and get some sleep. You need to address your personal and physical needs in order to perform at work. Do one more hour of preparation — max — and then stop and take care of yourself.

Situation #3: You fear the other shoe might drop at work, so you’re talking to recruiters about other opportunities. But you haven’t been on a job interview in years.

Step 1: Articulate your strengths. Hitting the interview circuit after a long period of employment is like dating after a divorce. You need to build confidence so you don’t stammer and sweat your way through dinner. Before you head out there, identify exactly what you have to offer and the best way to articulate it. “We’re really terrific at analyzing our weaknesses,” says Kauffman. “You need to find the language for what your strengths are.” To help you do this, the University of Pennsylvania offers the Values in Action Survey of Character Strength, which will help you identify your top five selling points. Once you register and fill out the online survey, you’ll get an immediate free assessment via e-mail (if you want a more detailed written report, it will cost you $40). The survey gives you a description of each of your strengths so you will have specific language to use in your interview.

Step 2: Do your homework. Make sure you prepare three or four questions to ask the interviewer. “Asking well-thought questions makes you appear both interested and informed,” says McCarthy. “It also helps to balance the power differential, and provide you with a stronger sense of control.”

Step 3: Put it in writing. Once you’ve identified your strengths, develop two or three direct sentences you can use in your interview that describe what you would do with them on the job. For example: “When you work with me, you’ll find that one of my strong suits is building consensus, and here’s how it will be good for you.” Then think of an actual scenario and explain how you would use your abilities to handle it. Be ready with examples of how you have translated these strengths into on-the-job successes in the past.

Situation #4: There’s going to be another round of layoffs, and you can’t stand the uncertainty.

Step 1: Consider the odds. Before you start tearing your hair out, assess your actual vulnerability. First, how are the pink slips going to be determined? If they’re based on performance and you’ve generally been doing well, you should be less concerned about being laid off. If you haven’t been cutting the mustard, however, you might want to rethink your career choice. “If you are in a job that isn’t well suited to you, and you’re not performing up to the standard, you should begin thinking about alternative options,” says McCarthy. “Perhaps this is your opportunity to re-evaluate your career — and consider the potential for change as a good thing.”

Step 2: Focus on what you can do. Instead of being frustrated by your lack of control of the situation, find the areas where you can be proactive, and actually do something. For example, set some networking goals for yourself, like reaching out to at least one new contact a week, and start to prepare a financial plan for you and your family in case you do get laid off. You might not be in as bad shape as you think.

Step 3: Move slowly. Don’t jump the gun just because you’re nervous. Now’s not the time to fire off resumes and announce your availability. Remember, you still have a job — and if you’re generally happy with it, you should focus on keeping it, not abandoning it.

Step 4: Talk it through. Share your fears, and your possible contingency plans, with people you trust but who aren’t connected to work. (You don’t want to appear vulnerable to your colleagues, or worse yet, your superiors and direct reports.) Talking about possibilities with people you trust turns the negative into a positive.

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